The Importance of the Arts in Christian Higher Education

Blanchard Hall, Wheaton College.

I am very pleased to be invited to contribute to this symposium on Christianity, art, and education.  I am even more pleased do to so in the company of distinguished artists, and at the request of Jim Watkins as a fellow-alumnus of Wheaton College.

My comments come from the perspective of an outsider to the artistic community who is also a newcomer to the administration of higher education.  I am neither an artist nor the son of an artist.  Yet by the grace of God I am an enthusiast for the arts.  Having experienced the enriching influence of the arts in my own life and believing that they are not merely a legitimate calling for certain individuals but also a necessary calling for the church, I see encouraging the flourishing of the arts as part of my role as the president of a Christ-centered college.

Convictions

Two convictions lie near the heart of my commitment to the arts as a vital aspect of Christian higher education: one biblical-theological and the other social-cultural.  The first conviction is more important, by far.  It is simply that as creatures made in the image of a Creator-God, we have a calling and capacity to create in ways that reflect the goodness, truth, and beauty of God.

The other conviction (which may be more of an instinct) pertains to the role of art in the wider culture.  Although I do not have the historical expertise to prove it, I tend to believe that the arts are at the leading edge of cultural transformation.  Thus, if we want to know where a culture is heading, we should visit the studios and galleries where emerging artists are doing their work.  What we see shows us what will happen in our culture, not just what is happening.  Art is generative as well as reactive.

If these convictions are true, then the arts should never be merely an afterthought for Christian colleges and universities, as they often (usually?) have been.  Art is a deeply human activity, and therefore a place where God can do his redeeming work, both at the level of personal discipleship and at the level of cultural transformation.  The arts are too important to neglect.

Practices

Out of these convictions, here are a few things I try to do to encourage the arts at Wheaton College.  Although one or two of them may be unique to my role as president, I share them mainly because they are the kinds of things that all of us can do to encourage artists and promote the arts.  I hope to:

    1. Show a personal interest in the work of our students and faculty by attending gallery openings, asking about work in progress as I walk through the art building, and displaying first-rate student and faculty work in the president’s conference room.
    2. Promote excellent facilities for the arts.  At Wheaton we have moved in this direction by expanding and completely renovating our art building, complete with more adequate studios, spacious offices, attractive galleries, and plenty of natural light.
    3. Use examples from the arts or make application to artists in my public ministry of preaching and teaching the Word of God.  This is a way of showing the relevance of Scripture for artistic pursuits and at the same time highlighting the importance of the arts in Christian experience for the whole campus community.
    4. Read what our faculty members are writing about the arts.  I think, for example, of John Walford’s excellent book on Jacob Van Ruisdael, or of Matthew Milliner’s provocative posts at millinerd and First Thoughts.
    5. Make good decisions about visual art in public spaces.  Our track record in this area is not as good as it could be, unfortunately, but we hope to do better.  Later this academic year I expect to introduce a campus-wide art commission to build our art collection and give sound advice about what to put where across campus.  If we do this with an eye for truth and beauty, and with appropriate sensitivity to the sensibilities of a diverse community, we may be able to cultivate artistic taste, enrich our visual surroundings, and glorify God through the visual arts.
    6. Advise students about their calling to the arts, whether this calling proves to be a vocation or an avocation.  The president of a Christ-centered college is partly a mentor, and there is no shortage of students seeking counsel and direction.  Having some familiarity with the unique challenges, opportunities, joys, and sufferings of the artist’s life is important in my daily work with students.
    7. Promote the preservation of the arts within the general education curriculum of a Christian liberal arts college, so that every student is exposed to the soul-developing, life-enriching, and imagination-expanding power of the arts.

Having the opportunity to encourage artists and promote the arts—even in these small ways—brings me a tremendous sense of personal satisfaction.  As far as I have ever been able to tell, God has not blessed me with very much artistic ability of my own.  But this does not prevent me from celebrating the gifts of others, or of growing in my understanding of the dynamic contribution the arts can make to Christian witness, discipleship, and community.

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