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: www.facebook.com/MessiahBook.

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. http://www.gotocore.com/ 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.

Source: www.stcroixlutheranhs.org

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.