By Tom Lawson
We’re still living with the aftermath of the Protestant Reformers who cleansed worship spaces of every piece of art. But doesn’t the Bible give us examples and a mandate to use all the arts in worship?
In 1524, the great Grossmünster cathedral in Zürich was just a shell of its former glory. The statues had been smashed and all the artwork had been removed. Initially, even congregational singing had been discarded, along with the statues and frescoes. What was left was a nearly empty room, except for a towering pulpit, for plain and unadorned Christian worship. In this newly cleansed worship place, focused on religious education, the arts were only a dangerous distraction.
This was a radical change. Over the previous thousand years, Christian worship had been the impetus for the world’s greatest expressions of artistic achievement. From the massive gold-covered dome of Hagia Sophia, to the quiet beauty of polyphonic anthems, to the magnificent frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, wherever Christians had gathered for worship, there was art.
Throughout the 16th century, in places like Zürich and Geneva, from Glasgow to Glastonbury, that heritage of art fell victim to the religious cataclysms of the Protestant Reformation. In the minds of many, the same corrupt religious system John Calvin and John Knox were rejecting was intrinsically linked to the art, music, and architecture it had produced. Worship had to be untainted by the arts. Artless worship was synonymous with spiritual worship. Artless worship would also protect weaker believers from drifting back into medieval popery.
Five hundred years later, a great deal seems to have changed. Many churches spend tens of thousands of dollars on visual technology alone. Nearly half the Sunday service is devoted to music.
And yet, in other ways, those long ago theological battles that labeled art as carnal and dangerous remain. Other than contemporary praise music and computer-generated graphics, there is little evidence of the broader arts in our buildings and worship services.
As Ken Read observed in Robert Webber’s Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, “Christian churches and churches of Christ live in a loose coalition of hesitant artistic progression.” Whether poet or painter, architect or actor, artists simply have to devote their gifts to the secular and let singing and listening to sermons suffice for worship.
But, is this the necessary outcome of biblical principles, or the by-product of our own history and tradition? I want to explore three questions about the use of the arts in worship:
Does the presence or absence of the arts in the church make any difference?
Is there a biblical basis for a greater inclusion of the arts?
What kinds of things would a greater inclusion of the arts involve?
Do the Arts Make any Difference?
We are surrounded by evidence that the arts can, indeed, make a great difference. To see this, we need to move outside the realm of Christian worship. We also may need to face our own inconsistencies. Some of the same people who are deeply moved by the quiet grandeur of standing in the solemn stateliness of the Lincoln Memorial can still insist the new church building ought to be as practical and as inexpensive as possible. Someone can passionately insist that where and how the American flag is displayed matters a great deal, and still assert that visible symbols, such as crosses or Communion tables, have no real value in the life of the church.
In part, our inconsistencies reflect an underlying assumption that the Christian life is mostly about getting the right information about God (what happens in worship) and then logically applying that to our lives (what happens the rest of the week). Simply teaching the Bible is everything needed to enrich and deepen our lives in Christ. If we need greater faith, we tend to think, the answer rests in getting more Bible facts taught and understood.
But is that true? Is it all about getting more information? As an analogy, people recognize a good history lesson about the Vietnam War has value. But learning historical facts is a very different experience from taking a long, slow walk past “the Wall” (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) in Washington, D.C. Knowing as a fact that more than 55,000 Americans were killed is not the same experience as standing between the thousands of names etched in granite and Frederick Hart’s haunting statue of The Three Soldiers.
We might be hard pressed to logically explain the difference. We knew the facts before walking beside the memorial. We did not learn new facts in taking the walk. And yet, long after many of the details of a history course fade, we will still retain a vivid memory of the visual and sensory experience of standing between the bronze statue and thousands of names etched in granite. That, at least, demonstrates one small example of the power of the arts in moving us from information to formation.
We are surrounded by experiences that prove the value of art. Whether monuments to national tragedies, jewelry for an anniversary, or flowers for a sweetheart, we are surrounded by proof that the arts retain a power to embody ideals and stir the human soul. How does this relate to the use of the arts in Christian worship?
To be drawn into the presence of God through Christ is to experience moments of joy and wonder and adoration that cry out for expression through all the creative gifts God has poured into humanity. So, there is no doubt the arts are important. But, is their use in Christian worship biblical?
Do the Arts Have a Biblical Basis?
No one has ever suggested the arts had no place in Old Testament worship. The splendor of the temple, the sounds of the Levitical choirs, and even the clothing of the temple priests all testify to the importance of the arts in the worship of the ancient Jewish nation. But, some point out, we live in a covenant that has discarded such outward signs and replaced them with a symbol-free New Testament worship in which the arts play no role.
It is true that the weekly gatherings of the early believers continued an already existing pattern of synagogue worship: the ancient church gathered once a week to progress through an ordered service of psalms, prayers, Scripture readings, and exhortations. The addition of the Lord’s Supper is uniquely Christian, of course. But the portion of the service historically labeled the Service of the Word is centered on reading and teaching, and then on hearing and learning the Word of God. The focus of this kind of worship is undeniably educational.
Certainly, this is the framework out of which Alexander Campbell would join most Protestants in describing the gathered church as the “School of Christ.”1 It is understandable that framing worship as education has tended toward the worship space being unadorned and utilitarian. Even our preference for the term auditorium says much about how we understand worship. An auditorium is a room made for listening to lectures.
But limiting our understanding of New Testament worship to this one model may be, quite literally, setting our sights too low. As W. David O. Taylor observes, “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.”2
Another model of worship can be seen in the visions given to John on Patmos. Here worship seems far removed from the educational model reflected in the synagogue. Here worship takes place across the grand stages of time and space.
Of course, worship here involves the thundering sounds of singing praises. We get that. But, worship also involves a much richer use of the arts. Glorious clothing, symbolic objects, movements of the worshippers, and a myriad of rich visual images, both wonderful and fearful, are recorded. Spectacular and glorious worship is painted across the canvases of our imaginations. And these great visions present worship that is less like a lesson in family origins and more like a tumultuous and glorious family reunion.
That is, in the full sense of the word, artful worship.
How Can We Embrace the Arts in Christian Worship?
First, we need to expand our thinking to include the understanding that what people do to facilitate and enhance our worship is, at least potentially, a part of that worship. The building in which worship occurs can remind us of the transcendent and eternal beauty of God. Like Mary at Bethany, we would do well to sometimes be less concerned about economics than we are about beauty. It says something rather pathetic when the best examples of architectural beauty in many cities are dedicated to the gods of business.
Second, we need to employ the arts to enhance our gathering. We gather in response to God’s calling us. Like many psalms suggest about the Temple on Mount Zion, our ascent to the place of worship can be a part of that worship. What could artists and their arts do to draw our hearts and minds away from all the competing distractions and toward the worship of God in what surrounds us as we approach and then enter the place of worship?
Third, we need to expand our use of the arts within the worship gathering itself. Visual art within the room, whether painting or banners, can certainly be added to our uses of computer-generated art. Drama and poetry both employ spoken words in ways that bridge the gap between art and lecture.
And, yes, even liturgical dance may have a place. I still remember my own awkwardness at the whole subject of dancing as a part of worship. Until, that is, I saw a single dancer embody the Christmas song about Mary, “Breath of Heaven.” It was a moment of art so quietly stunning, I have never heard the song since without seeing her embody the fears and faith of that young Galilean woman struggling with the mission of bringing the incarnate God into the world.
The arts may not add more facts to our lives or make it easier for us to list the points of a sermon. But, as James Russell Lowell wrote, “If God made poets for anything, it was to keep alive the traditions of the pure, the holy, and the beautiful.”
1Millennial Harbinger, 1846, 13; quoted in Ralph Richardson’s Memoirs of Alexander Campbell, Vol. 1, 404.
2W. David O. Taylor, “Discipling the Eyes Through Art in Worship,” Christianity Today, April 2012; accessible online at www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/april/art-in-worship.html.
Tom Lawson is a professor at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.