In one sense, as a reader engaging with his book, Visual Faith: Art, theology and worship in dialog, the stated goal that William Dyrness puts forward seems almost ridiculous: ‘This book aims to extend and enrich a Christian conversation on the visual arts’ (Dyrness, 9).
The question rings hollow because in a culture where we are constantly looking at and engaged with or distracted by something that is primarily visual, it seems like a foregone conclusion that anything that has importance in our lives would have a prominent visual component.
And, indeed it does. But, while Dyrness’ focus in more narrow than mine might be, he correctly highlights that the relationship between art, visual art particularly, and the church has been a more difficult one than it should be or than one might assume that it has been.
It was fairly early in the book, as Dyrness was laying the groundwork for how he would approach the art and beauty in scripture, that I came across the section of the book that resonated most deeply with me:
Part of the modern problem is that the Hebrews had no special language for art and beauty, precisely because beauty was not something that occupied a separate part of their lives. In one sense, it was ‘nothing special.’ Often objects of beauty simply accompanied or adorned ordinary parts of life and therefore would likely be dismissed today as merely ‘decorative.’ Beauty was nothing special because at its best is was meant to be a reflection of the ordered meaning of God’s good creation. Often references to what we would call beauty are best translated merely as what is ‘fitting’ or simply ‘good.’ (Dyrness, 70)
Not to overstate the case, but I could have stopped reading there. For me this the exact way that we should be viewing (pun possibly intended) the relationship of art and the visual to our worship. Well, I would change one thing about Dyrness’ quote – I wouldn’t call it ‘nothing special’, instead I would call it, as he sites later, the ‘fitting’ response the what God is doing in the world.
Art and those things done ‘only’ for their aesthetic value are sometimes, as Dyrness says in not so many words throughout the book, have often been viewed as superfluous and unnecessary by our society in general and certainly by Christians (and Protestants in particular).
This morning I read a devotional that was talking about video games (Legend of Zelda to be specific). The author was making a point about how to observe a Sabbath rest and it was about the inherent value of play and leisure in and of itself, partially as a response to who God is and partially as a response to what God has done for us and as an example how we are to live and act.
The Bible begins and ends with play. One of the most fundamental aspects of play is that it is fun, and what do we see God doing in creation but having fun? God exercises freedom, creating out of enjoyment rather than obligation or compulsion. (Dixon, Think Christian)
When we see art, beauty or play as unnecessary or – in a worship context – as a means to an end (being interesting or relevant, etc.) we miss the joy and pleasure that we are meant to get and experience. Not just in worship, but in all of our lives through the beauty and art, maybe especially especially in the ‘nothing special’, ordinary type that we see and often miss every day.
Being awake and aware of this ordinary beauty and it’s importance is what Tillich is talking about when he describes art as an ‘encounter of man with his world, in which the whole man in all dimensions of his being is involved.’ Dyrness continues, ‘He (Tillich) felt this encounter was similar to a religious experience, as both create symbols and require participation in these symbols in these symbols in order to be understood. As he often put it, religion is the substance of culture, and culture is the form of religion.’ (Dyrness, 63)
It is only in and through weaving the visual, the aesthetic, and art into our lives that ‘all of our dimensions’ are involved – and while this may be extraordinary, it is also simply fitting and appropriate.