Baylor Chapel is transformed. Because of COVID it’s now online. But it’s also markedly different. Beautiful images of high cinematographic quality ease the mind into contemplation. Elemental sounds of water, wind, and fire draw attention to God’s awesome creative powers. And preaching of the highest quality, grounded directly in scripture, teaches students about the basics of our faith. How and why did this change occur?
One likely cause was a study conducted by Baylor professors Perry Glanzer, Kevin Dougherty, and Sarah A. Schnitker on the impact of a Baylor education on students’ spirituality and character. Reporting their findings last February, the researchers found that while 80% of seniors and freshmen say their life is filled with meaning and purpose, more than half of the freshmen couldn’t actually state their purpose.
The survey also found that only 50% of Baylor students attend religious services at least once per week, which is higher than the 30% national average, but not especially impressive for a Christian university.
Other findings: Baylor freshmen rank lower on biblical belief and reading than seniors or alumni. Freshmen attend religious services about weekly but read the Bible less than once a month. These findings suggest that Baylor is facing a problem of biblical illiteracy among its youngest students. And yet, freshmen and seniors alike report high levels of being “spiritually moved by nature.”
Perhaps these are some of the factors that led Baylor’s administration to turn to film-maker and Anglican priest Matthew Aughtry for help. Aughtry, a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and of Baylor’s own MA program in Film & Digital Media, has been producing stunningly high-quality Christian videos for more than a decade. He is a true believer in orthodox Christianity, but also in “the power of art and beauty to guide our hearts and minds into goodness and truth.” Or so he says in a moving essay about Handel’s famous oratorio, The Messiah.
In the same essay, Aughtry takes a swipe at the view that God may be “out there” somewhere, perhaps in nature, but not in our daily lives: “One cannot affirm a hands-off vision of God while continuing to look to the accounts of Moses, Isaiah, or, above all, Jesus as the ultimate source of truth.” And he argues that “the chasm that stands between Christian teaching and [this emasculated] deism is ultimately wider than the gap between deism and atheism.” This is a man who takes his faith seriously.
The question then becomes, how to teach Baylor students who are “spiritually moved by nature” to discover the source and ruler of all nature in the one true God and, even more, to recognize his only begotten son as the ultimate savior of the world?
Aughtry’s answer is beauty: Beauty and the Word. He says, “in a world full of rash arguments and rapid retorts, the wiser course of action may be to focus our energy and attention on the long and often quiet works of . . . creating good art.”
To behold Aughtry’s Chapel videos is to find oneself in the presence of a master. In the manner of the famed Soviet-era filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, Aughtry uses emotionally evocative tactile imagery consisting of natural elements and textures. His first Chapel video on “Creation (start at 3m:22sec),” also reminds one strongly of the creation sequence in the film Tree of Life by Waco-native Terrence Malick. Like Malick, Aughtry is also a humble and circumspect figure who graciously declined our request for an interview.
Aughtry produces two videos for Chapel per week, and will proceed over the course of a year to cover seven basic topics: Creation, Fall, Covenant, Exile, Christ, Church, and New Creation. This is by all accounts a detailed examination of the biblical narrative. In fact, here at the end of week six, we find ourselves no further than Genesis 4.
But what a journey we’ve already had, with meditations on the beauty and majesty of God’s creation, on the practices of sabbath and of prayer, on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, on the Fall, and on the practice of confession. And along the way, we’ve learned about the uplifting work of Jimmy Dorrell and Mission Waco, of Master Teacher Robert Darden, and Baylor student and local worship leader Jada Holliday, to name just a view of Chapel’s inspiring interview sequences.
Baylor Chapel has at times been a source of political controversy on campus, but this new approach seems much less likely to provoke, save for that highly appropriate provocation of our Christian faith itself: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is all to the good. Alexis De Tocqueville once warned that when religion aligns itself too closely with ephemeral political causes, it runs the risk of sharing their fortunes. The step back from politics is a step in the right direction.
Indeed, Baylor has made a wise choice in re-centering Chapel on the Word of God and in using the power of art to move the souls of our fellow students. To see this new approach, you can visit Chapel on Facebook or on Vimeo.