By Paul M. Blowers
Worship in the church’s context has never been artless, any more than it was artless in Israel’s ancient temple. Worship is already, in one sense, a ritual “performance.” The biblical revelation is our ultimate “script,” and Christian believers are both the “actors” and “spectators” who, through various formal actions—such as singing, proclaiming, praying, confessing, offering, blessing, and eating—remember and replay the mighty deeds of God. Indeed, we join ourselves to a “cast of thousands,” the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) who have come before us as players in the living drama that is the Christian faith.
But should we be comparing the church to a theater or our worship to drama? Long ago, various Greek philosophers rebuked the theatrical plays as a mere imitation (mimesis) of reality. In the early church too, some leaders strongly discouraged Christians from going to the theater since its comedies and tragedies espoused values contradictory to the faith.
Around the turn of the third century, for example, the Latin church father Tertullian published a work On the Shows for just this reason. “If the literature of the stage delight you,” he wrote, “we have literature in abundance of our own—plenty of verses, sentences, songs, proverbs; and these not fabulous, but true; not tricks of art, but plain realities.”1 Tertullian’s point was that the Christian revelation was already the greatest of all dramas, something no human playwright could ever fathom, much less produce, since it communicated the ultimate, never-to-be-imitated reality: the saving work of Jesus Christ.
This, however, did not hinder the later production of medieval passion plays depicting the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. These sought to convey precisely the dramatic realism of the gospel.
Christian liturgies or worship services developed substantially over the first five centuries. Liturgies became more, not less, dramatic as new elements were added. Grand processions, elaborate litanies and prayers, the use of incense as symbolic of God’s holy presence, pageantry related to the seasons and feasts of the Christian yearly calendar—all these and more became increasingly standard. Reading Scripture in the public assembly became a solemn art form, and the office of lector (reader) became an ordained ministry.
The service itself was structured to have dramatic buildup. The first part, called the Liturgy of the Word, was devoted especially to prayers, Scripture readings, and a sermon. But all this was preparation for the true climax, the celebration of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper), the ritual disclosure of the living presence of the crucified, risen, and glorified Christ with his church.
Though critics in later centuries would argue that the liturgy became too formal to be evangelistic, and too lofty and priestly to be comprehended by the simple believer, the goal was that every action and every event in the service would be intentional and loaded with meaning, manifesting the breadth and depth of God’s revelation. Worship was to be beautiful, majestic, and mysterious in maintaining a strong sense of God’s transcendence as well as his immanence or nearness.
With these more elaborate forms of liturgy, the music of worship became more sophisticated and regulated. For many centuries, the music was a cappella, which led to more highly developed forms of singing, including choral chant appropriated (especially in the Western church) from monastic communities. Besides the Psalms, the church’s original hymnbook, extra scriptural hymns began to be composed, and a number of the church fathers—including Ambrose of Milan (337–397) in the West and Ephrem the Syrian (306–373) in the East—were prolific hymn writers.
Many of these ancient hymns are of highly poetic quality, rich in figures and images drawn from the Bible, and proved important not only for praise and worship but also for instructing Christians in the great truths of the scriptural faith. Romanos the Melodist (sixth century), the most renowned hymn writer in Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, wrote kontakia, or sermon-like hymns that retold biblical stories so as to amplify their dramatic elements. These were written in verse form with choral refrains in which the whole congregation was expected to participate.
The virtue of these kinds of hymns was imaginatively to draw believers into the action of scriptural drama, to enable them vividly to identify with the characters in the story.
What about visual art in worship? Here we must include church architecture, since the conscious design of worship spaces was (and is) an art form in its own right. In the earliest centuries, Christians often worshipped in fairly restricted enclosures, including houses, but after Christianity was legalized under Constantine, larger and more elaborate buildings were built to accommodate increasing numbers of worshippers.
The basilica, a style of Roman building used for various public functions, was adapted in many churches, usually (and not surprisingly) in a cross-shaped floor plan with a nave and transept, at the intersection of which was a chancel to accommodate the altar. Many variations on this design would appear in Christian history, some of which included large domes over the central worship space. The Basilica of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) was the greatest such structure in the Eastern Christian world, with numerous windows around the circumference of the dome that illuminated the chancel below to create a spectacular effect during liturgies.
In the West, the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe also adapted the basilica model, often elongating the nave and constructing multileveled vaulting to give the sense of upwardly aspiring worship.
As for the use of painting and sculpture within churches, we must remember that artistic enhancements did not always directly play a role in worship services. An exception, in the Eastern Orthodox churches, has been the use of religious icons, painted depictions of Christ, the saints, and biblical characters used both in public and private worship. Before considering the role of icons, however, it is important to mention how artistic depiction of Jesus and of biblical figures and stories developed slowly but surely in the early church.
Many of the earliest painted or mosaic images of Jesus portray him as the Good Shepherd, as in the frescoes of the ancient baptistery at Dura-Europos (Syria) and those excavated in the catacombs (Christian burial places) in the vicinity of Rome. Though most such frescoes do not date before the third or fourth centuries, they indicate how early Christians were endeared to the image of Christ as the compassionate shepherd ingathering and nurturing his people. Other frescoes depict Jesus healing and performing miracles. Still others illustrate beloved Bible stories like Adam and Eve, Abraham’s “sacrifice” of Isaac, Jonah and the fish, Daniel in the lions’ den, etc.
That these frescoes appear in burial places, rather than places of worship, does not mean they were insignificant to praise and worship. Interestingly, the figure of the orant, the believer with arms outstretched in a posture of prayer and praise, is also frequent in these frescoes. One last striking image, in some cases painted right over a sealed grave, is that of the eucharistic banquet or love feast, a scene of celebration either in this life or the life to come. We can certainly imagine how a Christian funeral would have come to focus on the hope of sharing the Lord’s Supper with Christ and fellow believers in eternity.
The later “icons,” painted on wood, came into use in the Eastern churches for various purposes, liturgical and instructional. In the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, the icon of Christ and that of the Virgin Mary are formally venerated. Devotion to icons ultimately led to a huge controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries, as a series of iconoclastic (literally “icon-shattering”) Byzantine emperors outlawed their use for various reasons, including the accusation of idolatry. Defenders of icons, who distinguished clearly between worshipping God and honoring an icon, ultimately won out, and today the Eastern Orthodox churches still cherish icons as “window into heaven.”2
The icon of Christ—especially the famous sixth-century Sinai Pantocrator (Christ Almighty) icon, which depicts one half of Christ’s face as suffering servant and the other half as serene risen Lord—is considered crucial for believers to meditate on the mystery of God becoming flesh, even though that mystery is beyond human comprehension. “Seeing is believing” takes on new meaning, for Christians are not seeing Christ himself, but using the visible image as an aid to prayer and praise.
The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century decisively impacted the role of art in worship in the many churches to which it ultimately gave rise. Positively, the Reformers desired to refocus Christians on biblical literacy and the primacy of the preached Word. In some cases, like that of Ulrich Zwingli, the principal Reformer in the Swiss city of Zürich, this meant tearing away unseemly “accretions” of bygone tradition, including altar, organ, crucifixes, religious art, and other things once considered enhancements to worship but now deemed superstitious or idolatrous.
The unfortunate downside of this campaign, whatever its good intentions, was a kind of “Protestant iconoclasm” that greatly affected the churches for generations to come, undermining the use of just about any artistic aid to worship save music. Even in the Stone-Campbell heritage, we have struggled to understand (let alone practice) worship as more than hearing the Word spoken and sung.
Contrary to the old adage, beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. True beauty lies in the richness and breadth of God’s revelation, which lays claim to all our senses—even some that we may not know we have! “Taste and See” is more than a lovely worship tune composed by James E. Moore in 1983. It should be a summons to all our senses to experience the boundless glory of God and to respond in kind, creatively and resourcefully.
Churches should be encouraged to use their imaginations and a wide array of arts (not just music but drama, ritual dance, photography, and iconography, etc.) to enhance their praise and worship.
1On the Shows chap. 29, translated by Sydney Thelwall, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1873), 91. Also available online at www.tertullian.org/anf/anf03/anf03-09.htm.
Paul M. Blowers serves as Dean E. Walker Professor of Church History at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College in Tennessee.