Everything we experience has to be embodied. Or, better, every experience we have can only be perceived, received, experienced by a sentient, embodied individual. That doesn’t mean to say that everything which could be experienced is experienced. Trees falling in trackless wastes still crash to the ground. There is a lot of data to be experienced in such a crashing but because there is no one there to experience the data, it isn’t experienced. It might be filmed, of course. We could imagine a motion-capture camera sending images back to a lab in a suburban university. There the computer takes the images/sounds/data and stores them. But I’m not convinced the computer experiences them. It’s when an operative, at present a human being, downloads the data from the computer’s hardware into their intracranial wetware that experience is possible – when data meets embodiment. All actualised experience is necessarily embodied.
We already know this. If art is described as the framing of experience and the publication of that framing, then art needs to be experienced. Of course, it may only be the artist who perceives the art. And I am not arguing that good art is perceived art. Just as the tree falling still makes a crash, so art makes its own statement regardless of its audience. But the produced data (visual, verbal, aural, oral, plastic, moving, multimedia, monomedia) is usually meant to be experienced through the locus of embodiment. Art, then, can be as digital as it wants to be. Art can exist as data on a computer or as paint molecules on a canvas; as binary digits on a CD or the rich timbre of the live cello sonata. Both digital and ‘live’ (analogue doesn’t quite work here) are forms of embodiment since even the digital makes a physical impression in the memory bank (even if only through the shifting of invisible electrons). But both need an embodied receptor to translate that data into an experience of the art.
This was a truth which the medieval European Church understood much better than the modern. Today our churches are whitewashed halls of sterility; the clean lines of the Protestant/Puritan reformation obliterating the colours, smells, sounds, sights, tastes, all the intensity of medieval multimedia. We have enthroned the Word as mediated through rational Man to transmit a rational faith through readings, sermons and hymns. We have taken the embodied faith of medieval Christianity and virtualised it in the mind of the believer. We have taken sensory spectacle and reduced it to rational assent. Of course, some fight back – the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have held on to their traditions and celebrated the embodied faith. Charismatic churches revel in sensory experiences and even Alpha-type evangelicalism has relearnt the power of eating together.
At its heart, religion is better understood as embodied experience than by rational assent. Think of all the sense images in Christianity alone: blood, wine, bread, flesh, sacrifice, baptism, circumcision, eating, drinking, purification, washing, meals, healing, touch, kiss, embrace, bite, devour, the word of God made flesh. Evidently, this is not an exhaustive list. The point is surely clear. And that’s why the medieval Church, continued through the non-Protestant traditions today, have celebrated art as itself a celebration of that multi-sensory faith. Art embodied, ‘live’ or digital, in all its forms offers an iconographic entry point into a multisensory embodied experience of Christianity itself. Art goes beyond the rational, beyond the disembodied virtuality of the rationalised word, and allows faith to be experienced at the point of embodiment.
That’s why the Church in the West faces continued decline until it reverses its rejection of artists who can frame and present their own embodied experience and draw their audience into an embodied understanding of the world in which they live or hope to live.
Peter Phillips is Director of the Centre for Biblical Literacy and Communication at Durham University. In addition to a background in Classics and Biblical Studies, Pete is also a Methodist Minister. As one of his key research areas is Theology and Contemporary Culture, Pete is currently exploring how this can be fused with an exploration of Biblical Literacy in a globalised environment increasingly denuded of its cultural heritage.