Monday, December 13, 2010

Liturgical Arts and the Formation of Virtue: Part 1


The following are thoughts that I've been chewing on all semester long. In this essay I discuss liturgical art, by which I mean art employed in the context of corporate worship, Sam Wells' book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, William Cavanaugh's book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, and the question of how the liturgical arts might form virtue in our congregations. While this essay may feel technical at points, my hope is that its ideas are helpful to pastors and artists alike. It is also a sort of prologue to ideas that I explored throughout the autumn.

All art included in this entry hung at one time on the walls of Hope Chapel. I only become more deeply grateful to the artists at Hope Chapel as the years put distance between me and my experience there.

INTRODUCTION
The church where I served for eight years in Austin hung art in the sanctuary that explicitly sought to correspond to the “liturgical calendar.” Two things were unusual about this practice, and two questions nag me still. The first unusual thing is that Hope Chapel is an independent church, broadly situated in the stream of evangelical Pentecostalism. By itself this is not an unusual fact. But the moment Hope Chapel adopted the liturgical calendar, its independent status, I would like to suggest, was both challenged and reconfigured.

In the liturgical art that hung on the wall, changing as it did with the passing of “seasons,” from Advent all the way through to Ordinary Time, the “ancient” tugged at Hope Chapel’s tendencies towards a contemporaneous orientation, while the regularity of the “traditional” pulled against a strong penchant for spontaneity. The second unusual thing is that the art hung in the sanctuary space—not in the foyer, not in the educational wing or in a separate gallery. While perhaps not unusual for some denominations, it took a long while for some (though by no means all) at Hope Chapel to get used to all this art bearing down on them on all sides, Sunday after Sunday.

The two questions that nag me are these. First, was Hope Chapel merely engaged in the consumption of liturgical art? Was this another example of non-denominational Protestants cherry-picking a practice from an established tradition, without accepting any of the demanding responsibility that comes with shepherding such a practice? And second, whatever intentions I may have carried as the arts pastor at Hope Chapel, how would I go about discerning whether the liturgical art formed people theologically in the way that I had hoped from the outset?

In Sam Wells’ Improvisation I once again enter the territory of these questions. In this brief essay I wish to summarize the contents of the book and then raise a few critical observations. I will focus my comments on the relationship between liturgical practices and virtue formation. The question of the relationship between virtue ethics and the liturgical arts will have to remain beyond the scope of this essay. If this essay has an argument it is that much more needs to said than we find in the pages of Improvisation to determine how liturgical practices actually (not only theoretically) form people.

SUMMARY
In his introduction, Wells argues that the disciplines and practices of improvisation “resemble the disciplines and practices of Christian ethics sufficiently closely that a detailed treatment may be highly illuminating” (17). A few definitions will be helpful here. With respect to ethics, Wells writes that “Ethics is not about using power, restoring former glory, or fulfilling individual freedom: it is about imitating God, following Christ, being formed by the Spirit to become friends with God” (31). With respect to improvisation, Wells describes it as a matter of steeping oneself years “in a tradition so that the body is so soaked in practices and perceptions that it trusts itself in community to do the obvious thing” (17, cf. 12).


If the Christian story is a drama, which Wells believes we are right to see it as, then ethics is performance and the practices of the church play a fundamental role, while improvisation, not repetition or interpretation, offers us an excellent way to understand how this works in practice (59, 65). Improvisation, Wells explains, is as inevitable as it is scriptural and ecclesial. It is not about being original but obvious, it is not about being excessively serious but playful, and it is certainly not about being clever but rather taking “the same things for granted” (68).

What does this have to do with corporate worship? 
“For Christians,” Wells writes, “the principal practice by which the moral imagination is formed, the principal form of discipleship training, is worship” (82). In worship, he continues, “Christians seek in the power of the Spirit to be conformed to the image of Christ—to act like him, think like him, be like him” (84). Worship does not just happen. Or rather our formation into the image of Christ through worship does not happen spontaneously or effortlessly. “Worship is a habit, but like all good habits, one that comes about through moral effort” (85).

Through our regular and disciplined participation in things such as the proclamation of Scripture or prayer, in baptism and the Eucharist, in the giving of peace and in the sending of people out into the world the church learns, over time, how to be like Christ. As Wells delineates it, repeated practices lead to the development of skill, while skill in due time turns into habit and habit develops instinct, which is “a pattern of unconscious behavior that reveals a deep element of character” (24; cf. the similar notion of disponibilit√©, 80-81). Corporate worship, for Wells, is “the definitive setting for the embodiment of good habits” (152). Worship in this sense is essential to the formation of virtue.

While I respond positively to this idea, Wells’ last statement raises a few questions for me.

11 comments:

Tamara @ Living Palm said...

"The two questions that nag me are these. First, was Hope Chapel merely engaged in the consumption of liturgical art? Was this another example of non-denominational Protestants cherry-picking a practice from an established tradition, without accepting any of the demanding responsibility that comes with shepherding such a practice?"
And second, whatever intentions I may have carried as the arts pastor at Hope Chapel, how would I go about discerning whether the liturgical art formed people theologically in the way that I had hoped from the outset?"

AND

“For Christians,” Wells writes, “the principal practice by which the moral imagination is formed, the principal form of discipleship training, is worship” (82). In worship, he continues, “Christians seek in the power of the Spirit to be conformed to the image of Christ—to act like him, think like him, be like him” (84). Worship does not just happen. Or rather our formation into the image of Christ through worship does not happen spontaneously or effortlessly. “Worship is a habit, but like all good habits, one that comes about through moral effort”

arghhhh -- I have a new list of questions for you growing by the day. literally considered picking up the phone to call today, but didn't want to disrupt your finals schedule. the questions'll keep, but after reading this post, just barely...
:)

Joshua Banner said...

yet the irony is that though the church was 'indie' (ha), it probably created better, more interesting art than most of the churches that do more closely follow the calendar. Thus chances are you were engaging the calendar in a deeper way than you might think today. I'm speculating from what I've heard through Sus and you here, but what drew people in may not have even been the quality of the art itself, but rather the vibrancy of artists involved.

In regards to your second question, I think I'd defer to the W. Berry/ E. Peterson scope of reasoning: in order to help the indie church, you've got to get them started somewhere. What might seem like cherry picking tokenism today might eventually produce a vibrant engagement with the calendar tomorrow.

w. david o. taylor said...

Tamara, just let me get through finals this week, and after I complete my grading duties (through Monday), and I'll be game for a phone conversation. Maybe even on our drive back to Austin?

Josh, well said. I find that the last year and a half I've had an opportunity to do a lot of reflection on my experience at Hope Chapel. I don't think I'm anywhere near done making sense of things.

Some of my thoughts here relate to the entry I posted on Vincent Miller's book *Consuming Religion*: http://artspastor.blogspot.com/2010/03/review-of-vincent-millers-consuming.html.

At the risk of saying something I probably shouldn't say, the dynamic of ecclesial life, whether indie or ancient-traditional, is a lot more Einsteinian than Newtonian. The causal lines of relationship between X activity, Y force, Z un-intended consequence are massively complex.

Here but for the grace of God....

Tamara @ Living Palm said...

fyi, David, my comment wasn't supposed to add another thing to your to-do list. :)

w. david o. taylor said...

No worries, Tamara. I'm cool. I'm merrily typing away on my computer, drawing near to the midpoint of my second final paper. All is well.

Bruce said...

...I think there is also a struggle, as a pastor to artists, between the formation that is happening for artists in relation to creating art and engaging historic forms, and the formation that is happening for the broader congregation. Reading (and looking) at this essay is like being sucked into a glorious vacuum for those of us who resonate with the rich melding of form n. freedom. All that to say I think the artists and pastors to artists need to think of their work along these lines as incubator experiments for forming the faith of the larger body. Engaging the embodied world for the sake of spiritual formation is such a forming grace...and one that most church goers rarely experience.

w. david o. taylor said...

Bruce: beautifully said. Thank you.

The Siglers said...

My main question is that of the transition from habit to instinct. Does this always occur naturally? I grew up in a "traditional" liturgical church and saw on all too many occasions the disentegration of continued practices into comfort and numbness to the Story's depth. I am interested to see where you go with your connections to the arts in this case. I really like the idea of a charismatic church using the arts and the liturgical calendar to both anchor and expand...and to grow as a community together. I am in an Anglican church now that is in the very beginning stages of gauging how to engage the arts for the well-being of our community and for the worship of God.

w. david o. taylor said...

Matt, I am just as interested as you are in the way things shift from habit to instinct. Obviously Aristotle and Aquinas had a few good ideas about this. Sam Wells does a very fine job exploring this idea in his book *Improvisation*. Highly recommend it.

Another book that comes to mind is Richard Blake's fascinating book, *Afterimage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers*. He pretty much does what you're asking: show (as best he can, within the limitations of his method) how the "habit" of attending Catholic Mass informed the aesthetic instincts of six filmmakers, including Hitchcock, Capra and Scorsese.

Whether we have capable analytical models to determine when and how habit shifts to instinct, you can "see" it when it happens. You can see it, for example, on the NBA basketball court. You see how Lebron James or Dirk Nowitzki or--best of all--Steve Nash do things instinctively on the court that you cannot straightforwardly teach. They've acquired the right kind of habits that generate the fruitful conditions for knowing "how to do the right thing at the right time in the right way and for the right reasons," to paraphrase Aristotle.

Ok, that's my two pennies for now.

What church do you attend? I'm Anglican, so that makes me instinctively curious what other Anglicans are doing with the arts. :)

David JP Hooker said...

David-
I am creatingI am creating a book (of sorts) for Epiphany at my church, and I am posting images on my blog. The book is really a collection of small artworks. I thought it related to this post (although a bit late) Anyway, I thought you might be interested.

http://davidjphooker.wordpress.com/

w. david o. taylor said...

David, fantastic work. Very nice. Very nice indeed. Thanks for letting us know.