The Berkshire Institute for Theology and the Arts has for the past six years hosted musicians, artists, clergy, students, and others at summer weekend seminars on art and religion. Max Stackhouse founded the institute here in Stockbridge, Mass., with his wife, Jean, to broaden the conversations the couple began at home about their fields. He is professor of Christian Ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, N.J., and she is on the piano faculty at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
Their goal is to provide an atmosphere of ecumenical fellowship in which participants can delve into the deepest issues of spirituality, religious faith, music, and art.
The topic at this year's Berkshire conference was tradition. Religions and artistic disciplines are based on standards and practices that have been handed down. But how, the participants were asked to consider, does an individual or church keep tradition fresh and meaningful? How can ancient philosophies embrace 20th-century complexity?
The Rev. Stanley Harakas, a Greek Orthodox priest, gave a lecture on Eastern Orthodox teachings. He noted that the core of a religious tradition - the revelatory part - remains unchanged through the ages and must be preserved. But the "clothes" or trappings of that tradition can be changed and this keeps the religion relevant.
This concept relates directly to art and music. These art forms are still about ideas, but the trappings of these ideas have changed. Instead of figures, landscapes, and sonatas, 20th-century artists have reached into abstraction to capture a sense of the ephemeral nature of matter, plane, color, texture, sound, melody, and rhythm.
But what if viewers and listeners prefer traditional paintings and music over modern works? Does music have to sound like Bach to be inspiring?
People are not musically literate as they once were, according to Leon Botstein, music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., who was a featured speaker at the Berkshire conference. "We become 'literate' in music today through recordings," he explained. Because people read words with more sophistication than they read musical notation, novels and other literary forms have advanced and the readership has kept up with them. This is not true, Professor Botstein says, of music.
Victoria Sirota, vicar of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore, places the responsibility squarely on listeners. "We are not open enough to where God may be heard," she says of contemporary church music. "If we play only old music, we will not feel the presence of a living God."
* The Berkshire Institute for Theology and the Arts meets two weekends in summer 1997. For information, write: BITA, P.O. Box 401, West Stockbridge, MA, 01266.