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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10 Comments

  • Jenn Craft says:

    Philip,

    Many thanks for your insightful post! It’s always nice to hear about people who desire to integrate the arts into Christian education, and no doubt, Wheaton College is far ahead of many in this regard!

    I wanted to ask you a question specifically related to the second conviction you state: “that the arts are at the leading edge of cultural transformation.” I’d agree with you there, and would press you further on how you thought the university, especially the Christian university, fit into this cultural transformation through the arts? I guess I’m asking whether you think something big would need to change in our educational or art systems in order for this to actually happen? Obviously, promoting the arts on campus in the way you have stated is one great step to raising arts awareness. But I’m curious as to whether you had any thoughts on what this cultural transformation might look like more broadly if the Christian university and the arts were more integrated?

    • Philip Ryken says:

      Jenn,

      Thank you for this good question. My initial thought is that colleges and universities will rarely be the main or immediate leaders in cultural transformation through the arts. By virtue of their role in training young artists, their influence tends to develop over the long term, as the artists they develop go on to produce great art.

      There would be exceptions to this, however. Hopefully, the arts faculty on a Christian campus are gifted at teaching — that is their primary calling. But most or all of them are also gifted artists in their own right, and some may have exceptional abilities or insights that put them at the forefront of what is happening in the world of art.

      Overall, I am encouraged by what appears to be a growing awareness of and appreciation for the arts in the church, including on the campuses of evangelical colleges and universities. And my hope that even if we don’t always see the influence of that interest on the wider culture immediately, it will become more and more evident in coming decades.

  • Keith Crowley says:

    Phil,

    I really like the firstt paragraph in your answer to Jenn’s question; it is a healthy response. Too often young people who finish MFA programs or solid undergraduate programs have an unrealistic pressure (whether internal or external) to have some tangible impact on the world around them that is immediate. Additionally, while many academic programs do a good job at becoming a cultural resource to their surrounding communities, it is usually more of a place of preparation. When it comes to making, there’s nothing quite like the safety-net of the institutional structure being removed to produce the “skills-meet-life” dynamic which can never be perfectly simulated.

    Unless you have been privileged with a teenage apprenticeship or something similar, it is likely that the only available comprehensive introduction into the life as an artist is going to be through college. In this time, it is hard to provide a person with much more than a base (intellectual, aesthetic, skill, etc.) from which to then pursue a calling.

    There is also the growing concern of the BA/BFA + MFA = teaching job/vital artist production. While this can be a great direction for many with both teaching gifts & artist calling, it can be seen as the only means to an end within range. Often there aren’t many other models to follow, even though there are MANY alternatives. Artists have always relied very heavily on maintaining cells of dialogue, where they could meet informally to bat around ideas, vehemently argue, and give encouragement. This kind of thing needs to be of primary importance for young artists to seek out as they leave the institution. Without community, it is almost impossible to maintain a vital practice. This kind of thing is usually best kept low-key & natural, so it feels like it still has room for growth & is not a slick program. I think this sort of thing is a great vehicle for that long-term, sustained vitality. This experience can take many forms, & the church is a place where these connections can happen.

  • Philip Ryken says:

    Keith,

    These are wise comments from someone who knows from the inside what it is like to pursue a calling in the arts.

    Your comment that “without community, it is almost impossible to maintain a vital practice” strikes a chord with me.

    This is true for the arts, and also in the Christian life. The triune God — who himself exists in eternal and bless community as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — has made us for community. It makes sense, then, that we will only flourish in any calling if we live in life-giving community.

    Phil

  • Adam Shaeffer says:

    Philip,

    It is very encouraging to read of your efforts to promote the arts at Wheaton. I hope we see more and more of this in the Christian community in years to come.

  • Steve Schuler says:

    I just want to say how refreshing it is to hear an administrator at a Christian liberal arts college say that art is important. It is indeed healthy for administrators (and faculty from other departments!) to pay attention to what the artists on campus are doing. I’m an English prof at a small Christian liberal arts institution myself, and I love seeing the work my students do, and talking with them about the creative process. Along the same lines, it’s fun to take in performances that our music and theater students put on, and I hope that my presence is an encouragement to them. I also sense that, when I take their work seriously, they tend to take my discipline seriously. Perhaps especially in the arts, the Golden Rule applies.

  • Wheaton College Art Department says:

    Thank you for this deeply encouraging support!

  • ryan says:

    Hey Phil…Great post. I was thinking about your second point and my experiences at Christian liberal arts college. One of the issues that I seem to have run into of concern is that while the arts are often, as you said, “the leading edge of cultural transformation” they often provocative, if not purposefully controversial. Whether its social activism or just critique of the status quo, do such art forms fit within a Christian college environment? If so, how? My own experiences here were ones of censorship by the University which reacted largely in fear of upsetting/losing their donor base. What the students saw, was the power of art.

  • Danica says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts on this matter. There are several schools that include religion on their curriculum. Although there are differences on the explanation, the important thing is that each one of us have strong faith on Jesus Christ.

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