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.

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