Discipling the Eyes Through Art in Worship
Another way the visual arts form us is by helping us to pay attention—careful attention. A good work of art asks us to look slowly, repeatedly. Often it will even implicate us in the subject matter in view. A good work will encourage us to focus our attention on one thing at a time, plying us with questions like: "Is the color red just red? Or is it the-world-could-have-existed-without-it-but-God-made-it-wondrously red?" "Are you really alone? Or are you surrounded by an invisible communion of saints?" "Is that man your neighbor?" "Was Jesus white?" By questioning our habits of sight, the visual arts can train muscles of attentive perception.
In sum, to see reality rightly, our eyes need to be discipled, and the visual arts come along and serve this purpose well, including in the context of corporate worship.
Without getting into too many knotty issues surrounding the place of visual arts in worship, let me briefly note five ways in which they form us. (I'll restrict my comments to 2D and 3D art, leaving "moving pictures" to another essay.)
Theologically. At Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois, when a 16x40-foot banner portraying the resurrected Christ was raised at Easter in 2011, it was a way to affirm, as they often say, that "matter matters." Or, as Christians of the patristic period might put it, the banner was theology in visual form. The art became a way for the church to insist not only on the full humanity of Christ, but also on our own embodied humanity. To see this iconic image was a way to say, "Our sight matters, and it has a positive role to play in our worship. How we see this vividly colored, Middle Eastern-looking Christ, trampling the gates of hell, should inform how we live throughout the week."
Morally. In certain churches, whether Orthodox or "emergent," icons hang inside the sanctuary, and such icons will form the congregation at multiple levels. For example, an icon of Daniel in the lions' den will, at one level, remind worshipers that Daniel was in fact a historical person. At another level, it will remind worshipers that Daniel's "fiery" lot in life is a type of their lot in life. At still another, it will encourage worshipers to practice the kind of courage that he exhibited. And at a final level, it will remind them that while God may not deliver them from tribulation in this world, he will deliver them at the consummation of history. In all these ways, the worshiper will be invited to draw the moral shape of their lives from Daniel's faithful life: "Look at Daniel. Live like Daniel."
Missionally. At First Baptist in Edmonton, Alberta, three banners hang high above and behind the pulpit. The one on the right represents an angelic being enflaming the city; former pastor Gary Nelson says its intent was to capture the church's commitment to the city. The congregation would be persistently reminded, by what they saw Sunday after Sunday, that God through his Spirit desires to bring life to the heart of the city, and that each member has a role to play in that work—a work that is grounded in the Lord's Supper, where bread is broken and wine is poured out for the sake of the world.