Around the world each week, Christian people and churches gather to worship. They do so in cathedrals and mega-churches, in neighborhood parishes and pubs, in homes and school cafeterias. Baskin-Robbins ice cream only has 31 flavors, but Christian churches come in way more varieties than that! Each tradition within the larger Christian body has its own healthy patterns of worship and each one has places in need of renewal or growth. According to William A. Dyrness, a professor at Fuller Seminary, this is especially true when it comes to how churches utilize visual art within a worship space.
This is the discussion that Dyrness steps into in his book Visual Faith: Art, Theolgy and Worship in Dialogue. In the Preface, he writes, “this book aims to extend and enrich a Christian conversation on the visual arts.” In framing the book this way, he suggests that a conversation about visual arts in the church has already been going on among Christians for years. And he argues that this conversation is worth having, and that there are possibilities to “extend” and “enrich” the ways the church talks about these topics.
The problem he says, is that there has been an “uneasy relationship between art and faith”with a real “spotty history”that needs some sorting out. He is especially writing about Protestants and his own tribe in the Reformed tradition. Dyrness writes this book not as a prophetic outsider, but as a pastoral insider (he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA). He positions himself as someone who cares about the people and who seeks the best for the church. From this perch inside the church, he wants to be a bridge-builder with the wider world of art, artists, images and new expressions.
In this blog post, I am more interested in the persuasive leadership that Dyrness displays in his book than in his chosen topic itself. In framing his book as part of a larger, ongoing conversation (around artistic expression in the church), Dyrness takes a relational approach to his readers. It calls to mind Judith Glaser’s claim that, “to get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of our culture, which depends on the quality of our relationships, which depends on the quality of our conversations. Everything happens through conversations!”
This will sound familiar to many pastors serving in churches. Whatever the difficult issue of the day might be, a pastor sits down at the table with the people involved, listens to what has happened, and reflects with them on how to understand it, where to see God in it, and how to move forward. Dyrness clearly has a strong view about the use of fine arts in the church, but he doesn’t overwhelm with it, right off the bat.
He is careful to make it clear that he wants the church to thrive and to succeed. This stance as an insider/participant means that he gains the readers trust. He writes, “art then, may be a means, indeed one of the only means, that will catch the attention of this generation.” His point is, that by engaging with the artistic community, there is an opportunity for greater growth and outreach, which is at the heart of the church’s mission.
So, along with joining the conversation as a friend, and describing the good outcomes that could happen, he also grounds his discussion in the Biblical narrative. This is what he calls a “biblical framework”for how Christians think about paintings, drawings, statues, and images of any kind. He reviews the Biblical witness, especially particular texts and even word studies that help to show how God’s intention around the arts is much larger and richer than we might expect.
Dyrness also engages in theological reflection. He writes, “Theological reflection is simply the practice of naming and describing the major commitments that guide thought and action.” Again, this is a kind of pastoral leadership, where he helps the church to think and talk about a topic in light of the faith tradition. In this part of the book, Dyrness comes across as a real expert. He offers many biblical examples, as well as a hearty theology of “things”, a defense of the material world, and ultimately a witness to the God who loves all of creation so much.
The reason that I am reading this book in this particular way, is that there are resonances for my own research. I seek to lead my congregation into conversations about topics of race and ethnicity, of identity and belonging within a changing world. And those are hard topics to step into!
So, I am encouraged, even in reading this book, to see some of the necessary pastoral leadership elements at work. Convening a meeting for conversation among friends. Identifying the opportunities for growth or vitality that can come through tackling hard subjects. Grounding our conversation in the biblical narrative and in our theological tradition. Ultimately pointing people toward the God of love who is active in all of this.
In the end, Dyrness’ topic is not one that is of great interest to me. However, there are great lessons for leadership in this book, which is a welcome surprise.