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Art & Worship

previously published in May 2005

I have always perceived that there exists in the arts, a distinctively spiritual component. But unlike philosophy or modern theology which demand logical expression, art is that approach of expressing the existential and transcendent that often bypasses the rational and seeks a direct, visceral and emotional experience—the songs and movies that make us cry, the paintings that confront us and hold us captive, the poetry that so captures a depth of experience in handful of words, the books that affect history.

It is understandable that the Reformers and the rationality of Enlightenment philosophy and theology viewed art as either suspicious or marginalized because of the nebulous results that arise from attempts to define or evaluate it. This wariness towards the arts still exists in our churches today as the validity of using of music, imagery (both static and moving) and theatrics are always up for rigorous debate—especially in regards to forms that are more embedded or celebrated in popular culture. And yet art, even art that is not explicitly “Christian,” still continues to supply what many in the church feel as experiences that are transcendent or spiritual. This resonates particularly within our contemporary context as the image and other sensory experiences are once again being reclaimed as primary means of expressing and storing the myths and truisms that define our existence. In her more personal reflections our beloved prophetess was also able to find something of value and beauty in art (here in the form of music) that was not explicitly expressed in terms of faith:

“For about an hour the fog did not lift and the sun did not penetrate it. Then the musicians [on the ship] who were to leave the boat at this place entertained the impatient passengers with music, well selected and well rendered. It did not jar upon the senses as the previous evening, but was soft and really grateful to the senses because it was musical.”—Letter 6b, 1893, pp. 2, 3. {3MR 325.1} (written while reflecting on a boat trip in which the ship was forced to stop and wait out fog that had settled across the entrance to her destination in Russel Harbor, Australia..)

Or consider this…In his book Reel Spirituality: Film and Theology in Dialogue, Robert K. Johnston shares a story about his wife who experienced a turning point in her conversion experience as she viewed the 1982 film by Peter Weir entitled The Year of Living Dangerously, which reflects the experiences and transformation of an Australian journalist as he confronts the extreme poverty and civil unrest in Jakarta, Indonesia in the 70's and in which the inevitable question is raised - “What must we do?”:

“A combination of people, events in my life, and the Spirit had prepared me to 'see' this film. It became a turning point, a con-version. The next week I returned to my project at work, that of appraising a hospital, and I saw the world differently. Within weeks I applied for a leave of absence and within months left for Mexico to work as a short-term missionary. Six months after my return, I resigned my position at Band of America to start my own appraisal business in which I could only work 30 hours/week so that I could give myself to the youth of my church and community, to the financial and political struggle to build a shelter for women and children in my city, and to study in the area of cross-cultural theology and ministry.”

What is significant about this life-changing encounter is that neither the film nor the filmmaker had any intent to relate anything specific in terms of faith.

At this point, honesty dictates that I view the question of how art might best function in the Christian experience as presenting somewhat of a moving target. This is the nature of experiencing the arts. On the other hand, the potential for the beautiful and deeply spiritual in the use of arts does not warrant us to categorically dismiss it (which would be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater). How then might we be able to define how we might approach the integration of the arts into our worship experiences? I would like to suggest a few approaches that have helped me and have had a positive impact on the congregation at my home church.

UNDERSTAND OUR BROADER HISTORY
The arts were not always viewed with suspicion in the Christian church. On the contrary, the arts used to play a primary role in the medieval liturgy. The status quo illiteracy of the agrarian medieval period meant only those who were able to pursue academia had access to text including scripture. As a result, it was primarily clergy who were literate and educated at the time. Perhaps this was not such a bad thing as there would have been no way in the early-mid medieval period to have mass-produced text in any efficient way. Nevertheless, this lack of access to scripture meant the cathedral service had to serve as the primary the-ology for the average person. There were no midweek bible studies or Sabbath school lessons based on a lesson quarterly and personal reading of the Bible. The widespread illiteracy also meant that the worship service be primarily a sensory experience. Visual…Aural…Aromatic…These are all words that could be used to describe the cathedral experience and can still often apply to the ongoing tradition of the Catholic Church (lets not forget, at this point there was only ONE Christian church. Catholic simply means “world-wide”).

With education and resulting power so concentrated in the clergy, corruption unfortunately arose within the church. Many reformed minded people felt the lack of scriptural access to the masses had allowed them to become manipulated and taken advantage of by the corrupt church. These reformers were able to launch a powerful movement that changed the course of Christian history forever—The Protestant Reformation.

There were many profound changes that occurred in relation to worship as a result of the Reformation. Firstly, with access to mass printing via the arrival of the Gutenberg Press, scripture that was once essentially only hand copied in Latin and kept by the clergy was suddenly accessible to more and more people in their own vernacular. This meant the focus of worship became more oriented to the individual's own encounters with scripture. Secondly, with more access to scripture, the use of arts in the worship became quickly marginalized and viewed as part of the means by which the common person had been manipulated by the church. As Zwingli's smashed up organ (Zwingli was a relatively radical reformer) and the stripped down, white-washed interiors of the Protestant “remodeling” of worship spaces bear witness, much of the artistic spectacle of the gothic cathedral was done away with. Thirdly, with the reduction of arts in worship, worship focused on the reading and hearing of the word of God above all else. It is from the developments of this Protestant tradition that our own Adventist emerged a few hundred years later during a period of powerful revival in 19th century American Christianity.

RESPECTING OUR OWN TRADITION
Understanding our broader past means we can better respect our own traditions as they exist currently while also becoming able to more thoughtfully approach the future of Christian worship. On the one hand we need to realize that the marginalization of the arts during the Reformation was not due to any explicit wrong found in art itself, but because it had become a powerful tool to manipulate and take advantage of the congregants. This means that the current reclamation of the arts in worship is not necessarily something wrong in it of itself. On the other hand, we would be remiss to not learn from the lessons of the past and the wisdom of our Protestant forefathers. Hence, as I approach forming a theology of the arts and relevant worship environment for my church, I find myself considering the following:

1. Our worship is meant to focus on the hearing, reading and interaction with the spoken word. This means we need to maintain the homily (or sermon) as the clear and unchallenged focal point of our minds in worship.
2. Everything we decide to do in worship, then, needs to revolve around and be in support of the spoken word. This means there ought to be every attempt made at having scriptural and thematic continuity between our choices of song, image and theatrics (if you use them) and the central theme/scriptural text found in the weekly sermon.
3. The spoken word should also maintain a primary position in our worship in a physical sense. This means we cannot sacrifice visibility or emphasis on the pastor's podium as we set up our worship spaces—even if you belong to church, like mine, who utilizes a full worship band and lighting. The place of preaching should never have to compete visually with the rest of the worship service.
4. Facilitating interaction with the word means we need to consider our worship as belonging to the congregation and not to those who run worship services. This means we need to put the needs, sensibilities and taste of the congregation as a whole above our own individual needs as leaders of worship.
5. With issue of education still being bound with issues of socio-economics, the use of arts can be a powerful way to transcend the barriers that are often a result in clash of culture, ethnicity and socio-economics. This can particularly be helpful in pursuing more multi-cultural settings in our churches and worship.
6. True art-making comes from deep within the heart. This means the key to truly spiritual art forms is to have a deeper understanding and relationship with the God we worship.
7. God’s revelation is broad and varied even outside the walls of church. If we are to make art truly devoted to worship, we need to be concerned with what is both truth and beauty. This means we need to spend a lot of time becoming transparent with ourselves before God and our congregation as worship leaders and learn to be simultaneously thoughtful, honest, creative and even brave about what we consider to be truly beautiful.

May God bless and enrich you and your church in worship.


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