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Imagination is a Christian Virtue

Written by: on October 18, 2018

The driving questions of Dyrness’ Visual Faith assume an unfortunate and erroneous relationship between art and the Christian faith. It strikes me that this book, and Dr. Dyrness’ influence at the Brehm Center at Fuller over the past eighteen years have essentially made the book irrelevant anymore. There is a strong Reformed tradition at Fuller Seminary, and most the conflict between art and the Protestant Church goes back to Calvin’s response to what he viewed as an obsession with relics, particularly among clergy. Calvin understood that there can be so much visual and other sensory influence that one can (and his assessment did) miss the purity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that is communicated—his grace imparted unto us—through Word and Sacrament—the preaching of the Word and celebration of Baptism and the Eucharist. These were to be the symbols, Calvin understood, that would warm our hearts to God. Everything else was a distraction at best and idolatry at worst.

When I was a ThM student at Princeton Seminary, I attended an old colonial church called Nassau Presbyterian Church. 

Steeped in the Reformed tradition, built in a time where resistance to visual art was the order of the day in the Presbyterian Church, the only artifact of visual prominence was the pulpit, on which laid a massive Bible (that no one actually read). There was no cross, no ornamental beauty on the chancel, and most of all no cross—certainly no crucifix, for any image of Jesus would be graven image, a violation of the first commandment.

I cannot say whether the last eighteen years of Bill Dyrness’ book or simple common sense has changed the landscape to where virtually no tradition in the Evangelical community would fear their guilt of idolatry if they had a cross in the sanctuary or Christian art in the atrium or a mural of Noah’s Ark in the children’s room. Where the book is helpful is in describing its value of how art can enhance personal faith as well as to shape the imagination of a worshipping community.

The only times in history when there was an aversion to art was when there was an aversion to social imagination. Nazi Germany – prohibit the music and art otherwise the oppressed might imagine their way out of oppression. And of course, according to Richard Hayes, what is vastly needed in this time of post-Christian west, is for the church to have a “biblical imagination,” in order to see the creative things that God is doing in our midst and in order to join God there.

Dyrness understands that art is central to the Christian faith because art is, essentially, creation. God is the Great Artist. We are made in God’s image. That does not mean that we are all artists in the vocational sense, but we each have the capacity to create and imagine and do art at some level. I think most of the Evangelical world understands this by now. Congregations that have not seriously engaged the arts are viewed as dated and quite irrelevant to many in the watching world.

In my former church, we had a significant art ministry, with an art gallery with rotating art shows for various purposes, and art that we would use in worship every week. It was so central to who we were as a congregation, and so much a part of the DNA of the church, that one cannot imagine a sanctuary without art.

In our new venture, we are looking into how art can be used as a tool to not only help troubled youth find healing from trauma, but also to talk about faith and spirituality. One initiative is called Youth Interactive, and they do great work with helping kids use their artistic gifts to create artisan businesses.

https://www.youthinteractive.us/exhibitions-at-state-gallery/

 

 

About the Author

Chris Pritchett

3 responses to “Imagination is a Christian Virtue”

  1. Great post Chris. The following phrase made me realize we were on the same page this week (I just think your post was much better written): “Dyrness understands that art is central to the Christian faith because art is, essentially, creation. God is the Great Artist. We are made in God’s image. That does not mean that we are all artists in the vocational sense, but we each have the capacity to create and imagine and do art at some level.” I love how you highlight the fact that we are all created in the image of an incredibly creative and imaginative God, and therefore have the capacity to create art to His glory!

  2. “The only times in history when there was an aversion to art was when there was an aversion to social imagination.” Wow, that’s a powerful punch. I agree. And then you stated that art helps us imagine our way out of oppression…

    One of my favourite movies is Babette’s Feast, a Danish film that you may know. The starkness of the spinsters’ lives thanks to their plain Lutheranism was blown apart by the lavish love poured on them by the French refugee Babette who made them a 5-star feast complete with bottles of Clos de Vougeot and cailles en sarcophage (quail in puff pastry). As a refugee and as a Catholic, Babette knew oppression but had the artistic sensibility to express the love of God in a beautiful way.

  3. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Chris,

    I think Calvin gets a lot of bad press outside of those who actually understand Calvin. In fact, I think John Calvin was not the ‘Calvinist’ that those who followed became. He was a man of his own time and reacting to what he perceived as distractions to genuine faith, as you correctly pointed out in your post. While there remain many churches in our tradition that continue to be austere I my experience within the denomination is that we have truly embraced the arts and sought to help people express worship and experience God through visual as well as oral/auditory means.

    I note well that you are utilizing the arts with young people in an effort to help them experience the creativity with which God imbued all of them. My experience with ‘at risk’ and ‘urban’ young people is that they will find great joy in these expressions and it will open their eyes not only to their own potential but to the one who created them.

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