Adding Beauty to our Worship
…the one important fact for us is the significance of the marked rejection of all distinctively esthetic devises by those religions which are rational, in our special sense…But there can be no question at all that the systematic prohibition in devout Jewish and Puritan circles of uninhibited surrender to the distinctive form-producing values of art has effectively controlled the degree and scope of artistic productivity in these circles, and has tended to favor the development of intellectually rational controls over the pattern of life.
…definitions of truth are derived, at least in part, from the character of the media of communication through which information is conveyed.
At my first time in a Reformed Church I noticed there were no pictures. I was told that it was against the second commandment to display religious images. I was not sure what to think except that I didn’t want to sin myself or be the cause of someone else sinning.
Not being a boat-rocker, I have just been going along with what I was told, but now William Dyrness has helped me to sort through the issues of where art fits into worship in his book, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue.
Dyrness is fair and balanced in his presentation of the historical and theological background for the relationship of art to worship in many Protestant churches. I concur with the folks at my church that we want to be careful not to break the 2nd commandment. I am just as concerned about the poor and can see why it may seem frivolous to spend money on art that could be donated to social causes.
But I also agree, as Dyrness points out, that we are living in a different time now. I really don’t know of anyone who worships the pictures. People in our society see pictures as representations. And honestly, there seems to be somewhat of a philosophical disconnect since we sing a lot of contemporary music and allow all sorts of instruments in our service. No one at our church has thrown their TV set out.
Sometimes the Reformed are known for living in the past and not questioning their traditions. I want to help them wrestle with the issues – Does art have something inherently evil about it? Or is it how we interact with it? Can they accept the fact that we are a visual society now and not likely to go back? Is art always ‘frivolous’?
How can I gently nudge my church into a new tradition that embraces the way that art can add to the beauty of worship?
- “God’s people need to recover their visual imagination.” We should not play off the visual against the verbal; we need both. We have a strong ministry of the Word of God and we should keep it. But let us examine why we think the visual is sinful. We no longer worship pictures. The task will be to discern which art enhances our worship.
- We should restore a tradition of Christian art. During the Reformation well-meaning Christians threw the baby out with the bath water. They swung the pendulum too far. How many beautiful works of art were lost? When I was in Europe I saw many beautiful paintings and sculptures. The majority were religious. Church architecture is among the most magnificent in the world. Have we lost a sense of the majesty of God that we could have with the visual? My imagination only goes so far. The artist has the gift to help me appreciate the awesomeness of God.
One of the most inspirational works I have ever seen was Asisi-Panorama of the Reformation in Wittenberg. One of my favorite scenes is the one of the woman preaching!
- We need to encourage those in our congregation who are gifted artists. My friend Debbie is such an artist. When I asked her what she does in her spare time she took me aside privately and told me she paints. Some of her work is displayed in the local art gallery. Our church could begin by commending Debbie and not making her feel ashamed of her gift. Why don’t we display some of Debbie’s pictures? We allow people who play guitar, flute, and drums to use their gifts; why not Debbie?
Last fall we produced Visual Ethnography projects for our Leadership & Global Perspectives course. I did a video on racial injustice. I would love to see folks be allowed to share their learning or what is on their hearts using visual technology.
I believe it is possible to honor our traditions and practices and at the same time actually imagine a richer, God-honoring worship service that engages more people in the congregation using their gifts to the glory of God.
And we need careful and sensitive leaders who can guide us in the practices of worship in ways that honor the diversity of our heritage even as they develop new spiritual sensitivities.
 Max Weber. The Sociology of Religion (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1922, 1991). 245.
 Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of show Business (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1986). 17.
 William A. Dyrness. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003). 156.
 Dyrness. page 160.
7 responses to “Adding Beauty to our Worship”
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Mary, I think this has been one of your most beautiful posts, primarily because I see the vulnerability of you wrestling with the text and your church community.
Regarding the “second commandment”– I believe the concept of not including images of God in our worship is actually more Muslim than Christian. If we believe God dwelled incarnate among us, that is certainly an image of God! For Eastern Christians, creating an icon is not meant to be the “actual” image of Jesus, but a representation of His characteristics. Similarly, when an artist imagines Jesus as black or Asian white or female, the intention is not to suggest He was anything except Middle Eastern, but to remind us that He is like us and understands us.
I’m thankful the Reformed Church has someone like you in it, to reflect and challenge the common imagination.
Mary Mary Mary,
You have been chosen and place in your church community for a time a this. I have always given you honor in your knowledge of history and a heart of compassion. Your desire to serve God is your fuel to change.
With God’s preparation and provision, women you are shaking things into the right puzzle picture. Men and Women worshipping and serving God together.
You are a teacher!!!
Powerful post-Mary! I really like the picture of the woman preaching as well. It reminds me of an artwork I have in my office of two women warriors that stopped me dead in my tracks when I saw it at the store. I passed it by but couldn’t stop thinking about it and went back the next day to purchase it. Whenever I view it, it still moves me to be a warrior for the abused and mistreated. Although I’ve felt the calling, I failed to have this represented in an image. That’s what my picture does for me and I’m suspecting, that’s what your picture does for you. I see you when I see that picture.
Great line up. We will be linking to this great article on our site. Keep up the good writing.
Great post Mary! You are asking a powerful question: “How can I gently nudge my church into a new tradition that embraces the way that art can add to the beauty of worship?” I deeply appreciate the way you approach the challenge with a “gentle nudge” rather than the opposite. Sometimes it seems that the gentle nudge can have a greater effect than the opposite. Small events can have a great impact over time, i.e. the butterfly effect. Enjoyed your post.
“No one at our church has thrown their TV set out.”
Welp, that’s pretty much the heart of our idolatry in this country, isn’t it?
I love that you are looking for ways to “gently nudge” your church to see things in a new light, Mary. You have a graciousness and love for your community that is so important. Thank you for that example. BTW, I love that picture of the woman preaching!
‘And honestly, there seems to be somewhat of a philosophical disconnect since we sing a lot of contemporary music and allow all sorts of instruments in our service. No one at our church has thrown their TV set out.’ – So Mary, here I think you have hit on a crucial point and one of my main frustrations …… namely, why are we even having this discussion.
IF you have thrown out your TV, etc…. then maybe I would be willing to have an honest discussion with visual images being sinful, but as you say – no one is really doing that.
So, again, what is really this issue? Preserving tradition, maintaining control? How, exactly did Jesus feel about those things as values unto themselves?
Mary – on the pastoral side, however, I will say it is a different and difficult thing to have this discussion in a respectful way – when you know that it is, really pretty ridiculous. God bless and guide you as you do it!