A Renaissance of the Christian Imagination: The Anselm Society

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Brian Brown and his wife, Christina, put their finger on a troubling trend within their community ten years ago. They noticed that friends of theirs who were artists often felt forgotten or even mistrusted within the church, so they had to find other communities to support their artistic endeavors. Churches, in turn, had little idea what to do with artists in their midst—especially if their work was not explicitly Christian. There was a disconnect between those gathered in the name of a Creator God and just what precisely they were meant to do with creativity.

Whole historical movements and theological worldviews have played various roles in rooting out the arts (and artists) from Christian piety, but it certainly wasn’t always this way. In ages past, the church has been the foremost patron of the arts. The Browns recognized a legacy of confusion and wariness about the relationship between art and faith, and they wanted to do something about it.

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A Community is Born

So, they founded an organization in 2013 called the Anselm Society. It began with guest lectures in Colorado Springs, CO, to start a conversation about the place of art in the church. Brown, with a degree in political theory from Princeton and connections with many think tanks as a strategy consultant, was able to invite world-class thinkers including Michael Ward, Peter Leithart, Malcolm Guite, Bob Bennett, and Andrew Peterson during that first full year. Once the conversation started, Brown noticed people began coming out of the woodwork to join in.

It soon became clear that conversation was not enough; there was a new community taking shape. The second move of the Anselm Society was to create an Arts Guild to provide spiritual formation to local artists. Next came more events: artist retreats, pub gatherings, and a conference called Imagination Redeemed. The vision was catching for a renaissance of the Christian imagination.

This year, the tenth since its founding, is somewhat of a resting year for the Anselm Society. Stepping away from the busyness and reevaluating the future has reminded Brown of the importance of face-to-face, personal relationship building. The vision of a wider movement is still strong. However, in a reversal from the profit-driven siren of scalability, Brown wants the Anselm Society to stay firmly grounded in the roots of community. If it doesn’t change the local parish, he says, it’s not working.

Enjoy, Understand, Embody

Enjoy

The events of the Anselm Society revolve around three principles for experiencing art in the context of community: enjoy, understand, and embody. The first, to enjoy art together, is easy enough to grasp. But this is startlingly rare in a world where music is piped into individual ears and entertainment generally takes place on a couch in front of a screen. Whereas everyday life in eras past may have organically involved singing alongside a friend or family member, telling stories to one another in the evening, or even truly savoring a home-cooked meal around a common table, these have dwindled from our communal diet of artistic experiences.

For this reason, the Anselm Society hosts song-filled pub nights, Shakespeare play readings, book discussions, musical performances, movie watch parties, and themed dinners. Brown likes to see these gatherings as a way to lift people up to reach these nourishing staples, sitting on the bottom shelf of our creative life as humans.

Understand

But there are higher shelves in the storeroom. That’s where the next step comes in: understanding. A member of the general public, unschooled in music theory, may recognize that Bach’s Magnificat in D is a beautiful work of music. But what if local chamber musicians performed it live to an intimate gathering and then walked through the work together, exploring its significance in real-time: its lyrics, its musical structure, its harmonies, and intricacies?  Then, the newly enlightened audience listens to it again. That’s the type of event that embodies Anselm Society’s vision.

Truly appreciating art is one side of this understanding. The other is theological education regarding the place of imagination and creativity in the life of faith. In many Christian communities, there is a sense of confusion or wariness about art in general. As Brown observes, “Beauty was accused of heresy and burned at the stake in most denominations a long time ago. As a result, most of even the best American Protestants and Catholics, under the influence of historical events few of them have ever even heard of, have Christian principles but secular imaginations.” A Christian imagination sees the hand of God throughout His creation. But this way of seeking beauty must be pursued, recaptured, and cultivated. True to its beginnings, Anselm Society continues to host lectures and discussions that deeply engage with the faith, inviting and challenging listeners to do just that.

Embody

The third step is to embody. Nourished and surrounded by a community that enjoys and understands the spiritual value of art, guild members are equipped to create according to their vocation and training. (This should not be limited to explicitly Christian art, Brown is quick to stress. We need both sacred and common art. Both have a place in the life of the church: sacred art facilitates worship, whereas common art can disciple the imagination.) Members of the Arts Guild support and encourage one another. Financial supporters of the Anselm Society, whether individuals or church sponsors, reclaim the church’s age-old role of patron of the arts.

Anglican Connection

The Anselm Society is an ecumenical organization, but Anglicans make a solid showing within its ranks, including its founders. Its namesake is, in fact, Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, a monk and scholastic of the eleventh century who wrote about “faith seeking understanding.” His dedication to seek and understand God more fully and deeply in all aspects of the heart and mind inspires the Anselm Society’s work.

Many of the earliest and ongoing church partnerships with the Anselm Society are Anglican parishes. Brown’s own church family, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Colorado Springs,  is finding ways to intertwine the Anselm Society’s work with Anglican worship. For example, Brown is currently engaged with a parish project teaching people about the rich tradition of corporate singing, including simple lessons on how to sing—and then, how to sing from the hymnal. He hopes to create similar resources in the future shaped around Prayer Book worship and the Sacraments.

Catch the Vision

Anyone can support the Anselm Society. Member artists, however, meet in person in Colorado Springs. If you are an artist local to the area, applications are considered three times a year, and you can find more information here. If you are not local to Colorado (woefully including myself), you can still benefit from much of Anselm Society’s material: many of their lectures are available as podcasts, and they have recently published an excellent collection of essays, entitled Why We Create (review forthcoming).

As the Browns discovered ten years ago, though, you can begin to build this sort of community wherever you are (even outside the shadow of majestic Pike’s Peak). All it takes is the courage to “plant a flag,” as Brian Brown puts it. Do you love a particular film director or author? Are you fascinated by fiber arts, the fairy tales of George MacDonald, or the intricate flavors of Indian cuisine? Speak up. Invite friends over for a movie watch-party or a book club or dinner. And then dive deep into the implications for your faith and your community. Church leaders, seek out the artists in your parish. Ask them how the church can support their vocation.

Finally: artists, we need you. The world, desperate for meaning, needs you. The church, in many places bereft of a heavenly aesthetic, needs you. Writers, painters, dancers, cinematographers, playwrights, weavers, singers, cooks, French horn players: we need artists who see a world enchanted at every turn by the hovering of the Holy Spirit, breathed into existence through the Incarnate Word; artists whose creative voice will be a witness to that unfathomable fact that we are made in the image of the Creator God.


Image: Interior of Canterbury Cathedral, UK; photo by Francisco J. de Anda for Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Published on

November 14, 2023

Author

Elizabeth Demmon

Elizabeth Demmon is a writer and musician who grew up in the Anglican tradition. She is married to Mike, an Anglican priest and U.S. Army chaplain, and together they have three children.

View more from Elizabeth Demmon

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