Written – Saturday evening – 30 July 2011.
In the last decade I haven’t been to many conferences; I’ve been to one of two “gatherings” and some workshops, but not a university / seminary organised conference. It was therefore a real delight to travel to the Dunedin located Knox Centre for Ministry & Leadership for a Knox / Otago University School of Theology facilitated conference of Theology and the Arts. The 2-day conference was centred around a conversation on the place of the arts in “Mending the World”. I would have thought that around 80% of the participants were practicing “artists” (in the broadest sense of the word, i.e. painters, writer/poets, people involved in film and multimedia, sculptors, people working with fabric (e.g. embroiderers) – the list goes on.
The “Keynote” paper was a fascinating one delivered by Prof. Bill Dyrness from the USA around the theme of “the artist’s role in the healing of the earth”. Much of it derived from his latest publication: Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (pub. Dec 2010).
Other highlights for me were talks by artist Allie Eagle (presented collaboratively with Jo Osborne); Carolyn Kelly on “Re-Forming Beauty: can theological sense accommodate aesthetic sensibility” (a delightful, heart-felt and thoughtful paper engaging the “Romantic Poets” and more besides (sadly I didn’t have access to my note pad during Carolyn’s paper, but in what turned out to be an unexpected sacramental moment I sat beside Carolyn on the return flight to Auckland and we had a delightful conversation). I’ll look forward to the opportunities that future writing / publication by her will provide. My sense is that she’s got such a lot of real value to share, and the beginnings of a really creative approach to sharing that learning. I thought of the following story, attributed to John F. Kennedy, as I listened to her:
“…Frank O’Connor, the Irish author, tells in one of his books how as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed to high and too doubtful to try, and to difficult to permit their journey to continue, they would take off their hats and toss them over the wall – and then they had no choice but to follow them…”
While a dense and academic paper, I worked hard and found some ways into John Dennison’s paper titled “The Interesting Case of [Irish Poet Seamus] Heaney, the Critic, and the Incarnation. John’s was a paper that will undoubtedly resource an exploration for me; material to follow up and engage with on my own terms; not least Heaney’s poetry and collected prose essays / lectures. Dipping into one of those collections in Dunedin in a second-hand bookshop I found myself in a fascinating essay that touched on a number of the themes I’d “taken-away” from John’s paper. The remaining conference highlights were Murray Rae’s quiet, understated (but significantly deep theological reflection) and fascinating paper titled “Rebuilding from the Rubble: Architecture, Memory, and Hope”. And finally, Dunedin-based Anglican Artist/Theologian Julanne Clarke-Morris and her reflections and multimedia presentation titled “Multimedia Art – A Liturgical Approach”. One can only hope that Julanne finds a multimedia way to share her undoubtedly rich learning and experience. The themes she touched on felt critically important to me as we move further into the 21st Century.
On a more personal front, time spent with a dear friend, was the absolute highlight (including the James K Baxter 'pilgrimage'). Other friends enriched the four-days, as did new friends and diverse partners in conversation. In particular Jason Goroncy who I’ve corresponded with, but until this weekend had not met in person. Often my experience is that when there are resonances and intimations of shared or overlapping journeys in the “virtual” the movement from the virtual to the incarnational bears in that experience something of real value and rich possibility. It was great to share a beer and a fascinating conversation with Jason. Was great to see him walking around with a copy of Letters of Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being under his arm on Saturday afternoon. Hopefully there will be more conversations with Jason. It was great too to meet, again for the first time, Mike Crowl. There was lots of laughter too, and that’s a life-giving thing too.
At certain stages of life it’s not always easy or possible to get away to conferences like this, so I need to note my gratitude to my wife who kept the ‘home fire’ burning and the children well cared for.
Over the coming days I want to post some thoughts and quotes from the various addresses that made their way into my notebook. They not always a direct ‘quote’ from a particular lecture; oftentimes they’re paraphrases, or a note from the places lectures and their content took my imagination. Maybe there may be some content of value to others; at the very least though, it’ll provide a useful reference for me now and in the future.