Spirituality influences and inspires artists


Hear Chad Parmenter read poems and talk about his faith

COLUMBIA — Caleb Travers lives in a world of contradictions.

The gangly St. Louis resident peers out from behind horn-rimmed glasses, looking academic and almost frail.

Yet when Travers opens his mouth to sing, a strong baritone voice is revealed. Instead of evoking a sheltered, bookish life, Travers' voice evokes images of a world-weary traveler who's been places, seen things and has stories to tell. On a deeper level, the singer-songwriter expresses the contradictions in his life as a Christian.

Travers, 26, writes songs showing that artistic expressions of spirituality are not always sacred or sweet. His songs are personal accounts of a faith journey begun as a child, lost as a teen and rediscovered as a young adult.

As teens and young adults question, embrace or reject the faiths in which they are raised, artistic expression can become a way to discern their beliefs during that quest.

Travers' band, Big City Lights, was named Best Alternative Country Band of 2007 by the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis weekly newspaper. He sometimes performs in Columbia, playing at the Cherry Street Artisan and visiting friends who work at Karis, a Christian church that meets at the Missouri Theatre.

Although Travers' public popularity is growing, his muse is intimate and personal. Travers writes songs because of his Christian faith, not about it. Although his songs are rooted in his beliefs, Travers prefers to address the spirituality of the human condition rather than a specific theology.

Within the $700 million Christian music industry, Travers' approach is unusual but growing among some young artists who prefer expressing spiritual searches and struggles rather than claiming spiritual certainty.

Justin Arft, a religious studies instructor at MU, said sometimes the limitations and boundaries inherent in artistic creation within a religious institution can improve art. The expression of internal spiritual struggles, especially rebellions against authority, sometimes adopts the anti-authoritarian spirit of punk rock, Arft said.

Explorations of art and faith through unconventional genres crosses geographic, religious, age and artistic boundaries.

In Columbia, artists of many genres are inspired by their spirituality. At a Cherry Street Artisan program earlier this year, participants included a metal sculpture artist, poets, a storyteller, dancers, rappers, musicians and a videographer. The artists were American Indian, Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, Baha'i, Orthodox Christian and Zen Buddhist.

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Chad Parmenter of Columbia began writing literature as a child while attending a Presbyterian school. After a diverse spirtual journey that both reflected and inspired his art, Parmenter, a doctoral student in creative writing and poetry at MU, now embraces Roman Catholicism.

Parmenter questioned his Protestant faith in his teens, looking for evidence of God's existence. At the same time, he wrote poems and stories reflecting the search. Though not all of his writings were spiritual, Parmenter said they were tied to his quest to understand his faith.

As Parmenter considered career choices, a creative writing course at the University of Central Missouri shaped his future. Writing poetry for class was thrilling, filling a spiritual void Parmenter recognized he'd had for a few years.

"One of the things that I get straight out of my faith is just that sense that there's something else operating in me that's not just me," he said. Poetry is the product of that belief, he added.

As a "spiritual seeker," Parmenter made physical stops in Idaho, Illinois and Ireland, and spiritual stops in other traditions — practicing meditation with Buddhists and Sufis, and briefly participating in a Hindu community. Throughout this time, Parmenter experimented with various poetic forms.

"I was going all over the map spiritually and as a poet, too," Parmenter said.

Meditation helped with peace of mind but left Parmenter unfulfilled. While at a Zen monastery in Colorado, he felt something powerfully speaking to him about Jesus. He sensed he could again have a connection with Christianity. Now at MU, he's trying to put it all in perspective and develop his Roman Catholic faith.

Often, artists like Travers and Parmenter raise more questions than answers; reflect more doubts than certainties.

"It seems to me the contemporary art that engages religious themes most successfully are those that don't produce answers," said Kristin Schwain, associate professor of art and archaeology at MU.

Today, religion can be seen as so personal that people don't feel they have the language to engage or express it. Art can help people express the complex concepts of faith, Schwain said.

For Travers, expressing those complexities and questions is intentional.

Travers' family once had a traveling music ministry, but the experience left him creatively stifled, he said. He and his brother rebelled against what they saw as a "homogenized, suburban" version of Christianity.

As a teen, Travers embarked on a path of drug use and fighting with his family. But at age 18 — sparked by a heartfelt plea from his mother — Travers said he had a "total and radical faith experience." He apologized to his parents, renounced drugs and met regularly with his pastor. In the following two years, Travers attended community college, avoided popular culture and reconnected with his faith. Influenced by books and conversations, he started to see his faith and personality fuse — a synthesis expressed in his music.

Writing about basic themes of human experience, Travers said he is able to pull elements of the divine from the natural world, liberating spiritual music from the "Christian ghetto."

Now, Travers makes a living accommodating both feelings about failings of the human condition and a faith he feels is strong enough to withstand failure and doubt.

"The art you make shapes you," Travers said.