Sermon – Theology and the Arts, LPTS

Cláudio Carvalhaes

Today we are here to worship God with a larger community, a community that today includes the board of trustees who are an intrinsic part of this community but can only visit us once a semester. We always get excited with their presence with us.  And for today, we thought we would worship God together using the arts throughout the worship as a tool to help us understand our faith, to understand our life and the world and give expression to that which we call God’s love and salvation.  In order to worship God today, I invited several artists to help us think about and experience what the presence of God in our midst might be.

Thus, I went around our campus asking some of our artists to engage in this worship together. First I talked to John Shorb, our guest visual artist who came from New York to be with us today. (Introduce John) We were both studying at Union Theological Seminary when John helped me put together a liturgical/performative event at Union that was also one of my comprehensive exams.

Talking to John, he said he was currently exploring the themes of borders and I invited him to come to our seminary. He gladly agreed to come and at his expense we have his art with us. Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to honor artists. When John mentioned borders, he said that he was struggling with Genesis 13 and how this text was speaking of borders to him and raising other very important concerns. I then asked: John, how does an artist like you read this text? How does an artist look at the Biblical text and create a theological/artistic response? And this is what he told me:

“ This work is called Division of the Land installation. With Genesis 13 as my focal point, I am exploring the division of land, our borders, walls, partitions — through visual media.  The story of Abram and Lot has deep resonance with our current international situations — Mexico/US border, Afghanistan’s continually shifting interior borders, the US electoral map, Israel/Palestine, Africa’s political map versus ethnic map.  I am drawing and printing on sheets from old biblical atlases layering images from border areas with key words in Hebrew and other languages from the Genesis text. I incorporate Hebrew lexicons, newspaper articles, and ancient and contemporary maps into the work.

I want to invite the reader into a dialogue with Genesis 13 and our current socio-political situations.  I do not aim to point the viewer to a concrete conclusion.  Instead, I would like the viewer to see the resonances and differences of our current landscape with the ancient one.  I believe this deepens our faith by visualizing into the biblical narrative in a complex manner.  It fights against the notion that we can have a comprehensive view of the story of Lot and Abram yet it takes this narrative seriously, drawing the main themes and conflicts out for the viewer to contemplate.”

The interpretation of the Bible is done in the boards and they will be passed on to you. I am not interpreting the text because it was already done in this work of art. My sermon comes out of this interpretation.


In these pieces, John powerfully connects Biblical reading with our world and creates ways for us to ponder about God, our faith and the world right here in our chapel…

As if he is adding pages to the chapel and our lives,

as if he is unfolding the walls of Israel and Palestine over us,

as if the walls between Mexico and US is spreading a shadow over our Bibles and we cannot read it properly….

as if the stories of Abraham and Lot become our stories,

as if we are parting ways from each other

John is helping us to unfold this biblical story in many facets. As for Tevyn, she is helping us to embody both John’s art and this sermon through her artistic gifts. Tevyn is a dancer, a performer and an actress. Through her body movements so many things happen… And this service is about relationships, as the worship service is a gathering place, a space for encounters between artists and people of faith.

It is about time for us to explore the incorporation of the arts with areas of study and practices in our seminary. Arts is becoming again, a fundamental tool to the people of God to make sense of our Christian selves in the world. Gone is the time when arts were seen as a tool of the devil or instruments of distraction that should be avoided from our churches.  If we look around our campus, we will see that art is one of the most important avenues of meaning in the lives of our students.

We currently have in our student body an array of artists and these students are connecting and trying to connect their faith with art and sense of vocation through their education.

Here at the seminary, we are still not offering many opportunities for them to foster and develop their artistic abilities. We need people to teach art, we need more courses that would allow our students to express their knowledge not only through written papers but using other media, we still have to have a budget for chapel to continue to offer an open space for them to encounter each other and learn from each other’s art. We are very rich in terms of art on our campus. Every student has a gift and we are constantly blessed by them.

Just look around today: we have drummers and speakers, we have pianists and organists, we have poets and painters, hip hop musicians and visual artists, we have knitters, trumpeters and bag pipe players, we have celloists and potters, we have video/techno artists, woodcarvers, guitar players and singers, we have dancers and theater players. We have a city of artists here!

Here at the seminary we need to be aware all the time in order to create a space for them to develop their work. It is not our budget but our students that are our best capital and we must offer them the best we can.

So much so that the worship resource center brought two amazing artists to engage with our students. The dialogue between art and theology is an attempt to figure out our sacred books, our experiences, our cultural backgrounds, racial-sexual-ethnic identities, our political choices, and the lie of the poor.

All of the above placed in relation to the life and beliefs of somebody else’s sacred books, experiences political choices, etc. the exploration between theology and the arts help us cross the many borders we have to cross, the walls we keep bumping into, the disasters throughout the world we witness every day, the desperation we hear on the streets from the homeless, the displacement of immigrants around the world, the lawless territories of crimes and drug war zones, the endless cries of children going hungry every day in the streets of Haiti, the dismantling of families in every corner of this country, the violence against women, the brutal, exploitative and greedy capitalistic moves of Wall Street, the depravation of the economic system that helped 1% of the population of United States get richer while its middle class is sinking into debt, foreclosures and loss of dignity. And not only that…

we are also preys of a health insurance system that continues to deny necessary care for those who need it most.

How do we make sense out of all of that? How do we keep on hoping when we must deal with daily disasters, our own perplexities and sense of powerlessness?

The famous and controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger once said: “only a God can save us.” When interviewed by Der Spiegel, a German magazine, he was asked the following question:

SPIEGEL: … Can the individual man in any way still influence this web of fateful circumstance? Or, indeed, can philosophy influence it?

Heidegger (responds): philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor. Only a god can save us.

This was Heidegger’s response: only a god can save us! And let me readily affirm that this affirmation had nothing to do with the Fuhrer but with his philosophical understanding of the idea of readiness, a moment of the appearance that is always yet to come. Immediately after this phrase, Heidegger says:

“The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline, insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline.27”[1]

The way we prepare a readiness for the appearance of God is by way of thinking and poetizing… Thinking with our minds and our bodies and creating poetry as a way to prepare the way for God to arrive.

This is what we need brothers and sisters: poetry. Without poetry we are lost. The Greek word Poiesis means “to make.” “This word, the root of our modern “poetry”, was first a verb, an action that transforms and continues to create the world.

Poïetic work reconciles thought with matter and time, and humankind with the world. In the Symposium (a Socratic dialogue written by Plato), Diotima describes how mortals strive for immortality in relation to poieses.”

Through poiesis we create and try to make sense of the world. Through theology we also create and try to make sense of the world.  Thus, our work is the work of theopoetics, a way to make the world, to create and recreate our lives and the lives of those who live in the world. The world out there is to be made brothers and sisters. It is not a consequence of fate that the world is the way it is, we created it this way.

Thus, through poiesis and theology we try to figure out that which cannot be figured out, we name that which cannot be named, we run after that which cannot be reached, we look for goodness and justice for the poor. Through theopoetics we imagine a new world and we say: “a new world is possible!”  Through poetics we let our imagination run and we see a new world appearing, the poor receiving food and a piece of land to live, the rich giving away their possession…

churches and seminaries investing their money more on people and mission than on the market, people of different faiths blessing each other every morning and a world centered on love and care for the other rather than a world centered on market surpluses.

Here are now with our hands full! We have theology and we have poiesis to make the world. Theo-poiesis! I recently read the new book of Edwidge Danticat, “Create Dangerously, The Immigrant Artist at Work.” And in the first chapter she mentions that “One of the many ways a sculptor of ancient Egypt was described was “as one who keeps things alive.” This is the work of of theo-poetics: “to keep things alive and we are the ones called by God to keep things alive.  We ought to fight for hope to e alive, we ought to fight for faith to be alive, we ought to fight for justice to be alive, we ought to fight for goodness to be alive, we ought to fight for solidarity to be alive, we ought to fight for the poor and the disfranchised to be alive, we ought to fight for mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation to be alive, we ought to fight for love to be alive, we ought to fight for each other to be alive!

Going back to Genesis 13 we see there the ambiguity of humankind clearly stated on verse 8: ‘Then Abraham said to lot: Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. 9Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me.”  The ambiguity is so clear: We are kindred, separate yourself from me!

Amidst strife and separation, amidst borders, disasters and displacement, amidst scarcity and abundance, amidst hatred and egotism and along with Abram and Lot, we must create a theopoetics of a displaced place that embraces all!

We must start by considering ourselves nomads, including those who have a choice and those without a choice! Theologically, culturally, and ethnically, we do not belong anywhere but in God’s arms! We are all Gypsies in the earth of God. Liturgy, as Don Saliers says, “is to live in a foreign country.”

Our attempt to create a theo-poiesis of space is to create a sacred place of rest and encounters so that people can stop by, take a drink of water, eat some food, sing a good song, pray a powerful prayer, make a friend, receive a warm hug and then be sent with the piece of Christ again to the world.

For us to start a theopoetics of place that is constantly displaced, that lives around borders and limits, hatred and war, we must start with a Eucharistic hospitality, modeling ways to receive our guests, even if they are artists, and learn how to eat together. We must allow ourselves to be challenged by questions such as:

Can Christians eat with the Jews at their Friday night Shabbat meals?

Can Christians eat together at the end of each Ramadan day of fasting?

Can Jews and Muslims accept to be part of the Eucharistic table of Jesus Christ with different levels of engagement with Jesus Christ?

Can we break borders and turn them into bridges and find a place at the table for us all to sit and eat together?

How do we make sense of this world

I’d say, let us invite the artists!

Let us create a theopoetics that will make a new world possible,

a theopoetics that will help keep things and people alive,

a theopoetics that will help us dream dreams,

and a tehopoetics that will produce sacred foreign spaces for us all to rest, to feed each other around Eucharistic hospitality, to honor the poor and to help us keep moving along.


Sermon preached at Caldwell Chapel, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary  – October 22, 2010

7 thoughts on “Sermon – Theology and the Arts, LPTS

  1. Josh Robinson

    Thank you, Claudio, for sharing your sermon with us. I’m sure the artwork created and shared in the worship service was powerful and revelatory. Blessings on your continued ministry and prophecy.

  2. Ann Laird Jones

    Would love to see ongoing, changing visual arts in the Chapel foyer/narthex/entrance/greeting area, rather than the falling-apart, ancient, no-longer-having-meaning banners there now. The Word is vibrant and changing and resonating with all of life whirling around it. Why do we leave the same aratwork on the walls, in a sort of idolatrous manner?

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