‘Beauty through brokenness’: Students explore intersection of faith, art in chapels

Mesha Mittanasala | Photographer
Artists, Faith, Religion, Spiritual Life, calling and career chapel, chapel requirements, erin moniz, faith and the arts chapel, kintsugi, matthew aughtry
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth, and Christians have been called to create ever since. At least, that’s the focus of Baylor’s new suite of faith and arts chapels — the artistic wing of the chapel department’s push to give students a more personalized chapel experience.

By Jackson Posey | Reporter

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth, and Christians have been called to create ever since.

At least, that’s the focus of Baylor’s new suite of faith and arts chapels — the artistic wing of the chapel department’s push to give students a more personalized chapel experience. From pre-med and post-traditional students to athletes and veterans, the Rev. Dr. Erin Moniz, the director for chapel, hopes that the new “calling and career” chapels can provide spiritual development through cognitive, relational and aesthetic engagement.

“Knowledge is great, but … it only speaks to one part of the human experience,” Moniz said. “Aesthetics, either sensory experiences or incorporation of the arts, [are important for development] to get that holistic approach — where you’re thinking, you’re using your brain, but there’s also parts of yourself that you engage that are a little bit more intangible.”

Moniz emphasized that humans are “not just brains on sticks.” Rather, they are whole beings who require holistic development. She said integrating the arts is “central” for ministers in higher education, seeing them as a potential path to processing through suffering and reckoning with the challenges of faith.

“Art is beautifully messy,” Moniz said. “It’s not a lecture. It’s not a treatise on something. It doesn’t tie up everything in a tight little bow. There are parts of our faith that require some room to breathe, things that poetry can do that prose is limited by.”

When Moniz arrived at Baylor in December 2021, she was given a mandate to rebuild Baylor’s chapel experience. Students weren’t thrilled with the massive congregational gatherings in Waco Hall. Online chapels — vestiges of COVID-19-era distanced learning — weren’t working either. With the knowledge that many students would reject chapels regardless, Moniz set off to make the structure more palatable.

“It’s not something that people really get excited about — ‘compulsory religion,’” Moniz said. “A lot of it is taking something that is probably a little bit more off-putting to folks, like obligatory chapel, and trying to turn it into something that at the very least is a value-added experience or has the opportunity to be a value-added experience.”

Several of those new chapel experiences are centered around the arts, including a current offering called “Faith and the Arts: Storytelling.” These chapels are often taught by filmmaker and former Anglican priest Matthew Aughtry, the assistant director for chapel and ministry in the arts. They center on weaving threads between vocational artmaking, rich storytelling and the historical Christian faith.

“These are chapels that are built around the integration of faith with vocation and not necessarily expecting students to be passionate about the faith part,” Aughtry said. “We try to create these offerings in a way that students who are already passionate about Christianity … can find fuel for remaining committed to that path of vocation that they’ve chosen or feel called to, while at the same time, being resourced to think differently about what it means to be called to be an artist or a filmmaker or a musician.”

The chapels remain deeply committed to finding that intersection between faith and art, but they also make room for students who aren’t religious or are still figuring out what they think about faith.

“[The chapels are] also for students who don’t know what they think about the Christian faith,” Aughtry said. “What we’re trying to do with the faith and arts chapels is be an intersection where all students who are passionate about their faith and their future career, their calling, [and] those who don’t know what they think about faith but know they care about their career and their future calling, can come together and both be resourced and learn together.”

For many students, the chapels have been “reassuring,” encouraging them to dive deeper into artmaking as an expression of their faith. Cleburne freshman Maryn Tennison, a pre-film and digital media major, said her time in the faith and arts chapels has helped her to see the value in her own art.

“Father Aughtry was big on just reminding us that no matter what [art form] it is, if you’re using your gifts and using the things you’re passionate about, then it still brings glory to God,” Tennison said. “It’s helped quell some of my anxieties about comparing myself to other people. … [It’s] reminding me that art is so important, and it’s such a human thing. … It can affect people in ways science or math or whatever never could.”

Students in Aughtry’s Theology and Arts section read a wide range of essays and short stories, everything from Pope John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” and hip-hop artist Sho Baraka’s “He Saw That It Was Good” to J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf By Niggle” and Makoto Fujimura’s “Art and Faith,” which explores the Japanese art form known as Kintsugi. It’s the latter that often draws the most attention from students.

According to Fujimura, Kintsugi is an ancient Japanese art form that involves reassembling broken ceramic teaware by mending it together with gold. The origin story tells of a young attendant who dropped an invaluable piece of teaware belonging to the warlord Hideyoshi. But before Hideyoshi could punish the attendant, Yusai Hosokawa — one of the most important tea masters of that era — intervened.

“[Hosokawa] basically atoned for the young servant and took responsibility, saying, ‘I will be the one to be blamed for this mistake,’” Fujimura wrote in “Art and Faith: A Theology of Making.” “This act of compassion became the basis of Kintsugi, which added gold in the Urushi filled cracks, creating a work of beauty through brokenness.”

That “beauty through brokenness” turns once-shattered teaware into something even more beautiful than before it was broken. Putting the pieces back together creates a deeper level of wonder to the ceramics. Aughtry sees this art form — and the story behind it — as pictures of the Christian Gospel.

“You or I might think, ‘Oh well, let’s go buy another bowl, might as well discard that,’” Aughtry said. “But what the artist says is, ‘I can make it more beautiful than it was before.’ And that’s God’s impulse, is to say, ‘Where sin has abounded, grace will abound all the more.’

“And so it’s repaired with gold, and it becomes more valuable. And its cracks, and the way you see it has been broken, become a testimony to the artist’s hand and the artist’s hand in not only the creation of this bowl, or this cup, but in its redemption as well. And that’s the Christian story, writ large. It’s the story of the God who doesn’t abandon creation but who becomes incarnate to redeem it. And it really is, in terms of just a simple, clear picture of the Gospel, it’s hard to get past.”