Insider/Outsider Relationships in Theology and the Arts

Because this is our 100th post (reflective summary post to follow shortly), I thought I might reflect somewhat generally on one particular aspect of the relationship between theology and the arts that has been on my mind lately. Part of what we do here at ITIA is to consider how the world of theology and the world of art fit together and engage in conversation. But, like most other disciplines, both of these worlds have boundaries that can often only be understood in terms of being an “insider” or “outsider.” Theological jargon is often very specialized (and sometimes unrelated to practical application or real life), and an artist’s understanding of the creative process comes from a very personal interaction with it that is different from that of the general enthusiast. If one isn’t a part of the world, they can feel lost or unwelcome. Boundaries aren’t necessarily a bad thing, though. As with place and human community, boundaries are a key to identity. The question, then, is how we understand these boundaries to work in interdisciplinary dialogue.

One thing I have been struck by lately is the disconnect that often appears between the practitioners of both worlds. For instance, it can be said of theologians who deal with pop culture that they are often “behind the times” or unaware of what is actually going on within a given cultural trend. Theological engagement with music that was popular twenty years ago has its place, of course, but it is discouraging when theologians of pop culture pride themselves on being “culturally engaged” when those figures in question are long past their cultural prime. “Yes, we all know that the music of U2 has religious undertones…now let’s move on to something else.” But the argument moves in the opposite direction too. Those whose academic identity is found first in the art world often fail to make theologically sound claims about what they are doing. Their lack of knowledge about the way theology is done can result in poor theology, no matter how much they know about the artistic process and world within which they are working. So if interdisciplinary dialogue can go so wrong, why even attempt it in the first place?

Because it can also go so right. These boundaries between worlds aren’t impermeable. In fact, when done with attentiveness, generosity, and openness, interdisciplinary dialogue benefits both parties involved.  This is part of what we have tried to do here on this blog, sometimes for better or worse results. This doesn’t negate the fact that some are insiders and some outsiders in any given field or place. It recognizes, rather, that when approached with care, the insider can learn a great deal from one on the outside who can offer fresh perspective. In being acquainted with something outside their immediate field of vision, theologians and artists alike can not only come away improved, but also more defined in their identity of discipline as a result of open dialogue. The marriage of theology and the arts, then, is not meant to dissolve these boundaries that exist between worlds, but to open them up for traversal. Doing this will help us avoid poor theology or substandard artistic reflection, and instead, open us up to a world of possibilities for future reflection and discovery in theology and the arts.


  • Jennifer Allen Craft is a regular contributor at Transpositions. Jenn is from southwest Georgia (think swamp, red clay, peanuts, and gnats) and holds a B. A. in Biblical Studies and Humanities from Atlanta Christian College and an M.Litt. in Theology, Imagination and the Arts from St. Andrews. She is currently working on a PhD on the theological significance of place with special attention to the role of the arts in the way we make and identify with places.

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  1. says: Anna

    Jenn, thankyou for articulating so well the tension I (and i’m sure many) feel. I often feel like i walk a tightrope where I cannot truly dissolve boundaries but where I am pulled in one direction or another seeking to be legitimately working with the art (in my case literature) or with theology.

  2. says: tim

    The purpose of a multi-disciplinary approach is not to synthesize disparate parts into one explainable whole, the consequences of which inevitably do violence to the integrity of the parts. Noting the significance of context and referencing Frank Burch Brown’s work, González-Andrieu (in her unpublished dissertation) suggests that instead of minimizing differences we should thematize their potential. She writes,
    “As poet Tim Nuveen also notes in his short poems Moon and Mountain Sunset, space and distance need not detract from the revelatory possibilities of something; rather the very consciousness of the gap that separates us from what we are attempting to see can be what brings about awe, respect, and wonderment.
    At least five thousand times I’ve seen the moon
    and with great benefit.
    And only just last night I saw
    the space between myself and it.

    So many times I’ve watched the sun go down,
    A yellow slice of lemon in a cup.
    Today, I’m sure, perched high above the town,
    I sat amazed and watched the earth come up. ”

    In another example about how the distance between Bach and contemporary audiences does not necessitate dissonance in understanding but can produce beneficial connections, unimaginable even to Bach and his original audience, González-Andrieu suggests any multidisciplinary study, when it does not attempt to force cohesion, can enrich the perspective of each field of study involved.

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