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

Transcendent Beauty

Written by: on September 9, 2015

When I taught Western Civilization to 10th graders quite a few years back, I loved talking about the middle ages and cathedrals, especially how stained-glass windows were the most significant medium for peasants/serfs to understand the gospel. The images, beautiful artwork, adorned the dark corridors of the oft-cold churches. Because Latin was a foreign language for the locals, the only way to communicate was through pictures. Interesting with Dyrness’s book Visual Faith, he wants the church to return to the beauty of artwork as a way to communicate what has been lost in the use of words alone. His reasoning has nothing to do with the lack of understanding the language, but rather, the protestant evangelical church (his self-ascribed tribe) focuses too much on words with an insular use of art. He wants a broadening of the imagination when it comes to encountering God in worship. His premise is that the visual awakening opens up ways that have been lost through the Reformation and Enlightenment (in both social and ecclesial forums). The use of art, in particular paintings and sculptures, what one would consider classical art, offers opportunities to “respond to the gracious presence of God with the whole of their beings.”[1]

At times, a book will capture my attention through a fresh and creative perspective that seems to resonate with my own thinking and imagination. Other times, a book disturbs me enough to be able to discern more clearly exactly what I’m thinking. Then there is a book like Dyrness’s, well written; however, I find myself swimming in water that I already know and have a difficult time finding traction that will offer new words to articulate my own thinking. So while I find myself mostly agreeing with Dyrness (except for emphasis on classical art as the main source of artistic imaginative work), I did not feel like I drawn into a dialogue. Rather, I was given a prescriptive for how to make the protestant church more interesting through the use of art.

With that said, I have to comment on his use of Simone Weil’s perspective. Her mystical understanding of how we encounter God invites me into a deeper longing to consider the beauty of this world – in classical art and more. In Dyrness’s summary of her words, “There are three ways that people are drawn to God: through affliction, religious practices, and by the experience of beauty. The first two, she points out, have been virtually eliminated from modern life, leaving the third. Among white races, she argues, ‘The beauty of the world is almost the only way by which we can allow God to penetrate us.’”[2] [3] If it’s true that innate in all of us is a desire for intimacy with a Holy God, then the beauty of this world – manmade and in nature – speak volumes of the character of God. Dyrness offers, whether it’s created by a Christian or not, the beauty of art has the capacity to “open up windows on the human situation in a way that other cultural products cannot.”[4] Weil goes on to speak of beauty as an experience for “radical decentering.”[5] Beauty becomes a transcendent means by which we encounter God, inviting us to forget about our own need for attention to direct our attention to another. With this effect on the interior life, beauty holds a unique role as another way to remember we are created in the image of God – the master creator of all art.

Every morning I walk in the woods with my dog, and now my new puppy. The beauty in the sunlight streaming through the evergreens and maples reminds me of the surpassing greatness of God’s amazing creation. The freshness of the soft dew on the plants and ground instills in me a sense of God’s presence in this sacred place. I stand amazed at the various types of green to which I smile at the imagination of God’s artist palette. All the while, I am worshiping God in His beauty. My faith increases, my heart is changed, my hope deepens. In the imagination of God’s creativity, I am drawn to open up my imagination as well to the Kingdom of God, both here and not-yet.


[1] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 22.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Simone Weil, Waiting for God (Minneapolis: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009), 101.

[4] Dyrness, 19.

[5] Ibid, 150.

About the Author

Mary Pandiani

Spiritual Director, educator/facilitator, follower of Jesus, a cultivator of sacred space for those who want to encounter God

10 responses to “Transcendent Beauty”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Mary, Great thoughts and well written….Here in Kansas we get made fun of because we have no mountains, no beaches, and few trees. I’ve had “outsiders” say they could never live in Wichita because there’s no beauty. When people say that to me I always encourage them to stick around for a sunrise or a sunset…Kansas is incredibly flat so we get the most magnificent and largest sunsets I’ve ever seen. There’s also something about harvest time and rolling wheat for as far as you can see that sparks the imagination. I love your post because God’s beauty is all around us…whether it’s in creation or created.

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      I have friends who moved here from the midwest, and they often bemoan the fact that there is not enough horizon to look upon with all of the trees. It seems so foreign to my world. Yet, when I think about the beauty I saw in Zambia where there were vast plains, I recognize a certain beauty that also reflects the awesomeness of God in the forever-ness of flat land.

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Mary, I agree with your “exception” that Dyrness is promoting a particular type … classical … of art. As I wrote my post I realized about half-way through that some of the practices/expressions Dyrness spoke against in the protestant church could be viewed as his owning missing of his point. Each expression of a church or the church has inherent artistic and creative value as it tries to express a view, way, and nature of God and his created world. I wondered if it was just me or my speed of reading but I would agree with you. Nice, honest post:).

    • Mary Pandiani says:

      Phil – you bring an interesting point to mind. I have a feeling if I was in a different place, space, and season of my life, Dyrness’s book would have resonated more with me. I still believe books find us, more than we find books. I’ve learned to trust that God will bring me the book, sermon, scripture, lecture I need at the time that I need it, and my only responsibility is to notice whether I have an attraction or aversion…then sit with it (it’s a very Jesuit practice…speaking of Catholics:)).
      Anyway, all that to say, I appreciate your grace in allowing me to “push back” with Dyrness.

  3. Jon Spellman says:

    Ok, so Mary, I want to take this opportunity to ask this question for a woman’s perspective. I’ll probably come across as sexist or some other kind of PC taboo but I hope not… You mention that the author feels “the protestant evangelical church (his self-ascribed tribe) focuses too much on words with an insular use of art.” I am wondering if this could be as much a function of the heavy paternalistic view that permeates the protestant church? My line of reasoning goes like this. That creative expressions are more in line with women or “soft” men, not REAL men that thunder and bloviate and since, after all, ONLY men can occupy space behind the sacred desk then it stands to reason that the male brand of communicating sacred things MUST hold sway, right? Everything else has to take a back seat behind the “REAL” important stuff like preaching using only words…

    Am I reaching?


    • Mary Pandiani says:

      Can I just tell you before I respond to your sexist, non-PC, elephant-in-the-room question, that I love the way to jump in with both feet? I really do. By opening up the dialogue, I have to not only answer honestly but with conviction, albeit held in humility (hopefully). And I hope you know that I don’t consider you sexist, love that your non-PC, and hope that you continue to make us look at the elephant.
      As for the answer to whether the conservative evangelical world is male-dominated, I would say yes, but with some real places of hopeful invitation for women. Does that mean that male-ness has lead to a “word” dominated culture within? Yes and no. I think Luther, Calvin, and others were so frustrated with the hypocrisy of leadership (constructive deviants perhaps) that they wanted something new to rely upon – the word of God, scriptures. Not a bad idea. But unfortunately, all the other stuff got thrown out as the phrase goes, “baby with the bathwater.” As a result, the arts got associated with all that was bad. Then as culture changes and people get scared, there’s a lock-down, so to speak, that doesn’t allow for the creativity that both men and women can bring.
      I could keep going…but for now, I hope I answered enough to give you a taste of my thoughts.

  4. Dave Young says:

    Mary, Transcendence and it’s connection to art can certainly be an entire dissertation. I appreciate the connection: a nice painting (Nick post), a well told story, the picture/experience above in your post – all of which can touch our heart, make us simply aware that we’re more then physical and in that art is a helpful conduit. General revelation, in which art swims, and special revelation in which the Word is our source are complimentary and can help each other. Separate art remains an enigma, and Word remains sterile.

  5. Travis Biglow says:

    Mary blessings, I like that you have your own view on art and are not contrary to Dyrness (I to rewrite that i almost wrote dryness lol). Even though i am of the belief that art is a reflection of God’s glory i dont know what or how it has affected my faith. It did wake up my senses to give a picture to many of the events in the Bible. But as I get older I am really drawn to the signicifance of scripture and expeience as it relates to my faith. But maybe if Christianity put more into art and how it can connect with whats going on in our time maybe it would have more relevance and purpose.

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