Why Evangelical Seminarians Are Studying Art

On a rainy Thursday, I ducked into the Mary Tomas Gallery in the Dallas Design District. I was there to meet 18 graduate students and a painter named Dawn Waters Baker who has recently completed two years as artist-in-residence at Gettysburg National Military Park. 

Baker stood in front of an enormous black and blue painting of a battlefield and spoke to the class in a hunched voice about colors, shadow, the memory of war, and the lasting effects of slavery on the American psyche. But these were not art students nor historians. They were seminarians: pastors- and missionaries-in-training at Dallas Theological Seminary. 

Later in the academic year, another group of Dallas seminary students will spend a week together at South By Southwest. Still another group will register for a class called "Theology at Sundance Film Festival." And another student, a photographer, has been awarded her own fellowship as the seminary's artist-in-residence.

These are surprising developments to me, especially for an evangelical seminary. After all, the relationship between evangelicals and artistic centers like Hollywood, New York and Nashville has more often been marked by boycotts and kitsch than galleries and film festivals. Evangelicals are the group most closely associated with syrupy and pedantic creations like Left Behind (1, 2, and 3) and God's Not Dead (1, 2 and 3). And in 2017, it was evangelicals who picked a fight with Disney over the company's first gay character in the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.

So why are evangelicals in Dallas studying Terrence Malick and Kendrick Lamar alongside Augustine and Luther?