Yesterday was Overwhelming Conversation Day. Exactly 73% of the people I know on the planet IMed or called me, and if you weren't one of them then I was worried that you were somehow ill or injured. So I talked breakups in Ohio, childcare in the Home Counties of England, earaches in Iowa, Nature and Grace in the Papal Social Encyclical Tradition in Minnesota (who woulda thunk it?), mystical visions in Massachusetts, and who knows what and where else. I even had time to make the acquaintance of a semi-celebrity storyteller and filmmaker in Chicago. An entirely satisfying day, other than that I didn't get to read word one of my 1930 Charles Williams novel, War In Heaven, even though I was only 40 pages from the conclusion. My favourite paragraph and scene which will forever be emblazoned in my consciousness:
So through the English roads the Graal was borne away in the care of a Duke, an Archdeacon, and a publisher's clerk, pursued by a country householder, the Chief Constable of a county, and a perplexed policeman. And these things also perhaps the angels desired to look into.
I just finished and sent in my abstract/paper proposals for the Epiphanies of Beauty conference at Notre Dame I've been trumpeting to all of you.
I would like to submit the following two abstracts for consideration at the Epiphanies of Beauty: The Arts in a Post-Christian Culture conference. I would like to make clear that I am willing and able to do both presentations: I am not submitting these two and asking for you to consider only one.
Michael Anthony Novak
Salvador Dali's The Sacrament of the Last Supper: A Theological Re-Assessment.
The painting entitled The Sacrament of the Last Supper (1955) is one of Dali's major works from his later, "classic" period, after his return to Catholicism. It has remained popular since its creation, from its being featured prominently in works on Dali to its constant presence in college dorm poster sales. It is a painting with a bold Christian theme, a theme treated by two significant theological writers engaged with the world of art: Paul Tillich and Francis Schaeffer. These two writers represent two different streams of 20th century Protestant thought: Tillich was the celebrity spokesman of mainstream Protestantism in America by the end of his life in 1965, while Schaeffer was dubbed the "guru of the Fundamentalists" by Newsweek before his death in 1984. Despite their different theological backgrounds, they were united in their appraisals of this work by Dali: they both misunderstood it.
They both failed to look beyond its structural similarity to the theme of a Last Supper, as is best known in Leonardo's masterpiece, and to see it for what it truly was: The Sacrament of the Last Supper. The distinctly Catholic treatment of a theme of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was missed by these two Protestant thinkers who normally demonstrated great attention to questions of art and faith. Such a mistake was entirely consistent with normal Protestant concerns and strengths like attention to Scripture and a focus on the historical Jesus, and it is with such concerns in mind that these thinkers assessed the painting. This paper shall note the problems in earlier theological treatments of the painting, and then re-assess the painting by drawing attention to its real concern and theme. This is not an historical Last Supper: it is a 20th-century setting for illustrating the continued presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a presence which, like the figure of Christ in the painting itself, not only points to himself but also to the Father who is seen in him.
The Arts as Prolegomenon to Theology in a Post-Christian Culture: Problems and Potentials
The last year has revealed two major works--a film and a novel--that serve as dynamic examples of the power that art has for the introduction of theological subjects to public discourse in our post-Christian culture. Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Brown's The Da Vinci Code each provoked a level of discussion that dominated their respective genres in the past year.
This paper will outline both the potentials and the problems that can arise when, in the context of a post-Christian culture, it can fall upon works of art to introduce and provoke the theological question. In a cultural setting where religion has largely been privatized, the relationship of art to theological discourse is likely to rise in importance, even when considered in light of the long history of collaboration between artists and the Church that John Paul II recalls in his 1999 Letter to Artists. The author will here conceive of "theology" in broad and popular terms because he is primarily concerned with the raising of the theological questions in the mind of the entire public and not merely within the theological academy, although this special context or sub-setting (both in its high school and university levels) shall also be considered in light of his own years of teaching experience.
The aim of the paper is to provide an awareness of the two-edged sword that is the arts' power in theological discourse in a post-Christian setting. By providing a primer of both the difficulties and the opportunities of this situation, the paper intends to sharpen Christian effectiveness in interaction with that culture. It will also help serve to establish a common language for further conversation as we continue to be engaged in this intersection of disciplines.
And if I may make a suggestion. I have noticed that the list of Invited Speakers for the conference has been, not surprisingly, well-stocked with academicians and with a fair sprinkling of active artists. But I particularly note the absence of anyone representing contemporary music recording, despite that being--along with film--perhaps the most popular artistic medium of our day. I consider this a critical and glaring omission in an important gathering. Although I am a theologian, I am on the very outskirts of that professional world, having recently completed my first CD in Nashville. If you were interested in bringing someone in who has both won critical acclaim in that field and has demonstrated a sophisticated level of reflection on their art (has anyone tried to follow up Notre Dame's connection to U2 in that regard?), I would recommend getting in touch with a married couple from Cincinnati known in the musical world as Over The Rhine.
If any popular musicians are tailor-made for speaking at and performing for this conference, it is Over The Rhine. Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have been writing what I and many others consider to be some of the most beautiful songs of the last ten years. And I mean exactly that: they are explicitly aware of Beauty, and their songs--whether haunting, thrilling, earthy or Americana--are steeped in aesthetic reflection and in dialogue with Christian literature. Although not a "contemporary Christian" band, you don't have to wait very long for Jesus to appear in their songs, although he might be peaking around such other figures as Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, C. S. Lewis, Will Shakespeare, Madeleine L'Engle and a number of others. They are as popular with David Letterman as they are with Christian rock festivals, if perhaps somewhat unpopular with record labels, whose overtures they have repeatedly rebuffed in order to maintain creative control of their work. If many people in the radio-listening public have not heard of them, it is fascinating to see who has heard of them: many of those recording artists of considerable fame call themselves fans of Over The Rhine, and their work has been referenced in such popular television as The X-Files and Angel.
As a young theologian working both in the academy and, to a lesser extent, in the music world, and who is particularly excited about this conference--even after having attended the first three--I know it would be an artistic coup to persuade this couple to attend. If you are unaware of these musicians, I encourage you to go to www.overtherhine.com, read the band biography, listen to some of the free tracks available there and to then approach Detweiler and Bergquist about this work of the Center's. I suspect that they very likely would be interested in participating for their own artistic and intellectual reasons.
Michael Anthony Novak
Now I'm going to end the night with one of my new Netflix movies. I've got Bergman's The Seventh Seal, which I've not seen in years and am really eager to return to, but I'm so wiped that I think I'm going to watch Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman in Paycheck. Is that a sin against film?
Oh! Randall Thompson's "Ye Shall Have A Song" just came on the iTunes! Even in the hands of a high school choir, this is a masterpiece: transcendent in its simplicity. The movie can wait a bit....
Edit (5:18am): Well, no movie happened. My brother, curiously unable to sleep for someone getting married in a few days, came online and we just chatted about the wedding, the resort where it's happening (the reception's next door at The Whistling Bird), and the house they've put a bid on. I read 2 BD as "two bids" instead of "two bedrooms" on the realtor's webpage and nearly gave him a stroke when I asked about the other bid the website said had been placed.... No, no reasons for insomnia....