Religious Imagination Beyond Doctrinal Borders

By Alice Seo Young Hyun ’23 M.A.R.

As a student of religion and literature, I quickly realized that isolating literature from other art forms was nearly impossible. When studying an art piece that venerates a religious figure—for example, an icon of the Virgin Mary from a Marian shrine in Constantinople—one must consider the cultural background by reading contemporary homilies and analyzing manuscripts of the period. When studying the impact of a liturgical text, such as the narrative of the Passion of Christ in the Gospels, one must look beyond the text itself and study how its literary effects inspired liturgists to set it to music or reinterpret it through drama. 

Every copy of the Bible tells its own story as a physical object holding significance beyond the text—what if we looked at these copies each as its own work of art?

The Human Journey

In essence, art’s various disciplines—music, painting, poetry, sculpture, drama, architecture, etc.—are inherently intertwined and inalienable. Every artwork acts as a narrative, guiding the audience to discover a part of the human journey through time, whether ancient or contemporary. Ultimately, the work is the material realization of vital aspects of culture and practice. In a society reportedly becoming more secular, this bears on the future role of the arts in theological education, as understanding art (religious or otherwise) as a cultural phenomenon is imperative to understanding its power and influence.

We know, for example, that the Bible’s significance as a religious document is not in the text alone. Every book in the Bible has an author who was writing for a specific audience during a specific time period, cluing modern readers in on the history and culture as well as the theology presented. Moreover, every copy of the Bible tells its own story as a physical object holding significance beyond the text—and what if we looked at these copies each as its own work of art? My own personal Bible is pocket-sized and light, intended for readers who prefer to have their own copy whenever and wherever they need it. In exchange for its economical size and weight, the text is printed at the smallest readable font possible and the paper itself is thin and fragile, closer to the delicacy of wax paper than the standard printed page. This provides information about the intended readership, generally a younger audience. The cover of this particular copy is made from synthetic leather with a zipper that goes around the edges of the book, suggesting that it is a personal copy to be carried around in a bag with the durable cover protecting the pages from damage of heavy use. Thus, this specific edition of the Bible provides information about me, as the owner, who often travels with it and needs to have her own copy for ease of marking. The various highlights and margin notes also indicate the kinds of theological questions and biblical narratives that inspire me as a student. As such, what one can gather by observing a single copy of the Bible is a window into how to approach the discipline of arts and religion in order to decipher contemporary needs and practices of faith.

Prelude and Fugue and Faith

Art, then, is not only a creative outlet for the artist or the audience, but also a reflection of their faith and conviction. It is what materialistically expresses the hearts and minds of the faithful. For example, J. S. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major for organ, BWV 552, is a musical expression of the doctrine of the Trinity. Immediately, the key signature showcases the number three, as the key of E-flat has three flats. The Prelude carries three musical themes, each theme representing the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, respectively. Each theme is distinctive and recognizable as its own musical line, yet they merge into one another as the movement progresses and the three themes overlap. This appropriately signifies the unity of the three Persons as one God. The Fugue also features three different sections in one movement representing the three Persons. While the piece is a reflection of personal faith for the composer, it is also an auditory experience of the Trinity doctrine for the audience. Studying music as an art that reveals theological dialogue provides us with a new understanding of how to perceive certain theological or religious ideas. Such expression of faith and the experience of hearing it are entirely unique to the discipline of music and cannot be replicated by other art forms or scholarship in the same way. Indeed, each form of art speaks in its own language; the study of the arts is fundamentally the scholarship of translating it.

It is easy to overlook the theology that art holds or embodies, especially with the long-standing implicit academic preference for textual analysis and reference to previous scholars. In many theological discussions, art is often brushed aside as a product of human imagination that stands between the believer and the Word. After all, why study religious poetry to look for theological significance when we can go directly to the source without the meaning being obscured by the poet? What is there to gain from going beyond mere appreciation for the creative exploration of the artist’s own faith?

The Long Conversation

Studying the arts is not necessarily about trying to define a religious practice or answering a scholarly hypothesis about a wider cultural phenomenon (although it can indeed serve as a tool for such endeavors). It is about viewing each work as if it were a book or a composition that is part of a series rather than as a single piece of a jigsaw puzzle; a single work of art tells a full story on its own while also providing an outlook on a longer and deeper conversation across history.

Christianity is no doubt grounded in scripture but the faith is so much more than the text. It is about the community that gathers around this text, worships accordingly, and shares their faith with the world. Just as literature, music, and visual and dramatic arts cannot entirely be separate from one another, the study of theology cannot entirely depend on scripture or the words of theologians alone. Theological education’s horizon of inquiry should push beyond how a belief is exercised in the immediate community of faith and discover how the religious imagination inspires those who seek or practice faith, even when they may be less familiar with the tradition of belief. Studying the arts offers us insight into how each artist, whether working within religious tradition or outside it, reaches out in conversation with the rest of the world and how the art itself communicates with its audience. Understanding the transcendental power of art is all the more significant as it reaches its audiences beyond schools and churches. In theaters, museums, concert halls, bookstores, and social media platforms, that power is manifested in more ways than we can imagine. The theological discipline of religion and the arts reminds us that art is not simply a form of entertainment. Theological education should insist on interpreting the multi-dimensional experience of faith across the world today, all the while approaching art as a specialized language of theological discourse.

Alice Seo Young Hyun ’23 M.A.R. is studying religion and literature as her concentration and is the president of the YDS Korean Student Association. After graduation, she plans to further her studies in liturgy and the arts.