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 I couldn't turn down the opportunity to add to my library, no matter how old or outdated the books were, so I took them all home with me.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...

No comments:

Post a Comment