Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Reflections concerning “Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)” by William A. Dyrness

Written by: on September 5, 2014


“It is possible that we might win the battle of words, but lose the battle of images. And losing that battle could well cost us this generation.”[1]

I think Dyrness offers a vital point with this statement in noting that modes/methods that worked in the past will not necessarily work in the present. However, with this statement I also think Dyrness falls into a dysfunctional orientation of equating difference to an either/or, antagonistic, dualistic approach to relationality. Whether it’s words or images, according to Dyrness’s language, we are in a “battle.” It’s ‘us’ against ‘them.’ It’s giving preference to the idea of ‘versus’ over the idea of ‘collaboration.’ Especially since this is a reflection on a text about art/imagery, it’s important to name and bring to light this notion of battle – which is mentioned so early in the text and therefore serves as an underlying theme throughout the text even as it at times disappears into the background – for such a term carries with it significant mental imagery that invokes and evokes all kinds of intense emotions for people. I would suggest that a goal in healthily navigating varying forms of expression and understanding is to not to seek to further separate categories by conceptual chasms, but instead, seek to find conversational and perceptual interconnecting points in the midst of difference. Even in difference the dance remains because we are never so differentiated that all recognition in lost. This is a philosophical point that suggests any recognition/awareness at all between parties denotes similarit(y/ies), indicates overlap of Being. Knowing that interpretive capacity is never fully absent, there is significant rationale for moving from the antagonistic terminology of “battle” to the cooperative terminology of “dance,” “conversation” or other such language that leaves more room for redemption and reconciliation than does the terminology of “battle.”

The above noted, I agree with Dyrness that both the production of and the appreciation of art has undergone and is undergoing significant shifting as morays of culture continue to metamorphasize at exponential rates. The popularization of certain forms of art and certain artists themselves – while in many senses arguably a reasonable good in its own right – has not necessarily led to a deepened overall appreciation of how these forms and practices facilitate mature engagement/critique/celebration of the surrounding world.  That is, it has often led to people being voyeurs rather than connoisseurs.  This being the case, one of the ongoing questions is, how do we encourage more thoughtful interaction with art?  A related and larger query becomes how do we educate ourselves and others to see more deeply and broadly that the world is an artistic masterpiece for us to appreciate, revel in, grapple with, but never to take for granted?  How do we continue to welcome the lessening rigidified difference between high art and popular art without simply allowing this movement to become a journey toward mediocrity?

Thankfully, especially for the Christian approaching the arts, Dyrness has some suggestions about the above questions.  “[Scripture] reveals…that the world is laden with symbolic potential that reflects God’s purposes and his presence.”[2] Dyrness continues on to talk about God’s Incarnation and Glorification as aspects of how our understanding of the world as art can be further formed. As I was reflecting on these thoughts from Dyrness, my mind turned toward the idea of the Imago Dei – the image of God. We read in Scripture that “the earth is the Lord’s and all therein” and that “in the beginning God created…and saw that it was good.” A work of art always communicates aspects of the one that makes it. So it is with the earth and so it is with us.  We too are works of art.  “Let us make humanity in Our image.”  This is where the idea of Imago Dei comes from – we are made in the image of God, we are image bearers of God. We are given clues as to the character of the artist by both the subject matter chosen and the way in which the subject matter is portrayed.  Understanding God’s connectedness with both ourselves and our surroundings can assist in adding profound depth of attention and respect to ‘the world as art in all its forms’ even as the division between high and popular art continues to blur.

Moving toward the end of this reflection, I love where Dyrness, in writing about the wonderful philosopher theologian Jacques Maritain discussing art, the artist, and the surrounding world, quotes Maritain as offering, “the soul of the artist ‘seeks itself by communicating with things.’”[3]  This connectivity – see…we’re back to connectivity rather than disjunctive embattlement – is what Maritain calls “connaturality,”[4] what I would define as “connected togetherness.”  I resonate with Dyrness’s point here, but his language falls a bit short for me.  Including Martin Buber’s Ich und Du language would assist in overcoming this shortfall.[5] Martin Buber — now classically – writes about the relationship of I-Thou (I-You) language as opposed to I-It language in his famous text I and Thou.  The difference is between Subjectifying (in the best sense) language and Objectifying (in the worst sense) language.  The first facilitates life; the second facilitates death. I understand Dyrness to mean an I-Thou relationality in his writing, but I think Buber’s language adds clarification.

Dyrness continues onward to talk about Creation and New Creation, Trinitarianism, and other subjects, referring to thoughtful figures that have engaged these topics such as Jurgen Moltmann, Jeremy Begbie, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Dooyeweerd.

Walking on Water

Though of course many things could be suggested as addition to Dyrness’s text, one short helpful book I would like to recommend be read alongside Dyrness’s work is Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. [6] It’s fair to say that Dyrness is writing more as a scholar who appreciates art and L’Engle is writing as an artist-scholar.  Two related, but varying perspectives that sit well together.


Okay, one more suggestion. This last fall I was able to meet and see some of the work of Makoto Fujimura, a wonderful artist and thoughtful Christian. He has a book out called Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art and Culture.[7] It’s a book of reflections on his journey as an artist and a person of faith. It’s honest, insightful, whimsical and erudite; worth a read.

I want to finish with an encompassing, intense passage Dyrness shares in his text quoting from the theologian Rookmaaker, “Never try to show the validity of Christianity through art, Rookmaaker says, ‘rather the validity of art should be shown through Christianity.”[8] Do you agree?




[1] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue (Engaging Culture), (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), p. 21

[2] Dyrness, 87.

[3] Dyrness, 89.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Martin Buber, I and Thou [a new translation with a prologue, “I and you” and notes by Walter Kaufmann], (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

[6] Madeline L’Engle. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, (Wheaton, Il: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1980).

[7] Makoto Fujimura, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2009).

[8] Dyrness, 96.

About the Author

Clint Baldwin

5 responses to “Reflections concerning “Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)” by William A. Dyrness”

  1. Clint! Great to see you writing alongside of us this term. Always a joy to read through your thoughts as you take in and digest our topic. I believe Dryness was and is attempting to find that “conversational and perceptual interconnecting point in the midst of differences” that you alluded to, i.e., “do the dance.” I took his perception on the battle not so much as a “what-worked-in-the-past-will-not-necessarily-work-in-the-present” argumentation, but one of a cautionary intimation to the current church leadership’s and their somewhat unwillingness to meet this new, strongly visual generation at the church alter with historical and contemporary mediums of visual stimulation which guides the seeker deeper into the transcendency of God. In reference to your ending question, I have to agree that art should not show the validity of Christianity but rather art should enhance the dance of Christianity. Bless your Bro! Look forward to being with you in Cape Town.

  2. Stefania Tarasut says:

    Clint, I hope your family is adjusting well to the new home and community. Moving is never easy.
    I appreciate you ending with that question. I agree with Mitch above that it’s should be a dance, but I don’t know much about how dancing works. Doesn’t a good dance require a person to lead and one to follow? Who we are (our experiences, hopes, dreams, circumstances) determines what we see when we look at a piece of art.
    And doesn’t creation cry out to the reality of who God is and what he stands for? Is creation art?
    Ok, so to answer your question… Yes! I think that that is a valid statement in light of our culture and circumstances, but it might be a completely different answer if I was living in a different part of the world.

  3. Deve Persad says:

    You writing is always thought provoking Clint. The choice presented in your final statements is often the confusion that “christians” place, either through ignorance or fear. It is important to understand those differences. However, it’s a previous question you pose (that perhaps relates to this as well) that stays with me: “How do we continue to welcome the lessening rigidified difference between high art and popular art without simply allowing this movement to become a journey toward mediocrity?” In my opinion, there is a certainly a risk of having a proliferation of art that lacks meaningful purpose. It may be that together with the art we also need people to tell the stories of the pieces themselves. Could stories and art come together?

  4. Julie Dodge says:

    Love the final question, Clint. I think art is what it is without Christianity or religion having to validate it. But if, as you note, art reflects its creator, then hopefully the soul of the Christian artist comes through in his or her creation. But that soul doesn’t haven’t be well and perfect wither. It can be in process, in grief, in joy, in pain and in hope. The human – and artistic – experience reflects all of these. Can I NOT appreciate the work of a non-Christian? Absolutely not. I can still wonder in awe at their work. I think perhaps the bigger question is does Christianity have to validate everything in order for it to be acceptable? That just seems arrogant. And brings us back to that dualistic perspective – either accepted and validated or not. I find the world is not so simple.

  5. Ashley says:

    Clint, remember that time we walked through the London Museum of Art? And remember that time you told me to enjoy the Hermitage? I couldn’t help but think of you as I read through Dyrness’ pages.

    I loved your sentence, “Understanding God’s connectedness with the both ourselves and our surroundings can assist in adding profound depth of attention and respect to the world as art in all its forms even as the division between high and popular art continues to blur.” As I read, I consistently came back to the point that God is the Creator. He created us, and specifically gifted the artists with the ability to create meaningful works. Thus, the Creator created creators. Those creators, in turn, help to connect us to the Creator through their works. My mind spun as I used the word “create” so many times, but I was left with a sense of awe and wonder. And if that is the case, then I will answer “yes” to your final question!

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