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Book Review – “Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue”

Book Review

“Visual Faith:  Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue” by William A. Dyrness

Worship and the Arts:  Renewal in Tandem

There can be no dispute that Western art and music were influenced in their development by the message of Christianity.  The Church had the power – and the money – to dictate much of the thematic content of the arts.  Beyond that, the culture itself was “Christian” in the broadest sense of the term, and it only made sense that artists and musicians would express their gifts for use within the church and to help spread the message of Christ.

As history wore on, the influence of the Church deteriorated and its patronage of the arts decreased.  In the last 150 years or more, the distinctive creativity that was once the hallmark of Christian art has dissipated to the point that it is hardly distinguishable from other modern art perspectives.  There are certainly exceptions, and a resurgence and energy in the last several decades has shown that Christians can, and do, create art and music at the highest levels.  We can be thankful for the men and women who have begun to re-establish Christian truth as a valid and appropriate message for all artistic endeavors.

In his book, “Visual Faith:  Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue,” William A. Dyrness brings the arts and worship together to paint a picture of renewal that is both thoughtful and intriguing.  In his preface he writes that, “it has become my conviction that the practice of worship provides the most appropriate setting for a fresh appraisal and even a renewal in the arts…I believe that making beautiful forms is theologically connected to our call both to listen and respond to God in prayer, praise, and sacrament”  (Dyrness, pg. 9).

I think Dyrness has a point.  Worship and the arts can interact in ways that will cause us to think and re-think both.  Is the way in which we practice corporate worship as full and expressive as it can be?  Do our expressions in the arts represent a well-grounded biblical and theological understanding of the Christian Worldview?  Are we “redeeming” the arts and allowing the Spirit to renew their use?  Is tacking on a Christian message to any art form enough to redeem it?  Do the forms of art themselves need renewal?  And what of our worship, does it need redemption too?

These questions, and many more, are necessary and vital as we think about our modern worship and our modern arts.  Scholars and professors are considering these things, but pastors and laymen seem to overlook the important implications that these questions raise.  Corporate worship is the main public expression of the Church, yet so few think carefully and thoroughly about it.  I highly recommend Dyrness’ book as a starting point in the discussion.

 

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Music and the Arts as Tools of Evangelism

On a trip to Key West my family and I visited the oldest church on the island as we walked the streets and visited the shops.  St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has represented Christ in Key West for over 170 years – at least we would hope so.  In discussing the church with a local evangelical pastor, he noted that the gospel had not been heard from that church in many years.  The theology is liberal and the social views of the clergy and membership allow for all manner of immoral behavior to be accepted as permissible.  Truly darkness disguised as truth has a stronghold there.

Or does it?

As we entered the church, I found it interesting – even strikingly so – that amidst the activity and noise of the street outside the church’s interior was quiet.  In fact, I would certainly describe it as a “sacred” quiet.  As people entered the church, they whispered to each other.  Many would find a pew and sit, listen, and observe the peacefulness discovered within the walls of the sanctuary.  Calmness permeated the place and everyone seemed to know that respect and dignity were found there.

The church had been built (apparently rebuilt several times in 170 years) in the fashion of a small cathedral.  The entire sanctuary was notably shaped as a cross.  The entry was the foot of the cross, and as you approached the altar there were two “wings” with pews that shaped the arms of the cross.  Unlike our modern buildings, cathedrals and churches of ancient times were constructed to preach the gospel without words.  We can certainly see the reflection of God’s image in this human creativity when we consider that God, Himself, also preaches without words – for Psalm 19 tells us that the “heavens declare the glory of God” even though “there is no speech, nor are there words” (vss 1-3).

So, here in the midst of an apparently dead edifice and socially liberal congregation, I found the gospel being proclaimed.  First in the quiet calm and peace found within those walls, and then more dramatically as I noticed the cross itself – the very symbol of the gospel and the good news of salvation in Christ.

https://i2.wp.com/static.panoramio.com/photos/large/772251.jpgBut it didn’t end there.  I began to walk about the building and look closely at the stained glass windows.  There I found bold, unapologetic statements of Christian doctrine and truth.  The doctrine of the Trinity – fashioned in glass – showing the truth of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three persons, yet one God.  Reminders of God’s power as experienced by Israel in various Old Testament stories.  Images from the medieval church reminding visitors of Christ’s work, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments, the uniqueness of Jesus as the God-man, the stories of the four gospel writers, St. Paul preaching at Mars Hill, Zaccheus in the tree, and on and on.  I could have spent hours there and even my kids were intrigued as I began to explain the meaning of this artwork.

I tell this story because too often we assume that there must be some explicit statement of what we think the “gospel” is in order for us to be evangelizing.  Although Christ’s work of redemption is central to the gospel, we must remember that it is part of the larger story of God’s work as He interacts with and cares for His creation.  We can recognize the importance of truth presented in images, music (even without words!), and other creative endeavors as ways to present truth to the world around us.

I take my family’s experience at St. Paul’s in Key West as an example of this.  Certainly, the church is presented as a tourist stop in the midst of the streets of the city.  Certainly, the preaching of God’s word has diminished from what it once was.  Certainly, we might question the morality of some who live aberrant lifestyles.  Yet – in the middle of all that – the creative commitment of Christians many, many years ago infused the building itself with the truth of the gospel.  For this we can be grateful – and maybe consider our own opportunities to “preach” the gospel in similar ways.

Art in the Public Square: A Critical Difference

(As ArtPrize approaches in Grand Rapids, MI for 2013, the recent two articles have helped to remind us of how to view the arts from a biblical perspective.  This article is an assessment of the 2012 conclusion, but also helps to keep our minds attuned to the necessity of thinking well, and thinking Christianly, in regard to the arts.)

For over a month now, the articles in this Worship Arts channel have focused on visual art.  We have considered a number of articles regarding how to view art from a Christian perspective, and whether we could really understand and appreciate art through the grid of the Christian worldview.

The largest art competition in the world is an event called ArtPrize, held annually in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  It was held two weeks ago week, lasted 15 days, and included over 1500 entries.  The unique, long established feature of the ArtPrize gathering is that the viewing public is solicited to vote as to which entries they judge best.

Unfortunately, this approach to evaluating art has brought disdain from voices of the “art world,” who considered it a substandard competition that played to the whims of the uneducated public and produced winners that are considered one-dimensional, even mundane.  However, this year’s ArtPrize event, for the first time in this event’s history, would set alongside the viewing public’s choice the so-called experts’ choice.  What would we discover?  Would there be consensus or a split decision?  Would there be harmony, or a division between the two groups?

Well, the “jury is in” and the winners were crowned but not without a new controversy.  We now know the results and, let me say, to describe the difference between the two evaluations as a “gap” is well understated. Rather, the results were a giant chasm. The public vote for the artist of the winning entry won a $200,000, and the juried vote of their choice won $100,000.  The stark difference of perspectives contrasting the two groups speak to the fundamental question of how each view beauty and how they interpret what art communicates.

Art is Communication

Definitions of art abound, and I suppose they can be nuanced to say whatever one might desire to defend or promote. But, I think most reasonable people would agree that art, at its basic level, is communication.  Art is intended to say something to the viewer.  Art is an expression of an artist in an attempt to communicate to those looking at the art.

In a time long gone, a great artist was known by his or her artwork.  When the art spoke, it spoke powerfully and clearly, communicating the intended message without explanation.  It is to men, like Michelangelo and others, to which this moniker was applied.  We know them to be great artists because they produced great art.  The art itself was the focus.

More recently (in the last 150 years or so), this notion of art has been turned on its head.  Over time, the focus shifted from the art to the artist.  Gradually, rather than knowing an artist was great because his or her art was indeed great, the art world of critics and artists established a system in which artists were named great artists because they were artists in this art world.  In other words, since it was determined that they were “great artists” by the elite, the art they produced was to be considered great art.

This would be fine if their art continued to communicate effectively, however, it became esoteric to the point that it no longer gained the attention of the public, but only the attention of the artistic elite.  It no longer communicated a message that was discernible, unless it was explained first to the viewer.  No longer was the art communicating, but it was solely the expression of the artist whether or not anyone really understood the meaning.

So we have two views, to put it simply:

  • Art speaks, and as a result we understand what the artist is communicating, or
  • The artist speaks in order to explain what the art is not communicating on its own.

At a fundamental level, this is the result of ArtPrize 2012.  The winner of the people’s vote communicated in such a way that her art spoke to the viewers, and they understood.  They understood the technical skills needed, they understood the subject matter, and in many ways, they understood what she was trying to say.

The winner of the juried award, on the other hand, had to explain the art.  It is not clear what the intended meaning was to be, and although an explanation did bring clarity to the meaning, there remains an underlying bewilderment at how this is really “art.”  Obviously, if the display had not been entered in an art competition, most people would generally walk by it and consider it a nice display but nothing more.

This “great divide” in viewing art is a topic that has been discussed widely, and at least in West Michigan right now, more people are aware of the issues.  In a world of creativity that reflects the very creative activity of God, I hope that this discussion will help more people consider the ideas presented in this column over the last six weeks.

Note: I did not include a description of the ArtPrize winners, or their names because my intent was not to critique them specifically.  My intention is to focus on the larger issues of how we view art, and how we know whether it is “good art” or not.  The views I have expressed are not only my own.  The reactions to these art pieces have come from conversations, articles, blog posts and other sources.  I have also included thoughts that have come from past study and consideration of the world of the arts.  I hope that these articles on viewing art can have some impact on the conversation of art from a Christian worldview.

(Original Post on October 17, 2012 at the Worldview Church:  http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/18626-art-in-the-public-square-a-critical-difference)

Another View on Viewing Art: On Robin Phillips

In my previous article, I gave a synopsis of Francis Schaeffer’s book, Art and the Bible, in which he gives some sage advice on viewing and understanding the fine arts in the perspective of a Christian Worldview.  Schaeffer not only recommend that we develop an aptitude for viewing art effectively, but believes that it can and should be done by Christians engaging in this world over which Christ is Lord.

This week, let us turn to an excellent article by Robin Phillips titled, Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder? This article was originally published in the Summer 2009 edition of “Christianity and Society.”  As you can see from the title, Phillips is approaching the idea in a different way than Schaeffer, and this can certainly help us continue our growth in viewing and assessing art.

Phillips begins the article by exploring the idea of beauty in general.  He delves into beauty as found in the Bible, and also notes that beauty is an objective quality linked to God’s character and holiness. From there he considers how we might “measure” beauty and what criteria we might use to do so.  In addition, he discusses the language of beauty and how it has been corrupted through time.  (This paragraph is very short synopsis of an excellent presentation of these matters, and I suggest a full reading of the article to glean all the insight provided.)

Based upon that foundation, Phillips guides the reader in how one might view art – or see beauty – in such a way that it opens up the individual to really see what is there.  This is something he calls “beauty-vision.”  Although there may be legitimate impediments that prevent a person from seeing beauty (blindness, for example), Phillips believes that it is important to “gaze in the right direction” in order to begin the process of seeing beauty for what it is.  Essentially, to “awaken a person’s beauty-vision” (pg. 46). Even then, there may be other reasons that we simply miss the beauty in front of us, and he suggests several things to help us overcome these difficulties.

His first level of observation is that of noticing factual things about the work of art.  This would include how various elements of a painting might interact with one another thematically.  Or, it would include information on “the background of the work, the artistic context, how the work conformed (or did not conform) to the dominant conventions of the day, the intention of the artist, and so on” (pg. 46).  This important first level of observation is one that is accessible even by those just beginning the process of looking at art and who are really trying to understand what they see.  It is from these observations of the facts about art that lead to understanding the aesthetics of art.

“After we have helped a person to understand facts about the artwork (Level 1), we can begin to show howaesthetic properties flow out of these factual observations” (pg. 46).  In this way, Phillips leads into the second level of viewing art.  He points out that one can begin to attach descriptive terminology to factual observations and move to this level of understanding.  Two of his examples are, “the lines make this paintinggraceful,” and “the color scheme is somber” (pg. 47).  It is these judgments and perceptions that are the aesthetic qualities characterized by the particular factual elements within the artwork.  The aesthetic judgments arise from the factual observations.  Thus, it is a second level of viewing art.

The next stage in this method to develop “beauty-vision” is the third level, described by Phillips as making “an overall verdict of praise or blame” (pg. 47).  For Phillips, this is where his discussion on beauty intersects with a person’s ability to see these various features of artwork and come to a conclusion on what they have observed.  “Beauty is one of many positive verdicts which arise from a work’s aesthetic features” (pg. 47).  As one is able to draw together the factual observations made of a particular piece of art, and describe that by articulating aesthetic perceptions based upon those facts, it becomes more than a personal opinion why one piece of art might be considered “beautiful,” while another draws condemnation.

Interestingly, Phillips finishes his article discussing beauty and the Biblical Worldview.  He notes that our culture’s rejection of beauty as truth can be legitimately linked to our culture’s rejection of Christian truth.  This is a viewpoint that we have considered before in the writings and thinking of Roger Scruton, who sees modern man intoxicated with ugliness and warns that the desecration of beauty is undoing culture at a foundational level.  As Christians, we must engage in the arts as part of this culture so we might bring a redemptive influence into this important aspect of modern life.

Certainly this method requires practice and refinement for any individual.  However, these three levels of factual observations which lead to the defining of aesthetic properties, and ultimately an artistic verdict, are useful and accessible.  I encourage the reader to print the full article by Robin Phillips at the link below and seek to understand the beauty of art in a more direct way – then go out and look at some art.  You’ll be glad you did!

(Original Post on August 7, 2012 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/18363-another-view-on-viewing-art-on-robin-phillips-)

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