William A. Dyrness, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and visiting lecturer, invites his readers to walk through the hallowed halls of church history and understand the influence of visual art upon theology. His text, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue explores the dynamics of culture, generational expression and the interaction of art throughout Christian history.
During the time of the early church, visual art was the heartbeat of countless gatherings. “Once Christianity was recognized (by the Edict of Milan in 313), buildings were built specifically as churches, and they were adorned with mosaics. Moreover, artists were employed to shape furnishings for religious uses, both private and public.” However, during the Reformation, the church started to shift their attention to the Word of God and personal contemplation. This created an ideology of separation within Christian culture – those outside the walls of the church were no longer seen as equal, but a threat.
According to Dyrness, visual art was always present within the sanctuary and paired alongside theology; however, the Reformation caused Christians to view popular culture as a threat to the church, instead of a tool for the church. According to Dyrness:
By the time of the Reformation, fed by streams from medieval mysticism and the writings of people such as Thomas à Kempis, faith had become more specifically ‘personal’, consisting of an inward cleaving to Christ and his promises. This, of course, involved the application of the mind and did not require visual meditation.
John Calvin and Martin Luther’s personal preference towards solo scriptura, led to a theological view of cultural separatism and skepticism. Moreover, the Reformation marred the hearts of countless artisans and silenced their creativity.
The art culture was rebirthed in the early nineteenth century; however, this resurgence did not blur the lines between Christianity and popular culture but created more boxes of separation and segregation for artisans. According to Dyrness:
Artistic practice takes place in a created order that is given its own reality and structure even as it is open to the divine presence. Therefore, a complete understanding of art for the Christian must pay serious attention to the purposes and structures of God’s good creation, both as limitation and as potential for the Christian artist.
Christian artists, therefore, are still constrained to stay within the boundaries of biblical interpretation and theological expression. Dyrness discusses the conundrum of blending both worlds together and asserts that, “Clearly, the Christian church and Christian artists face an immense challenge, both to reach this generation with the gospel and equally important (and vitally related) to rediscover the imaginative richness of their heritage.” This is why the author believes that, “There is no way for the church to interact constructively with contemporary culture without being rooted firmly both in that culture and in the biblical and Christian tradition.” Therefore, one must understand the voice of culture and the theological constructs of the church in order to engage in purposeful conversation. Moreover, art must be the expression of the soul’s conviction – the soul’s connection to Christ.
Dyrness reveals that, “Art is becoming a cultural event, not unlike the rock or film festival. The artist, as a result, becomes a cultural icon, gracing T-shirts and coffee mugs.” Therefore, it is imperative for us to understand the value of artisans and the definition of their work.
This is why churches must utilize creative people to develop their social media strategies, organizational branding and their online presence. Too many pastors find offence in connecting the words marketing with ministry; however, if one does not believe in promoting their organization, they perpetuate the idea that art and Christianity should remain separate.
Judith Glasser revealed that, “Conversations are the social rituals that hold us together, the fabric of culture and society.” Art is part of the conversation. Dyrness warns readers in the very beginning of the text, “It is possible that we might actually win the battle of words but lose the battle of images. And losing the battle could well cost us this generation.” If churches want to be pinnacles of conversion, then they must first be hubs of conversation. Dryness challenges readers to create space for creativity within their organization and give people a glimpse of Christ through the use of visual media.
William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001),28.
Judith E. Glaser, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results (Brookline, MA: Bibliomotion, Books + media, 2014), 14.
William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001),21.