December 27, 2012

Jaroslav Vajda: Concerning Poetry and Hymnody

If you're like most Lutherans, you've probably never heard of Jaroslav Vajda. So I'll fill you in a little bit, then tell you why I'm writing about him. Vajda was an LC-MS pastor and hymn writer, who began writing hymn texts in the 1960s. He is credited with giving American hymnody a "new voice" in an era that was dominated mostly by British poets. This article credits him with being much more interested with writing hymns for the liturgy and Church year than the hymn writers from across the Atlantic. Vajda died in 2008 at the age of 89, having written and translated over 200 hymns that appear in many hymnals of various denominations, including Christian Worship and its supplement (WELS), the Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELS), and the Lutheran Service Book (LC-MS).

So here's why I'm writing about Vajda. I had never heard his name until a few years ago. I kept hearing pastors reverently mentioning his name, always followed by glowing reviews of his beautiful hymn texts. He is even said to have been "the greatest Lutheran poet since Paul Gerhardt" (Schalk: Wonderful hymns of Jaroslav Vaija). Having been made aware of his name and his illustrious reputation, I was able to take note whenever I would see him listed as the author of a hymn. So admittedly, my experience with Vajda's hymn writing is limited to what has been included in the aforementioned Lutheran hymnals.

Because I have not read all of his hymns, part of me feels that it is unfair to pass judgement on them based on the dozen or so that I have read and sung. However, I would also like to think that the various hymnal committees have sifted through his works and selected only the best for inclusion in their respective hymnals. Unfortunately, if this is the case, it does not really help my opinion of Vajda's hymnody. (And here comes the part where I sound snooty and judgmental.) Of the eight Vajda hymns included in CW, half of them rank among the worst hymns in the hymnal, in my opinion.

What criteria could cause me to reach such a conclusion? Allow me to elaborate. First of all, I won't produce a bulleted list of criteria that every hymn should meet, or else be thrown out. Dealing with art and music probably necessitates an organic process. (And, by the way, critique is part of that organic process of inclusion/exclusion. Just because a hymnal committee included it does not necessarily make it worthy of inclusion within the Song of the Church.) By contrast, a concrete list of criteria would prove overly restrictive and rule out some very good hymns, or else be too short to be effective. But, that being said, there are some basic unwritten rules that Vajda seems to frequently break.

The biggest one is theological clarity. I can't argue with Vajda's theology, because when it comes out it is spot-on. But in hymn writing, there is often a balance struck between poetry (artistic expressiveness) and theology. In the great hymns of the Church, the poetry is minimal, because being too abstract or too "artistic" will get in the way of the clear proclamation of the gospel. (This is essentially what I have argued about the visual arts in the Church, as well.) So let's look at a few cases-in-point. The first is "Now the Silence," which I would say is tied for worst hymn in the CW with "Then the Glory." It's a one-verse hymn which reads as follows:
Now the silence
Now the peace
Now the empty hands uplifted
Now the kneeling
Now the plea
Now the Father's arms in welcome
Now the hearing
Now the pow'r
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring
Now the body
Now the blood
Now the joyful celebration
Now the wedding
Now the songs
Now the heart forgiven leaping
Now the Spirit's visitation
Now the Son's epiphany
Now the Father's blessing
The major fault of this hymn is that its theological content is extremely thin—sort of an abstract outline of some scriptural truths: grace, atonement, heaven, etc. But what little content there is almost completely lost in a barrage of repetitive adverbs, which I can only suppose is intended for poetic effect. But while I can appreciate this poem to a degree when it is read aloud, it becomes tedious and even exasperating when set to music and sung by a congregation. 

A second unwritten rule of good hymn writing is to avoid sentimentality. Being sentimental should not be confused with being emotional. Here's what I mean: "Lord, Thee I Love With All My Heart" is an extremely emotional hymn. The text and music come together so powerfully to describe the relationship between a broken soul and a gracious God. And when verse three describes the resurrection in the prophetic words of Job, who can hold back tears of joy? This emotion comes from the beauty of the gospel itself more than from the artistry of the hymn writer, and touches each believer on a personal level—because we have experienced it. Sentimentality, on the other hand, has been described by some as "emotion unearned." We sang the Vajda hymn "Peace Came to Earth" on Christmas Eve, and it illustrates my point:
Peace came to earth at last that chosen night
When angels clove the sky with song and light
And God embodied love and sheathed his might—
Who could but gasp: Immanuel!
Who could but sing: Immanuel!
And who could be the same for having held
The infant in their arms and later felt
The wounded hands and side, all doubts dispelled—
Who could but sigh: Immanuel!
Who could but shout: Immanuel!
I should point out that the third line of the first verse is a very deep and beautiful statement, and were it not for the last two lines (repeated in each verse, but with different verbs), I could be persuaded to include this hymn in the hymnal. But those last two lines are deal-breakers for me. Sure, they are intended for poetic effect. But first of all, it is pure sentimentality. The poet is so overcome with emotion that he projects his sighing and gasping on the whole Christian Church. Why can we not be allowed to have our own emotional responses? And furthermore, how can I have an emotional reaction to something I have not experienced? Vajda is asking me to imagine holding the infant, then to imagine touching his wounds as my doubts melt away. But I cannot really do any of these things, so my emotional reaction is ultimately unearned. So while parts of this hymn are certainly praiseworthy, it is difficult to overlook its glaring faults.

The third and last unwritten rule that Vajda often breaks is tied in closely with the second, and that is that they are overly personal. Again, this may be a desirable thing in poetry, but it does not make for good hymnody. For instance, verse two of the above hymn text is substituting a personal (albeit imaginary) experience for the universal experience of the Church. There is a better example in one of Vajda's more well-known hymns, "Where Shepherds Lately Knelt."
Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel's word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
But there is room and welcome there for me,
But there is room and welcome there for me. 
In that unlikely place I find him as they said:
Sweet newborn Babe, how frail! and in a manger bed,
A still, small voice to cry one day for me,
A still, small voice to cry one day for me. 
How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
His prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare:
A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me,
A child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me. 
Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned
Its way into my heart unasked, unforced, unearned,
To die, to live, and not alone for me,
To die, to live, and not alone for me.
Adoration of the Shepherds, Hugo van der Goes
It's a good sign that a hymn is going to be overly personal if it is written in the first person singular. (Luther's hymn, "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come" is written in first person, but from the point of view of the Angel, who shares only God's message, not his personal feelings.) At the risk of sounding repetitive, sharing your personal feelings, experiences, etc. may be perfectly fine in the art of poetry, but hymnody demands more. Hymnody is the Song of the Church. If it does not build her up, it does not belong (1 Cor 14). We don't need to imagine that we are a shepherd, staring into the manger with throbbing heart, in order for Christmas to be "real" for us. I realize it's statements like this that give Lutherans a reputation for having no stomach for emotion. Let me just reiterate—having emotions is a good and natural thing. But seeking an emotional high for its own sake is worlds away from having a genuine emotional reaction to the message of the gospel. In "Where Shepherds Lately Knelt," Vajda does include some wonderful theological truths—but they are lost amidst the sentimentality of swooning shepherds.

I did not pursue a degree in literature, and my experience with poetry as an art form is extremely thin. So I cannot say with any authority that Jaroslav Vajda was a either a good or a bad poet. I do think it is an exaggeration in the extreme to say he was the best Lutheran poet since Gerhardt. As a Christian, I think his poetry is at times good and meaningful—even beautiful. But on the whole, I have to conclude that a good poem does not necessarily make a good hymn. Maybe we should reconsider whether these hymns should really be included in our hymnals.

Anyone know of some good Christmas hymns written in the past 50 years?

October 31, 2012

The "Open-minded" Reformation

Occasionally, we have the opportunity to understand common words in a new light. I had such an opportunity this week. An article in the school newspaper sparked several responses after it called on students to be more liberal. The premise of the article was that to be liberal is to be open-minded. The student writer appeared to be implying that because most of the student body is Lutheran, and because most of the students' parents are also Lutheran, that they must therefore not be very open-minded. Among her concluding remarks was the statement, "maybe you’ll choose to leave the comfort of your family church nest and find something more suited to your beliefs, not those of mom or dad."

Is open-mindedness a good thing? I think it is. But unfortunately, most everyone seems to think the word means something other than what it means. The relativism that seeps into almost every aspect of society—and even into the church—has latched onto "open-mindedness," and it seems to be one of its favorite catchphrases. When most people tell you to be open-minded, they may not mean to consider that what you believe may not actually be the truth. They probably are asking you to consider that you might like something else better. Or, if not, you should always try new things, because variety is the spice of life. When a non-denominational Christian asks a Lutheran to be open-minded, he just might think it is like asking someone who eats ethnic German foods to try Italian instead—not because one is more healthy than the other, but just for variety.

It appears that open-mindedness, at least to many people, comes pre-packaged with the understanding that all paths are equally valid. Especially concerning religion, which humanism regards as little more than comfort food, there is a sense that all religions exist for the purpose of making people happy. So you might as well be open-minded. Sample a few. Find one that suits you.

On this festival of Reformation, I am thankful that Martin Luther was open-minded in the true sense of the word. After spending much time in the Word, he came to realize that what the Catholic Church taught was not actually the truth. The truth. Not a truth, not my truth, but real truth. I am thankful that Lutherans in general are a very open-minded church body, who are capable of self-examination in light of Scripture. I am thankful that God has opened my heart and mind in order that I might see the truth, which is hidden from those whose hearts are hardened. May God open all of our minds to his life-giving Word! Amen.

September 2, 2012

The Church is Not a Restaurant!

One of the prevalent themes of the church growth movement is the idea that the church needs to accommodate the tastes of the unchurched: if they want a praise band, get the best praise band you can afford; if they want you to entertain their children while the adults worship, then you had best get a "children's church" program going; if your guests are needing a cappuccino before worship, set up a Starbucks franchise in your lobby. The church growth movement has spawned over 1,500 megachurches in the past 30 years, some with as many as 40,000 attendees weekly. These churches are known to be great at providing programs and facilities, but poor when it comes to the shepherding of souls. An interesting article looks into this trend, asking, When Will The Bubble Burst?

It is saddening to see many confessional Lutheran churches jumping on the bandwagon. While in past decades it was fairly common to find established churches experimenting with contemporary Christian music, the new norm is churches that are founded entirely for the purpose of praise-band-type worship. They have names like, "The CORE," "The ROCK," and "The Alley," with no "Lutheran Church" included in the name. (We wouldn't want to scare them away, would we?) Almost universally, they sport Christian rock bands, "come-as-you-are" atmospheres, video screens, splashy websites, and pastors in bluejeans. They use catch-phrases like "relevance" and "acceptance," and target the unchurched youth. My first close encounter with this kind of church was at the "Hearts and Hands of David" workshop hosted by Wisconsin Lutheran College. And, true to church-growth form, the pastor gave a stirring sermon about how we need to ask ourselves, "What's on the menu?" (The application was that we need to have things on our church's "menu" that people will keep coming back for—namely, the gospel. But it left the impression that the gospel was only the "chips and salsa" at a Mexican restaurant; you expect it to always be there, but it isn't the main course.)

From a church leadership perspective, it is probably difficult to counter this false doctrine as long as these pastors are still preaching the gospel (and hopefully the law, too). Church growth doesn't often give itself away like the "Mexican restaurant" sermon. It's an undercurrent, an agenda, an attitude. And while we cannot judge people's hearts and attitudes, we can judge a tree by its fruit, as Christ instructs us to do in Matt. 7:15-17. From what I have seen, the bluejeans and rock bands, while not sinful in and of themselves, are bad fruit that give evidence to a crisis of faith. We cannot permit this dangerous teaching to continue under the guise of Christian freedom and evangelism. Christians must insist that the church not be made into a franchise. The church is a hospital, not a restaurant! We go to worship in order to have our broken hearts bound by the life-giving gospel, not to satisfy our consumeristic appetites.

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Matt. 11:28

August 23, 2012

Dedication Prayer

My family and I are reading through the book of 2 Chronicles now in our daily devotions. This portion of Solomon's dedication prayer (2 Chronicles  18-21, 41-42) seems a fitting prayer for dedicating new churches or commissioned artwork:
"But will God really dwell on earth with men? The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, O Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence. May your eyes be open toward this temple day and night, this place of which you said you would put your Name there. May you hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplications of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place; and when you hear, forgive. ...
"Now arise, O Lord God, and come to your resting place,
      you and the ark of your might.
May your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation,
      may your saints rejoice in your goodness.
O Lord God, do not reject your anointed one.
      Remember the great love promised to David your servant."
The most magnificent structure ever built was too humble a dwelling place for the Lord of Sabaoth. How much less our churches of concrete and drywall? How much less a stable? A cross? Yet he took all of these willingly. The prayer of Solomon is the message of the cross. It is prayed with confidence in a loving God who places himself in the presence of sinful men, because they cannot come to him. We have so much motivation to praise him in so many ways!

June 30, 2012

The Message of the Cross

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." 1 Corinthians 1:18

"For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." 1 Corinthians 2:2

The cross has been a symbol in Christian churches since at least the second century. But given the theological importance the evangelists often ascribe to the cross, one would expect to see it earlier and more often in Christian art. But in fact, we see only disguised hints of it in the early church. And we never find literal depictions of the crucifixion until well into the middle ages. One reason for this is the persecution of Christianity until the fourth century. But evangelical author Philip Yancey suggested another reason; that the cross did not fully take form in Christian churches until anyone who had ever witnessed an actual crucifixion had died.

I think Yancey's observation is an astute one. There is something in our human nature—and especially in American culture—that shrinks from the thought of death. Of torture and execution, doubly so. But for centuries the Church has embraced this symbol of execution, because, as Paul states, "to us who are being saved it is the power of God." How foolish this must seem to the world! Imagine a church in which a corpse dangles from a hangman's noose or sits limply in an electric chair, and you will perhaps understand how strange it must seem for Christians to embrace the crucifix.

In American Lutheran churches of the past half century or more, there seems to have arisen the misconception that the crucifix with corpus is a Catholic fixture, whereas the empty cross is a Lutheran/Protestant one. In addition, it is commonly explained that the empty cross signifies the resurrection, whereas the crucifix somehow fails to acknowledge (or lessens the significance of) Christ's rising. But it should first be observed that Lutheran churches have prominently displayed crucifixes from the Reformation to the present. The crucifix has never been viewed by believers as a denial of the resurrection, nor has the empty cross ever carried any special signification of it, until recent decades. To the Church, the crucifix has only ever been a symbol of God's tremendous love made manifest.

In Christian freedom, we of course have the option of displaying our faith in Jesus in many different forms. Neither a corpus nor an empty cross is wrong or harmful—both may be equally worshipful. But when we make choices about artwork in our churches, they should at least be made from an informed perspective. It appears that the crucifix is falling out of use in our churches—but the worst of it is that no one really knows why. If the myth that the crucifix is a particularly Catholic fixture continues, along with the belief that everything "Catholic" should be avoided, this valuable symbol of our faith may fall entirely out of use among Lutherans.

We have no need to fear that a lack of crucifixes will cause the gospel not to be preached. But I do see a potential danger. Children have difficulty with the abstract concepts that adults are fluent in. Children learn primarily by observing. Where may children observe Jesus? I grew up in churches that displayed only empty crosses. In fact, there were no depictions of Jesus anywhere. If it had not been for the illustrated Bible story books my parents read to me, and the great care they took in teaching me about my Savior, I don't know for certain if I could have maintained faith in an abstract notion of God.

I am by no means trying to discredit the Holy Spirit for his work. But if Jesus taught with pictures, why should not the church? How great a teaching tool would it be to have a crucifix in the front of our churches? Then our children would know that we do not worship an abstract god, but a God who was made flesh and blood, as we are. He entered into human history, was born of a woman, ate food and drink, made friends and enemies, suffered and died on a cross, and rose from the dead. He is not the transcendent god of Modernism or the impersonal god of dualism. He is our brother, our friend, and our Savior.

June 23, 2012

The Greatest Sermon Ever Sung

Handel's Messiah is perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of music in the English language. And, for the past 3+ years, I've had the pleasure of getting to know it much more intimately. Pastor Tony Pittenger (ELS) of Port Orchard, WA, approached me to illustrate his "Bible study" on the Messiah. I was very happy to accept, although I had no idea how long it would take or how much work would be involved. Nevertheless, it's nice to look back on the finished product now and be proud of how it turned out.

The book is written to be a listener's guide to the Messiah. Pittenger's commentary explains the theology of the scripture selections, Handel's artistic devices, and, occasionally, relevant historical background. The commentaries are about the right length to read while the music is playing. The book also includes Bible study outlines in the back, in order to facilitate its use as a devotional study or group Bible study. I can personally say that illustrating the book has not only has made me better acquainted with the music, but it has brought me closer to my Savior. I think that reading and studying the book with the music and its illustrations will do the same for you.

It really is a fantastic book, and I know of nothing else like it on the market. It retails for $22.95, which is already a great price for a full-color, 40-page, hardcover book. But you can order them autographed from the author for $18 USD + shipping. We've sold over half of the first printing in the four months since it has been published. If you would like your own copy, you can purchase them online here:

June 20, 2012

Adiaphora and Worship

The issue comes up again and again in discussions of worship: adiaphora. Some would argue that in matters where God has neither commanded nor forbidden, we are permitted in Christian freedom to do whatever we like. This has become the mantra of many contemporary artists, whether in architecture, art, music, or other aspects of worship. Several pastors have stretched Christian freedom to the point of saying, "I will do anything short of sinning to reach people." In some of my recent experiences, when raising concerns over contemporary worship, the response has been one of, "If you place restraints on my Christian freedom, you are a Pharisee and a legalist."

Since this is such a pivotal issue, it bears closer study. This is perhaps why Forward In Christ published a three-part series last year on Christian freedom, the final part of which dealt particularly with adiaphora. I was happy to see the WELS coming down on the issue in a manner that consisted neither of fence-riding nor mandating. Below are some selected quotes from the article.
[T]he major mistake many people make when it comes to adiaphora is to assume that, since God's Word doesn't prescribe a specific course of action, God doesn't care what people do in these matters. That is dead wrong. Everything matters to God! Even in cases of adiaphora, God cares about the decisions we make. 
"You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13, emphasis added). 
Love. It's what God is. It's what God does. It's what God wants to see in his people above all else: love for God, love for the Scriptures, love for our fellow man, love for our soul. Every decision we make gives us the chance to demonstrate love. In that sense, there are no "indifferent things." Everything matters to God, because love matters to God. 
Love is what makes Christian freedom so different from political freedom. When we think of political freedom we tend to think in terms of rights. "I have the right to do what I want, when I want, provided I don't hurt anyone." Christian freedom is so different. Christians are not concerned about themselves or their rights but about love. … Just as Jesus placed himself below us, we place ourselves below family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, the lost, and even enemies. When making decisions, even in matters of adiaphora, we think about what serves others before we think about what we want. "Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible" (1 Corinthians 9:19). That's how we show love. 
Someone might ask, "If God wants us to show love, wouldn't it be easier if he just spelled it out?" One might beg, "I don't like this adiaphora business! Tell us exactly how you want us to worship, God. Tell us what we can and cannot wear. Then we'll know precisely how to make you happy." If God did that, he'd be like the wife who tells her husband exactly what she wants each anniversary. She receives that present, but that present displays little love, for it took little thought. But if she said nothing, now her husband has to think. "What would show the woman that I love how much I treasure her?" He is free to choose whatever he wants as a gift. Yet, he is thinking only of his wife's happiness. His thoughtful token of love will be more meaningful than if that token had been dictated to him. 
So it is with our marriage to the heavenly Bridegroom. God leaves much of our lives as adiaphora, but it's not because he doesn't care. Instead, God allows us to exercise our Christian freedom in a manner that demonstrates thoughtful love. "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). 
(Rev. Jonathan Hein: Forward in Christ, November 2011)

There are many reasons why a Christian might object to a particular style of worship out of Christian love. For one, many people consider guitars and drums in the front of church to be irreverent, because of the kinds of music associated with them. They might be wary of a pastor's gung-ho attitude about contemporary worship styles that appears to have no regard for burdened consciences. Or they might wonder why centuries' worth of good hymnody and liturgies are being unceremoniously tossed out the window because someone thinks they are not relevant to today's culture.

It is true that only God knows hearts, and so speculating as to the motives of either side in this debate may be overstepping our bounds. But it has not been my experience that those who object to contemporary worship do so out of Pharisaical legalism. To the best of our abilities, we should try not to project willful ignorance or sinful legalism onto the other parties in this discussion. I am sure that most everyone sincerely believes that he or she is really doing God's work in the worship service.

Now if both sides correctly understand Christian freedom, and both sides are acting out of love, it must be a matter of scriptural inferences that separates one side from the other. Of the WELS pastors whom I have heard promote contemporary worship, they all aspire to the same goal of "removing all barriers possible to reaching people outside the church" (e.g. see "About The CORE"). In other words, they infer from scripture that evangelism is the primary goal of the church. This is certainly a worthy goal. But I see at least two major problems with this inference:
  1. The first is that they assume ex nihilo that a "traditional worship style" is an obstacle to the gospel. But this can only be true if everyone who comes to church does so in order to hear a particular kind of music, and nothing else. If such people exist, they are not wounded souls looking for Christ, but consumers of the most shallow sort. (And in fact, studies of unchurched people who become regular church-goers show that only a very small percentage of people count "worship style" as a contributing factor in choosing their church—let alone the deciding factor.)
  2. The second problem is that in trying to "remove all barriers possible to reaching people outside the church," the focus on gaining new members is likely to marginalize current believers. The purpose of the church is not to grow its numbers, but to make disciples—baptizing and teaching them. That means feeding the flock is more important than filling the pews. If praise bands can offer a nourishing substance on par with most of our hymnal and the historic liturgy, I have yet to see it.
Of course we should love the unchurched and want for them to know Christ. That much anyone would agree with. But it is debatable whether pandering to what (we think) the unchurched want is really showing love to them. A parent may think she is showing love to her child by allowing him to live on a diet of marshmallows and fruit snacks. She probably thinks it is better for him to eat junk food than nothing at all, and that she is therefore removing barriers between her son and nutrition. But in actuality, she is teaching him that food has to be sweet in order to be nourishing. And if that is not bad enough, she gives the same diet to all of her children, including the 19-year-old.

Granted, not all contemporary worship music is "junk food." Some of it is quite good. I am simply attempting to show the flawed logic of the "remove all barriers" principle that guides the worship practices of many Lutherans today. But if we can get beyond the ignorant assumptions that adiaphora means "I can do what I like," or "God doesn't care," then we may begin to have discussions on worship that might actually accomplish something.

June 16, 2012

More Watercolors

Here are a few more illustrations for "The Stick and the Stone." I particularly liked how these illustrations turned out. We're shooting to have the book finished by the end of summer. These are 9x9 in. watercolor on Arches 140# cold press.

June 5, 2012

"Hearts and Hands" Part III

Several days before the "Hearts and Hands of David" workshop, it was decided that a few of the workshops scheduled for two days would be reduced to one, for the sake of attendance. I was a bit wary of that, but it turned out to be a blessing—because instead of having 11 attendees, I had at least 22. Judging from the enthusiastic discussion and positive feedback, I think the presentation was a success. Certainly not because I'm a wonderful speaker or anything, but because it seemed to have gotten some gears turning. And that was the whole point. So I'll conclude today by attempting to do the same for my readers.

After digesting the opening sermon and keynote a little, I was able to verbally insert some relevant points into my lecture that were not included in the paper. With any discussion on worship, music, and art, I think it is important to include real-world applications and examples. It's one thing to agree with an abstract or theological statement; it's quite another to put it into practice in our own congregations. The following are some of my expanded thoughts on those "side notes" in the presentation.

I think there are abundant examples of people who have the "heart" to serve God, to create new places of worship and works of art, but they don't have the "hands," or the gifts, to create it themselves. But instead of finding someone from that third group, someone with both the "heart and hands," it often occurs that they find artists from the first group—those who have artistic gifts, but no particular desire to use them to God's glory or the edification of his Church. How can this be expected to work? How can we expect people who do not worship God to create something that will take into account the many facets of Christian theology and worship?

Sometimes, despite the contradiction, this can produce desirable results—but only if the church's building committee is well-informed, has a good idea of what they want, and holds its ground in matters of theological symbolism, tradition, aesthetics, function, etc. There are a few examples of this. For instance, Faith Lutheran Church (WELS) in Antioch, IL, built a beautiful structure that, while modern, reflects a strong level of involvement by the theologians, musicians, and informed laymen (see below). Martin Luther College's Chapel of the Christ is another great example. Both of these worship spaces feature a triptych, oddly enough. And they are both undeniably beautiful, superbly functional, deeply symbolic, traditional, and yet modern worship spaces.

So while it is possible to achieve good results with this approach, I think it will always be an uphill battle. But I most often see cases where the battle was resigned before it began. In other words, the "vision" of the architect or the artist took priority over considerations of tradition, symbolism, aesthetics, and function. I can think of dozens of examples. But one that sticks out in my mind, and is probably familiar to many members of the WELS, is St. Croix Lutheran High School's chapel (see below). It's a clear example of an artist or team of architects using the worship space as a billboard for their artistic ingenuity, originality, and expression.


It dispenses with every single artistic convention of nearly 2,000 years of church history. Even the familiar latin cross is replaced by the "tau" cross—reportedly in order to "draw attention." I wonder if they realized that the "tau" was only used because displaying the sign of the cross would draw unwanted attention from those who were hunting Christians. That is to say, they created an oxymoron. The chapel is designed in the round, with the altar in the center (which sounds like a good idea to anyone who has never tried it). I think the chapel is also an example of architects taking advantage of Christians who desire sincere symbolism in their churches. For instance, the exposed girders in the chapel ceiling were described as representing the framework of the body of Christ. It seems that many Christians feel that since they aren't artists, they have to quietly go along with things that seem strange or even ridiculous to their sensibilities—for instance, bogus symbolism. (F.Y.I. Girders are always girders, and it's okay to call their bluff.)

This is the difficult thing. Christians are hesitant to cause offense, especially in matters we consider to be adiaphora. But sometimes it cannot be avoided. We are not doing ourselves any favors when we compromise our values of excellence in worship for the sake of being polite. Someone has to say that the Emperor is naked.

Art of the past century has indoctrinated us to believe two things: 1) that art is subjective, and 2) that "real" art is too deep for anyone but the "elite" to understand. We are supposed to stand in awe of Jackson Pollack because the artistic elite in the 1950s thought his "action painting" was only the culmination of five millennia of art history. And so our laymen are tricked into going along with this or that architectural plan, mosaic mural, or zen rock garden because 1) art is subjective anyway, and 2) what do we laymen really know about art?

Until people start to listen to their gut—their consciences, even—and object to this silliness, it will continue to find its way into our churches. You have every right and responsibility to speak out, because: 1) art for worship is not subjective. It is as objective as art can be. It submits itself to the Word of God, to the gospel, to the sensibilities of faithful Christians, and to the wisdom of the historical Christian Church. 2) Art for worship is not elitist. It must be as universal as art can be. It must be readily accessible to laymen. It submits itself to the clear communication of the gospel message.

These are objective measuring rods. If the art in our churches does not measure up, we must seek to replace it with "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable...excellent or praiseworthy," and to look upon such things. There are Lutheran artists and architects who have a heart to worship God and the gifts to create excellent and worshipful art. Seek them out, and the Church will benefit from it.

June 2, 2012

"Hearts and Hands" Part II

(Continued from Part I) The opening service took place in the college chapel, was led by Koiné, and consisted of several hymns appropriately substituted for the parts of the liturgy. The sermon, by Pastor Mike Novotny, was based on several excerpts from the life of David (1 & 2 Samuel), and explained how the theme "Hearts and Hands of David" applied to the goals of the workshop.

The premise of the sermon was that there are three classifications of people in the world. The first group is comprised of people who have "hands"—that is, talent—but who use their talents only for personal gain. Countless gifted businessmen, artists, musicians, and actors use their talents to amass wealth and fame. The second group is comprised of people who have "heart"—that is, a desire to serve their Lord—but God has not seen fit to bless them with artistic talent. The third group is exemplified by King David. David was a "man after the Lord's own heart." He was blessed not only with musical talent, military prowess, and numerous other gifts, but he had a fervent desire to use his gifts to God's glory. The application of this lesson was that people who find themselves in the first group should strive to be in the third—to use their talents in the building up of God's Church and to God's glory. Those who find themselves in the second group should in every way possible support and encourage those in the third group.

The opening service was followed by the keynote address by Pastor Aaron Christie. During the presentation, he allowed for several group discussion sessions (which I thought were appropriate), but these ran long and, unfortunately, shortened Pastor Christie's comments. But to give you the gist of it, I've paraphrased some of his key points here:

  1. Modern consumerist culture equates "what I like" with "what is good." In the Church, however, questions of taste are virtually irrelevant. We concern ourselves instead with excellence.
  2. The discussion of contemporary music in worship did not begin when rock and roll was invented. This is an old question, and the solution is not a musical (or artistic) one.
  3. The texts of worship—not musical styles—are of primary concern. The gospel of Christ should predominate our worship.
  4. Let the congregation participate. Worship, unlike entertainment, is not a spectator sport. Don't force music that was written for a soloist into a participatory idiom.
  5. Let the experience of the church be honored. The worship of the historical church did not come about arbitrarily, but with careful consideration, much God-given ability, artful application, and love for God.

At this early point in the workshop, I was incredibly encouraged. I would describe myself as somewhat resistant to contemporary worship. I love the old Lutheran hymns, and I see most contemporary worship groups as an attempt to discard with traditional hymns and worship styles. But "Hearts and Hands" proved to be a genuine attempt to take the modern into the traditional, rather than to replace the latter with the former.

Unfortunately, if the opening service and keynote address presented an entirely genuine, balanced, and scriptural approach to the arts in worship, portions of the workshop that followed failed to live up to that standard. In the following day and a half, there were several bands that led worship with very egocentric, musically trite, praise music. With the exception of Koiné, very little was fitting for congregational singing. And worst of all, one of the pastor's sermons encouraged unabashed consumerism with the themes, "I love this church" and "What's on the menu?" To top it all off, he used Acts 15 to imply that adhering to traditional worship and customs amounts to sinful legalism. I could sense that many attendees, myself included, were offended and even disgusted.

A gross misunderstanding of worship, coupled with Christian freedom untempered by Christian love, creates a dangerous environment—one in which I am convinced God-pleasing worship cannot survive. While the workshop got off to a wonderful start, set godly goals for itself, and featured some excellent speakers, there were a number of people there whose obvious intent was to "gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Timothy 4:3). It perhaps seems judgmental of me to say that, but I do know this: 1) Satan is hard at work within the church, 2) some of the most outspoken supporters of contemporary worship were also the least knowledgable about worship, and 3) the same people showed little regard for legitimate concerns raised by other attendees or their own members.

There is a lot of work to do, folks. I am primarily addressing laymen, because an informed and active laity is worth its weight in gold. It's hard to say whether this all-out push towards contemporary worship is coming from the laity or the clergy. I suspect the latter. But just because we (i.e., laymen) do not wear frocks does not mean that we cannot read the scriptures and make informed decisions about music, worship, and art. Lutheranism is wonderfully democratic in that way; God's Word is the ultimate authority—not the church.

I hate to end on a downer. But the workshop was overall a positive experience, and I will conclude my review tomorrow.

June 1, 2012

"Hearts and Hands" Part I

This summer I was invited to speak at a worship arts conference at Wisconsin Lutheran College, entitled "Hearts and Hands of David." They asked if I would give two sessions of a 75-minute presentation, and the topic they left open to me (as long as it had something to do with the visual arts and worship). I was very honored to accept this invitation, and began by researching my intended audience.

The workshop was co-hosted by Koiné, a Lutheran music group that seeks to put strong and beloved hymns to contemporary instrumentation. So when I looked up the web page for the workshop, I began having second thoughts. There were break-out sessions for guitarists, bassists, drummers, vocalists, etc., and I feared I had just agreed to present at a "How to praise God with your electric guitar" workshop. (Thankfully, that turned out not to be the case.)

When I asked myself what it was that I most wanted people to learn about the arts in worship, I knew that the focus needed to be on the "worship" aspect. An improper theological understanding of worship serves as a flimsy foundation, regardless of what you build on it. Worship that is self-centered will naturally produce self-centered artwork. We've seen it all before. A simple web search of "worship art" returns scores of images of people with upraised hands, hands folded in prayer, etc. The fact is that many Christians believe that worship is an act that is performed for God.

I entitled my presentation: Vehicles of the Gospel: The Visual Arts in Lutheran Worship (feel free to read, download, and distribute). In the first part of the paper, I examined what worship is from a biblical perspective. I cited examples of worship and discussed the sacramental focus of worship in Old and New Testament. Every song recorded in the Bible declares the works of God, from the song of Miriam at the Red Sea to the song of the redeemed in heaven. There is no such thing as "empty praise." If a song does not declare God's salvation for us, it is not praise! In addition to proclaiming his gospel through song, God fills our worship with his life-giving gifts: the forgiveness of sins, Word, and sacrament.

The presentation continued with the theological distinction between personal worship (Christian living) and public (corporate) worship. What may be appropriate and worshipful in the former may be distracting and even harmful in the latter. I then discussed Luther's evolving view on the arts, and how that affected artistic practice in the early Protestantism. While some reformers were radically iconoclastic, it is noteworthy that Luther (eventually) sanctioned the artistic tradition as a vehicle through which the gospel could be proclaimed. He argued that it should therefore not be discarded, despite its abuses in the church. There are many examples of art that was very "Catholic" in flavor, but was retained in churches that had adopted Lutheranism. (See photo: "The Annunciation" in St. Lorenz Church, Nuremberg. Note the large rosary beads hanging from the circumference of this near-life-size wooden sculpture.)

(source: wikipedia)

The presentation continued with a brief outline of art history from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. There are countless factors that probably contributed to the decline of artwork in the church, but certainly one of the most important was Modernism. It embraced church art and architecture as a means of self-expression and of meditation on transcendence. It emphasized newness and altogether despised and discarded tradition. Christian artists who were trained in the Modernist aesthetic apparently did not sense the oxymoron in the notion of self-expression in liturgical art. If Christ or the gospel message appears at all in Modernist and Postmodernist worship art, it is usually forced to compete with the artist's emotions or stylization for our attention. (I'll give you one guess as to which one usually wins out.)

(source: liturgicalartblog)

My next post will continue with a discussion of the "Hearts and Hands of David" workshop.

May 22, 2012

Northwest Territories

I really enjoy history. Recently I completed a commission for a map that will be used for a film documentary about George Rogers Clark. The documentary covers the expansion of US territories shortly after the Revolutionary War. I was asked to make a few versions of the map so that the territories can morph into the present states. It was interesting to see how strangely shaped some of the states were, because the colonies had claimed huge swaths of land that no one had really explored yet—and some of those claims were disputed with England and Spain. The first map shows the United States circa 1780, and the second shows the same territories circa 1860 as states in their more-or-less present form.

There is a bit of a wonky character to most maps from that time period, because they didn't have extremely accurate ways of mapping large territories. Because of this, I didn't worry too much about getting the map as accurate as possible. And in some places, I gave preference to the drawing on older maps, especially where they were distorted. It gives it an added vintage quality, which is what the filmmakers were going for.

May 21, 2012

Watercolor process

Well, in case anyone was wondering, I'm not dead. It's just been an extremely busy six months. My son was born in November. In January we decided we couldn't afford to stay in Savannah any longer, so we moved to Omaha the first week of April. I went on some job interviews later that month. Then I gave a lecture on worship arts in Wisconsin. And now we're still trying to get settled and I'm still looking for a second job, but trying to get back into the swing of things.

This is what I was working on before the move. These are some process photos of the watercolor illustrations for "The Stick and the Stone." The paper is stretched wet and stapled onto a 1/2" plywood board. I transfer the drawing onto the paper with graphite transfer paper. With this backlit piece, I applied masking fluid to the sun and did the sky first, working from background to foreground. I usually do some minor tweaking with values and color in Photoshop for the final.