Saturday, March 29, 2008

Art in the Church

Jenny and I attended a lecture and discussion on art in the church last night at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, where I am enrolled. The lecture focused on abstract art, but art in general could be examined.

Here are a few of the points that were covered. Christians have revered representational art largely on account of the skill of the artist, the subject matter, and as a way to illustrate biblical themes. The Catholics and Orthodox Christians have allowed iconography (the portrayal of saints, angels, and the Trinity) ostensibly to better focus worship and prayer toward God (protestants have accused them of idolatry, not always without merit). John Calvin and the Puritans he influenced believed that art should only represent that which we can see with the eye and not themes we cannot (such as God's glory, or the Holy Spirit, etc.) They felt this was the way to uphold Exodus 20:4, "You must not make for yourselves any image in the likeness of that which is in the heavens, upon the earth, or beneath the waters, for this is treachery." The protestant view of this Scripture seems to take 20:4 with a grain of salt and obeys 20:5, "and do not bow down and serve it for I, Yahweh, am a jealous God..." So as long as these images were not used in association with prayer or worship, anything that actually exists could be portrayed.

Jews and Muslims are far more literal than Christians when it comes to 20:4. Observants do not allow any images, whether drawn, painted, or sculpted, which represent any living thing. Instead inanimate objects are allowed (a palm tree, the crescent moon, etc.). Abstract art, however, is promoted in these cultures as a way to represent things and ideas without copying their image. Synagogues and mosques are often richly adorned with abstractions on a theme.

The question becomes are the Christians correct in their interpretation of Scripture? We who are protestants especially have to examine Luther and Calvin's ideas and see if they are correct. There are also other ideas to take into account (what part of the law are we held to? Do abstractions take the focus off of God in worship?).

We should also look at the Old and New Testaments to try to derive answers. The Tabernacle was a simple tent that was adorned with colors in its fabric. The altar was made of rough stones, with no adornment. The Ark of the Covenant and the lampstands were adorned but were generally not seen by the people, only by the high priest. The later Temple, however, had many adornments with carved and forged pomegranate flowers/fruit, etc. It must be pointed out, however, that these were still inanimate objects being portrayed. In the New Testament tradition, early Christians used the ichthus (the little crude fish symbol that we often see on the back of cars) to subtly identify themselves to each other during the times of Roman persecution. From tradition we understand the ichthus to represent the miracles of Christ's multiplication of fish and bread to feed the hungry. Thus, the ichthus represents an abstract idea rather than a fish.

What does this mean for us today? What art should we allow in our church buildings, and where should we allow it? In the foyer? In the library? In the sanctuary? Baptists are put into an especially precarious spot. We don't hold to the holiness of one location over another (the church is not particularly blessed or holy on its own account), rather, it is made holy by the meeting of believers joined with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the sanctuary should not be set apart from the rest of the church building if we are consistent, unless we see art as a distraction from worship.

Baptists also, however, take Exodus 20:4 literally, not allowing images to be displayed in their churches (have you ever seen either stained glass windows depicting saints, or even a cross in a Baptist church?) Baptists believe that we should focus our attention solely on God in worship and believe that the use of images is problematic according to Ex. 20:5.

So, where does that leave us? Here's what I think at the moment, though I don't have everything nailed down yet. I agree with the Jews and Muslims that there are problems with representational artwork, especially in the building where worship occurs. I agree with the Baptists that a cross in the sanctuary may be problematic because it can become what we focus on. The symbol of the cross should be important for Christians, but not in a lovey-dovey, sentimental way. We should see it for what it is: 1) a horrible implement of torture and death; 2) that implement by which God chose to redeem us through Christ's shed blood. I do not mind people wearing crosses, or having crosses on or in the church building, but within the sanctuary I believe our focus should be on our invisible God.

I also think that it may be good to have non-representational art in other parts of the church than the sanctuary. I think that we must be very careful with it, however. I can see abstract artwork as a form of worship, or even serving a tuning function, preparing Christians for worship (very similar to worship music and hymns). According to my thinking, worship music/hymns and "tuning artwork" would be kept for home and on the way to church, preparing hearts for the reading of the Scriptures and the sermon. I know, however, that this is not likely to happen, and we will continue to have "worship" services that incorporate singing.

I think there must also be some limits to what we allow as art within the church building. Criteria a la Steve would be: 1) it must honor God; 2) The honoring of God must somehow be made obvious in the piece; 3) in accordance with #1, it must not have dark themes, unless those themes are meant to portray the dark themes within Scripture; 4) Its intent for the tuning of Christian hearts to praise should be made somehow evident. Last night I suggested that vitae or descriptions of the piece by the artist might be hung with the art in order to better aid in this tuning function. The suggestion was not taken well by a number of artists, who believed that doing so would hinder the expression and subjectivity of the artwork. My question then becomes, is subjectivity within the church building our aim? Shouldn't we try to make it somewhat objective, instead? If the purpose is tuning the heart for praise (and why bring the artwork in if that is not the goal?), shouldn't all hearts be tuned similarly?

I would love to know what the rest of you think. Feel free to enter debate via the comments section. The pictures below are of: 1) The Mosque of Cordoba, Spain; 2) The interior of the "Aya Sofya" (Hagia Sophia) in Istanbul (Constantinople), Turkey; 3) An example of Shabbat stained glass, courtesy of the artist Nancy Katz; 4) An acrylic & oil painting on canvas, courtesy of Jenny Wise (my wife). These are all breathtaking examples of abstract art that would not violate Ex. 20:4.


Ben said...

My opinions may not have any sway with hard-core artists as I simply dabble with various mediums. Nonetheless, as an "artist" I do agree with your points. Often I think artists like subjectivity because they hope to receive the praise of someone else's brilliant revelation or delight at seeing others extract something more out of their creation. If that's the case, show it in a gallery, let the public give you your reward. In the meeting place where God's children, redeemed and not yet redeemed, come together to experience God, let there be thought provoking art, but only that which will bring universal focus to the one true God (His qualities, attributes, etc.) In some cases descriptions/explanations are needed, not to diminish the piece, but to let those who are not blessed with "artist"-like minds enter into God's blessing of creativity expressed through believers. I have seen more non-artists swoon over Thomas Kincade & other kitsch simply because the message is so overt. Perhaps they would not dismiss abstract art if they could at least read about the personal struggle and process of the mind of the artist. To display a creative endeavor is to share a piece of one's soul with fellow human beings. There is a time and place for all art (insert appropriate disclaimer), however, in the church (building in the traditional sense), more consideration is needed. That being said, I absolutely love the contemplation I go through while staring at the abstract painting in our sanctuary, which, by the way, has no explanation.
Hmmm...I've written enough to post to my own blog. Here's my shameless plug to add mine to your list Steve!
Cheers, Sasha

Steven Douglas said...

Great thoughts, Sasha. I am heading there now. Blessings (and blessings to Ben, too!)

Karl said...

I can't decide.. Intially I would tend to agree that the focus could be best on the invisible God. This is the case at Bethlehem Baptist. But in France, I've been in and out of the Cluny (museum of medieval age) and big cathedrals (Chartres) and Paray le Monial (legend has it that Jesus appeared to a sister). All these places are rich in representational art of what God has done. Oddly, that chimes along with the invisible god theme, because we trust him because of his earthly manifestations. It'd be so easy if we had some kind genie god that - poof, hi guys, I'm here! In some cases, the congregations here take part in the creation of more art for Christmas (biggest nativities I ever saw). Like the Thomas Kincaid mention, this art is easily grasped by the literate and less literate. So, how literate are we in this modern age when it comes to religious art? The abstract has value for folks like us who already know the scriptures. Europe is filled with beautiful churches with the entire bible painted, carved, molded, etched and melted in place, which I think has value for a wondering public to ask "who is this god?", but also to provide existing believers with something memorable and more sophisticated than the kiddie cardboard bible picture books we used to read on moms knee. It was worth mentioning in the lecture the unique character of islamic and jewish art being abstractions on a theme. When we were in Fez we visited a mederza, or koranic seminary. The patterned tiles and woodwork was there were incredibly sophisticated and detailed, yet it didn't seem to point to anything specific about a god. At least to my western eyes, that is. Besides the intricacy, there was a plain voidness. It was as if your were to focus on the 2 dimensional scripture text solely.

I think we in the US miss out on the rich eastern and european heritage of structures and installed art as one method of learning, remembering and experiencing god. I never thought much of lutheran church architecture anyway. Yikes! But at the same time, all this fussy expensive design doesn't always seem to be good stewardship of time and money. That, and the acoustics at Paray le Monial where impossible for a gospel concert and hearing rhythmic music intelligibly. The kyrie and gloria are usually no problem in this kind of building because the tempo and composition where probably conceived in the same space. These new music grant hopefuls who do art/music installations in a building are late to the game if you ask me! That poses a challenge for guys like me who are used to charts with half notes, whole notes, dots, ties, yada yada,, that correspond to a given tempo. Catholics deserve credit for having "faith with the most reverb"

Steven Douglas said...

I like that, "faith with the most reverb." Yes, Catholics and the Greek Orthodox are known for their representational art, and it can serve a function. Yet it can also sway adherents away from Scripture and true understanding of God to accepting something less. The images wow and dazzle, the liturgy is in another language that most of the congregants can't speak, and the massive buildings with their high ceilings add to the sense of awe. This is the religion of mystery, the religion of the unapproachable deity. The priest, the saint, and the monk are the way to communicate with God.

We protestants are very sensitive to these "catholicisms," and rightly so. We recognize from Scripture that through Christ's sacrifice and the Holy Spirit, we are given full access to God directly. We see in ourselves the image of God (even marred by sin), but see even more clearly, through the influence of the Spirit, that we are renewed and "perfected" images of God through Christ's righteousness being reckoned to us. For us to be dissatisfied with seeing Christ within us and within the community of believers, through the work of the Holy Spirit, and thus to seek an icon or an image for us to "see," is the very idolatry of Ex. 20:4.

I understand that some may marvel at the representations of Jesus, The Father, Mary, etc., and wonder about "this God," but the answer that they will receive is not the answer in Scripture. They will receive a twisted doctrine by the vary nature of the images displayed. If God has said make no image, what church would do the opposite? I would suggest it would not be a church that rightly believes God's word.

I am not trying to be harsh or to squash your argument. I just think that while the images can be beautiful, I think we should see them as far more ugly. Not by their simple existence and make-up, of course, but by what they really represent, a rebellious heart and a confused doctrine.

Karl said...

No, its OK - squash away. My argument isn't really to say Catholicism is great, but that I found the art beneficial on many levels, even for the artist. For me, I see the art (around here anyway) and think "wow, thanks God. You really have had your hand on everything". That doesn't reconcile the graven images thing, and I don't have answer.

Yet, I'm sick of Sandi Patti, Amy Grant, Steven Curtis Chapman or whoever it is now, sing-along tapes for special offeratory music. So, can these be considered "graven image recordings"? I'd really like a scriptural basis for this sort of thing to eradicated from christianity. Its at the 2nd key change, 3rd chorus after the bridge that I'd be REALLY WISHING for some cool art to look at.... anything to do besides listen... or dare subconciously associate such sacharin schmaltz with tithing. I mean, have a special sermon with all the bible references to tithing and then pump CCM? Hmmmm.. I'd rather quietly gaze at a stained glass of the woman who gave both her coins. Abbey is tapping away, she'll probably have something more coherent to say than I - stay tuned!

Abbey von Gohren said...

"You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (Ex. 20:4-5).

First of all, I do not see anything in these verses about church buildings. It seems to me that these fascinating questions include - but are not limited to - the church building. For, whether we are talking about Israel wandering around in the desert, or followers of Christ these days, worship belongs to all of life. This obviously does not simplify anything, but I’m going to let it justify my broadening of the discussion to other areas. Hee-hee.

My first thought was the implications of all this for literature. I mean, analogical language is an image. Doesn’t a piece of representational art function much like a simile – that is, x work of art IS LIKE y. Perhaps idolatry happens when we turn an “artistic simile” into a metaphor – that is, x work of art IS y. Using this argument, Jesus was not sinning when he said “the kingdom of heaven is like a…”; and by extension, neither are we when we say that God’s love is like an ocean, or God’s love is like [this glorious painting of the ocean over there on the wall].

But there’s one thorny issue: the verse says “an idol, or any likeness”. I think it’s significant that He says both. He could have just said “idol”, but went back and made the criteria even more strict include “likeness.” So, I got curious and looked up that word. David the Psalmist (i.e. the worshipper extraordinnaire) says: “As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness” –the same word in Hebrew. Now, what on earth does that mean? I have no idea, but it’s probably worth thinking about. But it’s certainly not those sacchrine, blonde-haired Jesuses hanging around in faithful churches all over the Midwest.

[Cue the obligatory C.S. Lewis quote.] So, I was thinking about those poorly-drawn Jesuses, when I remembered C.S. Lewis’ argument about art appreciation in An Experiment in Criticism. He said that when he was a boy, he used to like certain illustrations, and once he became an adult, he wondered why he hadn’t ever recognized their awful quality as a kid. Well, he says that they appealed to him because they were representations of what he liked. Substitutes. If he could have seen humanised animals in real-life, he would have certainly tossed aside the Beatrix Potter. He used pictures for fodder for the imagination because he didn’t have the real thing present. This is where “Thomas Kincaide and company” fall, I think. It fulfills a function, but on a rather immature, mass-consumption level.

Lewis then says that for a work of good art to be “really” appreciated, we must let go of our preconceived notions, and let it work upon us. “The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.” This kind of submission to a “likeness” might be problematic for the worshipful Christian (a “bowing down to it”, if you will), or maybe it perfectly mirrors the attitude that the Lord wishes us to have in His presence, thus “tuning our hearts”, as Steve said. I would like to think the latter. In this case, potentially any excellent work of art could prepare us to worship the Creator of all things.

On a personal level, I have found this to be true. I remember the first time I visited the Louvre about a decade ago. I rounded the corner, and came face-to-face with a Botticelli fresco…more specifically, the curve of the neck of one of the Three Graces. I began to weep because of the beauty of that one line. My first thought was not “how marvelous this painter is” or “I feel like bowing to it”, but rather – awe for our Heavenly Father who has made every thing beautiful in its time.

Let’s just say…I left with my heart tuned.

Steven Douglas said...

Abbey and Karl,

Wow. I appreciate your words and thoughts. Thank you both for sharing them with us. There are things I will disagree about in there, but I should first say that it is by the grace of God and that alone that you can find him in that artwork. Those works are beautiful and I must admit a bit of envy. I certainly would love to see that fabulous artwork someday (so would Jenny). God created our world, and particularly man, "good." There is true beauty in the human form. That is something that can be captured and portrayed by gifted artists (another gifting of God). Other humans, particularly Christians, should be able to see God's handiwork in creation through the work of the artist.

As it pertains to worship and church praxis, however, we must be careful to follow the word of God. God has ordained Scripture, certain traditions, and symbols (similes ;) ) to point to him and truths about him. I am not sure we can say, "because he allows this symbolic representation, we should also implement that one." (I am not say that that is what you are saying.) Art, in all its beauty and poignancy, can only reveal so much. It is a far more "emotional" medium. The appeal it makes upon our emotions has a use, but only to an extent and never against Scripture itself. The surrender to God is not first and foremost an emotional one, but one of the will.

As for the artwork itself, can we see a two-dimensional image, even by one of the greats (Michaelangelo, DaVinci, VerMeer, Courbet,etc.) does not do justice to the real work of God in his image. When we draw/paint man, we draw/paint the image of God. Yet we are unable to capture God in reality. Calvin said we should only paint what we can see and not those things that we can't (like God's glory), but should it be somewhat the other way around? "I paint this because my experience of God's glory makes me feel this..." Abstraction, then, can cover the emotional and the worshipful without doing injury to the image of God.

As I said before, I think it is testiment to the Holy Spirit working within you that you can draw inspiration and great meaning from the masters' works. The works are a shadow of reality, albeit a striking one.

I love the tag-team thing. You guys give me lots to think about. As we begin to move into exactly how to practice this and who would make the rules, I begin to think I have bitten off more than I can chew. But, then, we have so many talented and educated friends who are involved in the arts! It should be challenging. I love getting both your perspectives. Keep it up.

Timothy L. Decker said...

Steven, I don't think I have a lot to offer in this discussion. My knowledge of art is next to zero (and I mean right next to zero). Schaeffer in his books and documentary "How must we then live" uses art to illustrate the moral decline in Western thought.

I would caution you not to speak for all Baptist churches. I have been to a Baptist church that had a crucifix in it. I have been in others with stained glass windows picturing the life of Christ (probably not what you were referring to though).

The only art I have up in my church are plants. Seriously, we don't have any in our church. Just some plants. That is not because of any doctrinal issue. We just haven't done anything yet. Needless to say our walls are boring.

If I were to choose to put up art in my church, I would put up Scripture (can I get an amen!). What better tuning mechanism could there be?

As a personal note, I had a gentlmen in my church print out a pic of Christ on the cross and a quote of something I said from a sermon. It was very nice, but I have yet to put it up. It is good to be reminded of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. But God already gave us a Scriptural way to do that - the Lord's Supper. I like to focus on the risen Savior. An empty cross does that.

Basically I am rambling. Like I said, I don't have much to offer.

Steven Douglas said...

Hey Karl,

Sorry I didn't respond about the music. I think you are absolutely correct. I think many churches have fallen into the idea of entertaining their congregants. This has taken on many forms and has been "Christianized." It all comes back to entertainment and emotionalism. There cannot be a moment of silence, or a loss of sensory overload. Also, often the schmaltzy music is specifically designed to guilt or emotionally stoke people into giving money. I don't like it.

I was glad to hear a story from one of my fellow classmates yesterday. He is a youth pastor at his church and the head pastor was using one of those over the ear/low visibility microphones. Unfortunately, it was not positioned correctly and he could not be heard well by many in the congregation.

After the service, when this pastor found out what had happened, he took his staff aside and told them that they should have interrupted him and helped him adjust it.

They were afraid of interrupting the service, but he told them that they were ministers of the gospel, not performers. If the gospel cannot be heard, there was no point to the service. I was thrilled to hear of a pastor who talked like this. We need more of this kind of thinking.

The church is not made by music/artwork/glitzy lights and visual-audio equippment/a talented ministry team. A church is made of believers meeting together specifically to hear the word preached and to administer the sacraments.

Hey guys? What part of France do you live in? Are you within Paris? I can only imagine. I spent some time, once, in Prague, and I just love the cultural feel of Europe. What a shame that its so spiritually dark there. Have you guys found a good church? Blessings.

Steven Douglas said...


I suppose you are right. It was too much of a generalization. Baptists really fall all over the board. I guess that may be a result of its being a "convention," rather than a denomination. Each pastor is able to do as he sees fit. Generally, however, those who are consistent in their baptist theology would shy away from those things.

Thanks for the comments.