Art and the Religious Impulse
When we think of the arts in connection with religion, we often envision enormous churches with stained-glass windows, medieval paintings of figures from religious liturgies. The immediacy and ease with which we conjure up these images reveal the close relationship between religion and the arts that most people (whether they consider themselves religious believers or not) take for granted. Both religion and the various forms of artistic expression are often seen as systems of abstraction designed (at times) to elevate, enlighten, affect, and transform those who participate in them. And yet, the envisioning of such images also belies a culturally specific attitude which suggests a relatively recent presumption: that the only way art can be religious is if it is in the service of religion in its traditional, institutional setting. This collection of essays explores the connections some of the presumptions held in contemporary society about both. Topics covered include the visual, literary, and performing arts, and authors examine such topics as church architecture, religious folk art, nineteenth-century classical music, contemporary fiction, recent film, performance art, and the recurring religiocultural battles over public funding of the arts. Each author examines the role religion plays in his or her chosen art form and provides the reader with an understanding of how the two systems relate. Taken together, the essays provide the foundation for a more careful examination of the relationship not only of religion and art but of the place of the religious impulse in the contemporary world. The argument, made in the introduction and illustrated by the chapters, suggest that religion and the arts are both systems of meaning-construction, orientation, and transcendence, and as such, work well when in concert. However, with the decline of institutionally grounded religious identity formation (represented by - but certainly not unique to - the Protestant Reformation), the religious impulse has become increasingly de-institutionalized while at the same time suffering from no significant diminution of importance in culture. This means that it may no longer be found exclusively in its institutional settings but in other aspects of human experience in which meaning, orientation, and transcendence are possible - like the arts. In the end, this means that the religious impulse is something best found beyond institutional settings. This realization provides the investigator with a powerful lens with which to understand how it is that seemingly secular forms of human expression can be seen by some to be threats to their religious worldviews. And while there certainly is still a role to be played by religious institutions (such as congregations, clergy, etc.), the important role art plays in the expression of the religious impulse suggests that if religion is to be understood at all as a meaningful category of human experience, it must be explored in all aspects of human activity.
Contributors: Kathryn McClymond, Peter W. Williams, Leonard Norman Primiano, Annie Janeiro Randall, John Rickard, Eric Michael Mazur, Dawn Perlmutter, and Matthew C. Moen.
About the editor:
Eric Michael Mazur is Associate Professor of Religion at Bucknell University.
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