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.