Join me in a little word association experiment. I will give you a word, and you say the first word that comes to mind. To quote a famous six-fingered man, “This is for posterity so, be honest.” Are you ready? Here’s the word: Barrington. What comes to mind? “Art?” “Old?” “Theatre?” “Far Away?” “Umm, Barrington — what’s that?”
At Gordon, we celebrate academic achievement in a Christian context. Our science, business, education, Biblical Studies, and Christian Ministries departments (to name only a few) thrive when it comes to teaching students how to pursue Christ-like excellence in their fields — all in a neat, accessible community clustered around the mating grounds of the Canada Geese, fondly called “The Quad.”
But what happens in Barrington?
For those of you who were in the final category of our word association experiment, Barrington (short for “The Barrington Center for the Arts”) is the large brick building behind Jenks Library (not Physical Plant). Those of us with any major that ends in “Arts” tend to spend more time in this building than we do in our dorms, while the rest of the campus population varies from “frequent visitor” (think seasonal church goer) to those who may not have known of this building at all before reading this article.
I am here as an unashamed Theatre Arts major to remind you all of Barrington’s existence and to encourage you to shuffle your way down from Jenks for an occasional visit. “Why?” you might ask, “What could I as a STEM, Education, or Biblical Studies major have to gain from a visit to the arts building?”
Well, I’m glad you asked.
At a Christian college devoted to addressing the needs of the world, art can often be seen as frivolous. Why paint a picture or act in a play when you could instead be learning about how to engage with global issues of justice? If this is your question, you are in great company! Blaise Pascal, the great 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, expresses a similar sentiment in his Pensées:
“How useless is painting, which attracts admiration by the resemblance of things, the originals of which we do not admire!”
I would respectfully disagree with Pascal. Art can give us new eyes to see the “original which we did not admire.” It presents an approachable representation of reality we can think openly about. Art allows us to put aside our biases and see with a greater understanding. In this way, a painting or a play can become an element of pursuing justice. Art can represent what we know to be true in our hearts and cause our minds to confront and interact with such things, as uncomfortable or unfamiliar as this may be.
I will never forget experiencing the art exhibition, Ordinary Saints, which was hosted here at Gordon two semesters ago. This art collection was a collaboration between painter Bruce Herman, poet Malcolm Guite, and composer J. A. C. Redford. Their works emphasize the Image of God found in every precious human life. The Image of God is not something that I can necessarily observe with my eyes. However, I know in my heart that it exists in every human being as I am told in God’s word. When visiting the Ordinary Saints exhibit, I remember understanding with my mind through paint and poetry what I had already understood in my heart — what it means for a human being to bear the image of our infinite Creator God, even with all the imperfections and distortions brought by living in a fallen world.
In an academic setting, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of limiting our perception of the world to what we can observe through the scientific method, reason, and logic. These are gifts that God has given us to help us know him better. The paradox, however, is that a relationship with our Creator is made possible through faith, which is the “assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 ASV).
God cannot be fully understood by reason because he is infinite, and our minds are finite. We must therefore believe what he has put in our hearts to be as much of a reality as the things we can observe with our five senses. In consuming art, we must of course pray for discernment. However, experiencing art can help open our minds for this very thing — to become convinced of what we know to be true in our hearts.
Art also reminds us of how we relate to the human experience. It awakens our imaginations and points to our calling as Christians — to see the world as it is, imagine how it could be when redeemed by Christ, and then do our part to move the world in that direction.
In spring 2022, the Gordon Theatre Department presented Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling. In this play, a close-knit community of women experiences sudden, seemingly meaningless tragedies. This is a truth of our world, which too many people are forced to face daily — audiences and actors alike understand. Yet the daunting question remains: How do we move on after experiencing overwhelming loss? As the women learn to move forward by overcoming their pain through community, the audience imagines what the redemption of tragedy can look like. In this way, Steel Magnolias profoundly represents the hard truth about the world and how to respond through the redemption of love and community.
The point is that art challenges us to confront truth in a way that reason does not. As human beings, we are made with both a mind and a heart, and both must be nourished. If we neglect one or the other, we are no longer acting as whole people, but rather as fragments of who we were created to be. I challenge all non-arts majors to give art a chance.
Come to Barrington and see a play or experience an art exhibit. Go to the Phillips recital hall and hear a concert. Better yet, create some art of your own. Stay open to what God might have your mind learn that which your heart already knows.
See you in Barrington!