The conference theme this year was ‘Theology and the Arts’. David Brown’s opening paper addressed the importance of the arts for theology; Eamon Duffy explored the devotional usage to which images were put in the medieval period; Janet Soskice and Andrew Lovett discussed and explained one of Lovett’s compositions based on Genesis 22; Richard Bauckham provided an analysis of the way certain poets immortalise trees in verse with a view to their integrity as creatures before God; Janet Osherow read some poetry; and Anne-Marie Korte (University of Utrecht) discussed pictorial representations of female crucifixion throughout the ages, intending to speculate on why Madonna’s recent self-crucifixion on her Confessions tour caused such a fuss. There were thirty-five short papers on the conference theme, plus the usual selection of seminar papers slotting more generally into the non-thematic topics of ‘Trinity and Christology’, ‘Theology and Philosophy’, etc.
To detail. David Brown’s opening paper made it clear that theology should attend not only to the fine arts or high culture, but to popular culture as well. During the Q&A session following his paper, Brown revealed that he’d spent a month listening to hip-hop and similar musical genres. (In private conversation, I challenged him to spend a week listening to death metal and grindcore. He declined.) Perplexingly, people tittered at this revelation; and Clive Marsh’s observation – the force of which was not really acknowledged – that people speak either of ‘the arts’ or of ‘popular culture’ (a distinction that Marsh implied should be overcome), suggested that certain art forms were never going to gain critical attention at this conference.
And so it proved. Of the thirty-five short papers on the conference theme, none – as far as I could tell from the abstracts provided in advance – tackled anything even remotely related to, say, film or Top 40 music. That’s not to say that some of the papers, especially those dealing with methodology, couldn’t have been applied to these areas; and Korte’s paper successfully linked pop culture (Madonna’s crucifixion scene from her Confessions tour) with ‘the arts’ (previous renditions of female crucifixion). But there was a distinct lack of evidence at this conference that theologians generally know how to respond to the everyday art of, say, Lady Gaga or EastEnders, art that inspires and enthuses so many. Of course, nobody can specialise in everything, and people surely cite examples from what they know; but there does seem to be an implied value judgement in the distinction between ‘the arts’ and ‘popular culture’, a judgement that doesn’t seem to recognise that different arts accommodate different genres, which lead to differences in what each art form can communicate. There’s no need to chastise, say, Top 40 chart music for not being Mozart. Each is genuine art communicated in a manner specific to its own genre, and questions of quality or value can only be addressed within the rules of the genres invoked.
Despite my critical tone, I enjoyed the conference. Although I battled with my natural shyness at times (and the makings of a cold, now fully developed), I managed to consolidate existing relationships and make new connections and (dare I say?) friends. But it’s really time for more theologians to grapple with popular culture, methinks. There seems to be opportunity to do just this in the near future at a conference celebrating David Brown’s work. For myself, I’ve come away from this conference intending to write something on trees in popular culture (to complement Bauckham’s paper) and the theology of EastEnders.
Some other notes: Next year’s conference is likely to be in York and will look at the nature of Scripture – or something like this (I wasn’t entirely clear what the theme was, but Steve Holmes apparently suggested it). The 2012 conference will be on pneumatology. Finally, no Colin Gunton Memorial Essay Prize for 2009 (on the future of ecumenical theology) was awarded.