For this second installment of our Interviews with Influencers series, we talked with artist/scholar Deborah Sokolove about her calling, the arts, the church, and her new book, Sanctifying Art, with which we will be hosting an online course this spring. Deborah is the Director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion and Associate Professor of Art and Worship at Wesley Theological Seminary. Deborah grew up in a Jewish family and later found herself working and growing in Methodist circles – that being said, we found that her take on the arts has a particularly Wesleyan ring to it – read on for more. This post is records Part I of our conversation together.
From the Branches:
Will you tell us a bit about your own sense of “call” and vocation? Were you called to be an artist? A minister? Something else? If you sensed a call to more than one area, how do these vocations interact?
When I hear people talk about searching for their call, I often find myself somewhat bemused. While I firmly believe that God does call each of us to a particular and unique way of being in the world, the call is ultimately God’s, and not mine. We need to open to hearing the call, and be willing to respond to it, but I believe that the initiative belongs to God.
Perhaps it is easy for me to think in this way because I have been aware that God was calling me since I was at least twelve. This first call was to follow Jesus, but as person who was born into a Jewish family and tried to live Jewishly with as much integrity as possible, it took me about thirty years to say “yes” to that call. I was finally baptized at the age of 42, and have been following the call of Jesus to follow him to the best of my ability ever since.
To answer your question more specifically, for all of my adult life, even before I became a Christian, I have been aware that God has called me to two specific areas of activity. I am called to be an artist; and I am called to teach.
I do not always experience the artist part as gift. Often, it is more like an affliction, something akin to obsessive-compulsive disorder, in which I feel compelled to spend many hours making small, repetitive marks, with no understanding of why I am doing so or what connection the thing I am making has to anyone or anything else. Because I was taught to do so in art school, I am able to come up with some plausible explanations when I am required to write an artist’s statement. But the truth is that what and why I paint comes from some place that I do not even begin to understand. Like more conventional spiritual disciplines, the process is often dry, boring, and unpleasant. From time to time, however, I begin to understand something new, or to feel a deep connection with the mystery that underlies everything. Even in long, spiritually dry spells, the memory and promise of such moments are the gift that keeps me following this call.
Teaching, for me, is always a gift, as well as a calling. It has been a long, long journey to find myself in my current position as Director of the Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary, teaching courses at the intersection of art, culture, and worship. While there are frustrations and limitations to any job, my job is about as perfect as it gets. Whether I am in the classroom with twenty students, showing images and talking about the ways that the arts help us to know God and one another; leading a seminar on theological reflection in a congregational context; or counseling an individual student in my office, I am always aware that this is what I am meant to be doing. If call is defined as where one’s deepest joy meets the world’s great need, then it is clear that I am called to help people find their way to better understanding of their Christian heritage and to finding their own, true voice as leaders of the church, whether as pastors, teachers, counselors, artists, or in some other way. It is a great privilege, and a great joy, to have found a place where I am respected and employed as I attempt to follow the path the God has called me to walk.
From the Branches:
What unique perspective(s) can a Wesleyan lens bring to the arts in the Church and/or theological aesthetics?
Although my theological degrees are from Methodist schools, and I have been working in a United Methodist seminary for over twenty years, I am not, myself, a Wesleyan. Nonetheless, from such a long association with people who are passionate and committed to the Wesleyan perspective, I have come to a deep appreciation of John and Charles Wesley’s work and ideas. Every day on my way to my office I pass a cornerstone that says “Unite the pair so long disjoined: Knowledge and vital piety.” For me, that applies to bringing intellectual rigor not only to our understanding and experience of the divine, but also to our understanding and experience of the arts. Just as loving God can take us down some very strange and dangerous paths if that love is not informed by knowledge of the historical concerns and patterns of the church, so, too, an enthusiasm for the arts can lead us to embrace ideas and images that are antithetical to authentic Christian life.
For instance, too often Christians say that all art should beautiful or uplifting. What they often seem to mean is that it should be pretty, expressing only conventional ideas about the glory of God. It seems to me that a Wesleyan lens that stresses the importance of knowledge as well as piety would lead Christians who are committed to knowing the truth in other areas to learn and appreciate how the arts function in discovering and communicating the truth, even when it is uncomfortable or challenging. Just as conventional spiritual disciplines lead us to see uncomfortable truths about ourselves, the arts can hold up a mirror to our less desirable thoughts and actions, both as individuals and as a society, so that we can learn what is keeping us apart from God.
Read the second half of our interview with Deborah here. To register for the Sanctifying Art book study, facilitated by Shannon Sigler, click here. For information on Be A Disciple’s partnership with Wesley Theological Seminary, click here.
Deborah Sokolove is the Director of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion and Associate Professor of Art and Worship at Wesley Theological Seminary. Deborah is a member of Seekers Church, a Christian Community in the Tradition of Church of the Saviour. She specializes in the intersection of liturgy, religion and the arts. She is on the Board of Directors of the Society for Art in Religious and Theological Studies, and has recently published Sanctifying Art: Inviting Conversation Between Artists, Theologians, and the Church. Read Deborah’s blog here.