Legend has it that musician, Robert Johnson, in the Mississippi Delta sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talent at the intersection of two rural highways – the Crossroads. Just 75 miles north, in Memphis, TN, Elvis recorded his first song at Sun Studio right down the street from Memphis Theological Seminary. It is natural that a seminary in this area of the country would be home to The Theology and Arts Program – a program about intersections. We seek to explore the places in which theology and the arts intersect in our lives, in our ministries, and in our culture. While serving as Director of the program, Dr. John Kilzer, a “Top 10 Hit” musician himself, worked alongside Memphis filmmaker, Willie Bearden, to film conversations which reveal these intersections. While watching this short film, you will experience theology and arts through a diverse community showing the varied ways that the arts are essential to our spiritual well-being. MTS’ Theology and Arts Program can be found at a busy intersection in Memphis where the ground continues to be fertile soil for artists.
Have you ever felt in awe of a sunset in the high mountains? Did you ever have your breath taken away by the colors of autumn leaves? God is the Divine Artist who calls to us to recognize beauty in the Theater of God* which is all of Creation. God also created us in God’s image and so we are a creative people who do not simply sit back and watch the Artist at work, but we are called to join in, to participate, and to create in order to respond to the Divine Artist.
Memphis Theological Seminary’s Theology and Arts Program (MTAP) believes that the arts is not optional, but is essential for persons of faith. This is why we seek to find intersections where theology meets the arts. When we do, we find ways to fully realize our humanity as we participate in creation together and alongside God.
We do this in many and varied ways:
- We offer a Doctor of Ministry in Theology and the Arts.
- We provide space on campus for local artists to display their work in rotating art exhibits.
- We incorporate the arts into our regular worship services.
- We offer MTAP electives in our Master of Divinity degree.
- We provide opportunities (through workshops or “brown bag events”) to have conversations with artists about their work and faith.
- We partner with local arts organizations to offer discounted or free tickets to art happenings in our city.
- We value our faculty who are artists in addition to being theologians – photographers, musicians, actors, writers, poets, story-tellers, and singer/song-writers.
- We have an art studio open to students on campus (coming soon!).
*Theater of God is a phrase coined by Presbyterian theologian, John Calvin.
Memphis Theological Seminary has a long history of finding sacred spaces where theology and arts intersect. In 1964, the seven member faculty, with the support of the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination, made the decision to move from the rural area of McKenzie, TN into a beautiful work of architectural art in the center of Memphis.
Fifty years later and the faculty and staff continue to gather in the Great Hall of what was the Joseph Newburger Mansion and is now named for those founding faculty members. Founders’ Hall maintains its original beauty of artistic elements derived from Classical and Renaissance details of complex and elegant plaster moldings.
More important than the work of art within which we work, our faculty have consistently exhibited an understanding of the importance the arts play in the Church’s theology. Among faculty, we have musicians, actors, poets, song-writers, storytellers, and photographers. These teaching artists incorporate imagination and creativity into the academic pursuits of our students.
These broad strokes of theology and arts became more focused and detailed when Dr. Barbara A. Holmes, who served as Academic Dean from 2005 – 2010, working alongside Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, who served as Professor of Old and New Testament from 2003 – 2009, launched the Theology and Arts Institute at Memphis Theological Seminary. At its launch in 2006, Dr. Bridgeman became the Director of the program solidifying an intentionality in our curriculum to continue our tradition of seeking sacred spaces where theology and arts intersect.
In growing the Institute, Dr. Bridgeman created sacred space for artists from a variety of disciplines who shared with students their talents, knowledge, and the ways in which their own theology informs their art and ways their art informs their theology. Through the Institute, students explored their own artistic interests as well as developed a vocabulary in new artistic endeavors. Drs. Holmes and Bridgeman created a strong foundation for the future leaders of the program after they answered calls to other institutions.
Part of the original vision of the program included the Henry and Jeanne Varnell Artist-in-Residence. These artists-in-residence were available to our student body through worship, in the classroom, through workshops, and one-on-one meetings. Our artists-in-residence have included Grammy Award winner jazz musician, Kirk Whalum; poet Benjamin “IQ” Sanders; New York visual artist, John Shorb; founder and artistic director of Hattiloo Theater, Ekundayo Bandele; and nationally recognized writer and dancer, Sybil MacBeth.
Upon the strong foundation built in the early stages of the program, Dr. John Kilzer continued to strengthen it with an effort to teach that “theology IS art” and that “art IS theology.” As a folk-rock singer/song-writer himself, Dr. Kilzer pursued his music career with Geffen Records in the late 1980’s. In the sacred space where his work as a theologian and musician intersect, as Director of Theology and Arts, Dr. Kilzer built important relationships with local film makers and sculptors resulting in the installation of a sculpture on the MTS campus entitled “Justice,” created by Roy Tamboli. This permanent piece of art prominently displays to the wider community the important work in scholarship, piety, and justice which rings throughout the seminary’s mission.
Most recently, a graduate of the first Doctor of Ministry class to focus on Theology and Arts has been named Director of the program. Dr. Tiffany Hall McClung brings with her a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Memphis and a Master of Divinity from MTS. With those degrees, she also brings years of experience in the artistic community of Memphis theater as well as fifteen years of pastoral experience. She was ordained by the Nashville Presbytery of The Cumberland Presbyterian Church in February of 2000. Dr. McClung’s legacy in the program remains to be seen, but she has a passion for enabling our students to practically apply the world of the arts to their work in ministry serving the Church. This passion is deeply rooted in the belief that God is the Great Artist who invites us to participate in Creation and fully realize who we are to be by finding those sacred spaces of intersection of theology and arts.
Memphis Theological Seminary considers you an important part of this history! Where do theology and arts intersect in your life?