Discipling the Eyes Through Art in Worship
Discipling the Eyes Through Art in Worship
What if we saw the arts in worship as part of discipleship? What if we saw the arts as essential, rather than optional, to the Spirit's work of forming us in the image of Christ when we gather as a corporate body? What if a carefully crafted work of visual art enabled a congregation to see its mission in a radically new light? What if art in worship could yield a substantively formative experience?
These are the types of questions we were asking several years ago when I was a pastor at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas. We invited Laura Jennings, one of our members, to exhibit art she had created while pursuing her master's degree at the University of North Texas. Our church, broadly situated in the stream of evangelical Pentecostalism, had "sent" her off three years earlier, and now she returned with a fresh body of work. And while it was designed for her Master of Fine Arts, we felt it would serve our context too.
When her art first appeared in the sanctuary, I explained to the congregation that, as with all the visual art that hung there, Laura's work was not here merely to ornament our space (though it did that). It was here to help us to see the gospel afresh, and as it did so, we hoped it would inspire us to live out the gospel afresh. Just as Jesus repeatedly directed his disciples to notice things that society ignored, so Laura's work accentuated groups we frequently overlooked: the Dalits of India and victims of war violence.
But it was more than the subject matter that challenged us. It was the style, more abstract than literal. The work did not yield its meaning easily. Some folks saw only strange figural shapes in vibrant colors. Some perhaps saw nothing but a token of decoration to the sanctuary. Some, though, took time to look, to look again and yet again, to persevere with the abstraction. With time, meaning unfolded. In Laura's envisioned world, unseen things resolved into material shapes, whose content could only be recognized with difficulty. For many at Hope Chapel, this art formed habits of sight.
As I reflect on the experience, I see two significant shifts in my thinking: one about worship, the other about the worship arts.
First, we are right to view worship as a setting where we declare truths about God and express our feelings to God, but we should also see it as a set of actions, words, and spaces that form us. If we are what we repeatedly do, as Paul insists, then what we do week after week in corporate worship forms us to be a certain kind of Christian. What we want, then, as John Witvliet, director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, reminds us, is "to become self-conscious about the good and bad ways that we are being formed in worship." To reduce corporate worship to acts chiefly of "thinking" or "feeling" fails to reflect the richly multisensory worship we see from Genesis to Revelation. And it falls short of the kind of holistic humanity the Scriptures commend to us and which Jesus supremely embodies.
Second, if our whole person is broken, then the worship arts can become a unique way to promote the sanctification of our affective, physical, and imaginative faculties, which are often ignored in Protestant worship. In worship, our emotions, bodies, and imaginations have a vital role, and the arts serve to bring them into an intentional and intensive participation.
A Formative Power
How might the visual arts in particular contribute to our formation in worship?
One way is by training our sight. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, "We do not see reality by just opening our eyes." Our sight is broken and therefore requires training to see God's world rightly. As an act of the imagination, the visual arts can enable us to see the world, for example, not as opaque to God's presence but as charged with it. C. S. Lewis writes, "My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others." All of us need this help. The visual arts, by fixing our sight on concrete objects—canvases, sculptures, installations, architecture—invite us to look at the world as it is or maybe as it shouldn't be. At times they urge us to see it as it might be.