William Dyrness in his book, Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue, draws attention to the idea that there is a crisis in Christianity and its relationship to the Arts. Dyrness, in this intriguing text, ultimately is calling for a needed renewal. Dyrness writes, “We need a threefold renewal: a new vision for the arts, a renewal of the worshiping life of the church, and a restored tradition of Christian art.” And after the weekend of worship I just experienced, Dyrness drew my attention.
This past Sunday, I attended a church where a young pastor spoke of a recent trip he had been on where he found himself standing in the middle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland. He described his experience that was dominated by the overwhelming visual stimulation of all the stain glass windows, the ancient statues of central figures of the faith, and the expansive architectural design creating a true space where nothing other than worship was really able to happen. Growing up Catholic, I resonated with the pastor’s story because it placed me back in the many Catholic Churches I had experienced as I was raised in the Catholic tradition. I was surprisingly reminded of all the feelings and emotions evoked by being in such as space and how much a part of my faith and worship the aesthetics of my Catholic upbringing were.
The irony of this story being shared by the pastor, and the experience it surfaced for me, was that we were sitting in a temporary “worship” space that happened to be a former middle school library. There were two sections of chairs, one section on the far left of the room and one on the far right, with a media center service hub taking up the bulk of the middle of the room which was being utilized as a make shift tech booth. There was a portable stage set-up where both sections of chairs could view it with a small video screen hanging in the middle, some ad-hoc lighting hanging from the ceiling attempting to create some sense of ambiance, and probably most notably a bit of a funky smell of dampness that filled the space because the school was no longer in operation other than for the church using it for its created space. Needless to say the aesthetic experience varied greatly from my upbringing and the Catholic tradition that I had experienced.
The tension created by Dyrness that catches my attention is not so much that the Catholic tradition is the expression that accurately reflects a high value of art but how both expressions were truly their own art form. The concern, which I think is the concern Dyrness is trying to shed light on, is the regard being given to the different forms and functions of art as they initiate, develop and sustain our faith traditions.
I found the chapter entitled, Reflecting Theologically, to provide a great framework of the essence of art that if comprehended and more widely held, could provide excellent awareness and help curb the crisis of art and faith. Dyrness articulates four essentials that captures the theological essence of art:
- Art is nothing special
- What is special is God’s revelation of himself and the call of creation to praise him in response.
- Human art, that is good, manages some echo of this reality—either praise or curse.
- In some mysterious sense, all art aspires to be worship.
Applying these essentials to my experience I believe I can see an aesthetic value and a significant role that art played in both worship settings described. Technically while being raised in the Catholic tradition, while art was happening to me through mass and all the sanctuaries that I attended, I was not aware, and certainly as a rascally young kid, did not value the full aesthetic value of the experiences I was being afforded. In hindsight, I can see it and sense it now, but until I had an appreciation for it I did not see all that was being said through all the stained glass, statues, and architecture. Similarly, while initially a middle school library setting could seem like a pathetic place for a worship service, with a true eye for art as described above, one could say that as many beautiful things were being said through the space in the library about our faith, our God and our relationship with him and our world. While I think Dyrness would push back on this, many creative expressions by people were a part of bringing the space and service together and much was said about who and how God is and who and how we are made to relate with him.
What I loved most about this book and, to me, gives it its greatest value is the potential it has to help draw attention to the value of art and aesthetics and how our faith is being shaped and has the potential to be renewed through an awakening or heightened awareness.
 William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 101.
 Ibid., Dyrness. 101