Tuesday, August 19, 2014

And a little child shall lead them ... quite impressively in fact

Between reviewing the proceedings from the Disputation at the Convent of Rive of 1535 and an essay by Barth on the "architectural problem of Protestant places of worship," I pause to watch this remarkable video by a child likely no older than our own Blythe.

A little child shall indeed lead them, in their own special way.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

The flourishing of the liturgical arts on Calvinian terms


The barista at Starbucks just asked me what my dissertation is about. She's seen me sitting at the same little table for the past month, in my office away from my official office, and she was curious what kept me returning. I gave her my generic answer: "It's about theology and the arts." She smiled and said, in typical Starbuckian friendliness, "That sounds so interesting!" I figure if somebody really wants to know, they'll keep asking until I give them the real answer. It's a question my mother has asked me repeatedly, along with friends, colleagues, church people, and strangers. It's the right question to ask, though I still seem to stumble over the ten-second answer. What's your dissertation about, again? 

As I prepare to defend my thesis next Wednesday, I thought I'd drop here a small portion of my conclusion. It is the beginning of an answer to my project's original question: "Is it possible to argue for the flourishing of the liturgical arts on Calvinian terms?" My answer is yes. But, of course, that answer appears 390 pages after building and defending an argument in sympathy to, but also often against, Calvin's theology of worship.

God-willing, I'll defend my project successfully and eventually publish a book version of the dissertation. Until then, it's hip hip hooray for getting this far and for getting an opportunity to do it. (And, yes, the project works with John Calvin, not the other Calvin.)


The flourishing of the liturgical arts on Calvinian terms
The question that our project has left outstanding is this: How may the liturgical arts be said to flourish on Calvinian terms? For some, of course, it may be presumed that there is nothing interesting to discover in Calvin’s liturgical theology, so the answer to this question is moot. Others may feel that nothing more should be said. Calvin has already said everything that could be said about the liturgical arts in light of his biblical arguments or that his social location pre-determines the sorts of things that might have been said.  Still others may dismiss his views as theologically problematic (dualistic, pessimistic, platonic) and therefore inimical to a fruitful investigation of the arts in worship.

The wager of this dissertation is that there is in fact something interesting to discover in Calvin’s theology. Yet before we can discover what that is, we need to define what is meant by “flourishing.” Two senses can be suggested. The first sense of flourishing envisions an increase in the number, kind and uses of the arts in public worship. The second sense of flourishing points to the right conditions in which any kind of liturgical art, whether few or many, whether “high” or “low,” will effectively serve the purposes of public worship. In this conclusion, I focus on the second sense.

Hewing closely to Calvin’s explicit theological and exegetical concerns, the flourishing of the liturgical arts might look something like this: As products of human making, arising out of the stuff of creation, the arts flourish in a liturgical context if they are inextricably linked to Word and Spirit, promote order, exhibit beauty, render pious joy, and prompt the faithful to “lift their hearts” to God together, rather than remain entrapped in self-absorbed concerns, and “return” with God to earth, rather than remain unmoved by the ethical and missional realities which awaited them in the world at large.

While this represents one way to render Calvin’s liturgical vision, I wish to propose a more synthetic view that extends beyond what Calvin himself imagined but which remains faithful to his trinitiarian theology and to his fundamental vision for ecclesial life. I propose the following: that the liturgical arts flourish on Calvinian terms 1) when they are regarded as creaturely media that 2) participate in the work of the triune God to establish right worship for the church, and that 3) fittingly serve the activities and purposes of public worship.

The liturgical arts as creaturely media
While there is no such thing as a theologically neutral understanding of creation, I place this criterion first in order to follow the basic movement of the dissertation: from a consideration of the material creation in general to a consideration of materiality in the specific context of public worship. I argue that the liturgical arts should be seen chiefly as creaturely media, which possess a God-given integrity to be particularly “themselves,” through which the glory of the triune God is disclosed and expressed.

From Calvin’s perspective, creation represents the “hands and feet” of Christ and the abundant provision of God, which the human creature is invited to enjoy for both “useful” (practical and biological) and “non-useful” (aesthetic) reasons. In this view, creation is a place for something: for goodness, for discovery, for beauty, for vitality and fruitfulness, for action, for the worship of God, and for the mediation of God’s presence to humanity. Though sin vitiates humanity’s capacity to enjoy God in and through creation, sin does not rob creation of its capacity to stage a spectacle of God’s powers. And while it is only with the help of the Law, faith in Christ, and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit that the faithful are able to enjoy creation fully, for Calvin the faithful are in fact capable of discerning, and indeed of becoming ravished by, the glory of God through creation.

If the church’s praise, then, can be said to be ontologically inseparable from creation’s own praise, then I suggest that the purpose of the liturgical arts will not be to “get out of the way” but rather to serve the purposes of the liturgy on behalf of creation. The purpose of liturgical artists will be to offer “articulate” voice to creation’s praise, while never seeking to replace creation’s own praise. Their work will be to welcome the familiar and strange voice of creation into the liturgical sphere in response to the familiar and strange voice of God.

Calvin rightly stresses that the triune God has distinguished an innumerable variety of things in creation and has “endowed each kind with its own nature, assigned functions, appointed places and stations.” This is another way of saying that God has endowed the things of creation with their own integrity that demands careful, respectful and loving attention. One task for liturgical artists, on this view, would be to understand the logics and powers of the material stuff of creation. This would involve asking how color, stone, wood, metal, fabric, glass, wind “work.”

If a combination of empirical and sanctified sight afford the faithful right understanding of creation, as Calvin believes, what then might we observe about the dynamics of creation: its patterns and spontaneity, its simplicity and extravagance, its order and non-order, its spare and ornate quality? Liturgical artists would also want to pay close attention to how human bodies work—how they relate to both material and social environments, how they connect to mind and emotions, how they acquire a “feel for the game” in a liturgical context. They would further want to discern carefully how spaces and dwellings work? How do they “learn” its inhabitants over time and thereby form a habitus?

If the liturgical arts function as a vehicle of God’s glory through creation, however, it is only because the triune God enables creation to be fit for such a task. The liturgical arts are capax Dei: capacitated by God to serve the praise of God on earth as it is in heaven.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

10 Resources for Church Arts Ministries


Let me mention a few things before offering a top ten resources for churches who want to start or grow an arts ministry. The first thing is that not every church needs an arts ministry. While I might argue that every church should be thoughtful in the way they employ the arts, this does not mean that an arts ministry as such is needed for any given church to flourish.

The second thing is that an arts ministry may contribute to any number of areas of a church's life. Four categories of church life may, I suggest, require very specific, very careful attention:

1. The public worship of the church.
2. The community life of the church.
3. The mission of the church.
4. The specific community of artists who may participate in the life of the church (formally or loosely).

What the arts may or may not do to serve the worship of a local congregation depends on a host of factors, not least of which include the denominational, theological and liturgical convictions of that particular group of people. How the arts may edify a children's ministry or a small group ministry vary significantly from church to church. How the arts may be enlisted to advance the mission of a church hinges on the vision of the church's leadership for mission, evangelism and service as well as on the specific location of a church (whether in a large urban area or in the suburbs or in a rural area, for example). All of these things require careful consideration.

The third thing to say is that this list does not pretend to be comprehensive. I welcome any suggestions for other resources, practical or otherwise. But hopefully this list represents a good start for pastors, ministry and lay leaders, along with artists, to discern how the arts might serve the worship and mission of particular churches, located in particular places, serving a particular people, whether near and far from God.

1. The big picture on a church arts ministry. I'm biased here, of course, but I'd be remiss not to recommend the book I edited, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. Its express purpose was to offer church leaders and artists a "big picture" of the ways in which the arts fit into God's purposes for the church. The more practical chapters include, "The Artist," "The Practitioner" and "The Dangers."

2. The concrete picture on a church arts ministry. Michael Bauer's book, Arts Ministry: Nurturing the Creative Life of God's People, is an excellent introduction to the idea of an arts ministry. Chapter titles include "An Introduction to Arts Ministry," "Skepticism about Arts Ministry," "Arts Ministry and Human Formation," "Arts Ministry and the World," and "The Practice of Arts Ministry." This may represent, to my mind, the best one-stop-shop resource of the lot.

3. The massive bibliography on everything you would ever want to know about a worship arts ministry. This is a bibliography that Mark Torgerson put together, chiefly to collect resources related to Christian worship. But if you look at pages 49-76, you'll find a whole host of resources related specific to arts and worship.

4. The book to read: part 1. I've used Rory Noland's book, The Heart of the Artist: A Character-Building Guide for You and Your Team, over the years and found it to be a helpful introduction to the sorts of issues (personal, relational, spiritual and practical) that artists regularly face.

5. The book to read: part 2. If you're looking for an accessible book that introduces church leaders and artists to a wide-range of issues related to the arts, then you can hardly go wrong with Steve Turner's Imagine: A Vision for Christians and the Arts.

6. The book to read: part 3. The one book that I consider required reading for every artist is Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Every artist has fears, every artists needs to learn how to face their fears in a healthy, fruitful way. This is the book to show you how.

7. The book to read: part 4. If you're looking for an accessible introduction to theological perspectives on the arts, then Jeremy Begbie's edited volume, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation Through the Arts, is the excellent place to start. Extremely readable, theologically clear-headed, and artistically wise.

8. A practical introduction to mounting a visual art ministry in your church. I will recommend here a website that Kate Van Dyke created a few years ago, which offers practical helps for people wanting to launch a visual arts ministry. I will also say that CIVA is about to launch a truly remarkable resource performing the same function. When it's ready to go live, I will include it here.

9. Links to other good resources for arts ministries: part 1. Here and here and here.

10. Links to other good resources for arts ministries: part 2. Here and here and here.

If you follow these links, they'll take you to a host of other good resources, including a list of churches that are engaged with the arts in a variety of ways.

Again, if you think I've missed an important resources, please let me know and I'll begin working on a Part II to this list.


Tuesday, July 08, 2014

I've joined the twitterverse


Just thought I'd mention that here. It'll be the place that I post things about worship, theology, the arts, sports, the occasional movie trailer, a bit on international relations, possible random videos, a photo or two of the family, and the life of a scholar priest (or, to be more accurate to date, a scholar deacon). The usual.

I can be found @wdavidotaylor.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

The Emotional Life of Art and Artists

Art is emotion?

This is a Save the Date blog post for the final edition of a three-part Laity Lodge retreat series for "Ministers to Artists" (part one here, part two here). Jeremy Begbie will be our featured speaker, and we'll be exploring the relation of art and emotion, on the one hand, and artists and the emotions, on the other. Guaranteed not to be boring (questioning, among other things, the presumption of the above poster).

See here (scroll to bottom of page) for initial information at the Laity Lodge website. Stay tuned for more info. And do pass this along to anybody you think might be interested.

The dates are April 30 - May 3, 2015.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A picture is worth a thousand words ... and other things too


As I anticipate my ordination to the transitional diaconate this coming Sunday, and the opportunity to lie prostrate before God and his people in recognition of the mercy and graces he has given me, I find that this photograph says nearly everything beautiful about the familial nature of the ordination ritual. (Thanks to my sweet friend Michele Trepagnier for sending it to me, along with a prayer for the ceremony.)

If it's true that no one stands alone in the Body of Christ, then it must also be true, I figure, that no one lies down alone.

And if a picture is worth a thousand words, then it is equally true that good words are non-substitutable means of saying things that could not be communicated any other way, such as this:

Almighty God, who by your divine providence has appointed diverse Orders of Ministers in your Church, and who inspired your Apostles to choose into the Order of Deacons the first martyr Stephen, with others; mercifully behold David your servant now called to the same Office and Administration: so fill him with the truth of your Doctrine and adorn him with holiness of life, that, both by word and good example, he may faithfully serve you in this Office, to the glory of your Name and the edification of your Church; through the merits of our Savior Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

My ordination to the diaconate


As I anticipate my ordination to the diaconate in PEAR-USA (Province de L’Eglise Anglicane au Rwanda), it is good for me to keep in mind the fundamental commitments of a pastor, in this case in particular, that of a servant (a diakonos). God-willing, I will be ordained as a deacon on June 15, 2014, here in Durham, North Carolina, in company of All Saints Church, our home church, and at some point in the near future, in Houston, Texas, most likely, to the priesthood.

I'm grateful to bishop Steve Breedlove who will ordain me, to Thomas Kortus who will be preaching, to Isaac Wardell who will be leading the musical worship, and to the many friends who have supported and prayed for us during this season of life. I'm especially grateful to my good wife, Phaedra Jean, for being willing to join me in this calling. Y'all are all welcome to come, of course.

Not sure what this says about me, but three out of four of the people included below belong to the seventeenth-century. Three are Anglican, one is Presbyterian.

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), “The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living.” (These are words which have haunted me since I first read them, nearly twenty years ago.)

“Do not constantly try to excuse all of your mistakes. If you have made a mistake, or an oversight, or an indiscretion, confess it plainly, for virtue scorns a lie for its cover. If you are not guilty (unless it be scandalous), do not be overly concerned to change everyone’s opinion about the matter. Learn to bear criticism patiently, knowing the harsh words of an enemy can be a greater motivation than the kind words of a friend.”

“Give God thanks for every weakness, fault, and imperfection you have. Accept it as a favor of God, an instrument to resist pride and nurse humility. Remember, if God has chosen to shrink your swelling pride, he has made it that much easier for you to enter in through the narrow way!”

Richard Baxter (1615-1691), The Reformed Pastor: A Pattern for Personal Growth and Ministry, “On Humility.” (What Baxter recommends here is something that has not always been easy for me to embrace. I should probably paste these words to the wall of my office and think on them daily.)

“Our work must also be conducted with great humility. We must conduct ourselves meekly before all. When we teach, we need also to be open to learn from any that can teach us. Thus we teach and learn at the same time. Do not let us proudly boast of our conceit, and disdain all who contradict us. Do not let us act as if we had reached the top and all the others had to sit at our feet.”

“Humility should teach us to learn willingly everything that we do not know. For if we would be wiser than all, then we must be willing to learn from all. For they who receive from all will become richer.”

George Herbert (1593-1633), The Country Parson: His Character, and Rule of Holy Life, “The Parson in Mirth.” (I love the seemingly odd-ballish quality of this advice. Had I read it in my twenties,  though, it would have saved me from a dreadfully serious disposition [ask my family!] that plagued me for an entire decade. Thank God for friends in my thirties who reminded me, time and time again, that a sense of humor was not inimical to good pastoral care. It's comforting to hear a seventeenth-century parson say it out loud and to give us permission to embrace "mirth" full-heartedly.)

“The Country Parson is generally sad, because he 
knows nothing but the Cross of Christ, his mind 
being defixed on it with those nails wherewith his Master 
was: or if he have any leisure to look off from thence, he 
meets continually with two most sad spectacles, Sin and 
Misery; God dishonored every day, and man afflicted. 
Nevertheless, he sometimes refresheth himself, as knowing
that nature will not bear everlasting droopings, and that 
pleasantness of disposition is a great key to do good; not 
only because all men shun the company of perpetual 
severity, but also for that when they are in company, instructions seasoned with pleasantness, both enter sooner, 
and root deeper. Wherefore he condescends to human 
frailties both in himself and others; and intermingles some 
mirth in his discourses occasionally, according to the pulse 
of the hearer.”

Frederick Buechner (1926-), Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. (I never tire of re-reading--and meditating on--these words.)

“The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is comedy. And yet, forgiven when the very mark and substance of his sin and of his slobbery is that he keeps turning down the love and forgiveness because he either doesn’t believe them or doesn’t want them or just doesn’t give a damn?”

“In answer, the news of the Gospel is that extraordinary things happen. Henry Ward Beecher cheats on his wife, his God, himself, but manages to keep on bringing the Gospel to life for people anyway, maybe even for himself. Lear goes berserk on a heath but comes out of it for a few brief hours every inch a king. Zaccheus climbs up a sycamore tree a crook and climbs down a saint. Paul sets out a hatchet man for the Pharisees and comes back a fool for Christ. It is impossible for anybody to leave behind the darkness of the world he carries on his back like a snail, but for God all things are possible. That is fairy tale. All together they are the truth.”

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pop-Rock Worship: singing your "mother tongue"



(This is part three of a three-part blog entry on a consultation around pop-rock worship that took place at Calvin College, May 19-21, 2014. See part one and two here. The following is the second half of a brief reflection I offered to the group on the last morning of our gathering. It is in rough draft form. In it I explored the way in which pop-rock worship might make the gospel both familiar and strange. I also suggested that while every congregation possesses a liturgical mother tongue, for ecclesiological reasons it should also be open to other, adjectival tongues.)


2.     The Church: if God has made us the body of Christ and enabled us to discover true unity, true fullness and fruitfulness in the Holy Spirit, what does it look like for pop-rock worship to give expression to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? How might it strengthen our sense of connectivity to the body of Christ across time and space? And what do healthy partnerships look like in this work of pop-rock worship?

My first year of seminary I took a course with Eugene Peterson, titled “Biblical Spirituality.” Not once during the entire semester did he offer us a piece of advice. There were no practical suggestions, no how-to’s, no handy helps for living into this so-called biblical spirituality. At the end of the last class of the term, sitting at the back of the room, I raised my hand. I asked him how we could live out this rather expansive vision which he had laid out for us. His answer, after a lengthy pause:

“Read outside your tradition.” 

Translated for our time here: “Relate outside your tradition.”

What sorts of questions might we ask ourselves in light of this?

What good fruit might be borne in the collaboration of songwriters with fellow songwriters?

What good fruit might be borne in the collaboration of songwriters with pastors, poets and theologians?

What good fruit might be borne in the collaboration of songwriters with believers outside of one’s immediate ecclesial tradition?

What good fruit might be borne in the collaboration of songwriters with members of the global church?

This litany of questions could go on and on, but a deeply good thing could come, I suggest, of these sorts of “together-ing” collaborations.



3.     Discipleship: if the Father has given us Jesus as the image of the true disciple, and if the Father has also given us the Holy Spirit that we might have the power to become like this true disciple—learning new things, adopting appropriate disciplines, conforming our lives to the pattern of his life, seeking to become mature in all things and thereby to attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ—what does this mean for pop-rock worship?

If we can assume that corporate worship is a primary place for discipleship of God’s people to take place, what does it mean for your church always to be growing into new things, while also receiving the grace to be particular? If your church’s worship is characterized (broadly or narrowly) by pop-rock music, what does it mean for you to flourish in your particularity, contextually rooted as it is in the people and the place that mark you as a distinctive member of Christ’s body, while also being willing to grow in new ways or to be exposed to new musical, lyrical or liturgical ways of being Christ’s body?

Put otherwise: What does it mean for your church to have a mother tongue and a range of adjectival tongues that not only enrich your mother tongue but also open up a way for your church to become attuned to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church spread across time and space?

The $64,000 dollar question is: How exactly do we do all of this well, with humility, intelligence, courage and joy?

The exceedingly simple answer: we do it together.

Liturgical historian, Lester Ruth, held up by a small cloud of witnesses.

Zac Hicks, Jeremy Begbie and myself.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Pop-Rock Worship: Making the gospel both familiar and strange

Four Bearded Guys: the Texan, the Crowder, the Stranger, the Man.

(This is part two of a three-part blog entry on a consultation that took place at Calvin College, May 19-21, 2014. See part one here; part three here. The following is one half of a brief reflection I offered to the group on the last morning of our gathering. These thoughts are in rough draft form and were scribbled out just before our session. At some point in the future I'll want to make more of them, but here they are, as is, for now. And, yes, it was a very bearded affair.)


The first thing I wish to say is that each of you is doing good work for which you should be commended and honored. Thank you for persevering in the face of difficult circumstances. Thank you for not giving up, on us, the church, or on the task at hand. Thank you for your faithful labors which perhaps have not always borne visible or quantifiable fruit. Thank you for being willing to try something new and for trusting God at times when that has felt nearly impossible.

As I think of a way to distill the conversations of the past couple of days, a phrase from former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, comes to mind. In a small but densely rich book on the work of reading church history, titled, Why Study the Past?: The Quest for the Historical Church, Williams proposes that the task of a good historian is to discover history, for the reader, as both familiar and strange.

A good historian by this measure avoids seeing history as utterly strange (and therefore having nothing to do with our contemporary selves) or as utterly familiar (and therefore turned into an mere image of ourselves). Conversely, a poor reading of history fails to see our points of continuity and discontinuity with the past—how very much we are formed and influenced by our forebears and how we have, in fact, ventured into new places and experiences.

Towards the middle of the book Williams observes that public worship is an important context for making our life as the Body of Christ both strange and familiar. Applied to our discussions this week, I would like to suggest the following.

While in the Psalter, as Israel’s hymnal, we encounter the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made both familiar and strange to us, it is in the gospel accounts that we encounter the God of Jesus Christ made even more familiar, even more strange than we ever dared to imagine. Here we encounter an intimate and familial knowledge of God: God as Father, Jesus as our Brother, the Holy Spirit as the abiding Presence.

Here we encounter also the strangeness of God all over again. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, from a sermon which he preached on the Trinity, on May 27, 1934:

The more we come to know this God, the more mysterious he becomes for us. It is not the God who is furthest away from us who is the biggest mystery, but rather the God who is nearest us in the Spirit of Jesus Christ."

This is equally true, of course, of ourselves: the more we know this God and are known by this God, the more we come to know our true selves as far more familiar and far more strange than we ever thought possible.

To apply this idea to the topic of our consultation: In what ways does pop-rock worship enable the gospel to become both familiar and strange to us? In what way does this particular form of worship, with all its common characteristics and different permutations, enable the church to encounter the familiarity and strangeness of our triune God?

Let me offer three possibilities: with respect to the created realm, the church, and the work of discipleship.

1.     CREATION: if God has vested creation with a near infinite possibility of sounds and combinations of sounds, and provided these as an expression of his love for creation and for the human creature, then in what ways does pop-rock worship music represent a gift to the church?

In what ways might worship leaders give voice to creation’s praise and let these distinctive pop-rock sounds in creation become caught up in the praise of God’s people, and vice versa perhaps?

More specifically: What musical capacities does pop-rock open up for the church’s worship and what does it close down? 

What biblical narratives does it enable the church’s worship to accent? What theological realities might it focus for us? What liturgical activities could it facilitate? What relational dynamics does it forge and what missional inertias will it more likely generate than others?


Matt Boswell, Miranda Dodson and myself.


Myself, Andy Piercy, Latifah Phillips, Graham Kendrick.