William Dyrness is a prolific writer who has published works in several fields including theology and culture, apologetics, theology and art, and global missions. He has taught in the United States, Africa, and Asia. Dyrness is a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Dyrness indicates that the purpose of this book is to “extend and enrich a Christian conversation on the visual arts and to bring questions of visual arts and theology into dialogue with worship.” He surveys and evaluates current dialogue on these issues and projects the course of future directions. The primacy of worship for him stems from the fact that it causes Christians to intentionally respond to God through the Holy Spirit and is therefore significant for a renewal of our Christian heritage in the visual arts.
In this book Dyrness “explores the relationship between art and faith in general and between the visual arts and worship in particular.” He looks at the important role imagery played in Christian worship including artistic expressions of Christian faith throughout the existence of the church. He indicates that historically, Israel understood imagery and beauty as reflections of God’s perfect order and the early Christians used art as a medium for teaching, exhortation, and inspiration. Up until the time of the Renaissance, the primary purpose of art was for devotional purposes.
The author examines the reasons why the church shifted from a place of prominence in the best art, music and literature before the Reformation, to an estrangement mode, primarily between Reformed Protestants and the visual arts. He delves into the historical, theological, and cultural factors behind this estrangement which is the core of the book. Apparently through the influence of John Calvin, the Protestant church abolished the visual arts and imagery in liturgy during the Reformation, to emphasize the written Word as the only source of Christian faith and practice. However, recently it has begun to reexamine the important role of art in Christianity and worship. Even some of the non-spiritual art of the late 20th century is viewed by Dyrness as a tacit search for something beyond the physical, material world, and he discerns that a great deal of modern and contemporary art is a search for higher truth..
The author argues that if art is reflecting the order and wholeness of the world God created, it can and should play an important role in modern Christianity. He advocates for a return of certain types of art into mainstream evangelical worship characterized by a celebration of the beauty, creativity, and imagery of art. He maintains that meaning, spirituality, and worship can be found in art in visual ways. Dyrness stresses that when the arts are properly understood they provide a rich context for understanding and communicating spiritual realities. The church should take advantage of the opportunity to engage with the world in this visual dialogue.
This book is so rich in the substantive material it brings to the reader’s attention regarding the integrated themes of visual faith, art, theology, worship, and dialogue as perceived through the backdrop of Scripture, the church, and contemporary history.
Dyrness made a profound statement that made a great impact on me regarding the power and influence the church is capable of wielding in society that I had never considered before. He states, “. . . The church is one of the few remaining communities on which the health of any society depends. With all its flaws, the church can mobilize and inspire people as can no other contemporary organization—in a way neither the government nor the school system can do.” He intimates that the reason this is possible is because of the position of the church in Christ. “The church holds in its hands the treasure of the gospel—that world-transforming story of God’s creative and redemptive work in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
For Dyrness, this empowerment comes through Christians engaging a visually-oriented culture through a continual renewal of vision and imagination for the arts, a renewal of corporate faith and worship experiencing God’s presence, and a recovery of our Christian heritage in the visual arts and other art forms. Dyrness is not concerned that renewal in worship is influenced by the surrounding popular culture. He makes a good point that when there is a “proper theological and biblical grounding, it is also possible that the renewal can in turn have an impact on that culture,” which is currently happening in evangelical Christian revivals.
Dyrness indicates that even though our culture has lost touch with the religious traditions that previously provided imaginative vision for artists, there is a growing tolerance for religious expression in the arts. Contemporary Christian artists are finding ways to interject Christian themes in their work. Even so, the challenge for the Christian church is still how to reach this generation with the gospel, interact meaningfully with contemporary culture in the arts on a deep level, while at the same time preserving the integrity of biblical truths. Dyrness puts forth a valid argument that being faithful to the biblical account does not mean that it cannot also be artful. He questions a limited view of biblical worship in his query, “Might it mean performances that in some sense “reflect” and reenact the impact of biblical events?”
- William Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 9.
- Ibid., 12.
- Ibid., 155.
- Ibid., 155.
- Ibid., 23.
- Ibid., 138.