Summer Seminar 2015: Ecumenism in the Arts

Christians are visibly divided in their jurisdictions and at their altars. Yet these same divided Christians sing the same songs of praise to the triune God; they are inspired by the same marvelous cathedrals and churches that pre-date their divisions; they are moved by the same icons, paintings, and sculptures of biblical scenes; and they enjoy the same novels and films that explore the meaning of the Christian faith. Whether we recognize it or not, we have a great deal of unity among Christians in the arts.

It was this unexplored unity through the arts that the Summer Seminar investigated in July. After an introduction to the problematic and its possibilities by the Institute’s director, Prof. Theodor Dieter, we heard a study on nearly the oldest literature enjoyed by Christians as well as Jews, namely the Psalms. Prof. Mark Elliott of St. Andrew’s University in Scotland led us on this journey, with special attention to the use of the Psalms by various Christian communities through church history.

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His lecture was followed by that of Prof. Matthew Milliner of Wheaton College in the United States on the theme of “Visual Ecumenism.” As a scholar of art history, Milliner traced many fascinating of intersections of Christian artistic themes across confessional divisions, most powerfully in the Virgin of the Passion icon, which originated in suffering Cyprus after the ravages of the Crusades and gradually found its way to the West.

On Friday morning, Prof. Dr. Ottmar Fuchs developed a wide-reaching theological reflection on justice and grace based on the film “Incendies,” adapted from the stage play by Lebanese-Canadian playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad. Against a background of unimaginable cruelty in the Lebanese civil war, the film poses the question of an all-inclusive forgiveness alongside the sharpest possible accusations against evildoers.

Then Prof. Sooi Ling Tan, who teaches at three seminaries in Malaysia as well as Fuller Seminary in the U.S., gave an overview of the history of Contemporary Christian Music. This is one of the most successful denominational-crossing artforms of all time. The lecture included plenty of opportunity to listen to CCM and sing along.

This year, unusually, one of the lectures involved a “field trip” that fit with the theme of Ecumenism in the Arts—to the huge and beautiful cathedral of Strasbourg. We were honored to have Archbishop Emeritus Joseph Doré as our tour guide. He knows the cathedral well and his written significant works about it, so we truly got an intimate theological portrait of an amazing church.

Prof. Dr. Meinrad Walter, a Catholic scholar of Johann Sebastian Bach, spoke on Saturday morning. He illustrated the many surprising ways that the great composer’s work was an early “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” drawing together themes across the divisions of Catholic and Protestant in the eighteenth century. The participants also had the opportunity to hear an inspired performance of two Bach cantatas in one of Strasbourg’s churches.

One evening the participants viewed the film “All Is Lost,” an almost-wordless story of one man adrift alone at sea. On Monday, Prof. Dr. Hans Martin Dober spoke about film in theological and ecumenical perspective, building on the mysterious themes of providence and presence in “All Is Lost.”

The Seminar heard an Eastern Orthodox presentation in the lecture of Emanuel Dobre, a Romanian doctoral student at the University of Strasbourg. He explored the ways in which the Scripture and icons serve the same purpose of making Christ present to the faithful.

The Institute’s Prof. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson introduced the famous American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, whose dark and disturbing stories almost always feature Protestants, despite the author’s very firm and passionate Catholic commitments. O’Connor’s letters also reveal the author’s complex and changing judgments about different Christian groups, illustrating many of the basic findings of ecumenism.

On the last day, Prof. Theodor Dieter discussed the ecumenical meaning of the fact that numerous hymns by Lutheran authors can be found in the new German Catholic hymnal Gotteslob. In this regard he examined two hymns by Martin Luther (“From Deepest Woe I Cry to Thee,” “From Heaven Above”) and one by Lutheran pastor Paul Gerhardt (“The Golden Son”). From this it became clear how the use of a Psalm text, a concentration on the person of Christ, or the taking up of a basic human experience (such as the religious perception of the dawn of a new day) makes possible the creation of trans-confessional commonalities. Poetry can enable the presentation of theology in poignant and easily accessible ways.

A highlight of the Seminar was the “Ecumenical Singalong,” in which participants Ruth and John Rollefson led the group in singing great Christian songs and hymns from across the world and all different confessional divisions.

The final lecture by Jérôme Cottin of the Protestant Faculty of the University of Strasbourg drew together the many assorted themes of the Seminar by looking at typical confessional works by Protestants and Catholics. He then showed works by contemporary Christian artists who deliberately downplay their confessional affiliation and seek a more abstract style of art in order to cross boundaries.

In addition to the formal lectures, we enjoyed many short presentations by participants about everything from music to painting to theater. The Sunday excursion took us to the marvelous Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar as well as a rebuilt Catholic church in Germany designed by a graffiti artist, followed by a wine tasting and tarte flambée.

This seminar was unexpectedly characterized by an incredible heatwave, but at the same time an extremely positive and friendly spirit, especially during the “choir competition” on the second night of the seminar. The staff greatly enjoyed the company of participants from twenty-one countries and six churches.

The dates for next year’s seminar are July 4–11, 2016, and the theme is Lutheran-Catholic dialogue in honor of the sixty-fifth birthday of Prof. Theodor Dieter. Mark your calendars now!

Bilder vom Seminar: 

Beautiful photos that Pastor Hans-Joachim Jeromin has kindly given us the link to can be found here: Dropbox Pictures