Iwan Russell-Jones: Christianity and the Arts
Through its grants to Regent College, RCF supports the arts as a vital realm of Christian expression and engagement. Here, Dr. Iwan Russell-Jones (Regent College's Eugene and Jan Peterson Associate Professor of Christianity and the Arts) reflects on why the arts matter for Christians, the church, and society—and why Regent's mission matters in the contemporary world.
To join RCF in supporting Iwan's work and the arts at Regent College, make a gift here.
To hear more from Iwan and other Regent artists, check out the videos below.
Why Theology and the Arts
Teaching at Regent, I see a lot of people who have been artists for a long time, but never actually had the chance to really think things through theologically. Other people are coming here with bad experiences of the church’s attitude toward the arts, and feeling like that side of them has been suppressed. And then, all of a sudden, they’re encouraged to see art as a great sphere of human flourishing and growth and Christian discipleship. Art’s not unrelated to one’s life as a Christian: it’s a sphere you enter. You can be an artist with integrity. I see people discovering that this is a possibility for them, and beginning to discover artistic gifts in themselves.
As I look around today’s culture, I see art being incorporated into church life in very natural way, in places all over the world. I’ve also seen art being employed to make connections with the communities where churches are—art as a way of service and reaching out. There just seems to be something going on at the moment that is really quite profound. This is stuff that enables us to share a vision of the gospel—a human vision—that really connects with contemporary people.
How do we get along in a culture that is pluralistic? We have to be human beings. We have to negotiate our way through it just like everybody else. I don’t think there’s a magic answer, and certainly there’s no magic answer in the arts. But I think there’s certainly an answer in being human beings who really want to be servants and to reach out in love to our fellow creatures. And the arts can absolutely be a part of that.
Why Regent College
I think the original vision for Regent is an excellent one—it’s the reason I came here. I’ve always had a very ambivalent relationship with theological education. I believe in theology; I believe it’s really important. But I can’t stand the ivory tower. I can’t stand the sense of theology just being some hobby that theologians talk about among one another. I’ve seen a lot of that in universities. However, I fully believe in ideas, in the mind, in engagement with the world in all its complexity. So theology that really seeks to engage with life is critical. It’s got to be lived—it can’t be any other way. It’s got to be theology for life. Regent is a place that values that.
Regent started off focusing on theology for laypeople. I’m very committed to that, being a layperson myself, and having had a career in a big secular organization. I firmly believe in theology for laypeople! But it’s obviously important to train ministers, and it’s great that Regent does that as well. What I would hope is that we’re training ministers and church professionals who really see the importance of equipping laypeople to live their lives in the world. It’s not about oiling the machinery of the church, it’s about empowering people and sending them out in the power of the gospel, to live and work to God’s praise and glory.
I think that as long as there’s a church, there’s always going to be a need for a place like Regent. You see students come here, and getting to talk about things they’ve never had the courage to talk about before. You see them exploring this new world of historical, theological, intellectual material that’s out there just waiting to be discovered. That’s really exciting: actually seeing people be challenged and having the chance to reconfigure or reframe their faith. That reframing is a constant challenge, not something you do once. It’s an ongoing challenge to reframe your life according to the gospel and the truth that’s in Christ.
What we proclaim is the Resurrection. We proclaim faith in the Triune God, who’s still in business. This is not theory. It’s not a theological concept that is protected by the church and needs to be defended by it—it’s reality. And if we’re really serious about it, that means that God is involved in this world still, and we can be as well. What we’re talking about takes you to the very heart of life. I think that what people come to Regent looking for—and, when we’re at our best, what they leave with—is a discovery of that. Your faith means something in terms of your head, your heart, your hands, your body—it’s a reason for being. A reason for life. As long as Regent holds onto that sense of a God who’s invested in us, a God who’s invested in all of creation and is still at work—as long as that’s still at the center of Regent, that’s more than enough to be getting on with. That’s wonderful! It’s a great reason to come into work every day.