Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue by William A. Dryness is a culturally engage look at the foundation, history and present interaction and conflict of perspectives on the subject of “visual faith” in the church. By the book’s title, Dryness defines “visual faith” as all forms of artistic expression in church past and present. It is exhaustive in the historical time line of visual faith with hitting the major events with a very broad stroke.
Dryness takes a relatively historical approach to the subject of Visual faith. He begins with the first century and the early church and works his way to the twenty first century. As he journeys the reader, he stops for certain high points and mile stones: symbolism used in the first century; then to marble imaginary used in the third century; then to artistic freedom under Constantine in the 300’s; the use of icons in the sixth century; the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance’s use of architecture with stained glass and painting; then to a negative artistically repressive response from Calvin in the sixteenth century; finally to the eighteenth century forward with use of painting, writing, architecture, and music. Dryness also looks at various perspectives and points of views. These include conflicts and tensions along the journey. He walks the reader through the explosion of art and use of “borrowing” from culture in the Roman Empire especially under Constantine’s rule. The effect of the reformation, both Protestant and Catholic thought. Lastly he shows how faith effected art and modern art as we know it, from Impressionists as illustrated in Rembrandt’s “ Raising of Lazarus” to modern theologians such as Karl Barth’s positive theological reflection of the music of Mozart. Finally he brings the reader into the twenty first century with modern day use of video, media, and various styles and persuasions of worship. Dryness’ book is very unique and refreshing look at secular and sacred artistic expression and how they interact.
What struck me was the use and tension of “visual art” with the church’s given theological response or stance depending on a given time period. Visual art, such as music, is neither “secular” or “sacred”. It just is. However, given one’s theological persuasion or point of view, something so neutral can become so divisive. This tension is not new, nor will it go away. Because we are people with a variety of theological opinions and perspectives, all shaped by environment, education, experiences, and personal taste. The individuality of taste and perspective produces differing opinions that with labeled with a “God card” of sacred or secular becomes divisive more than unifying. This “divisive” nature is not a by product of the visual art itself, but rather the eyes and ears of the audience to whom it is presented.
Dryness address this “tension” over a dozen times in his writing. He states: “historical relationship between Christianity and the arts, the involvement of Christian artists in the church is necessarily fraught with tensions.” These tensions began with early church in the Middle Ages, but continue on today: “tensions over the use of secular art forms and appropriate ways art can be used in the church, have reappeared throughout Christian history. It is important, therefore, before we consider the special challenges faced by twenty-first-century Christians, to briefly survey the ways Christians have used the visual arts in the past.” This tension extends to current times: “When it comes to making art, Christians face an opportunity or a challenge, depending on one’s perspective. Contemporary art is experiencing unprecedented transitions and tensions.”
My point is: regardless if it is visual art or audio art, there has been and will always be a difference of opinion and value. This difference will result in tension, and sometimes a very divisive tension as was seen with Calvin. However, the tension is not something to be ignored or eradicated, rather it is to be managed. The management of the tension allows for differing and sometime dissenting voices. None of which will stop the Kingdom of God or His Church. The debate historically has strengthened the faith of the people of God and has resulted in amazing works of art, music and literature. We live in a day an age where styles of worship, aka “worship wars”, are the visual art “tension” of our time. How will we be remembered? What will history say? The debate and the dialogue is valuable and inevitable. However, regardless of our conclusions the tension will remain and the Church will prevail.