Baltimore Sun looks at art and religion, but not really

From the beginning of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have urged mainstream newsrooms to do a better job of covering liberal religious believers — as RELIGIOUS believers.

Far too often, believers in liberal institutions are covered as if there is nothing to their lives and beliefs but politics.

The same thing tends to happen to African-American churches, even if — doctrinally speaking — these churches are quite conservative. Far too often, it seems that journalists simply assume that these believers are basing their lives on political and cultural motivations, period.

Well, the newspaper that lands in my front yard just served up a story that I kept thinking was going to avoid this syndrome. Why? Because this story focused on a Baltimore project that focused on cooperation linked to religion and art, as opposed to being exclusively about religion and politics.

Trust me, I know that the high arts have become just as politicized in our culture as the popular arts. In fact, because of their connections to government funding and academia, the high arts are even more politicized.

However, this Baltimore Sun story still had the potential to ask some spiritual questions linked to progressive religious institutions and an arts institution, with the added benefit of the involvement of some more traditional African-American churches. Here is the overture:

The old arched red wooden door to the Seventh Metro Church is less that two blocks from the modern glass-and-steel panel that floats in front of the Maryland Institute College of Art’s newest exhibition space. They bring to mind two different eras and seem designed to be used by two dissimilar groups of people: spiky-haired artists and church ladies wearing fancy hats.

But when a white art student in her 20s met a middle-aged African-American pastor, they discovered that both doors opened into sacred spaces where people look for answers to the same big questions.

Caitlin Tucker and Ryan Preston Palmer became acquainted through an innovative program that brings together two of the seminal institutions that have helped transform the Station North neighborhood — the Maryland Institute College of Art and a group of local churches.

“This program has been a catalyst for bringing together the whole neighborhood,” Palmer says. He admits that until recently, he had never set foot in MICA, though he himself is an artist. For her part, neither Tucker nor Bashi Rose, an artist assigned to the Seventh Metro project, had previously crossed the church threshold.

First, let me make a picky comment about Associated Press style. Why does the Sun continue its strange practice, when dealing with the black church, of ignoring AP style for the titles of ministers? In this case, we are talking about “the Rev. Ryan Preston Palmer,” on first reference. Yes, the story calls him a pastor in the previous sentence — but that does not cancel out the guidelines of AP style. I do not think I have ever seen the Sun them ignore this rule with a white clergy person.

Moving on. It’s clear, from the list of participating churches, that this project combines the work of modern artists with the culture of liberal white churches and the style and folk art of more traditional black churches. Here’s the participants list, in urban Station North: Seventh Metro Church, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, the New Second Missionary Baptist Church, St. Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church and the Spiritual Empowerment Center.

Tucker states the thesis of the story:

“There’s sometimes an assumption that there’s a divide between artists and communities of faith,” Tucker says. “Not a lot of members of our class identify as religious. The students at MICA who practice a faith have said in campus surveys that they feel discriminated against. But historically, there’s a strong connection between art and religion.”

Now, that is a promising statement, one that I truly hoped would be fleshed out in this story.

But, in the end, what we basically have here is standard newspaper material about community and social activism.

I kept waiting for specific examples of the religious, even doctrinal, content of the art — like most great religious art that has lasted for centuries — and it simply never showed up in this otherwise promising story. You get the impression that the artists were fascinated with these religious people as striking, complex people, but that’s about it. It’s humanism, you see. That’s valid content, but is that really an encounter between art and progressive faith?

So what did the artists think about the religion side of this project? A professor at MICA, Jeffrey Cudlin, explains:

“In the beginning, the students talked about their churches as if they were visiting anthropologists,” Cudlin says. “Gradually, that started to change. I am so proud that when the semester ended in May, the students kept the connections going. …

“They kept attending Sunday morning services,” Cudlin says. “I think there’s been a lot more hugging than anyone anticipated.”

OK, so that is promising at the human level. But what was the content of these ties, other than this basic human connection? And since, strangely enough, the story never really deals with the faith of the liberal white congregations, what were the crucial issues and breakthroughs between the artists and the African-American Christians? This lengthy passage is as close as readers get to content there:

Tucker admits that she was nervous the first time she pushed open the old red wooden door at the Seventh Metro Church and walked down the stairs and into the basement, in part because she feels estranged from the conservative Presbyterian church that her family attends in New Jersey.

Wait, a conservative Presbyterian church in NEW JERSEY? More information please?

Tucker wasn’t sure what would be expected of her at Seventh Metro. Would she be pressured to convert? Would she be asked to defend her own hard-won values and beliefs?

“This was very challenging for me,” she says. “My family is very religious. But when I was growing up, it was difficult for me to reconcile a belief in Christian charity with the lack of acceptance for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community. My church stopped being a place where everyone was welcome.”

At Seventh Metro, the graduate student and the pastor had long discussions about Tucker’s personal struggle with faith. Nothing was resolved, but she didn’t expect it to be.

And that is pretty much that.

This story such great potential to open windows into some very interesting subjects, such as frank discussions between elite artists on the left and the believers in black churches. Also, it would have been interesting to know more about — yes, I will repeat this — the faith content of the art created in partnership with the liberal white congregations.

The bottom line: Read the whole article. There is quite a bit of talk about community and relationships, and those are crucial elements in religious life. But, well, where is the Bible? How does the art look at the big subject of the faith — Jesus Christ — from the very different viewpoints of the believers and the artists?

You see, great religious art — the kind that inspires for centuries — is INCARNATIONAL, it makes a statement about how the divine is seen in the stuff of the world around us.

That statement again: “… (H)istorically, there’s a strong connection between art and religion.”

Amen. Preach it. Write that story.

IMAGE: From the website of the Congregate project.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • helen

    There was a “conservative” (Orthodox Presbyterian church) in Westfield, NJ, in the 60′s at least. They had separated from the dominant Presbyterian church when that went liberal several decades earlier. The members were more knowledgeable about the impending disaster in LCMS (1973) than I was. (I came to LCMS in 1964, thinking all was well there.)

  • Steve

    This quote from the article, which is in the bit you placed at the beginning, was also not addressed: “…both doors opened into sacred spaces…” Saying a church is sacred space does not need much further explanation, but calling MICA sacred really just hangs out there in thin air.

    • tmatt

      Excellent point. There are people for whom art is a religion, period.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Could it be that real writers and editors could not care less about the AP and it’s guidelines?


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