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Dynamics of Visual Faith

Written by: on September 15, 2016

Introduction

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.”[1] 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.

Summary

In this book Dyrness “explores the relationship between art and faith in general and between the visual arts and worship in particular.”[2] 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.

Analysis/Reflection

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.”[3] 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.”[4]

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,”[5] 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?”[6]

Notes

  1. William Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 9.
  2. Ibid., 12.
  3. Ibid., 155.
  4. Ibid., 155.
  5. Ibid., 23.
  6. Ibid., 138.

 

 

About the Author

Claire Appiah

11 responses to “Dynamics of Visual Faith”

  1. mm Marc Andresen says:

    Claire,

    In your blog you included the comment, “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.”

    Do you think Christian art is a viable means to reach this generation? If so, do you have an idea where we begin? (You could write a book about this, I realize, and here must be brief.)

  2. Claire Appiah says:

    Marc,

    Thanks for replying to my blog and presenting me with the challenging question, “Do you think Christian art is a viable means to reach this generation? If so, do you have an idea where we begin?

    I believe “Christian art” can potentially be a viable means to reach this generation. But again, how do we define “Christian art?” I’m going to go Calvinistic about this. I do not think “Christian art” is any kind of depiction of Jesus Christ in any phase of His life. First of all, because I believe it is sacrilegious to attempt to capture God’s image. Secondly, these depictions are generally contextualized to time, place, culture, and theological agenda. Thirdly, the Bible is silent about His personal characteristics, so we need not use our imaginations in this way to invent them. So, these renditions would not be a starting point.

    I personally think of “Christian art” in any format as using biblical themes to convey the gospel message, and traditional orthodox principles, precepts, beliefs and practices. The main thing is that the art form truly emanates from a heart intent on glorifying God, rather than creating art for arts’ sake as a platform to showcase the abilities of the artist. I think the visual and performing arts will have the greatest impact on the souls of this generation, primarily because they are participatory.

    • mm Marc Andresen says:

      Claire, thanks, I like how you define “Christian Art.” And, as a musician and one who loves photography, I identify completely with the temptation of the artist to glorify himself/herself.

      One of my friends played professional oboe in Boston for 20 years. The day came when he had to lay it down and walk away because he realized his music had become an idol. Today he is retired and God has redeemed his music and he plays often in worship.

  3. Claire Appiah says:

    Marc,
    Yes, God knows our heart. He can use us mightily when our hearts are right with Him.

  4. Aaron Cole says:

    Claire,

    Very well written, I enjoyed reading your blog. You stated: “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.” I completely agree. Any suggestions or examples where you think this is working?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Aaron,
      Sorry for the late response. To answer your question I would have to say that I cannot think of any examples where this is working. I believe I see this happening in some contemporary churches on a “superficial” level. In those instances, it is more about experiencing the arts, than an experiential relationship with Christ and advancing His gospel.

  5. Claire,
    Great blog. Thanks for your thoughts from this insightful book.

    I have a question that I would like to pose to get your response. You wrote that there is a growing tolerance for the arts, what do you think it will take for it to move from tolerance to acceptance?

    God Bless

    Kevin

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Kevin,
      Sorry for the late response. You ask a question that requires some serious thought. But, I would venture to say that in our pluralistic, humanistic and consumeristic culture it would be: more opportunities to understand Christianity’s relevance in all aspects of life; more interaction and engagement with Christians who are talking the talk and walking the walk; and more shared experiences with authentic Christians—period.

  6. Hi Claire. I love your quote, “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.” I totally agree. It reminds me of Jeremiah 29.4-7 and our call to pray for the welfare of the city. Thank you for the reminder.

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Aaron,
      Thanks for replying to my blog. Sorry for the delayed response. I think it is of great significance that Christians meditate on Jeremiah 29:4-7, and allow it to inform their Christian walk as a whole.

  7. mm Garfield Harvey says:

    Claire,
    Nice blog. You stated that “Contemporary Christian artists are finding ways to interject Christian themes in their work.” I think some churches are forced (not in a negative sense) to rely on these artists to reveal biblical truths. We can’t rely on our old experiences as the only pathway to reaching this generation. As a church, we mostly have influence based on how much truth we’re able to convey when people walk through our church doors but when they leave…the media becomes their guide if that’s the most dominant voice. It is important for the church to allow Christian Artists to become a supplement to what teach within the four walls to ensure effectiveness.

    Garfield

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