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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Art of Worship: Engaging Tradition and Narrative

Written by: on September 5, 2014

Pop Art - Lichtenstein

     Several years ago I read The Rise of the Image, The Fall of the Word by Mitchell Stephens. I was at the time becoming aware of the toxic reality around me; the erosion of my value system and the unexplainable disconnect that seemed to be taking place between the church/faith I loved and the society in which I lived. The armor of my weekly routine of faith, family and workplace was pierced by a changing social order and the inability of my faith and the church to speak with an authoritative relevance. The pace of this chaotic demise was accentuated by the loss of my senior pastor and mentor and the return of my oldest son from his first year at a public university. On the one hand was the loss of the wisdom and insight of a trusted pastor and friend; on the other hand was the confrontation to address the questions and concerns created by the exposure to a new academic reality.

Stephens clarifies that the confusion and chaos in the latter half of the twentieth century resulted from the erosion of values and beliefs. He attributes these phenomena “in part [to] the transition from a culture dominated by the printed word to one dominated by moving images.”[1] Stephens proposes that the use of the visual – especially the moving image, “has the potential to help resolve this crisis of spirit.”[2] He presents a historical perspective of the visual, the image, as pre-existing the written word. Writing, the inscription of symbols, became the means to image the visual and in a modern society the word became the provisionally dominate method of communicating. That world, characterized by conversation, rational argument, expanding libraries and the printed word, according to Stephens, is in transition. It is a philosophical turn affecting the cultural, political and academic elements of society. Although difficult to recognize and navigate, “this new form of communication” Stephen’s postulates, “should provide us with the tools—intellectual and artistic tools—needed to construct new, more resilient ways of looking at our lives.”[3]

I am a person with a life style and worldview established on the written word and my belief and faith perspective is founded on the Word. Coping with the discontinuous change in contemporary society and the transition described by Stephens is difficult. In reading Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue by William A. Dyrness[4], I have discovered another excellent resource to understand the reality of the life in the twenty-first century and how I can better develop a constructive path forward in managing the tension between the word and the visual image. Dyrness approaches the transitioning global culture and society from a Christian perspective on theology and worship. He perceptively recognizes what he calls “a sea of change”[5] resulting from the philosophical change in postmodernism and the “burgeoning and bewildering proliferation of images and sounds”[6] that has created a difficult transitional environment over the last three decades. I would interject the observation that Dyrness’ presentation applies equally well to those whose perspective is undergirded by liminal, traditional approach to church and culture as well as the contemporary generation with a perspective predominately founded on visual encounter with an inclusive view of interpretation of life and culture.

Dyrness presents the position of the church, what he calls evangelical Christians and to whom he is primarily addresses Visual Faith, as demonstrating the willingness to plunge into contemporary culture, including understanding what is happening in “pop-culture.” Consequently, there is possibility and hope as we seek to give meaning and be relevant in the contemporary cultural context. Dryness emphases visual imagery as critically essential in developing spirituality and establishing what he calls a “coherent cultural strategy.”[7] He notes, “One of the arguments I want to make is that, bewildering though this period of history is in so many ways, it offers some unique opportunities for Christian witness and spirituality— not only to renew themselves but in so doing to impact the larger culture.”[8]

As indicated in the title, Dyrness engages visual art in a dialogue. He does so from a historical perspective by devoting two chapters to the changing influence of visual art on the heritage of the Christian church.[9] The significance of this dialogue with the historical use of visual art is the manner in which the art forms demonstrate from a historical cultural context the biblical themes and theology of the church. Understanding art form in historical context, it seems to me, gives a means for authentic interpretation of art work in contemporary context. This is applicable to historical art forms as well as visual art forms created in the context of pop-culture.

Dyrness takes his art dialogue to a new depth as he addresses the scriptural implications of artwork and the theological value of reflection. The scriptural context of God displaying his creative handiwork in visual art forms all around us, leads to an awesome relationship of worship.[10] From a theological context, Dyrness advocates that all forms of visual art work leads to some attitude or posture of worship. He notes, “Human art, when it is good, manages some echo of this reality [the worship response] —either to praise or curse. … In some mysterious sense, all art aspires to be worship.”[11] What is particularly momentous is Dryness’ concept that art in itself is not satisfying or self-rewarding; “The problem is that art by itself does not provide the reconciliation and spiritual connection that the human heart really longs for.”[12]

The most pertinent dialogue is the engagement with contemporary art forms and popular culture. Dryness asks the question, “[H]ow can we as Christians engage with this world in a creative and constructive way?”[13] The answer is to engage in an exciting worship experience that is true (faithful) to scriptural art forms and theological teaching. The challenge is to reestablishing the connection between scripture, heritage, and a contextual (cultural) experience. The exposition on the creation story in chapter seven is an explicit example of the application visual art form. Humanity was created in the “image” of God and all of creation was “good” and “pleasing to the eye.”[14] Dryness notes that Christians “possess an incredibly rich biblical tradition— a tradition rooted in a narrative that is punctuated by earthshaking events in which God has revealed himself.”[15] Worship is engaging traditions and living the narrative of God through the visual arts of song, dance and image.

[1] Mitchell Stephens, The Rise of the Image, The Fall of the Word (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), Kindle, 57.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 61,emphasis mine.

[4] William A. Dryness, Visual Faith:Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2001) Kindle.

[5] Ibid., Kindle 227.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 196.

[8] Ibid., 370-372

[9] Note: an unfortunate aspect of buying the Kindle edition is the lack of art images due to copyright restrictions.

[10] Ibid., 1576.

[11] Ibid., 1920.

[12] Ibid., 392

[13] Ibid., 1964.

[14] Genesis 1-2.

[15] Dryness, Ibid., 2699

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