DITA Celebrates New School Year with Theology and the Arts

To celebrate the Divinity School’s 2016-2017 Opening Convocation, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA) hosted Call and Response: Two Days of Theology and the Arts. The events included a poetry reading interspersed with musical responses, a panel on visual art and the call to ministry, and a culminating event featuring nine principal musicians from five national orchestras and Duke University.

The series began on Aug. 30 with “Futures Spring Alive,” an evening of poetry and music featuring readings by acclaimed Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail. O’Siadhail read a selection from his recently completed magnum opus The Five Quintets. The poems consisted of sonnet “conversations” with artists such as John Donne, Pablo Picasso and Johann Sebastian Bach. Interspersed with the reading was the U.S. premier of Impromptus, five piano pieces composed in response to O’Siadhail’s poetry by Jeremy Begbie, Thomas A. Langford Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity. The music attempted to evoke in sound the character of O’Siadhail’s poetry. Cordelia Williams, a concert pianist from the UK and former student of Begbie’s, performed the pieces after leading off the evening with two pieces from J.S. Bach.

DITA's "Seeing Your Calling" Panel

On Aug. 31, DITA hosted a noon panel featuring Dean Heath and Ben Quash, professor of Christianity and literature at Kings College London. Ross Wagner, associate professor of New Testament, moderated the discussion entitled “Seeing Your Calling: Lessons from the Visual Arts for a Seminary Education.” Drawing on a collection of visual portraits of St. John the Baptist housed in the National Gallery of London, the panelists reflected on the distinct features of the portraits and the implications these might suggest for those preparing a vocation in ministry. After the event, Dean Heath said, “I hope that audience members experienced the event as vizio divina, or a sacred viewing of the images before us. As is the case with lectio divina, in visio divina we open ourselves to God who might speak through the image.”

The two-day celebration culminated in “A Careful Carelessness: An Evening of Theology and Improvisation.” During the event on the evening of Aug. 31, top musicians from some of the most respected orchestras in the country demonstrated musical improvisation’s distinct capacity for conveying theological wisdom. The evening featured a wide range of musical selections and genres, from Giovanni Gabrielli’s sixteenth century antiphonal for brass to Louis Prima’s swing classic “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Dean of Duke Chapel Luke Powery’s performance of the “Soon-ah will be done” spiritual and his leading the audience through “Wade in the Water” highlighted musical improvisation’s ability to draw listeners into deeper relationships of giving and receiving. The performance also including an impromptu demonstration of former Dean Richard Hays’s piano playing transformed through a collective performance of Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

A Careful Carelessness

Said participant Douglas Yeo, retired bass trombonist of the Boston Symphony and former professor of trombone at Arizona State University, “I am certain that whatever contribution I made to the success of the program was greatly outweighed by what I gained. The inspiring playing of my colleagues, the vivid engagement of the audience, and the thought-provoking and challenging commentary by Jeremy Begbie have given me much to think about as I continue to consider the role of music as a reflection of the Imago Dei.”  Allan Poole, pastor at Blacknall Presbyterian, said the events highlighted “clear teaching, inviting illustrations about macro themes in the Christian life, winsomely presented, carefully orchestrated with the best musicians, and a playlist that sent me home wanting to know those pieces better. It was rich, rich, rich.”