December 11, 2014

The Unexpected Nature of Beauty

A topic that came up during my presentation at the Worship Conference this summer was the nature of beauty. Is it objective, or subjective? Is it in the eye of the beholder? How do you define it?

A great deal has been written on the subject of beauty, by numerous authors of different theological stripes. And it's one of my long-term goals to read more on the subject in order to gain more insight. But there are things a Christian can infer from scripture with relative certainty, and depending on your upbringing, they may surprise you.

1. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

With so many differing opinions as to what is beautiful, how can I say this with any certainty? The answer is that there is a theological certainty that underlies it: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth... And God saw that it was good" (Gen 1:1,10b). The first reason we know that beauty is not a subjective experience is that God created the universe. He did not create a cloud of unorganized matter that would later produce something that we now refer to as the universe. Rather, it was a creative work that was good from the very beginning.

How can a universe made of inanimate matter be either good or bad? The goodness of the universe in the first week of creation refers to its being in order—every molecule was in its place, fulfilling the purpose for which the Creator had called it into being, with no deviation. Every particle of light, every atom, was subject to natural laws that held it in place. And more than being good and orderly, everything was beautiful. That is to say, order and aesthetic beauty are intimately connected.

When a person says, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he means that beauty isn't a quality of the object—it is a pleasant reaction of an individual (the subject) to the object. And if this is true, beauty isn't even a real thing, only an abstracted way of saying "I like that." The past century has taught us exactly how useless this subjective notion of beauty has become. There is no so structure so tasteless, no poem so mawkish, no song so insipid, or no painting so offensive that someone won't consider it beautiful. Christians must wholeheartedly reject this abuse of language and distortion of reality. Because there is a Creator, and because he "saw that it was good," we can be sure that there is absolutely such a thing as beauty, and it isn't a figment of our imagination.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? We know from experience that it does, but it's impossible to prove empirically. Would creation be beautiful if no one was here to observe it? Undeniably. And although Christians can say this as a matter of fact, it doesn't hurt our position in the least to admit that a component of beauty could certainly be our ability to recognize and appreciate it. We know that God is a jealous God (Is. 42:8), and at least part of his purpose in creating a universe of beauty and order must be that we 1) recognize it, and 2) give glory to him who made it. Reflecting on the beauty of the human body, King David said, "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps 139:14). But my favorite example is arguably the first reaction to beauty in the Bible:
Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, 
“This is now bone of my bones
      and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
      for she was taken out of man.” (Gen. 2:22-23)
Our former pastor paraphrased Adam's spontaneous poem to his wife as, "Now that's what I'm talking about!" God built into the first man the ability to immediately recognize that his wife was beautiful. Not beautiful in the same sense that the other creatures of creation were beautiful—she was his perfect help-meet, hand-crafted by God to be his compliment in every way. (We might say that Adam's reaction was part emotional-intuitive, and part intellectual.) In any event, Eve was objectively beautiful; Adam possessed the ability to recognize and fully appreciate her beauty, and glorified God as a result.

2. Beauty is corrupted.

The fact that God created the universe, and that it was created good, are widely denied, even by many Christians. Because if those statements are true, can we explain our present state where no two people can agree on what is beautiful? To be sure, if Genesis 2 was the end of the story, I think the disagreement over beauty would indeed be strong evidence that the Christian view of beauty is wrong. But of course, Genesis 1-2 it isn't the whole story.

Every truly Christian view of history must take into account that God created everything in perfection, but that creation is fallen from its perfect state. The Fall into sin and the subsequent Curse (Genesis 3) are responsible for a dual corruption of beauty. The beauty of creation is physically marred by thorns, disease, death, decay. But also corrupted is our ability to perfectly and immediately recognize the traces of beauty that remain. We can no longer agree on whether beauty exists objectively at all, let alone whether this or that thing is beautiful, and neither do we inherently recognize beauty as being a result of God's hand in creation. We have instead found inventive ways to explain how nature might have created itself.

As a result, post-Christian Westerners have nothing to rely on but the chemical reactions and electrical impulses that occur in their brain matter. If my chemical reaction differs from yours, who is to say that yours is right and mine is wrong? And this kind of subjective thought is the crux of Postmodernism: there is no real beauty; there is no real truth; what's true for you is not true for me. Without a knowledge of the Creator, any pursuit of beauty eventually descends into hedonism—sensual self-indulgence.

3. Beauty can be ugly.

There is another kind of beauty that I hesitate to bring up, because it further complicates the point I am trying to make. (But art and beauty are complicated topics, so maybe it's best not to oversimplify on this point.) People often talk about something being beautiful whose subject is undeniably tragic, painful, or grotesque. Two things could be at work here. The first is that for hedonists who are looking to be thrilled, any strong emotion will do, even if it isn't a pleasurable one. This would accurately describe horror film lovers and sadists. But the second thing that could be at work is a reaction to the truth of an image. Gibson's The Passion of the Christ did not create particularly pleasurable feelings in me. Watching Jesus be torn to shreds and then be slowly asphyxiated wasn't—visually speaking—beautiful. But many, including myself, found the film to be a beautiful representation of that event. I'm pretty certain I'm not a sadist, and I despise gore. I think the film is beautiful because I knew it to be true on a deep, metaphysical level. The greatest act of love in history was fulfilled in blood and sweat and gore on the cross. No one who witnessed it would ever have called it beautiful. But poets and hymn writers down through the ages have done exactly that—not out of romantic ignorance, but because they knew how true it was.

There are many truths in this world that can only horrify us, so a thing does not become beautiful just because it is true. But a particular truth—to be specific, the gospel—has the power to be beautiful and ugly at the same time. Simul iustus et peccator. Strength made perfect in weakness, immortal hidden in mortal, beauty masked in crudeness. It's how God works. Death is never beautiful. But then again, we can say with Job, "though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:26).

So perhaps I have watered down the issue by speaking about beauty in a sense other than aesthetic. But on the occasion that someone confronts the ugliness of the Christian life, or of the cross, you can describe to him the invisible beauty seen by faith in the Son of God.

4. I still can't define it.

When I actually sat down to write about it, I found that I know quite a bit about beauty. But I am still no closer to answering the question that was directly asked of me this summer: "What is your definition of beauty?" I can tell you what beauty is not. I can tell you that beauty is something that does objectively exist. I think we can increase our awareness of beauty by studying the arts and sciences. But I can't come up with a bulleted list. The universe is populated by too many beautiful things of a completely different nature to make a list of qualifications very useful. Besides, we're still under the curse of sin, and my ability to see and appreciate all of that beauty is feeble indeed.

It's as difficult an endeavor as trying to define truth as a set of characteristics. What would be the point? The things that are true are not true because they share similar characteristics, but because they are... well, true. "Quid est veritas?" We can discover whether some things are true or not. But as far as defining the whole truth? Only God knows.

When the question was asked of me this July, I felt like my answer left the group hanging (and probably thinking that I was grasping at straws). When I said that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder—that it's an objective reality—that led some to conclude that there must be a set of finite qualifications. So when I was asked, I stumbled around for a while. I touched on the topics of goodness and order, but I eventually said, "You know it when you see it." Which in hindsight was the wrong answer. When asked about objective beauty, I gave them a subjective answer.

The right answer was probably the one that seems most like a cop-out. I should have said, "I can't do it," or "There is no practical definition of beauty that would satisfy a Christian worldview." Or if I wanted to be cheeky, I could have asked, "What's your definition of truth?" Or to grossly oversimplify, maybe I could have said that beauty is God's signature on his creation. Any of those would have been a better answer than the one I gave.

All of this just reinforces the fact that I need to study this in more depth. I'm curious to discover what other artists, theologians, and laymen have written about beauty. Maybe they've come closer to the mark than I have. To that end, I'd love input from my readers, too. Are these points accurate? Are there some I missed?

November 22, 2014

Artists are made, not born

The Redemption (detail)
- E. Riojas
"See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; and He has filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom and understanding, in knowledge and all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of artistic workmanship. And He has put in his heart the ability to teach." (Ex. 35:30-34a)
I've often lamented the lack of good art in churches (I know: understatement of the year). Ultimately, the lack of art boils down to a lack of artists. Which isn't to say that God isn't distributing that gift as generously as he should—obviously, it would be foolish to find fault with the Almighty. But in my estimation, a good artist has equal portions of two things: God-given talent, and Godly training. A talented artist with no training may not even know he has a gift—it's untapped potential. When it comes right down to it, we aren't actively training artists. We're just waiting around for a harvest when we haven't planted any seed.

Martin Luther College, which trains all of our WELS pastors and teachers, doesn't offer any studio art classes. They offer two art-related classes: Art Survey and Art in Elementary and Middle School. The first must be woefully inadequate, and the second is geared toward teaching art to lower grades. But it leaves me wondering how people who have no artistic training themselves can teach it to others. If it seems like I'm being unfair—that I shouldn't expect our pastor-teacher training college to invest in art teachers and art curricula when synod resources are already stretched so thin—you're right. MLC isn't a liberal arts college. But it will always be the case that our resources are stretched too thin. Even if the synod had a surplus of resources, the visual arts tend to fall exactly at the bottom of their priorities. I'm not saying let's prioritize art above theology or hermeneutics or Hebrew. But is there room somewhere between music and basketball for that which our Lord and the church have valued so highly?

Based on the level of investment in the visual arts at our teacher training school, it's little wonder that the majority of our WELS schools don't have art programs beyond craft paper and popsicle sticks. What if our Lutheran elementary and high schools were even half as serious about art education as Luther was about music education? The worst that could happen is that within a few decades our laity would find themselves being less ignorant and apathetic about the arts. But the best outcome would be a steady crop of talented artists emerging, beautifying our churches, focusing our eyes and our worship on Christ, and instructing Christians through the visual arts.

Why should the devil have all the good artists?

Guess who is doing a great job producing artists? The Latter-Day Saints. I don't know what they are doing right, or where they are all coming from, but if you're searching for high-caliber biblical illustration, chances are about 1 in 3 that it's by a Mormon artist. (Full disclosure: I made up that statistic.) After the illustrious Arnold Friberg, there seems to have been a steady stream of realists coming from Utah ever since (e.g. Walter Rane, Jeffrey Hein). And, frankly, some of it is kitsch (e.g. Greg Olsen). But kitsch or not, it's talent largely wasted, as the LDS church buys the copyright for those beautiful works to use as propaganda for its teachings. There are few artists in the world (let alone in the Lutheran church) who possess the technical mastery of some of these artists. To me, that's a little embarrassing.

Just so you don't get the wrong impression, I don't judge artists purely by technical skill. Nor is realism the ultimate measure of artistry. The Lutheran artists I know of are more creative, are better at symbolism, and teach pure theology with their art (e.g. Edward Riojas). Which, in my estimation, makes them better artists all around.

Triptych (closed) - W. Bukowski
So to be fair, we need to see the positives, too. Lutherans are not doing poorly across the board. Bethany Lutheran College is doing an incredible job training artists. (Full disclosure: it's my alma mater.) I can't say exactly where I would be artistically if I had gone to school elsewhere, but I give Bethany much of the credit for the artist that I am today. BLC has a small but passionate art department that is making a perceivable impact within our fellowship. More than that, Bethany's Trinity Chapel includes stained glass and a huge altar painting by Bill Bukowski (even before altar paintings became cool). To me, that says that they don't just encourage artists to act out their faith—they put their money where their mouth is. The chapel embodies the idea that art can be as valuable a contribution to worship as music. In short, Bethany molded, taught, inspired, and pushed me to be the artist I am today.

Learn 'em young.

This isn't intended to be a commercial for Bethany. Because frankly, if you wait until you're an adult before you decide to pursue some kind of formal artistic training, you've already lost precious years. If you're a parent who sees artistic potential in your child, let him pursue the gifts God has given him, and don't worry about whether you think he'll be able to support himself. That's God's job. Besides, in hard economic times, I think we place far too much emphasis on a four-year degree. A private liberal arts college isn't exactly the most cost-effective way to get artistic training.

I think a major part of the solution to the artist shortage is to start providing artistic training at a young age. Not just for those who think they want it, but for everyone. Make it a standard part of your curriculum, and invest in it the same way you would in math, history, or science. And at the very least, get children into an honest-to-God art program by the time they're in high school.

LYA Triptych - J. Jaspersen
Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School has the talented Jason Jaspersen in their employ. Jason, another Bethany grad, has been teaching art classes there for 14 years. I envy his students; I wish that I had had an art teacher of his caliber in high school. As much as young artists need a skilled and experienced teacher, they also need a wise mentor. Jason has those qualities, and it's not hard to see in him the kind of traits ascribed to Bezalel in Exodus 35. Under Jason, the art program at MVL has blossomed into a program that, for some students, is the highlight of their high school education. Some would say that the art program is one of MVL's strongest suits. I say, good for them! Go and do likewise.

Parents and students have a lot of pull at schools—probably more than they think. Make inquiries, talk to your school administrators. Talk to other parents, and make a coordinated effort to get art programs established in our schools. Not just because your child may have a gift—which would of course be wonderful—but because our synod desperately needs your child. Even if he doesn't turn out to be the next Jason Jaspersen, we need laymen who have an appreciation of the arts. And by that, I mean a hands-on, historically informed appreciation. As opposed to "Oh, yeah, I liked that picture of a beach I saw at a hotel once..." Your child is our only hope! Take charge of the future of our church. Invest in your children, and God's kingdom will reap the benefit.

August 11, 2014

God's Not Dead: Fictitious "Gotcha"

[There are plot spoilers in this review, but most of them you might have guessed about an inspirational Christian film before you even began watching it; i.e. happy ending for pretty much everyone.]

Since its recent release to dvd, I had the opportunity to watch God's Not Dead. I realize there have already been plenty of Christian reviews, and I probably have little to add to what has already been said. Many have already pointed out some major theological errors, the most obvious of which are decision theology (a conditional gospel) and theistic evolution; others have pointed out the main character's juvenile apologetics. So I don't feel the need to go there. (But if you're interested, here are a couple of decent reviews: God's Not Dead Revisited from Answers in Genesis and God's Not Dead but Christian Screen Writing Is by Jon Speed.)

As other writers have pointed out, the film is not all bad. Most of the good things reviewers have pointed out deal with the high production value and market success of a Christian film. They also recognize that it attempts to share the gospel, and that is an admirable goal. I don't think any Christian wishes to detract from those things. But it does have some glaring problems, which should give Christians pause before endorsing a film—especially if endorsing it for evangelism purposes.

For this review, I want to zoom out and discuss primarily the basic premise of the film. The movie promos claim that while the protagonist of the movie, Josh Wheaton, is a fictional character, his story is true. It's true only in the sense that Christians are being persecuted in colleges and universities. But aside from that, major portions of the movie were so far from believable that at points they bordered on comical.

Josh Wheaton is confronted by a spiteful Prof. Radisson.
So let's start with the believable parts. It's believable that a growing number of educators are hostile to Christianity—that some would publicly humiliate a student for being Christian, or threaten failure in order to force compliance with a progressive worldview. It's believable because it happens. The antagonist, Jeffrey Radisson, is badly written and over-the-top, but if we're viewing this with just a wide-angle lens, we can at least say that the premise isn't far off. If you've read anything by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, some of the venomous comments made by the film's antagonist are not too cruel to be believable. (But, as Jon Speed pointed out, the movie settles for stereotypes that are unhelpful. Atheists are not all mean people who eat their young; Christians are not all nice, either.)

Likewise, it is believable that a student of conscience would stand up to such academic bullying, even under the threat of failure, because that is what Christ has prepared us for. The extra features on the dvd spotlighted some examples of real students undergoing persecution for their faith, e.g. being threatened with expulsion from a graduate program for refusing to counsel a lesbian couple. Christians are undergoing persecution for their faith in America in quiet ways that will never make the headlines. In that respect, this movie is good in that it shines a spotlight on a real problem.

But the believability stops there. The atheist philosophy professor, Radisson, gives Josh Wheaton the chance to defend God's existence in front of the class, presumably to embarrass him. He gives the freshman three 20-minute blocks of time to prove that God is not dead. After that time, we are asked to believe at least three unbelievable things: 1) that all 80 of Josh's classmates were convinced of God's existence, 2) that the professor who wanted to destroy Josh's faith would allow himself to be lectured and even bullied by his student in a contest that Radisson himself controlled, and 3) that shortly after being so humiliated, he would convert.

The cause of my incredulity is not that I don't believe in the miracles, or that I think the Holy Spirit is incapable of converting a room full of unbelievers. But when you consider that Josh's arguments were weak, that he tried to use evolution and the big bang as proof that Genesis was correct long before science caught up with it (huh?), and that he never mentioned Jesus once... well, there's no reason why any skeptic should take his side. And without the Word, there's no means for the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of his classmates. Despite all this, one particular classmate tells Josh after the final debate that he wants to follow Jesus now. Assuming that the one prior on-screen conversation they had was their only interaction, all he could possibly know about Jesus is that he is Josh's friend.

The entire premise of this movie smacks of those Christian email forwards and Facebook memes in which a young student poses some clever arguments to a science teacher who unwisely tries to argue for God's non-existence. One boy asks the teacher if he has ever seen his own brain, thereby demonstrating that we can know something exists without being able to observe it. They always purport to be true stories. One version suspiciously claims a young Albert Einstein to be the child in the story, but the rest use no names or places—sure indicators that they are fictitious. They are intended to give us that satisfying "gotcha" feeling that Christians will likely never experience in the real world. Unbelief is not won over by clever arguments. It refuses even to be embarrassed.

Josh makes his final case. Images courtesy of Pure Flix.
The reason I'm pointing out what I consider to be a dangerously flawed premise in this movie is that it gives Christians false expectations about their evangelism efforts. The fictional pastor in the movie pointed Josh to Matthew 10:32 for assurance: "Therefore whoever acknowledges me before men, him also I will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven." This passage is appropriate, because it indicates that our reward for confessing our faith is not an immediate or visible one. In fact, Jesus says much elsewhere to the same effect: "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Mt 5:11-12). Nowhere does the Bible promise visible fruits for defending the faith. So it's difficult to justify Christ's promise of persecution and hardships with the movie's implication that if you defend God's existence in public, you'll be rewarded with a veritable Second Pentecost. (Oh, and you might also be publicly celebrated by thousands of people packed into a Newsboys concert.)

Last week, I had the privilege of doing some door-to-door canvassing with a gentleman from my congregation who has been doing it weekly for almost two decades. (His partner in evangelism was recently called home to his Savior.) Someone once asked them how many new members they had gotten as a result of their efforts. They replied confidently, "None." Why bother then? They answered that Jesus tells us to preach the good news. He doesn't seem to care how many people walk in our door, so long as the seed is scattered. It's as simple as that. Really, the answer is love—love for Jesus, who redeemed us, and love for the unconverted, who need God's salvation as much as we do.

So... can we do better? I suggest that a movie that depicts the reality of Christians being persecuted, even killed, for their faith would be much more compelling than a sanitized, Hallmark version of Christian conflict in which faith turns all the bad guys into good guys. Look at what's happening to believers in Iraq at the hands of ISIS. Or in Syria. There's plenty of evidence there that Christians aren't getting happy endings. To be fair, the film does show a girl who converts to Christianity from Islam and is thrown out of her home. But that thread is left unresolved, with an artificial happy ending appended to it.

A Christian film cannot claim to have added anything significant to the case for God's existence unless it can tackle the problem of pain head on and not flinch. Many of Jesus' own apostles met gruesome deaths. Where's the comfort in that? Where's the "gotcha" moment? Their comfort was in a Savior who was delivered over to death for their sins and raised to life for their justification (Ro 4:25). They didn't need the satisfaction of knowing that they had won an argument over God's existence.

I suppose the only real "gotcha" moment a Christian can experience will be the Second Coming—but then, I highly doubt that when we see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Mt 24:30) our reaction will be, "Ha, atheists! We were right all along." No, I think that terrifying event will drive any hint of arrogant gloating from our minds. We'll have far more glorious things to think about. I suggest that instead of constructing fictional "gotcha" moments for Christians to bask in, we should instruct them in biblical teaching about evangelism, the theology of the cross (of persecution), and apologetics. We can encourage and equip them with Christian community. We can hold up examples of faithful Christians who have carried out their calling, even sometimes to bitter ends. And we can offer prayers to those who are witnessing every day in the mission fields—those far away, and those in our own back yards. And as always, we would do well to remember that we are called to scatter that seed as well.

"Here am I, send me, send me!"

August 10, 2014

Ad Orientem or Versus Populum?

Liturgical variety can be a wonderful thing. It is proof that Christians are not a homogenous body of cultists, but the wonderfully varied Body of Christ, expressing their faith in a spectrum of languages, cultures, and rites.

That isn't to say that all variety is welcome or desired. I think any Christian would accept that while variety can be good, it is necessary to strive for purposeful and meaningful variety. In worship, we don't usually do things arbitrarily or at random, because randomness cannot serve the purpose of the gospel—or any purpose.

During the WELS Worship Conference this summer, I had the opportunity to see one particular aspect of liturgical ritual put into practice. Though the altar was freestanding, the altarpiece that I designed for the Festival of Transfiguration made it impossible for the liturgist to stand behind the altar and face the congregation (versus populum). Apparently, not all parties involved were aware of that practical necessity until the night before, and I took some heat for it. But regardless, it was decided that the liturgist would have to do parts of the liturgy ad orientem (facing liturgical East), which has been almost universal church practice for centuries.

(Just to paint a clearer picture, the chapel at Carthage is a cruciform, central-plan church, with the four wings radiating out from the chancel area. The wing "behind" the chancel was occupied by the organ and an empty balcony, with the other three wings housing the congregation. The chancel was comprised only of a raised, square platform, and furnished with portable ambo, font, and altar.)

It isn't my intent to tell Christians that this is how the liturgy must be done, or that they should get rid of their freestanding altars and build high altars. But every action of the priest/pastor, every liturgical response, every symbol is a teaching opportunity. So I'm only advocating that we take the opportunity to ensure that the orientation of the pastor isn't an arbitrary decision (i.e., well, that's how it was always done in my church), but one with meaning.

For instance, this was the first time that I became acutely aware of how appropriate it was for prayers that are addressing Christ to be made facing the altar and Christ. The symbolism is somewhat fractured when you have portions of the congregation facing in opposite directions, but imagine a church with a longitudinal nave. The pastor faces in the same direction as the congregation, because it is their prayers he is carrying to Christ.

It is sometimes said that ad orientem should only be used in conjunction with a wall altar, and versus populum should only be used in conjunction with a freestanding altar. I would advocate neither. Lutherans have often taken up the practice of facing the altar during the sacrificial portions of the service (prayers, canticles) and facing the people during the sacramental portions (the absolution, the words of institution, Scripture readings, benediction). This can be done whether using a high altar or a freestanding one. Again, consider the appropriateness in context: the minister says, "In the stead and by the command of Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." He does this facing the congregation, but standing between the congregation and the altar, representing his role as mediator and vicar of Christ.

I think it is an unfortunate development in the post-Vatican-II environment that the pastor feels obligated to always stand behind a freestanding altar and speak the entire service towards the congregation. On non-Communion Sundays, the altar serves little more purpose than a podium or hymnal stand. On Communion Sundays, it gets promoted to table.

Although the freestanding altar is something of a late innovation in the Lutheran church, Luther is often cited as the source of this practice. He writes,
Here we retain the vestments, altar, candles until they are used up or we are pleased to make a change. But we do not oppose anyone who would do otherwise. In the true mass, however, of real Christians, the altar should not remain where it is, and the priest should always face the people as Christ doubtlessly did in the Last Supper. But let that await its own time (AE 53:69).
But the Lutheran church didn't take this opinion very seriously, it seems, because it retained wall altars and ad orientem as the norm in the intervening centuries. Perhaps it valued the symbolism of the priest facing the altar, or perhaps it thought that corporate worship in general should not strive to model itself after the informal meal atmosphere of the Last Supper. A third factor could have been that ministers in the Reformed churches spoke the Words of Institution versus populum with their backs to the elements, since they had no doctrine of the Real Presence. (Lutherans obviously would have wanted to distance themselves from those who didn't acknowledge the Real Presence.) But regardless, we can say without reservation that Luther was only human, and that his opinions were not meant to be made into rubrics, as Luther himself hints in the above quote.

Simply put, the Church's traditions are bigger than one person. Christ has given his members the freedom to make innovations to worship that are born from the gospel. Certain innovations have been weeded out over the centuries as being harmful and contrary to scripture (e.g. the agape meal, the Canon of the Mass). Others have been good, and our fellowship has kept them. Whatever your church practice is, I would only suggest that you strive for ritual that is meaningful. See that it communicates truthfully to your parishioners, and that they understand what is being done, and why. Finally, may Christ be glorified in all things! Amen.

July 30, 2014

Altarpiece for Sale

The 2014 WELS Conference for Worship, Music, and the Arts concluded last week on Friday. We're finally getting back into the daily grind. This triptych was designed and painted especially for the Transfiguration service at the conference. Since it has fulfilled that purpose, I am now offering the triptych for sale. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please pass this along to them.

Price: $1200 with lighting; $1000 without.

Oil on muslin, with poplar and pine frame; LED lighting, power adapter, and dimmer switch. The altarpiece also has two legs and a cross bar (not shown) that were used to clamp the frame to the altar at Carthage. These can be removed to fit whatever installation needs you may have. If you are interested or have any questions, contact or message me on Facebook.

May 17, 2014

Three Years Later: Lessons Learned

Three years ago last week was my post about the Risen Savior Triptych and the results of the informal survey that sank it. I think it would be a good time to revisit the project. Although I never had the chance to produce it as a full-scale triptych, it is till one of my favorite designs. It was part of my MFA thesis project, designed for my home church, and I invested a lot of time and thought into it. But with three more years of perspective, what would I do differently now?

The most important lesson I learned is to never, ever poll the audience. To my inexperienced ears, it sounded like a good idea. The main reason I went along with it is because I assumed that WELS pastors would have more knowledge and appreciation for liturgical art than the average layman, and that being theologically trained, they would surely support it. But I was wrong. We don't give our pastors any training in this area, so what they know is only what they learn from experience or self-study. And God knows that the chances of experiencing high church liturgical art in the WELS are slim to nil.

There's another reason I should have been against the poll. The visiting pastors were neither members nor shepherds of Risen Savior. Not their congregation, not their call. If the decision to commission liturgical art is put to your pastor and board of elders, don't let them pass the buck. Since I was on the board of elders at the time, this was my failing as well.

Another lesson learned: have ready responses for the most common objections. Three years ago, I was unprepared for these objections because they were so ridiculous that it never entered my mind that they might be raised. But having heard plenty of feedback affirming that these objections are almost universal among Protestants, it seems that having the right answers and responses is a good way to ensure that the deck is stacked in your favor.

Some objections:

  1. It's too Catholic. There are several ways to counter this argument to a Lutheran. There are a couple of good Luther quotes that say why it is good to have Jesus "before my eyes" (that is, having a visible sign of Christ or his passion). Historic precedence shows that Crucifixes, altar paintings, etc. were prominent in Lutheran churches immediately after the Reformation, indicating that there is nothing inherently "Catholic" about them, aside from content. The Book of Concord also has several sections that address human traditions in the Church, and why they should be kept. But finally, any objection to something being "Catholic" ultimately boils down to "I don't want it." There is nothing that can't be labeled as Romanist if a church or individual doesn't like it.

  2. If it offends even one person, that's one too many. I don't know who first started throwing this phrase around, but it's an argument that can't be contradicted, because it is based on fearful conjecture. In this culture, anyone could be offended by anything. And when we have Christ's promise that his gospel will indeed cause offense, and be a stumbling block, and be pure foolishness to those who are perishing, the fear of causing offense is not a fear that Christians are permitted to succumb to. We are not permitted to withdraw from the Church anything that we think may cause offense, because God's Word causes offense. This argument sounds like a pious, biblically-informed argument, but is most likely another way of saying, "I don't like it [but I'm afraid to stand behind my own opinions]."

  3. An ascended Christ would be more Lutheran. There's nothing wrong with using a Christus rex, but there are probably ulterior motives at play if there are objections to the crucifix. This argument combines aspects of 1 and 2. It's a variation on "It's too Catholic," because the urban myth has circulated among Protestants that the empty cross is Lutheran, whereas the crucifix is Catholic. You might also hear that showing the corpus is to deny the resurrection. Here, St. Paul is your champion: "For I was resolved to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). Many mainstream Lutherans associate offense with the cross (rightly so), and so their missional orientation causes them to be embarrassed of the cross. Here, your best weapon is to show them that Christ crucified is missional. For churches who are ostensibly trying to bring in the recovering alcoholics, single moms, teenagers struggling with addiction—there is nothing more comforting than knowing that Christ has been there. In fact, anything that you have suffered, he has suffered immeasurably more. Trying to switch out the cross for a theology of glory is to trade any chance of true comfort for a false and temporary notion of security.

  4. Spending money on artwork is not good stewardship. This argument is unfortunately firmly entrenched in the modern Protestant psyche. There is a kind of cultural utilitarianism that objects to anything that goes beyond a minimally functional space. At least, in public worship spaces. If you took a tour inside the home of every person who has ever made this argument, you would likely find a great deal beyond the functional. But to look to Scripture (John 12), we find that beautiful passage in which Mary pours the expensive nard on Jesus' feet, to the loud objections of Judas. Jesus did not accuse Mary of bad stewardship, but defended her act of love. It is a failure of education that Lutherans tend to think of stewardship mainly in the sense of monetary wealth, instead of "time, talents, and treasures." We most often overlook talents. "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them" (Rom 12:10).
Lastly—and I may be wrong about this—I sometimes wish that Confessional Lutherans would not place undue emphasis on building a consensus. Yes, I recognize that Lutherans have elected to be more democratic in the way our churches are governed, and this can be a great blessing. But it can also be a hinderance to accomplishing change for the better. For instance, when a pastor acts unilaterally on decisions affecting the church, he may face a mutiny. On the other hand, is it fair or practical that artists and the few pastors who value their contributions to the church should have to shoulder the task of educating the laity on the value of liturgical art before anything can be done about it? How many decades would it take to "build a consensus" in a church of 500?

There are strong worship leaders within the WELS and other Confessional synods who are promoting good music and consistent use of the liturgy. At last year's School of Worship Enrichment in York, NE, Pastor Johnold Strey remarked that in regard to implementing good liturgical worship, "Sometimes you just have to experience it." Can't the same be said of art? Lutherans are sometimes so resistant to change that we can't see what good could possibly come of it. Maybe our pastors should be more authoritative in this area, and simply say, "We need this. It's a great idea, it's beautiful, it's good stewardship, and it will help to proclaim the gospel."

May 13, 2014

Severing Doctrine from Practice

A recent post at Brothers of John the Steadfast criticized the contemporary worship services at Concordia University Nebraska. I can't fully defend the article, because it was written from the perspective of a one-time visitor, and some of the points were not entirely accurate. However, the comments it generated, especially by many offended CUNE students, were of special interest.

The recurring themes, repeated over and over by students who were lifelong LCMS Lutherans, some of whom were Pastors' kids, were:
  1. We can't expect non-Lutherans to worship like Lutherans.
  2. Traditional liturgy is off-putting to unbelievers.
  3. Not everyone is edified by liturgical worship.
  4. As long as we are true to the Word (or at least don't preach false doctrine), the worship style is irrelevant.
So based on these premises, the students feel convinced that having CoWo chapel is not only acceptable, but is to be preferred over traditional liturgical worship. Unfortunately, the premises are made of straw and don't hold up to scrutiny. Let's examine them one at a time.

1. We can't expect non-Lutherans to worship like Lutherans.

In what universe would a Baptist walk into a Greek Orthodox church and expect to find a gospel choir? Ours, apparently, because that is the argument being used here. Lutherans are worried that non-Lutherans might pay to attend a Lutheran college, be taught Lutheran theology by Lutheran faculty, but then be shocked and disgusted that they worship like Lutherans? If a person has decided to attend a Lutheran school, then let's be honest to him and to ourselves about our heritage and our Confessions (even that troublesome Article XV of the Apology to AC).

2. Traditional liturgy is off-putting to unbelievers.

So what happens if a demographic of Wiccans starts attending a Lutheran college? Can we mutilate the divine service enough to appeal to them? This line of thinking is dead wrong for two reasons. The first is that worship is not an outreach tool. The second is that it assumes that God's Word and the gospel have no real power over the soul, placing the importance instead on "style."

3. Not everyone is edified by liturgical worship.

Yes, everyone is edified by liturgical worship, unless he has hardened his heart to the Word. What this argument is really saying is, "I don't like liturgical worship [it doesn't make me feel good]." Again, this is wrong for two important reasons. The first is that it attempts to drain the Word of God of its power. The liturgy is not an empty set of rites that might as well be a bunch of nursery rhymes. In large part, it is the Word of God. It is assembled from the inspired songs of Scripture into a regular structure that administers law and gospel at every service. It must edify us. This argument is like saying that a person who does not like spinach will not be nourished by it, which is obviously not true. God's Word is efficacious without our "spicing it up" with drums and guitars.

The second error is in thinking that my feelings determine what is good for me and what is not. If what I like determines what is good, Twinkies are just as good for me as steak. And if the emotional high I get in CoWo really is edifying, then so is being told that I just won the Powerball, even if it isn't true.

4. As long as we are true to the Word (or at least don't preach false doctrine), the worship style is irrelevant.

Wrong x 1000. Worship flows out of theology. Lutherans cannot worship like Quakers, Methodists, Pentecostals, Reformed, or Evangelicals. Not only because our Confessions forbid casting aside the "customary rites," but because our theology naturally produces worship that is liturgical, participatory, gospel-oriented, edifying, and centered on Word and Sacrament. From my experience at morning chapels at CUNE, there seems to be at least a substantial portion of students and faculty who want to foster a complete disconnect between theology and practice. But that disconnect cannot be maintained long before cognitive dissonance sets in. The tail will start wagging the dog, and doctrine will conform to practice.

I don't mean to pick on CUNE or even the LCMS here, because it's a widespread problem among Lutherans. We can't fool ourselves into thinking that we can maintain pure doctrine and law-gospel preaching while entertaining non-Lutheran worship styles.

April 21, 2014

Do This if You Want to Live

This Easter Sunday, we enjoyed a wonderfully Christ-centered worship service at our home church, Grace Lutheran in Seward. The hymns all were rich and powerful, the liturgy played a key role, and the sermon delivered law and gospel just as it should have. The choir did not overwhelm the service with special music. And with an attendance of about 70, the congregational singing was unusually boisterous for our small parish.

That will give you some perspective when I tell you about the conversation that took place at our table during the Easter brunch that followed. Some relatives of a parish member were visiting from Lincoln, and the husband could not seem to contain his pride in his church. You see, about eight years ago their church was doing very poorly; membership was declining, and it looked as though the end was in sight. But then they got a new, energetic pastor, and everything changed. They started a new, "very contemporary" service, and now the church is bursting at the seams. Now it seems that they cannot find enough parking space, and even their brand new facility proved to be too small. Well, you see, it is quite obvious that God is blessing this church.

Or so this visitor boldly claimed. I asked him which church it was that he was talking about, and he informed me that it was Christ Lutheran in Lincoln. So afterwards, I looked it up. Christ Lutheran apparently grew so large that its contemporary service split off into its own church, called Room211.  It seems this guy was not the only one who was proud of the church's rags-to-riches story. The Christ Lutheran website flaunts their attendance records online (while burying their LC-MS affiliation), and with numbers topping 1000 for Good Friday and 3000 on Easter Sunday, it's enough to make your average Lutheran church envious. Like maybe they're doing something right.

And that's what this visitor to Grace thought, too. He was laying it on pretty thick that our little church with a weekly attendance of less than 50 needs to get with the program. He stopped just short of saying, "Here's what you're doing wrong: your traditional hymns, liturgy, and law-gospel preaching are a death sentence. If you want to grow, do what we do."

What exactly do they do? The Room211 solution is to have gourmet coffee and cookies, a praise band, "multisensory worship," huge projection screens, videos, drama performances, fog machines, and sermons based on Pixar Movies. Is it possible to judge the success of a church's ministry from a distance? True, we can't judge hearts, but consider the following:
  1. The 5 minute intro video on the home page only mentions Jesus one time—with the word "freak" appended to it. No cross. Just stories about alcoholism and depression and needing to belong.
  2. The pages and pages of testimonials on the Room211 site mention "Jesus" a total of three times, and "Christ" only ten times, six of which refer to the parent church's name.
  3. Nowhere does Room211 list its affiliation with the LC-MS. Even the word "Lutheran" is only mentioned in connection with its parent church.
  4. Nowhere does Room211 have a statement of beliefs, or even a link to a statement of beliefs.
  5. Read any of the archived sermons about Despicable Me, Duck Dynasty, the Princess Bride, or Michael Jackson, and see if you can find one with both law and gospel in it. (I couldn't. But I suppose if you have enough patience, you might find a couple.)

So am I envious of this church's success? Not in the least. Because there was never any doubt that if you give people whatever they want, you'll fill your church every Sunday. We could stand at the doors and hand out free birth control, and that would sure bring 'em in. But the question is, how can we best minister to souls in need of a Savior? Room211 is not ministering. If hand-picked testimonials only produce heart-warming stories about wanting to belong, and being moved to tears by the music, and finding the messages to be super relevant, and feeling like you can trust the people around you even though you don't know any of them—this is not ministering. If not one of those enthusiastic re-churched members can boast in the cross of Christ, then they are not being ministered to. This is pandering, entertaining, and manipulating. Why would we want to imitate this? For the numbers? Is that how God measures success?

Kyrie Eleison.

April 14, 2014

He is Weak, But He is Strong

My two-year-old son has been learning "Jesus loves me, this I know," and because it's one of the only songs he knows, he sings it all the time. I noticed the other day that he keeps getting one of the lyrics wrong. The original goes, "Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong." In Gabriel's version, it gets changed to "He be weak, but he is strong."

I don't have the heart to correct him, because the version he sings is also true. When we think about Christ this Lenten season, it is not in the context of some lamentable tragedy. Jesus was not the helpless victim, but the willing sacrifice. When we see Jesus being nailed, beaten and bloody, to a cross, it is easy to see his weakness. It is hard to see his strength. It is hard to see the God whose "strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).

"Crucifixion of Jesus" by TangDa

The very idea of an omnipotent God going willingly to this kind of death is absurd in the extreme. It's incomprehensible. It's foolishness. Christians must recognize this, especially since the Apostle Paul even calls it such. "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 Cor 1:18).

You've probably seen this meme floating around the internet. It shows a muscle-bound Jesus defiantly snapping the arms off the cross. It reads like a deleted scene from "The Last Temptation of Christ," in which Jesus decides your sins are not worth it and uses his power to do exactly what his tormentors demand. It's meant to satirize the absurdity of the central article of Christian faith.

The atheist thinks he is telling us something new. Like if we really thought about it hard, we'd come to the conclusion that the Atonement is too ridiculous a concept for it to actually be true. For the Christian, it is pointless to deny the absurdity. We embrace it, and point them to 1 Cor 1:18. We thank God for his reckless love, that though he was
"in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." — Philippians 1:6-11

February 25, 2014

CCM and the Shotgun Wedding

A few weeks ago, I came across a great post at BJS by Eric Andersen: Parallels of Pornography and Praise Music. He shares a quote from C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves) in which Lewis describes what "lust" does and does not seek after. He says,
We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he “wants a woman.” Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want.

He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).
Andersen's post builds on the premise that so-called "Praise" music is like pornography in that it is all about aesthetic—not content. We don't want the whole package; we want the part that makes us feel good. And for the most part, Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) has very little to offer in terms of content. Andersen quotes the lyrics from a handful of truly insipid praise songs. They repeat empty refrains over and over, and romancing God seems to be a common theme. (I know of at least a few songs that I heard 3 or 4 times on internet radio stations (for examplebefore I realized that they were supposed to be "Christian" for exactly this reason—they sounded like every other popular love song, with a few allusions to Jesus/God that are easy to miss.)

Father = Church Growth?

Andersen mentions in passing that there are exceptions, and I want to address those. Because it appears to me that the exceptions are being used to "soften up" the traditionalists for a flood of non-exceptional, Haugen-flavored hogwash. While there are a few cases of good texts paired with Praise music, it is not a natural pairing. It's a case of theology being forced at gunpoint into a style of music that doesn't care for it. In the rare instance where a CCM group takes the time to put some semblance of theology into the music, Lutherans who dream about tattooed vocalists, colored spot lights, and glittery drum sets get the butterflies. "Hey, now we can sell this to the curmudgeony old Lutherans who insist on having good theological hymn texts!" So naturally, "In Christ Alone" by Getty-Townsend becomes the poster child for CCM among Lutherans. It should go without saying that the shotgun wedding between sensual Praise music and sound theology produced an ill-matched couple. But for appearances' sake, it might be good enough for a Trojan horse. As soon as we concede to publish Getty-Getty-Townsend in the new WELS hymnal, a horde of well-groomed, dressed-down, microphone jockeys will jump out and start singing the full gamut of Christian Contemporary Music. (Okay... so it is possible to take a metaphor too far.)

Is "In Christ Alone" a good text? Yes, as far as the theology goes. But it is terrible poetry. Which makes it at best an okay text. And moreover, it is not a hymn for congregational singing. It is a song, written for a Praise band and a professional soloist. Just like every other Praise song I've ever heard. And it could never be any other way, because CCM is modeled on the aesthetic of the popular non-sacred music you'd hear on the radio. It's "ear porn." People like it for the feeling it gives them, not for the theological depth of its content. If CCM didn't sound like pop music, it would simply have no appeal to the church growth movement.

Some of you will probably think that I have a chip on my shoulder. How can I be one of the two dozen Lutherans who doesn't at least begrudgingly condone singing "In Christ Alone" in worship? I must dislike everything contemporary.

On the contrary, I actually do like some of it. After all, I like a lot of popular music. Why would I dislike popular music that is also Christian? Most of it is quite catchy, sometimes has well-crafted poetry, occasionally good theology, and (to use one of those "trendy" adjectives) can even be uplifting. It is designed to be easily liked (again, not unlike pornography). But unlike many Lutherans, I hope that I am able to distinguish "what I like" from "what is good," and especially from "what is good for worship."
  • I like a good leather recliner, but I don't need or want one in church.
  • I like Phil Collins, but I don't want to hear his music in church.
  • I like a good beer, but it would be completely inappropriate in worship.
See? We do this all the time. We distinguish between what we like and what is good for worship and beneficial to our fellow believers. But for some reason, this logical decision-making process is checked at the door when it involves Praise music, and we are called curmodgeony legalists for consistently testing everything.

January 31, 2014

The Temptation of Christ (Explanation)

In my last post, I shared a drawing of the Temptation and asked for readers to point out the symbolism. In this post, I'm going to explain the different symbols that I incorporated into the drawing. I don't always do this. One reason is that I don't want to deprive the viewer of discovering these things for themselves. A work of art becomes more impactful and memorable if the viewer has to work a little at it. That "aha!" moment becomes a reward in itself for the observer who invests a few extra minutes in the work of art.

But there is also a trade-off. If I don't explain the work in my own words, sometimes things that I think are obvious will be missed, or a viewer will put a different spin on it. In this instance, a viewer found the words "I AM" written in the rocks, which I had not at all intended to write. Some symbols do not communicate as clearly as they might, and this is a problem inherent to the visual arts. So with that being said, the following is a brief explanation of "The Temptation of Christ."
  1. Satan: In my previous approaches to this subject, the devil had been a shadowy figure dressed in a tattered black robe. Some years ago, I decided a change in costume would be not only less cliché, but more appropriate. I thought, why shouldn't Satan be dressed as Caesar in all his glory? Satan claimed to own the entire world—as the caesars did—and he also asked that Jesus bow down and worship him—as did Domitian and other Roman emperors. The symbolism didn't have to be invented, since it is already well-established in Roman art. So I dressed Satan as Caesar, wearing a sword as a symbol of his warring conquests. He holds a scepter in his hand, symbolizing his dominion over the earthly kingdom. His posture indicates his arrogance and vanity as he gestures toward the kingdoms of the earth and their splendor.
  2. The Lion: The devil is described as a "roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet 5:8). There are lions emblazoned on Satan's sandals and in the center of his breastplate, an appropriate symbol of his power and bloodlust.
  3. The Dragon: The book of Revelation describes Satan as "the great Dragon...that serpent of old" (Rev 12:9), which brings to mind that first deception in the Garden of Eden. He wears the symbol of a dragon embossed on his breastplate as a boast: "Look what I have done to God's perfect creation!"
  4. The Tree: The devil's scepter points to a stunted and withered tree, which brings to mind the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—the means by which he overcame mankind by introducing sin into the world. But Satan could little guess that a tree would also the means by which Jesus would overcome him.
  5. Jesus: Jesus is in every way Satan's opposite. He is the picture of humility—the Suffering Servant. His back is bent, his hair unkept, his clothing torn, his eyes downcast, and he doesn't appear to have the strength to even stand. He is facing away from Satan, and he shows no interest at all in his grand offer. Instead, if you follow his downcast gaze, it is focused on some cracks in the rock which resemble a body hanging on a cross. Jesus was ever conscious of his mission, and solely motivated by love. He resisted each temptation, maintaining his divine perfection—only hinted at here as a thin cloud which forms an 'accidental' halo over Jesus' head.

Pencil and white charcoal on toned paper, 2013.

January 17, 2014

The Temptation of Christ

This is a drawing I made last year of the Temptation. Matt. 4:8, 9. See if you can find all the symbolism.

Whoever can write the best commentary on this illustration, drawing attention to all the symbols, by 12:00 PM Central on Saturday, Jan. 18, wins an autographed print of the drawing!

Longer is not necessarily better. Winner chosen at the discretion of the artist. Leave commentaries in the comments section.

Pencil and white charcoal on toned paper, 2013.

January 4, 2014

How We've Murdered Liturgical Art: Part II

This series of posts discusses a book written by a professor at Carthage College, published by Concordia Publishing House, and used as a required text at Concordia University NE in the 1970s. It is entitled "The Christian Encounters the World of Painting," by Wendell Mathews. The book purports to be a guide for Christians to approaching and critiquing modern painting. While claiming to be a proponent of Christian art, Mathews is clearly part of the problem—he is one of the many Christian voices that contributed to the murder of the liturgical arts in the past century. I intend to show exactly how.

In his book, Dr. Mathews wields four weapons against the art of the Church. Not surprisingly, they are the standard poison of Modernism, but have been carefully disguised with theological language in order to be more readily swallowed by Christians. They are: 1) undermining tradition, 2) promoting elitism, 3) attacking semantics, and 4) fostering an improper view of vocation.

2. Promoting Elitism

Admittedly, calling someone an elitist is probably one of the most overused name-calling tactics in history. There is nothing that raises the ire of the masses as much as someone who uses his power, wealth, or position in order to exclude those of "lesser" social status. In modern politics, even if the title is not deserving, once it is applied to a person it is difficult to overcome that association.

That being said, there are few entities that are so deserving of the title "elitist" as Modernism is. And there are few places where elitism is so wholly inappropriate as the Christian Church. But oddly enough, we so very often find them together.

Modernists firmly believed that their art was the culmination of tens of thousands of years of artistic efforts; that after millennia of mindlessly imitating nature, they had finally thrown off the shackles of realism and representationalism, and the result was an art that was more pure, more expressive, and more intensely human than ever before.

The only problem was that the public wasn't buying it (both figuratively and literally). A 1995 article from the Independent explains:
In the 1950s and 1960s… the great majority of Americans disliked or even despised modern art—President Truman summed up the popular view when he said: “If that’s art, then I’m a Hottentot.”1
I suspect that Modernism had to become elitist in order to survive. When the new art failed to gather as much enthusiasm as de Kooning, Pollock, Rothko, and their peers thought it deserved, the automatic response was to dismiss the public as uneducated idiots. If you repeat a lie often enough, and believe it strongly enough, and if the CIA secretly funds your lie for decades2, eventually everyone will believe it.

Manessier, "Crown of Thorns"
And that is what Mathews believes, as well. In "The Christian Encounters the World of Painting," he tries very hard to distinguish "authentic" painting from that which is not. He writes, "Authenticity is determined by knowledgeable and experienced viewers who have been trained to see these qualities."3 He continues, "The standards of evaluation come from the artists and those who, through learning and exposure, have come to sense the visual language of painting."4 And again, "If the viewer has had little or no training and experience with viewing paintings, it is rather presumptuous to think he can judge what is an authentic painting."No doubt, Matthews counts himself among these "knowledgeable and experienced" viewers, and is therefore qualified to apply the title of authenticity to those works he considers worthy.

By way of clarification, I do not discount knowledge and experience in matters of art. As a student of the arts, I certainly have a deeper understanding and appreciation for art now than I did as a high school graduate. But I object to the notion that an elite class of academics have the right to say what is "authentic" and what is not, while the public—the people for whom art is ostensibly intended—have no right at all.

Mathews even attempts to disqualify clergy and laymen from passing artistic judgement on the art that is made for their churches! He writes, "The church also is finding that it cannot foster creative expression by requesting the artist to cater to the prevailing tastes of clergy and laymen."6 I question whether the church has actually found this, or whether this has been dictated to the church by elitist academics. Regardless, Mathews is effectively saying, If you find this new art objectionable, you have bad taste, and you are inhibiting authentic artistic expression. And anyways, who are you? Just a stupid layman.

Why is this dangerous to Christianity—and how did it kill liturgical art?

If neither the laymen nor the clergy are fit to discern what art is and is not fit for use in worship, then who is? The artists? You can see why Modernists are so deserving of the title "elitist." They not only want to monopolize the production of new artwork, but its critique, and—no doubt—its value. You can also see why the church has come to distrust artists on the whole. If Mathews represents the prevailing academic opinion about arts in the church, it is no wonder that many churches would prefer to leave the whole matter alone and worship in a white-washed barn.

Chagall, "White Crucifixion"
An all-important question that Mathews never raises is: who is the art intended for? The book is entitled "The Christian Encounters...", and the author presupposes that his readership are Christians. But he never explicitly states that Christian art is intended for Christians. Now if liturgical art is meant for Christians, then logicaly the intended audience would play a role in judging its worth. But he cannot reveal that inconsistency, so I suspect the question is deliberately avoided. However, from phrases scattered throughout the book, I gather that Mathews never considers that a work should be intended for the edification of the body of believers. He sees art universally as a subjective experience between you, the viewer, and the work itself. This can only ever harm the Church, because it takes away the ability of art to communicate real meaning.

The second all-important question that Mathews never asks is: what is the art's purpose? He doesn't ask, but he does give an answer, though only in passing:
If, however, we conclude that for Christians the quality of artistic expression does not matter and that only the religious message matters, we have moved out of the area of the fine arts. If the church wishes to enunciate the Gospel by means of artistic expressions, it must strive for nothing less than authentic art of quality.7 
Did you catch it? He casually, almost accidentally, says what should have been the central point of the whole book: "to enunciate the Gospel." I wonder how artists are supposed to do that if, in trying to do so, Mathews and his peers dismiss it as unauthentic, or disassociate it with fine art. Or, if an artist tries to follow Dr. Mathews' advice, how he is supposed to enunciate anything by means of the subjective abstractions Mathews is so infatuated with? It's an enormous catch-22 that he hopes you won't notice. Unfortunately, some rather influential voices in the church have been playing the Modernist tune for decades. They are still teaching young artists that liturgical art is a means of self-expression, and not one of enunciating the gospel. The inevitable result is that the church grows either farther estranged from artists, or from the gospel—and possibly both.

Christianity is not a religion of subjective realities, but of objective, unchanging truths. It sees humankind as unique creations, but ones that are fundamentally the same—equally corrupt and sinful, and equally in need of a Savior. This is why we come to worship. We need to hear that Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins, and was raised to life for our justification.8

Whatever works of art we choose to place in our sanctuaries, they must certainly reflect these truths. Those works should be accessible to the people they are meant to communicate to. There is no room in the Church for elitism.

To be continued...


1 Frances S. Saunders, "Modern art was CIA 'weapon'," The Independent (October 1995),
2 Ibid.
3 Wendell Mathews, The Christian Encounters the World of Painting (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1968), 90.
4 Mathews, 91.
5 Ibid, 100.
6 Ibid, 91-92.
7 Ibid, 101.
8 Romans 4:25