Interview with Claudio Carvalhaes – Art, Religion and Worship / Video and Transcription

See the transcription below.

Interview with Claudio Carvalhaes, 11/22/2015

Deborah Sokolove: I have to ask you if I have your permission to record?

Claudio Carvalhes: Yes you do.

DS: And may I show this to students?

CC: Yes.

DS: I put it up on a private YouTube channel.

CC: Absolutely.

DS: That’s the easiest way to show it to students. So, could you say your name.

CC: Claudio Carvalhaes.

DS: Thank you. So I really just have one kind of big question, and then we’ll just see where the conversation goes.


DS: So the big question is, starts with the fact that what I know of you is you are musician, a performance artists, a liturgical scholar, a teacher, a pastor, and I don’t know what else, because I keep discovering new things. [laughter] So you have, obviously, a lot of not just experience with worship but also you think seriously about worship.

CC: Right.

DS: And you think seriously about the arts. And so there’s this whole big discussion that I’m sure you are aware of that sort of pits the arts, or at least entertainment, against worship. And some people are appalled at worship that is too slick or too highly produced, and yet the megachurches draw in bazillion people with that. On the other hand, it seems to not be sincere a lot of the time. But places that pride themselves on their sincerity often are sloppy and unthoughtful and drive people away just because they are overly sincere. There are a lot of variations on that.

CC: Right.

DS: On the third hand, because I always have three hands, at least in my arguments, in the world of entertainment, or what we might call entertainment, there are many people who will say, you know, Music is my religion, or Dance is my religion, or, you know, whatever, who have profound spiritual experiences at, in venues that we might think of as pure entertainment. So where my question is and where my research is, is what, if anything, is the difference between good entertainment and good worship? How do we talk about these things in ways that are helpful rather than, you know, mean to each other?

CC: Right, right.

DS: And, um, and in all of that conversation, where do words like ‘performance’ and ‘art’ and ‘quality’ fit in to that conversation? So, what do you think?

CC: Yeah. That’s a great question. And one that I’ve been struggling with for a long time. So I think this question that you ask is a, it’s so important because it shows the dualism that comes from, actually comes from the Enlightenment, too. When the Enlightenment comes, it wants to get rid of the control of the Church — which was the dark, that’s why Enlightenment! And so with this distinction, since the Church controlled every form of thought, now Kant, Immanual Kant, who was starting with the knowledge as self-determination, and that means to think by yourself without any kind of control on what you think. So he also establishes the realm of art and so then with Enlightenment we start with what is called the Fine Arts, which is already a distinction between “high” art and “”low art. And with this distinction also comes the distinction between the art by art itself and religion. So then we have also the dichotomy between art and religious art. And what we have today with our universities, it is this, still this distinction. So some art theorists, they are allergic to religion. And on the other hand, religious people, especially within, anyway, in seminaries or churches, are afraid of art. And in some ways, because the ways the field is structured, with good reason. Actually, because if art, art wants to have this place of freedom to think, and religion sounds like this limitation to the work of art. And so you can only do up to a point or to a certain limit, to a certain moral ethic. And so there is no total freedom there. And the religious people look at art as something that will, you know, mess up too much with our faith or with our symbols, with our space,. And you have to be careful to protect that sense of what we believe in who we are. So that is the dichotomy established, and so how do we go about it?

I think, I think, instead, Deborah, of the sincerity of those people in worship, why don’t be more concerned is what it is that creates their faith, their liturgical patterns, with whom and for whom. And then you have a gamut of understandings of liturgy from the very sense that liturgy is a God-sent event, so that you just have to receive it and do it, so there is nothing to be done and they are just to repeat. And then all the way to the churches that do whatever they want.

DS: Right.

CC: And I think there is dangers in both from these. On one hand, when you call it God, so then you can hide your patriarchy, you can hide your sense of sexuality, your racial prejudice, your sexual understandings, under the banner of God gave it to us. If you go to the other side, when you do whatever you do because you are free to do whatever you want to do, so that’s for me it is terrible, too, because then it just shows how this group is caught up into this cultural narcissism that is more attuned to whatever they want and not to the responsibilities that they have with other people. So I think there is a way in which we must learn to mix, to transform this relation between art and religion. And how we do that — by trying, by testing, by seeing what works.

For instance, there is this very interesting case in St Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York. You know that there was this picture, I don’t remember the name of the artist, a very famous artist.

DS: Oh, it was De Kooning. I just taught that last week!

CC: So you know that. And so what are the limits? See more here:

DS: Right.

CC: Right? How is it that the liturgical theologians and the pastors of that church thought that that was not proper for the sacred space? What are the criteria? Right? So those are the things that we have to think when we go into this? So what is it that undergirds that sense of protection? Or what makes it religious or not? So what are the grounds for it? Feelings? Theology? Dogma? Doctrine? What? What is it that we do? So it’s always complicated. We have MOBIA, which is the Museum of Biblical Art in New York, too.

DS: Yeah, they’re gone now.

CC: They’re gone?

DS: Yeah, I don’t know the details of why, but they are no longer there, and no plans to bring it back.

CC: It was a great, it was a fantastic place. They were trying to put those things together. It was beautiful. I loved it. So, see, we are losing those spaces that are trying to put things together. So if you have religious art in a secular museum, you are just seeing it as an, more of a phenomenological way, with this distant objects of study — they are strange people doing this art. And when we bring art to the church we always have to this heavy religious referential so that it can be inside of the church. So how do we do this mixing and blurring and putting those things together? When you mention, the very notion that you just mentioned, too, between worship as an act of, sacred act, and performance. it’s secular, because it is in the artistic world. I think there is, for me there is a sense of naive understanding of what performance means. And that means when you take performance as that which is done and have no commitment with anything — just go to a play to get entertained and nothing else, I think that is a very mistaken understanding of performance. Because anyways, every play, every show, every dance, every song, everything that you go, it will change you!

DS: Right.

CC: It will transform you in some way or another. Right?

DS: If you let it.

CC: Even if you don’t.

DS: But that’s true of worship, as well

CC: Exactly! Because there is something that happens to you there. So I mean in that sense, performance is not just for nothing. There is a deep commitment, if you understand art with this sense of performance, if you understand performance with this understanding of art, actually, you are being very rude at, with the artists who put their lives to those projects, to create everything, to invest themselves, to put this thing together. Because they believe in it. So we are just dismissing too easily the sense of performance in the artistic realm, which is not that easy to understand. It’s a lot of work and ability and artistic expression, to gifts that you need to have to put this together. And a lot of courage. So performance then has to be understood as this, or entertainment, as this very high sense of art.

If we look at the worship space and how we think of liturgy, we have to understand that performance is an action that every human being does. We are performing here. Right?

DS: Right.

CC: There’s people walking around this booth, they are performing walking, right?

DS: Right.

CC: So in that sense worship is a performance. In that very simple sense. One way of helping us think, I think, Tom Driver, Transforming Ritual. This is a fantastic book that I use all the time. He distinguishes the, the artistic and the worship in four parts. He says that every worship has the — I don’t know if I remember everything — the confessional part, the ethical part, the social part, and the performative part. And each one of them has it’s specificities, and the performance gives the ability to enjoy, to have fun. But that goes exactly opposite to what we understood or we understand as spirituality. Spirituality has to be somber. Spirituality has to be no smile, like, there’s a performance of this kind of spirituality which is like you are looking down, quiet, so that there is a sense of the sacred. You want to do something sacred, light a candle and have everybody in silence. Oh, that’s sacred!

DS: Right.

CC: You don’t speak, you don’t talk, you don’t move, you don’t move your body. That’s how you do. We have understood the Eucharist in that way, too, that it’s because there’s death, which is so interesting because it’s not even according to some theologies of some churches. You have to be quiet and go with this somber feeling to the table. There is not possibility of, of celebrating the Resurrection as well. So when we have this sense of spirituality, anything that is fun or joyful goes against that sense of spirituality. So that’s why the performance is seen as detached. However, there is a joyful noise that we do when we sing and when we celebrate, right?

DS: Doesn’t the Westminster Catechism say that the purpose of the human being is to enjoy God forever?

CC: Number one, yes, What is the purpose of humankind? It’s to enjoy God forever. So that’s it. That’s the performance right there. There’s the joy. To enjoy God. And this enjoying God is what is the celebration and this fourth part of the ritual, of the ritual part that Tom Driver uses. So I think we need to expand the sense of performance and see it not as an enemy. It is not performance over against the worship, but the worship as a way of performing God’s….Oh, but it’s so complicated! Because if you say it, even the word “enacting”, not even “performance”. If you say you are enacting something, people will say, oh, this is very problematic. So…

DS: Right. I think the words are very problematic, and that’s why I’m writing this book. I don’t know if you read my other book, but most of it is about the words.

CC: Exactly.

DS: How do we understand these words?

CC: And they’re loaded, right?

DS: And we’re always talking past each other, because the words are loaded. So that’s what this book is also, how do we come to some better understandings so that the performers, the performing artists, don’t feel like they are always having to defend what they do?

CC: Exactly. Exactly. Because they are always on the lower standing in relation to the high end. And I think that when, if we understand our worship as also, not only, but also as a work of art, then we have, if liturgy is the work of the people with God, then I think we should be able to be more free to try things. That’s one disasters of faith, that it keeps us captive, keeps us captive to a certain way of thinking. And I think what faith has to do is to make us free, it’s to make us free. That’s what, when I go teach worship in class,I have this eagle that’s enormous that I keep walking around. I say, God have made you to fly! To believe! And go try, don’t be — if you believe that God loves you, just go. Just like, it’s the freedom of St Augustine, love and do what you want. But you are bound to love. Then go try. So that’s why I tell my students in class, you’re free. Try. Try because not everything is going to work. And let’s try together and figure out. So many worships, a part of the worship is a failure. Two words, the ritual of failure. If that doesn’t work, you don’t do it again.

DS: So “work” is an interesting word. Does it work? You’ve used that word a few times now. And that’s, when I was in art school, that was one of the criteria, you know, maybe the most important criterion about an artwork in critique is, it doesn’t work, you know. And what does that mean?

CC: Yes, that’s right.

DS: So, and when I try to use that language in the academy that isn’t that art school, the theological academy, people don’t understand how can that be a criterion. So what do you mean when you say it works or it doesn’t work? How does ritual not work or work? Or art in worship? Either one, or both. It’s all the same.

CC: Beautiful question. Because with your question you going at the heart of it. Again, when you say what works, we are talking about a series of things. The theological statements of that community; the ethical understandings of that community; the engagement with that community with a larger sense of community; the limits and possibilities of the people in that community. So everything has to be understood locally, not with like universal criteria that might not work for every context. So I think what works has to do with the, what that community is doing and what that community needs to be exposed to and needs to be kept from, needs to be engaging with. And so that, I think, is what works. And know that, it is not a functionalist sense of the worship as if it has to work for something, as if there is a kind of a final result that is proper.

DS: Right.

CC: There is no final result that is proper. Because every worship service is destined to be a failure, because we cannot do the perfect worship. We cannot. As much as we try, there is no proper way of worshiping God. We are always falling behind.

DS: You know Annie Lamott’s thing about worship and dancing bears?

CC: No.

DS: Oh, she has this wonderful quotation about how we’re this kind of dancing bear act and every high school drama, you know, is better than what we do. We’ve been rehearsing it for 2000 years.

CC: See, yes.

DS: and we always get it wrong. And the only reason, that we should come to worship, this is the great line, that we should come to worship with crash helmets not our fancy Sunday…

CC: Oh, that’s Annie Dillard!

DS: Yes, it’s Annie Dillard, I’m sorry.

CC: Exactly! Isn’t that beautiful? That’s the symbol, the helmet!

DS: Yes. Sorry, I got the wrong Annie.

CC: That’s fantastic. This is because it’s an event, a happening. But that’s why, because God loves us so much that we can try. Bring the artists. Let them play. Let then help us. And then, and then let’s deal with it. A mature faith can deal with difference. Only the faith that is fearful, that cannot deal with difference. That’s why we cannot deal with art because at the heart of our faith there is this deepest fear that somebody is going to steal that away from me. So then I transform you, the artist, or you who are from another faith, a Muslim or whomever, I transform you as my enemy because I put in you the fear that I have that you are going to destroy my faith. And that’s when we, if we had a sense of, of a stronger God, so to speak, a sense that we can believe in this God., that God is not going to be destroyed by what we do. God is ok.[laugher] And we, as much as we try to destroy it, God will take care of everything. So then let’s try! Let’s be free! Then with the work, the sense of work is that, so we did something that it didn’t work well in terms of the perception of the community. So we tried to show this one thing, this way, but people saw it this way. And so that was, that didn’t work. So we either have to never use that again, or try to portray it differently, or seen what ways the community can engage. So for that, again, Deborah, it needs to, the liturgists, the artists, the theologians, they have to have their ear on the ground, so to speak, to hear what the people are needing. And so hear what the people need. And then from that place of hurt, of need, then create something. Then invent something. Use the gifts of your people. We, the New Testament talks so much about the gifts of the Spirit, we never know what gifts we have. People never know what the, ask anybody in the church, what’s your gift? Uh uh uh I am a good cook, uh, uh. But if that is the thing that you believe it is, so do something with it. I had this, um, member of my church, he was a photographer. Every Sunday, we would have one of his photographs in the sanctuary. And sometimes I would do the preaching and the whole worship around that picture as well. There was another one that did drawing, so on the bulletin, the cover was his understanding of the whole worship from his own drawing. So I think there’s ways in which we can, so that’s the art performed. Because, for instance the drawing was fixed on the paper, that’s not a performance, so that can be done. And the other kind of performance.

DS: But that’s problematic for people, too, you know. They don’t like the drawing, or it says something they don’t want it to say, or they don’t understand it. You know, if somebody just does portraits, ok, everybody gets that, but what if you do something else?

CC: Right. Good point.

DS: So, visual art has its problems as well.

CC: Yeah. That’s the fascination of it, right? And who interprets that? What’s the meaning of that? It’s like worship. Once you put it out there, it’s, you never know what, how people are going to respond to it.

DS: So how do you help your students if they organize a worship and it totally falls flat? What do you, how do you help them? How do you help them understand what happened and go forward?

CC: I think one wonderful way to do this is to sit together afterwards and debrief. And actually ask simply, what didn’t work? And they know. Because they have spent so much time into the preparation, which does not happen in church, right? We just cut and paste things in church.

DS: Not in my church. No, i mean in my church we do that.

CC: So when you spend time preparing the worship and you know how it is, afterwards you know, you feel it, don’t you?

DS: Oh, absolutely.

CC: So that’s the debriefing. They already know both what didn’t work and what we could have done instead. Because some things we just conceptualize, Oh, what if we just leave the papers on, in the chairs, nearby or on the chairs. And so people just sit on the paper and didn’t see it. So, Oh, so we should have given the papers. So they already know how to do it. When you do it that way, the worship becomes this live, I always tell my students, the worship is this live thing that is bubbling in your, in your hands and that’s the gift of God to us to actually hold this gift and share with it.

DS: So, as we are having this conversation, not just you and I but in SARTS we’re having this conversation and the conversation is happening at the Academy of Liturgy, it’s happening in a lot of places, do you think it’s going, that we won’t have to have this question in the next generation, or two generations? Do you think your teaching, my teaching, someone else’s teaching is going to change things?

CC: Good question again. Definitely there will be other questions, definitely. Some will persist because we still will be holding this 2000 years of traditions. And some will, old questions will come back. And old practice will come back, and new practices will be done. In some ways I think they are both going to be the same and both are going to be very new because of the ways of understanding the past. And some will be definitely new because of what they are living. I think the way our world is moving now, especially with the economic movement of this new liberalism that is taking the money of most of the people into the hands of very few, we have one percent of the world population having more than 50 percent of the entire globe’s wealth. It’s the same thing here in the US. I think those, the economic pressures are going to make people poorer and poorer and more difficult situation. That reality will create different questions. And as we shift our attention not only to look at how tradition is giving things go us do to now, but as we also expand that vision from not only to see what the tradition is giving to us but what my people, this situation, this context of the economic, social, culture, racial, historical context in which we are now, this community now here, they are going to make questions that the tradition has not been able to answer. So I think we will be more complex and thank God we will be more complex.

DS: [laughter] So I want to be mindful of your time. I know you have another appointment very soon. Is there anything about this question of worship and entertainment that I haven’t asked you, or that you haven’t said? Any last words that you want to make sure that I get?

CC: Right. I mean, you know that, Deborah, already, you know that. But I think to embrace that aspect of the entertainment as part of our worship. Because we, if, you know, if we go to minority communities, you will see that celebration is full as death is full. One of the movements of the Black church is to start in the depth of death, and you end in celebration. So there is a performance from there. If you go to Latino/Latina communities, you’ll see that death and life are all together in everything they do in the fiesta. So that’s the, how some of the Latino/Latina thinkers define worship is a fiesta.

DS: Yes.

CC: Which, uh, which is not unlike a preparation, because it’s just like you go and celebrate. You don’t go to perform in the sense of the, the poor sense of performance. But it’s a way of, of putting together a celebration to God. So when we add that, but you can only celebrate if you have a deep understanding of death. Then you can celebrate life. If you just do the celebration of life without naming the death that is all around us, then the celebration becomes performance in the very bad sense of it, because it is empty. But the it’s still a performance, right, but not of, of what will I say, like a Christian performance.

DS: Thank you. You’ve just answered a question that I didn’t ask, that’s been in the back of my mind because, that whole phenomenon of staring the worship with praise music for half an hour and then the whole service stays up here, you know, stays at that level, and there’s no acknowledgment of death. That’s what disturbs me and I could never name it. So thank you for giving me words for something that I didn’t.

CC: Right. Yeah, because I think it’s a repetition of the Holy Week. You go from celebration to death to celebration to death, celebration to death. So.

DS: Thank you. Thank you so much. This has been wonderful.

CC: Thank you, it’s always good to be with you.







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