September 18, 2013

Intro: How We've Murdered Liturgical Art

Anyone who has heard me talk about Modernism probably has heard me refer to it as the "twentieth century iconoclasm." At a presentation I gave last week, I explained that anyone interested in making artwork for the church, was, by the 1950s, being trained in the paradigm of "art for art's sake." Christians were readily abandoning the artistic tradition of the church and pounding Jackson Pollack over the heads of anyone who picked up a brush. And I only recently realized how true this really was.

A few months ago, my aunt was downsizing, and asked if I wanted any of her art books from college. She attended Concordia University Nebraska in the 1970s, where she studied art. I couldn't turn down the opportunity to add to my library, no matter how old or outdated the books were, so I took them all home with me. On the top of the box I saw a book entitled: "The Christian Encounters the World of Painting," by Wendell Mathews. The book was published by Concordia Publishing House in 1968. According to the biography on the back, Dr. Mathews was a professor and chair of the art department at Carthage College (ELCA) in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I am always interested in the convergence of art and theology, so I picked it up and began to read.

By the second paragraph of the preface, my hopes of reading an informative, insightful book were extinguished by some very familiar Modernist rhetoric:
Many Christians—both ministers and laymen—are encouraging a fresh consideration of the church's relation to the arts. After a long period of indifference to the major stylistic trends of recent decades, the church should question whether or not it can relate adequately to the present age by means of outmoded art styles.
After a brief moment of disgust, my curiosity was piqued and I began to read with more interest. This musty, yellowed book was a time capsule; it afforded me the opportunity to read what was actually being taught at a Lutheran college in the 1970s. This was the smoking gun I had been looking for. It became clear to me exactly how involved Lutherans have been in the cold-blooded murder of liturgical art.

The one indisputable fact concerning this murder is the state of the deceased. Anyone can observe the cold, naked state of our churches built in the past 60 years or so. As obvious as it is to me, however, it's the sort of thing one can get used to, and after a few generations, maybe only a handful of people can see a corpse for what it is. I suspect that it requires only a glance at the thousands of churches that were built and furnished in a time when the liturgical arts were very much alive to convince the apathetic layman that a murder has, in fact, occurred. But upon becoming aware of it, the problem does not therefore solve itself. ("Awareness" doesn't cure cancer, either.) The point of educating Christians about what has happened is not to elicit sympathy; neither is it to point fingers. It is to change their perceptions and behavior—to cause them to stop participating in this ongoing iconoclasm and work toward reversing it.

Once their minds have been changed, then the healing can begin. "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Mt 22:32). He who raised Christ from the dead can certainly resurrect the visual arts in his Church. I firmly believe that God will do this. The pendulum has been too long the other way; it is time to bring it back.

But until that happens, there's a lot of work to be done. We've got a corpse on a slab, and I mean to find out how exactly the Bride of Christ was so badly mistreated, and why. And I'm darn sure not going to let it happen again, so help me God.

To be continued...

September 11, 2013

Hope Logo and Explanation

Hope is a word that is so commonplace that we easily forget what it means in the Christian context. “I hope we get rain soon.” “I hope I can get off work on Friday.” “I hope the Bears make the playoffs this year.” In Peter’s first epistle, he writes, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:3,4).

This hope that we have is not the wishful thinking that we indulge in every day. It is a 100% certainty made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the center of the logo, you see the crown of thorns. A prize worth having is not a prize easily won. Jesus suffered the wrath that our sins deserved on the cross, and carried it to the grave. We also must bear our crosses and thorns while we live on earth—Jesus promised this. But in front of the thorns you see that the cross made of lilies, because for Jesus, and for us, death is not the end. His resurrection is also our resurrection.

The tips of the lilies touch an eight-sided ring made of gold. In the Christian church of centuries past, the octagon had special significance for the believer. In the Bible, seven is an important number of completion—there were seven days of creation, and seven days in each week. But Jesus rose from the dead the day after the Sabbath—the eighth day. For us, the eighth day represents a new birth. Therefore, baptistries and fonts were often made with eight sides, to remind believers that we are baptized into Christ’s resurrection. We are new creations, waiting only for new, glorified bodies and the New Jerusalem. God help us to live as his redeemed creations, until the day when we will rejoice forever with Jesus in heaven. This is our hope—and what a certain hope it is!

Hope Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELS) Portage, IN

September 8, 2013

Crucifix Process 2

More progress to report, but I'm still not to the "fun" part yet. Preparing this cross for painting and gilding is definitely going to be the most labor-intensive part. I began by sanding the layers of gesso (about 6 so far) and scraping them smooth with a blade. I made a multi-sheet printout of the sketch at the correct scale, taped the sheets together, and cut them out to make a cartoon. I put Jesus on the cross (oh, how true that is!) where he needed to be, then traced the contours of his arms. I trimmed off the excess with a jig saw (a recent investment), and planed and filed the edges as straight and smooth as I could get them.

This weekend I also purchased the molding that will go around the edges. I cut the first strip to size using a miter box and handsaw and adhered it to the top of the cross. Using some C-clamps and folded pieces of cardboard to soften the force of the clamp on the wood, I clamped the molding to the cross in several places for about 30 minutes.

I applied Elmer's wood glue to the back of each strip and
smeared it to cover the whole surface.

It's a learning process. I learned, for instance, that the cardboard was not very effective in preventing the clamps from denting the wood. So I had to remove the first strip of molding and discard it. It came off very easily, because it was glued to the gesso and not the wood itself. Which also taught me that I should have glued the molding to the cross before applying gesso. So now I'm scraping gesso off from around the edges before I glue the molding down.

I opted for the miter box and hand saw, instead of the
much larger investment of an electric miter saw. Plus,
it's easier to store, and does nearly as good a job.

I'm now using pink pearl erasers instead of cardboard, to
protect the moulding.
As I go along, I've also been filling the gaps in the plywood with wood filler, then sanding it smooth. I'm trying to get as even a surface as possible on the edges, since I plan to gild them. I'm still not sure if the end result will be as good as I'd like it to be. But for the full-size crucifix, I would probably have some sort of framework to attach the cross to, or else attach strips of hardwood to the outside edge.

That's all for now! I might be another week or two in putting on the rest of the molding and finishing the gesso.

September 2, 2013

The Liturgy as Soundtrack

Many of you probably don't know this about me, but I am a soundtrack lover. At some point in high school I was so moved by a John Williams score that I just had to own the soundtrack. From that point on, I have collected a moderate library of movie scores and soundtracks by some of the most prolific composers of our time—Ennio Morricone, Jerry Goldsmith, Michael Kamen, James Horner, and of course, John Williams. If you listen often enough to movie scores without the movie, it really improves your ear for musical story telling. I think it also makes you more consciously aware of that thing that most people think of as "background music," but which has an uncanny ability to manipulate your emotions and make you feel what the composer wants you to feel.

As much as I love good movie scores, and as much as I love Lutheran worship, I have no desire for the two to mix. Whenever the sphere of entertainment bleeds into the sphere of Christian worship, it subverts true worship. And I will be so bold as to say that it does so as a rule. The more we try to make worship like a night at the movies or a pop concert, the less our minds are drawn to Christ through Word and Sacrament. I've talked about contemporary Christian music before, but today, I am referring to something else. Specifically, I have in mind two liturgies from Northwestern Publishing House, published in the Christian Worship Supplement (CWS), called "Gathering Rite on Holy Baptism" and "Gathering Rite on the Word of God."

(On a side note: I have no clue what the historical significance of a gathering rite is, if indeed there is any. I have a hunch that it is a relatively recent product of Vatican II. Five bucks to the first person who can cite a source.)

I first experienced the gathering rites in Georgia, when our church was using the CWS quite often. (In fact, it seemed like we exclusively used liturgies from the Supplement, and never from the hymnal. My wife and I had to be very persistent with our pastor in order to get the Common Service back into the rotation.) The texts are quite good, and the hymn verses are appropriate. But musically, they are utter failures. If you have never been made to participate in the CWS gathering rites, count yourself lucky. I will try to recreate the experience for you.

Start by imagining that you are not in worship, but in a Hallmark movie, which happens to be set in a Lutheran church. (Alternatively, imagine you're in a WELS Connection video.) Instead of the pastor and the congregation reading and singing responsively, they are speaking over the top of choreographed music, which transitions into a hymn verse between each section of the response. The congregation awkwardly fades in, because the only one who knows when to start singing is the pastor—and only because he has rehearsed it dozens of times. But sometimes the pastor's timing will be a little slow in speaking the absolution, and then the MIDI player will have started the refrain already. The gathering rites completely frustrated a life-long Lutheran such as myself, and I can only imagine the total resignation of a first-time visitor.

Of course, what might have gone more smoothly with a live organist who can constantly adjust tempo and volume was sabotaged completely by a mindless computer. But that's another topic. The point is that even if there had been an organist and a pastor who had rehearsed the liturgy to perfection, and even if life was like a Rogers and Hammerstein musical where everyone knew exactly when to sing, you still have demoted the liturgy to the role of soundtrack. Now I'll explain why that's a bad thing.

First, the liturgy is designed to bear the texts of Scripture. It is not there just to sound beautiful, or to fill dead space with sound. If that was the case, we could just insert our favorite Bach CD and proceed as normal, with the confidence that our worship is being adorned with the best music mortal man has to offer. But problems always result from people thinking that music and the arts serve only a superficial purpose—that of pleasing the senses. Such an approach naturally causes confusion between worship that employs the arts, and entertainment, which also pleases the senses.

Second, someone who would plan for "quiet keyboard music" to be played while people are engaged in spoken liturgical responses has no real appreciation for the power and art of music. Luther wrote,
It was not without reason that the fathers and prophets wanted nothing else to be associated as closely with the Word of God as music. Therefore, we have so many hymns and Psalms where message and music join to move the listener's soul. ... After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both words and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.1
Music is just so much emotional sensation without the addition of human language in the form of song. So the composer of these gathering rites is not using music for the purpose God gifted it for—that of elevating the truths of scripture. Instead, he is striving for "ambiance," making it the musical equivalent of wallpaper.

Except that to call it musical wallpaper is being overly charitable. Because wallpaper can be pretty, or it can be distracting. But it could never so actively compete with the liturgy as does the musical accompaniment to the CWS gathering rites. Ask any film composer what he would do when there is important dialogue, and he'll say that the music has to get out of the way—there are plenty of other opportunities for a composer to show his skill. Experienced composers know that if the music is not supporting the dialogue by way of song, it is competing with it. But it is also common sense; two signals that are not in harmony result in noise. And when you have something as important as confession and absolution happening, it should not have to compete with anything.

For the above reasons, the CWS gathering rites do not show the high respect for music in general, and the liturgy in particular, that Luther showed for them. Their existence reflects little more than our synod's general infatuation with variety. "Variety to enhance a sense of the season" is touted as the first useful feature of a gathering rite in the WELS worship resources for Advent. The trouble with this intended use is that when you use a single, poorly-written rite for a whole season, say, Easter, or Lent, you'll never want to hear it again by the end. It seems that the authors of the above resources must have been aware of this, commenting that one particular gathering rite may not have a "life span" of more than a few years.2

Is there anyone who needs variety so badly that he must push these piecemeal soundtrack liturgies over on his congregation? (Put your hands down; it was a rhetorical question.)

The (potentially) good news is that the WELS is asking for input on its new hymnal. Polling the public for advice on hymnal-making could be disastrous, or it could be good. Or it could mean that the person currently in charge of the hymnal project isn't really sure how to go about it. I'm not sure, either. So I encourage you to go and submit to him good, sensible, biblical advice as to which hymns and liturgies to continue using, and which to avoid.


1 LW 53:323-24, quoted in Carl F. Schalk, Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1988), 37.
2 "Gathering Preparation," WELS Connect (Oct. 24, 2011), (accessed September 2, 2013).