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

The Power of an Image

Written by: on September 4, 2014

Every time I travel to Europe, I take time to visit churches (which, amazingly, are kept open and accessible rather then locked-up like in the United States). Most of the churches I visit are Catholic or Orthodox, which provide s tsunami of sensory stimulation, from sight to smell, from sound to feel. Rich in images and symbols, candles and icons, gold and silver, domes and arches, I am brought into a different world, a different reality from the busy streets I just left. But returning home to my colorless, dark (yes, the ceiling and stage are painted black and grey) church that feels as warm and inviting as a business office, highlights the vast gulf in practices and thinking among churches. The question that needs to be asked is how is it that people who believe in the same God and Bible come away with such different concepts of what is appropriate for worship space? Why is it that most Protestants disallow visual art in places of worship, including even symbols (note the lack of crosses today in most worship spaces)? And what does this ultimately say to our present day culture that is so deeply visual?

These important questions are the focus on William A. Dyrness’s book Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Dyrness takes us on a historical and theological journey through the changes in attitudes, philosophy and theology that contributed to this vast divide in attitudes toward the visual in Christian worship and life. Highlighting the iconoclast controversy between the Eastern and Western Churches as well as the Protestant emphasis on the Word as the only source for proper worship, and the death of enchantment in modern art, Dyrness indicates that there has in fact been no uniform understanding of images and symbols within the Church, which explains the stark contrast I experience in my travels. However, the author argues that our Protestant sensibilities may have done a great disservice to our culture and society by removing a strong Christian influence from the visual arts and a disservice to the Church by removing the visual arts from our worship. Here, Dyrness provides a strong argument to reconsider our take on visual arts and symbols.

First, he reminds that no less than Augustine (in On Christian Doctrine) argued that“God uses temporal things…to show us the eternal reality for which our soul hungers—the earthly sign points to and represents a spiritual reality (thought it does not directly mediate that reality). Echoing an openness to the surround culture, Augustine expressed the view that the world and Scripture are both full of signs that can lead us to God.”[i] This is further evident in the Old Testament, where “human creators in the Bible are actually commanded by God to make objects that encourage the proper worship of God in the tabernacle and temple, so this activity could not have been proscribed in the second commandment.”[ii]

Second, signs are meant to provide a challenge to one’s view of life and reality. Here is where our visual culture is most open to the possibilities of learning and being influenced by a Christian viewpoint. “Biblical images demand, when they are placed within the larger biblical context, a response of the whole person not simply to the image but ultimately to God… They do not speak only to change one’s perception of the world, as all great art does, but to change one’s life….”[iii] The combination of biblical context with the image itself gives grounding to visual images that speaks clearly of that which it points: an ultimate and life-affirming reality. In a world that is so highly focused on symbols and signs, where seeing is as important (if not more so) than the written or spoken word, it seems that here is an essential way to communicate the reality of God to our culture. Further, our modern worshiping community, also coming from a visual culture, might better be challenged, formed and even transform through Biblical images.

Third, as the role of visual arts is to challenge our thinking and teach about life and reality, this has led museums becoming the new place of spiritual solace. As Dyrness writes: “But when religion divests itself of all symbolism and imaginative depth, as it has in the minds of many of our contemporaries, art can appear to be more attractive alterative. And artist and galleries often quite literally take on the role of spiritual sources.”[iv] It is a shame that people now must go elsewhere to experience the spiritual power of art rather than in our churches. This reminds me of my first real connection with a piece of modern art (never my favorite style). It was while visiting—of all places–the concentration camp at Dachau.


I was moved by a huge monument that looks like a bunch of skeletal people had been used to create a barbwire fence. In the midst of this horrific camp, where so much suffering happened, this abstract piece of art spoke to my very heart in a deeply profound and emotional way, where I connected for the first time with the suffering of so many people in this place. It was literally a religious experience, where the reality of evil and suffering tore at my heart. This, I believe, is what art can–and should–do. It can shake us up, rip us apart, and tear down walls to make room for new insights and even transformation. If this is so, why is art then not welcomed in our churches, where it can be of service in helping change and transform lives…rather than letting the museums (or our TVs or computers) be that place of spiritual connection? Could we better speak to our culture if we made better use of the visual arts to
tell the Gospel? I think so!

[i] William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Acedemic, 2001), 33.

[ii] Ibid., 83.

[iii] Ibid., 84.

[iv] Ibid., 135.

About the Author


John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

9 responses to “The Power of an Image”

  1. mm Liz Linssen says:

    Dear John
    I totally hear what you’re saying. It also amazes me whenever I travel on to the continent to see how beautifully arrayed many of their historical churches are. A few months ago, my husband and I visited Prague. The churches there were just awe inspiring and many tourists flocked to see their grandeur and be inspired, even for a moment. Gaudi’s work in Barcelona which we visited on our honeymoon years ago was equally awesome.
    For sure images and visual art could lead us away from the worship of God if we’re not careful. But surely great devotion and desire for God must have stirred the hearts of these great architects and artists from centuries past to make such creations. A plain room does little to stimulate devotion for God.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Liz, it is great to be back “together again” and thanks for your kind comments. You touched on what I think it one of the biggest issues that I am still not settled on: When do images and symbols distract or becomes object of worships…where to draw the line! I don’t really know. I do think that there is much in the world that can move us, that invite us to God and allow us a taste of the divine. And maybe that is the key: It is to whom are we being drawn? If to the Father of our Lord Jesus, then we must be on the right track! Much to think about! Thanks Liz!

  2. John,

    Excellent post, my friend. Thanks for sharing. It is good to read your work yet again.

    Yes, we Protestants have really blown it in regards to aesthetics. We have become so enamored with “the word” that we have forgotten that the “The Word” has flesh and blood just like us. Art speaks to that flesh, “fleshing out” what is at the heart of mankind. Who are we to leave out the depths of understanding the human condition by leaving art out of our sanctuaries, the very places that should be filled with beauty and artistic expression. We need to re-examine our theology and practices in these areas; I know I do.

    Thanks for the “modern art” example. I can see why you were so moved by this monument. This piece of art causes us to stop, to think, to reflect, to grieve. Thanks for sharing this. After reading this week’s text and your post, I am a more avid fan of art. I never thought I would see such a day.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Brother Bill, It is so good to be back in touch through these posts. Thanks for your wonderful comments. I think you stated it so well, “Who are we to leave out the depths of understanding the human condition by leaving or out of our sanctuaries…?” Such a statement thirty years ago I would have found hard to swallow. As I told Carol, maybe age (maybe wisdom?) has developed a clearer vision, but maybe it is seeing art as a tremendous medium to express our human condition (our lostness, our violence and emptiness–as in the Dachau statue–as well as hope, love and even the divine) that I find something in sacred art that so moves me! (I think of my elderly father tearing up at the drop of hat…I am becoming like him). There are some benefits to getting older! Great insights Bill.

  3. Deve Persad says:

    I very much appreciate your critical engagement of this reading John. Of the series of questions you pose, this one is of particular interest to me: “And what does this ultimately say to our present day culture that is so deeply visual?” Our culture is moved by icons and symbols which communicate meaning to a vast array of the population. If you could suggest a means to change our western approach to this dilemma, what would you propose?

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Thanks for your thoughts and kind comments! As far as your question on our culture being visual, I am not necessary sure that is a bad thing. Many cultures are strongly visual in the orientation, and have adapted well to accepting and following the Christian faith. I think the bigger issue is how images are used and how they are today ubiquitous to the point of distraction. What I think is missing is the lack of any context or foundation for giving images deeper meaning. Imagines have become consumer products that you hold on to as long as it is in or cool, then move on the next one. Imagines no longer have meanings for community, for belonging, for even teaching of deeper truth…they are now just temporary and rarely touch something deeper. How to bring greater meaning and value to the visual might first require education, next belonging, and finally the dismissal of empty images that provide nothing lasting…
      Sorry…I think I got a little philosophical. You shouldn’t ask such questions and get me started. Hope this answers your question. Looking forward to seeing you soon!

  4. Richard Volzke says:

    I believe “fear” is the reason that Protestants reject the use of static art in our churches and worship services. Protestantism and evangelicalism worry that idols in church or service will tempt individuals to worship the object versus focusing on Christ. Having grown up Roman Catholic, I enjoy the art that is incorporated into their architecture and services. The protestant church, in general, is missing out on a blessing that God has given it, through art. One of my classes at Wesley Biblical Seminary (WBS) required me to experience worship in various types of churches. I visited a Roman Catholic Church and was greatly moved by the beauty in my surroundings. I found myself focusing on the life of Christ and the gift He gave us through His death on the cross, getting lost in the images around me.

  5. mm John Woodward says:

    I didn’t know you came from a Catholic background! I am glad that you are able to visit Catholic churches today and be moved by the beauty of surrounds. All I can say is AMEN. Not coming from a Catholic background, I have found myself many times, as you say, “focusing on the life of Christ” as I’ve sat in beautiful Cathedrals and tiny Orthodox chapels. It is hard to convince some Protestants that it is possible to be moved icons and statues without having them be the objects of worship. I think many are missing out!

  6. What does this forced lack of visual arts ultimately say to our present day culture that is so deeply visual? I believe Dyrness stated an answer well when he said, “we might win the battle of words, but lose the battle of images. And losing that battle could well cost us this generation.” It is quite sad that our churches have become more like office buildings than transcendent connective points. As you bring out there has been no uniform understanding of images and symbols within the church. It is as if current church leaders steer away from this topic not willing to glean or learn from art and the proper way of using it in worship. I wish more church leaders would read Augustine and that which you brought out here, “that the world and Scripture are both full of signs that can lead us to God.”

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