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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Art & Faith, Session Two

Art and Faith:

finding beauty and claiming it…

(From my lecture series to Baptist pastors in Guatemala, January 2011)

What is art? It’s a question my professor posed to us in my seminary class my final semester seven years ago. What is art? Is art good?

Art, I believe looks like a lot of different things, and art, I believe, has a lot to do with faith. James writes, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”[1] James echoes the Psalmist who writes in chapter 16 verse 2, “I said to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good besides You’.”[2] In other words, all good comes from God. If we see something in this world that is good, that is of God, for goodness cannot be attributed to anything but God.

It is with this presupposition that we approach our topic “Art and Faith” today. All good comes from God.

I would also like to presuppose that Beauty exposes God. We see beauty, which excites us, and reminds us of what is good. Beauty allows us to catch a glimpse of the deep longing of the soul. As such, Beauty mediates truth and goodness to us. And in that way it is wonderful when it reminds us of all that is good in the world and of the goodness of God, but beauty has a painful side too, because it represents what we cannot yet have.

While in the United States art in churches has made resurgence in the past fifteen years, in the grand scheme of church history, art and faith were not concepts that remain segregated. Rather, art has played a vital part of Christians worship and faith journey since the beginning.

In archaeology we find fresco walls and floors in houses of both Jewish and Jewish-Christians. We find mosaics and drawings, sculptures and paintings. As the church developed into a separate entity, indeed, a religion of its own, iconography developed as a way that people could connect with God. If you’ve ever heard a song that stirred your soul, or seen a painting that moved you to tears, or watched a play in a theater the drew you into contemplation of the divine, then you understand the point of iconography. And while in the US, we worship in boring square buildings with grey walls and brown folding chairs, early Christians took great pride in their worship buildings and even their architecture was designed to draw people’s eyes heavenward.

There’s a beautiful story about Prince Vladimir the Great, the pagan monarch of Kiev, and in this version of the story, Prince Vladimir was looking for a new religion to unify the Russian people. He invited missionaries from many countries to come to Kiev: Moslem Bulgarians, German Latins, Jews and Greeks. Islam, Judaism, Roman Catholic, and Orthodoxy.[3] The Prince asked them about their creeds, and each of the visitors offered him a summary of his own belief system. Upon counseling with his boyars, Vladimir sent 10 wise men to check out each of these men’s worship places in person. The envoys that had investigated Christianity in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople reported finding a faith characterized by such transcendent beauty that they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth. "And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism."[4] When the Russian envoys arrived in Constantinople they were impressed to the depth of their souls by the splendor of the St. Sofia cathedral, the harmonious singing of the royal choir and the grandeur of the service conducted by the Patriarch.[5] What affected the envoys and persuaded Prince Vladimir to embrace Christianity was “not its apologetics or ethics, but its aesthetics—its beauty. Thus we might say it was beauty that brought salvation to the Russian people."[6]

Additionally, much of the beautiful art that decorates cathedrals and churches across Europe came from Papal Commissionings. In the Pope’s budget was a line item for “Art.” Beautiful physical expression of what we believe about God. Of course from this Papal Commissioning we get one of the most famous works of Christian faith: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Beauty will save the world.” Fyodor Dostoevsky once wrote. And my former pastor, Kyle Lake, at the end of every service would say, “Love God, Embrace Beauty and live life to the fullest."

What these two men were getting at is what we noted before. Beauty is redemptive and it is all around us. So we must cling to it.

And we must claim it.

A pastor in my home town asks and answers his own question, “Along with apologetics and ethics is there also an aesthetics that belongs to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Yes! Beauty is integral to the gospel."[7]

Oftentimes as Christians we try to separate ourselves from our culture. We try to be “in the world, but not of the world.” And in the U.S., many Christians reject what they call the “secular” world because they figure what good can come from people who aren’t of God. Well, a lot of good, I’d wager. Remember those verses we read earlier? All good comes from God. So when a Hollywood movie teaches us about peace, I can call that story good. Or when a novel about politics exposes corruption in the world and demands restitution be made, I can call that good. Or when a song on the radio tells the story of love conquering all, I can call that good. And all of that goodness comes from God.

Enuma Okoro, a conservative Baptist woman who gives conferences about art and faith in the U.S. writes, “I've come to believe that the arts are an essential tool for spiritual formation. Perhaps surprisingly, I've also come to recognize and appreciate that even art devoid of intentional Christian imagery can have transformative effects on how I understand the human condition and my relationship to God."[8]

As Minister of Discipleship at my last church, I was given a grant to create an intimate Black Box Theater (seating between 50-115 people). With a team, we began the theater troupe: Trinity Street Players (our church was located on Trinity Street). We used this sacred space on this fourth floor quadrant of our church to produce not "Christian" plays meant to manipulate or moralize our audiences, but good theatrical works, that we invited the city of Austin to participate in watching, laughing, crying and learning from. It was a theater that could produce well-written plays and musicals for the entertainment, education and enlightenment for not only our own members, but the greater Austin arts community. And in doing that, people began to audition for these shows who were from other churches (I'm always a fan of collaboration!) and some were people who don't attend church at all. One person who hadn't even come yet to see one of our productions but heard about our theater and our church said, "Now that's a church I could get behind!"

Regarding worship...

“We are generally more accustomed to defend Christianity in terms of its truth and goodness. But beauty also belongs to the Christian faith. And beauty has a way of sneaking past our defenses and speaking to us in unique ways. To a generation suspicious of truth claims and unconvinced by moral assertions, beauty has a surprising allure.”[9]

Liturgical elements to consider when reflecting on how to integrate art into worship...

  • Architecture
    • Building structure
    • Interior – baptismal fonts, pews, chairs, etc.
    • In a worship space/d├ęcor
      • Interior Design
      • Colors
      • Wall art
      • Stained glass
      • Pews/ chairs
      • Pulpit, choir, etc.
  • Music
    • Lyrics
    • Musicality
  • Story
    • Sermon Testimony
    • Retelling scripture
  • Poetry
  • Dance
    • Liturgical dance
    • Congregational dancing (children’s movements - putting motions to songs)
  • Theater
    • In worship
    • As an art form (Trinity Street Players performed The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain, Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence, Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson, You Can't Take It With You by Kaufman & Hart, The Fantasticks by Jones & Schmidt, and Shadowlands by William Nicholson.)
  • Film
    • In worship – illustrate a sermon or illustrate a theme
    • As an art form: Films and Faith, or God In the Movies small groups or sermon series...

To elaborate...

ARCHITECTURE: God specifically requested "Bezalel ... to devise artistic designs" in Exodus 35, God requested that the tabernacle curtains be made of "fine twined linen and blue and purple and scarlet yarns, with cherubim skillfully worked"[10]; not to mention the breathtakingly beautiful detailed tailoring of the priestly vestments in Exodus 39.[11]

ART: used in worship “in a culture that has become increasingly visual, the traditional spoken sermon is failing to reach people, he said, and may explain why attendance has fallen off in many mainline churches."[12] Check out the following images (more were used in my powerpoint and are listed below):[13]

Portrait of You As the Good Samaritan by James B. Janknegt

Praying at Gethsemene by He Qi

SONG: George Frideric Handel found the lyrics for his Hallelujah chorus in the book of Revelation which would be read better not as a document telling us about the end time, but as a book of songs and poems for a persecuted people to recite and sing and give them hope. Revelation doesn’t have any plans or formulas, but the songs of a broken people.

SERMON: Gail Godwin says, "Good teaching is one-fourth preparation and three-fourths theater." We addressed this yesterday.

POETRY: Walt Whitman writes, “After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemists, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.” Use poetry in your worship services!


THEATER: In worship – "If dramas are performed and immediately interpreted propositionally for the community, this is an act of irresponsibility toward our mind’s ability to imagine and discern and toward the Holy Spirit’s working power. Theology must always be watchful lest anything in the church’s way of stating the gospel reduce rather than enhance its credibility.”[14]

At my last church, I ran an experiential, alternative worship service. Each week I brought in a different worship leader and speaker. The service was created from my ideas about the Genesis 1 creation story: lots of colors and sound and movement. So, on one wall of the chapel where we met, I ran a powerpoint of works of art related to the theme or text and quotes from theologians, historians, comedians, etc. On the other wall was our liturgy which included biblical readings, poetry, prayers, responsive or congregational reading, songs for the congregation to sing, solo pieces by the musician of the week, etc. Lighting candles was another liturgical element (we tried even to engage our sense of smell - without offending any allergy sufferers). In addition, we had silence as a part of our worship service, and the sermon was limited to 10 minutes long. And speakers could do one sermon or two shorter 5 minute spoken words. Remember, in the Genesis text God said, "Let there be... and it is good!" And that's it! So the entire service was not centered around a sermon that served as the climax to the service, but rather all elements of the service were given (or tried to be given) equality opportunity for God to communicate with the people and for us to worship God.

I tell you this not so that you can go recreate this service in your own church. Be yourself! Allow for indigenous worship in your community. Don’t imitate!

Helpful Resources

“It is difficult to pinpoint what it is exactly that makes our spirits respond in a raw and instinctive way to the arts. Perhaps it is because engaging the arts reminds us that we are made in the image of a divine artist, a God who colored the sky and the flowers; who delights in trees that are pleasing to the eye; who specifically requested us to make things that are beautiful."[15]

It is imperative that we let the imagination and God do their work…. Key is spotting goodness and allowing it to be good. All good comes from God. We don’t have to re-appropriate everything cultural to make it our own, but we can learn from our cultural arts, we can let them teach us. And we can offer back to them…


[4] (Primary Chronicle, trans. George Kalbouss)

[12] Diane Reynolds summarizing Douglas Adams.

[13] White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, a Jewish artist; The Thankful Poor by Henry Ossawa Tanner (an Episcopal Minister’s son); Praying at Gethsemene by He Qi a Chinese Christian; Portrait of You as the Good Samaritan by James B. Janknegt; The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt; The Baptism by Maria Alquilar, a Haitian; Sistine Chapel: Creation of Adam by Michaelangelo, Italian renaissance (commissioned by Pope Julius II); Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus ou Crucifixion) by Salvador Dali, a Spanish atheist turn Catholic Nuclear Mystic; Japan's Madonna Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth.

[14] J.I. Packer

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