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.
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.
Didactically. At other times the visual arts instruct us in the teachings of Christian faith. In Indianapolis, Redeemer Presbyterian Church recently created an art installation whose intention was to accompany a sermon series during Advent. A key idea was that life springs forth from the Word of Light. Stacks of Bibles, paper-collage banners embedded with live plants, jasmine set in the windows, tall glass candles, pink lanterns, and encaustic (painted with hot wax) paper hovering fantastically over the stage communicated a visual dimension of this idea. The installation also contributed aesthetic beauty to the space—a delight in line, color, smell, and texture.
Symbolically. In an example from the early church, we see how catacomb art formed the way Christians perceived what went on above ground. They saw images of Christ the Good Shepherd and of Jonah in the whale's belly. Such images functioned symbolically as counternarratives to the cult of the emperor. They reinterpreted reality as Christians daily experienced it. And while the images could not prevent the community from suffering, they charged the community's imagination with a prophetic vision that sustained it in the face of death. There was an Emperor, seated at the right hand of the Father, who would put the world to rights once and for all.
In sum, when we think of the visual arts as formative, it helps us pay attention to the ways in which our sight is formed—or malformed—in worship. The hope is that these artistic experiences will form a holistic, Christlike view in all of our lives.
A Re-Formed Sight
I think some members at Hope Chapel had a formative experience with Laura's art. By showing us pixelated bodies rather than solid ones, the work reminded us that we do not see people rightly simply by looking at them; our sight is damaged and needs mending. Also, by bringing experiences of hardship to our awareness, the art showed us that these were things that we could feel sad or angry about. Even better, God had provided the Psalms to show us how to pray with sanctified and deeply felt emotion about these matters.
Against the temptation to despair that suffering will have the last word, the art invited us to imagine what often feels impossible: that God is in fact present to our suffering. It invited us to hope in a God who has borne our sufferings with us, for us. And, finally, the art challenged us to love the poor and needy. It stirred us to consider how with our own hands and feet we might love those far from home as well as those close by.
In experiencing Laura's art over seven weeks, our congregation was given the opportunity to perceive the poor and the needy in gospel ways. We "prayed with the eyes" and were changed accordingly. Did this transformation come about automatically? No. Did a re-formed habit of sight occur immediately? No again. It was a slow, uneven process, and if the art formed sanctified habits of sight, that was due in no small part to a long and purposeful "training" period. Our congregation had already been exposed to a considerable amount of visual art, and both pastors and artists had made good teaching a priority. We recognized, furthermore, that the sanctification of our eyes would occur over a great deal of time; we would need a culture to help us engage visual art in a transformative fashion.
If Laura's art discipled us in anything particular, however, it discipled us to re-see the people who sat in the pews nearby, whose brokenness on certain days (if we were honest) we often had no interest in seeing. With the aid of this art, though, we were given an invaluable opportunity, to see them with a hopeful love.
W. David O. Taylor is a Doctor of Theology candidate at Duke Divinity School. He blogs at artspastor.blogspot.com. Taylor wrote what he calls an “appendix” to this article on his blog post. Click here to read it.
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Previous Christianity Today articles about the arts and worship include:
Standing in Babylon | Musician and visual artist Sam Cintron's stage production compels viewers to consider faith in Jesus. (November 1, 2011)
The Art of Glory | Cape Cod's newly completed Church of the Transfiguration embodies the belief that beauty can nurture our communion with God. (October 20, 2010)
The Mission of Art | W. David O. Taylor grounds his aesthetic passion in the local church. (May 18, 2010)
Art for God's Sake | For over 20 years, Greg Wolfe has been weaving the braid of faith and art. (March 24, 2010)
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