In all my years of ministry, even though I have enjoyed art, I have never given it serious thought and consideration as one that adds value to ministry. My protestant puritanical upbringing has not allowed me to reflect upon its value and worth in worship and discipleship. Reading Visual Faith – Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue by Dyrness has awakened me from my slumber and opened my eyes to a whole new realm of opportunity for Christian influence upon the community as well as the theological training of a multitude of Christians whose lack of education limits their knowledge of the Word.
For ages, the evangelical protestant community has been erroneously weighed down by a faulty but strong belief that visual art can swerve Christians away from true faith. Dyrness provokes serious thought against this belief, with a strong invitation to take a relook at scripture. He also poses a challenge that cannot be easily brushed aside in light of the fact that a new upcoming generation is “looking for a new imaginative vision of life and reality, one they can see and feel, as well as understand.” CITATION Dyr01 l 1033 (Dyrness 2001)
Art in a variety of forms dominates Indian culture and religion. Visual art in particular is deeply embedded in Hinduism as a religion and in Hindu worship. Hindu gods, their characteristics, related legends, mythologies, epics, religious beliefs and practices once depicted through visual art forms to enhance religious experiences and aid worship, over time turned into objects of worship themselves thus giving way to idolatry.
Unfortunately in India, orthodox as well as protestant Christianity from their very birth have had to distance themselves from all art forms particularly visual art fearing that it could turn idolatrous. Since people embracing the Christian faith within the Indian context are essentially turning away from idolatry, even to this day the protestant church has for the most part shunned visual art and imagery as sinful and a possible snare, limiting Christian visual art at the most to stained glass windows in sanctuaries. Occasional attempts have been made down through history to introduce art forms and symbols into the life of the church but they have faced vehement opposition and rejection. None have had any widespread success that is recorded.
Given the fact that Indian culture predominantly follows oral tradition with a major proportion of its population being low or non literates, visual art could play a significant role in worship and spirituality in the church. There is no doubt that we live in a fallen world and it holds every possibility in its fallen state to take what could be beneficial and turn it towards its own destruction. This could happen with visual art as well. However, that cannot be a reason to discard art and imagery altogether. The Christian faith is based on the incarnation of Christ ‘the word became flesh’. Therefore imagery used both with caution and creativity can definitely enhance the experience of Christian worship and give it deeper meaning. Christian art certainly holds the potential to become a powerful tool for evangelism and discipleship. It can become an effective channel to inculcate the values of the Kingdom. “Surely what is called for is a new alliance and interaction between the word and the image” CITATION Dyr01 p 132 l
1033 (Dyrness 2001, 132).
So what would be classified as Christian art and what should it depict? Is it absolutely essential that it should be identified as ‘Christian art’? Could it simply remain as art with a Christian message? These are questions I seek answers to. India, with its natural inclination toward art can widely benefit from Christian art. It needs to find its dwelling not just within the sanctuary or in lofty places inaccessible to the common person; neither should it be limited to biblical narratives and biblical characters alone.
First, let me explain what Christian art cannot be. It cannot be ‘art for art’s sake’. Christian art has a divine purpose to be fulfilled through human channels. In a sense ‘art for art’s sake’ regardless of being Christian or not is an anomaly. Whether there is purposeful intent behind art or not, it does lead to an end. Art in every form conveys a message or provokes thought. It never remains as an end in itself. In other words, art is never static or inert. One couldn’t agree more with Dyrness’ observation, “The real significance of a painting lies not in the artefact that is hung on the wall, but in the way of seeing the world that it instigates or constructs.” Dyrness makes a further point that “art in its postmodern mode, therefore, frequently reaches across the boundaries of art forms, retrieves meaning from the past, and calls for a response from the viewer.” CITATION
Dyr01 p 126 l 1033 (Dyrness 2001, 126)
Christian art should be reflective of Christian theology and of God’s intervention in the realities of everyday issues of life. Then Christian art should be Redemptive. God intends to use his Church, the ekklesia (called ones) in His ongoing redemptive work to redeem humankind and to restore the defaced image of God in them. Therefore the work of Christian art also has a redemptive purpose. Dyrness writes, “While all great art is in some sense ‘redemptive’, in that it takes the world and remakes it, Christian artists can understand their work as more directly tied to the work of Christ.” CITATION Dyr01 p 85 l
1033 (Dyrness 2001, 85)
Finally, Christian art should also be Prophetic. Prophecy and being prophetic does not imply predicting the future alone. It is not restricted to the notion of forecasting . The word Prophetic implies both ‘forth telling’ and ‘foretelling’. Christian art in that sense can be forthright in its presentation of the realities of life and the evils prevalent in society in order to evoke a positive response to correct those evils. Being forthright and frank may not be beautiful always. On the contrary, it could be unattractive and unacceptable. But the prophet speaks on God’s behalf. A Christian artist as a prophet has to be a God- pleaser and not a man-pleaser. “The best art,” Turner argues, “doesn’t tell people what to believe but enables them, for a short time, to see things differently, and the Christian can enable people to momentarily glimpse the world through eyes that have been touched by Christ CITATION Tur01 l 1033 (Turner 2001).” Concern for image and beauty and the possibilities it holds for the church most definitely cannot be ignored in an increasing visually oriented world.
BIBLIOGRAPHY l 1033 Dyrness, William A. Visual Faith – Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academics, 2001.
Turner, Steve. A Vision For Christians In The Arts. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2001.