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Expert on theology and art stresses urgency for worship to respond to people’s needs

by Louisville Seminary | Aug 13, 2010
By Toya Richards

Urgency, interruption, and visioning are components of risk-taking and served as a backdrop for a series of lectures and workshops on incorporating art in worship at the Worship and the Arts Conference III, held at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, July 28-31, 2010.

“Danger: Art At Work,” the theme of the conference, featured Dr. Janet R. Walton, Professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary in New York and a highly noted professional in the field of theology and the arts. Her three keynote lectures, spread over the course of the four-day conference, challenged students, worship leaders, liturgical artists, and others to use the arts as an avenue of disrupting—in a positive way—habits and patterns of worship.

Walton talked about the urgency of addressing people’s needs and issues through worship, and stated that art can be a conduit for doing this. We should want to know what is on people’s minds when they come to worship, she said.

“How do we make space to hear from each other in the course of worship? It’s an urgent matter,” Walton said.

She stressed “the necessity of being an active listener” and respecting the competencies of the people. As an example, Walton talked about her experience of helping plan a worship service that responded to the losses felt as a result of HIV/AIDS, yet doing so without involving the gay community in planning.

“Members of the gay community said, ‘It wasn’t for us,’” she said. A lesson was learned, and planning for subsequent services was much more inclusive, Walton said, adding “We draw power from one another and from God.”

Walton’s lectures at the Seminary also explored the way art can disrupt in order to bring about transformation. How does interruption affect inertia, or enhance a “stirring within us?” Walton asked. The mandate to interrupt, she contends, is given “when we are baptized.” Baptism causes the action; Baptism sets us on a path, she said.

Walton used several artistic examples over the course of her talks, including slides of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. The water table created by artist Maya Lin records the names of martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement and chronicles the movement’s history.

“I call it baptismal-like water,” Walton said highlighting how the water flows at the monument. “It reminds you again that this story is now our story.”

In Walton’s final presentation she addressed being people with vision. At the heart of the Christian commitment at baptism we are saying, “There is always an alternative,” she said. Is there alternative visioning in which we can engage regarding war, for example? she asked. In worship, what do we impart to people in our community who are from Iraq or Afghanistan, or to our political representatives who worship in our congregations?

Walton said there is a mandate to discover other visions and make them possible for others, that “visions are always plural and diverse.” And, artists can help us do this.

“We can make something new if we lean in close,” she said.

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