At the River: The Theology & Arts Program at MTS



From the Director, Dr. John Kilzer

At The River: The Theology and Arts Program at Memphis Theological Seminary is continuing its quest to dissemble the ‘and” between Theology & Arts and reconfigure it as an ‘is.’ Indeed, Theology Is Art offers a branding for what we hope seminarians will not only cognitively but experientially live out during their MTS experience. Let me give you an example: in the Theology & Arts class Cardiognosis: A Knowing of the Heart, each student for their final exam was asked to integrate an art project into the readings and course work completed during the term.  One student’s art project brought us all to tears. She brought to class a large shawl she had knitted, confessing to us how the sometimes large holes were in fact part of the design: how God takes our brokenness and, through community, knits others into our lives in ways that make the holes seem holy. She read from the journal she was invited to keep for the class. Displaying this beautiful shawl as she read from her journal, she told us of her instructions to her family to use this shawl in fact as a pall for her coffin when she passes from this world to the next. None of us at that moment conjugated Theology and Arts. In fact, we all knew that that Theology IS Arts.

Partnering with the Center of Excellence at Methodist Hospital in Memphis, the Theology & Arts Program now sky-bridges with an institution that also betrays either/or dichotomies. Not unlike the rich musical heritage here where soil well tendered burgeons with soul, Faith and Health – along with Theology and Arts – is true to God and loyal to neighbors; hence, the not only real but fervent aspiration to involve community with the rhythms of At the River. 



At the River: The Theology & Arts Program at Memphis Theological Seminary


Memphis Theological Seminary (MTS) is an ecumenical graduate school of theology that has been in existence in some form for over 150 years.  A strategic relocation to Memphis in 1964 was a defining one for the seminary, which has consistently sought to create a setting for higher theological education that is committed to scholarship, piety and justice, and to diversity and reconciliation.  In Memphis, the seminary set an intentional course to serve men and women of all races and denominations at a time in our country’s history when racial segregation was deeply entrenched.  Out of the 49 students enrolled during the first semester in Memphis, six were African American, making MTS the first “white” educational institution in Memphis to voluntarily admit African American students.  That number has grown significantly over its history, as has its religious diversity.


The Mid-South region, the so-called “Bible Belt,” is the most religious part of the country, according to The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life (December 21, 2009). Using four measures – the importance of religion in people’s lives, frequency of attendance at worship services, frequency of prayer, and absolute certainty of belief in God – Pew ranked the top 5 most religious states as Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee.  Memphis Theological Seminary mirrors this study, with 94% of students coming from these states.  With much of the student body already serving churches in their state of residency, it follows that after graduation, they will remain to serve congregations and other organizations in this highly religious region.


ATS states that MTS is known nationally for “creativity in context.”  As opposed to research schools, MTS focuses its curriculum and teaching methods on practical ministries and local context.  We are primarily practitioners, working in the trenches along with the people we serve.  As a community, we have ongoing conversations about the ethos of the Mid-South region. The curriculum reflects the needs of the constituency we serve and provides a cross-cultural experience that engages students and helps them reach beyond artificial boundaries of race, ethnicity, economics, and geography to understand others who are different from themselves.



In this corner of the Delta, where Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee meet, artists evolve from a context that includes the grit and resilience of sharecroppers, sanitation workers and blues singers. In Memphis, the arts weave gossamer threads of hope throughout the harsh realities of poverty, violence, and historical angst connected to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


The unprecedented musical heritage of Memphis is reflected by its legacy of great artists such as W. C. Handy, B. B. King, Al Green, Elvis, 3 Six Mafia and Robert Johnson, along with the genres of jazz, bluegrass and gospel.  With all of this creativity abounding, there is great potential for the arts in theological education to create dialogue and to bridge gaps between the church, the academy and the community.


MTS showcases the artistic gifts of students, faculty members and community artists to explore a deeper commitment toward fostering piety-infused and justice-based education, theological reflection, and community involvement at the intersection of theology and arts. In recent years, many MTS students have sought to express their faith through the use of a wide variety of artistic endeavors, including urban life dramas, mime, sacred photography, antiphonal blues chants, and game play and theory.


Our faculty reflect the bias toward arts in theological context:

  •  Dr. Steve Parrish (Hebrew Bible), musician and songwriter
  • Dr. Lee Ramsey (Pastoral Care), recent book based on preachers in literature
  • Dr. Mary Lin Hudson (Homiletics & Liturgics), songwriter and musician
  • Dr. Mitzi Minor (New Testament), photography
  • Dr. Matt Matthews (Theology), Christian aesthetics and photography
  • Dr. John Kilzer (Theology & Arts), musician and songwriter

Theology & Arts

At Memphis Theological Seminary, we believe that art bridges divides like no other medium, speaking when words fail. Art reaches beyond race, gender, class, culture and language to help build communities for common good and congregations committed to justice making. The arts may help Christians flesh out their faith in fresh ways that employ all the senses.


The program values collaborative, creative, ecumenical and interfaith works for their ability to connect persons to God and to one another.  At MTS, the Theology & Arts program is the premier vehicle for theologically exploring and creating arts for worship and public life in the Mid-South, and connecting art and theology in tangible ways.

Dr. Kilzer will use a creative combination of classes and workshops in this program.  Already, he is teaching God and the Other (works of piety and works of mercy) and Cardiognosis (fieldwork; where do we see idols and icons?).  He will also work with all faculty at MTS to incorporate aspects of art into their classrooms, seeking to answer how we can embody theology in the world.

Examples of the workshop aspect are those led by the 2010-2011 Artist-in-Residence Sybil MacBeth. Throughout the academic year, Sybil participated in chapel worship services using movement, dance, and communal singing. In the fall and spring semesters, she taught Praying in Color as part of Dr. Virginia Lee’s Introduction to Educational Ministries class. In February 2011, she co-led a workshop at the seminary called Sounding Brass: The Power of Words to Wound and Heal.  The workshop used playful movement, song, and storytelling to explore a difficult subject.

One way in which this program has been expanded and enhanced under the leadership of Dr. Kilzer is the partnership with Dr. Gary Gunderson at Methodist Hospitals in Memphis.  Recently, the hospital opened the Center of Excellence in Faith and Health.  Dr. Gunderson (D.Min., M.Div., senior vice president of health and welfare ministries and an ordained minister) says, “In the past two decades a growing body of evidence has emerged that shows that patients who are active participants in a worshiping community have significantly better health outcomes.”  The Center of Excellence is an interfaith, collaborative center of research, innovation and training.  Among other things, it provides support and resources to clergy and works to enhance the patient experience within the walls of the hospital.

With the Center of Excellence, the model has changed.  We now have unique opportunities with practicums, to blend evangelism with theology and arts, and embody and artistically perform what is being learned in the classroom.

Methodist is a dynamic and appropriate place for M.Div. students to take their clinical practicum, one of three required courses (others are supervised parish practicum and worship and preaching practicum).  In this setting, students put into practice what has been learned in the classroom.  For example, students taking a class at the hospital in the Center of Excellence will be adjacent to family members of folks who are in the hospital.  Students will learn how to experience justice and mercy in a crisis situation. Thus here would be a true generative space where faith, health, and art embrace.

At the River:  The Purpose

  1. To impact M.Div. education so students understand the creative value of arts to spread the gospel through the use of arts.
  2. To build connections between the seminary and the broader community, exploring ways arts can positively impact our community, dealing with poverty and racial injustice
  3. To teach specialized, more particular ways to incorporate the arts into ministry in the Theology & Arts Doctor of Ministry track
  4. To collaborate with MethodistHospital – we bring the education piece and Methodist brings the space; how to impact local churches?
  5. To provide Christian education for communities of faith – workshops, bringing in artists

At the River:  The Goals

MTS has three goals of theological education: scholarship – to gain an enhanced body of knowledge and skills and to develop competent leaders who provide resources for the church’s life and witness; piety – to promote the knowledge and love of God and cultivate a desire for the healing of the world; and justice – to expand ecumenical cooperation, awareness and experience, and increase a sense of interdependence in relation to human need. These truths are taught in our classrooms and encouraged in daily life.


In the Theology & Arts classroom context, this triad of scholarship, piety and justice is explored.

  • Being an effective leader  (teach through creative interplay)
  • Connecting this commitment to impulses of the broader community
  • Our goals are different from “fine” or “high” art – bringing out gifts and using them to encourage the flourishing of life
  • All we do as human beings to express our art – finding our own medium, such as art, metal, dance
  • Building a strong community of faith
  • For students, find new ways of sharing the Gospel, not just verbally, but through the arts
  • Discuss how Theology & Arts can impact what goes on in other classes, such as Narrative Preaching and Christian Education Classes – different ways to plan educational events
  • Entrée for students to see – Gallery reception evening, invite students to join


The Theology & Arts Program has additional goals:

  • To provide a strong foundation in the disciplines of theology and rich opportunities for engaging art as a spiritual discipline
  • To prepare religious and community leaders to reintegrate art into the life and worship of communities of faith
  • To help religious communities rediscover the significance of art in the expression, celebration, teaching and practice of faith
  • To engage students from many different faith expressions through creative avenues
  • To involve the community as well as students
  • To reduce perceived barriers between the community and the seminary
  • To emphasize the justice component by creatively embodying the Gospel through works of mercy and works of piety


Current Varnell Artist-in-Residence John Shorb

Current Varnell Artist-in-Residence John Shorb

Artist-in-Residence Program

In 2006, MTS announced its first Artist-in-Residence with Benjamin “IQ” Sanders, a young poet with a gift for “the spoken word.”  Over the next two years, we were exceptionally honored to have Grammy-award winning jazz musician Kirk Whalum as the Artist-in-Residence, followed by the author of “Praying in Color” and dancer Sybil MacBeth.  Each artist and medium – poetry, music and dance – stretched students in new ways.

MTS continues this legacy of diversity in the Artist-in-Residence program, inviting visual artist John Shorb for the 2011/12 academic year.  John has worked in textual and visual worlds.  Raised in Memphis, he attended CarletonCollege in Minnesota, majoring in English with a concentration in Media

Studies.  He taught abroad for three years, first in Austria as a Fulbright Teaching Assistant and later in Benin, West Africa, as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Upon returning to the U.S., he attended Union Theological Seminary (NYC), receiving his master’s degree in Theology and the Arts.

John has had solo shows at the Memphis Botanic Garden and at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.  He recently won “Best in Show” at the winter exhibition at United Hebrew in New Rochelle, New York.  He also serves as editor of Church Health Reader, a publication of the Church Health Center in Memphis.  This past year he was chosen for a Hambidge Fellowship for which he spent two weeks drawing and painting in the mountains of northern Georgia. He works from his studio in Brooklyn, New York, and plans to travel to Memphis monthly during the residency. He is honored to be a part of the Memphis Theological Seminary community for the year.

With his extensive musical background, Dr. Kilzer will also serve as an Artist-in-Residence.