A Landscape of Church & Art Questions: Part 2: Corporate Worship & the Arts
I had a great time in Ambridge, Pennsylvania last week. Trinity School for Ministry invited me to teach a course on Anglicanism and the arts, and not only did it bring me into contact with a fabulous group of people, it forced me to pull together notes that have been floating around on my computer.
Primanti Brothers four times. Two of those times I refused the french fries. I just couldn't do french fries on my salad. Shivers.
prologue," written two months ago. In it I talked about five dynamics that inform the contemporary discussion about art and the church. The goal of this series is to identify the patterns that I have observed as I travel around. It's important to remember that I'm describing patterns. Patterns do not describe every possible circumstance. Nor do they attempt to comprehend the global setting or to announce a "state of the nation." They describe tendencies. They suggest the kinds of things you might find in both an emergent church and in a high Presbyterian church. You might even finds these things in Australia. I'd not be surprised if I found them in a Uruguayan Catholic church too.
Yes, I do know better. The two remedies cannot automatically "solve" problems. But they're good places to start, I think, and I sincerely hope that this is helpful to those of who find yourself in this profession.
Ok, enough throat clearing.
ART AND CORPORATE WORSHIP
What are the two problems that we need to keep in mind as we think about the place of art in corporate worship? (FYI: By "art" I mean any given art medium and all possible functions of art.)
Not many of us, for that matter, understand how classical music "works." Besides hip hop and the occasional brilliant piece of singer-songwriting, most of us don't experience close encounters with poetry. I mean of course the kind of poetry that forces you to slow down and pay attention. Theater? God bless it. It's boring to watch on video; don't even bother. And most of us exist a thousand miles from the nearest troupe of great actors performing great theater. It sorta sucks if you love plays.
What then are the corresponding remedies?
1. Good Teaching.
2. Exposing our congregations to excellent experiences of the arts.
1. Good Teaching.
What kinds of sermons could the preacher preach? Let me suggest five (which, for what it's worth, I've preached in one form or another myself, so I know it kind of works).
1. Preach a series about art and culture. For this you could use Genesis 1-4 in tandem with Andy Crouch’s book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling.
2. Preach a series about the role of visual media in God’s world. You could work with Bezalel's tabernacle with the aid of Bill Dyrness’ Visual Faith: Art, Theology and Worship in Dialogue.
3. Preach a series about the affections and how important it is that our emotions be rightly formed. The Psalter will be a perfect place to start for this and Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom will be a trusty aid here. (John Witvliet's The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship should also be consulted.)
Subversive Spirituality along with Frederick Buechner's The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.
5. Preach a series about the goodness of our bodies. From the Incarnation to the Resurrection to the promise of Revelation 21:5, you have plenty of tasty material in Scripture to work with. Complimenting this series you could make use of Jeremy Begbie’s edited book, Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts.
When our teachers and pastors offer good teaching to our congregations, and carefully help to unpack the meaning(s) of art and how it works, our congregations can only become, by God's grace and the illumining work of the Spirit, more learned and less anxious.
2. A second thing you can do is to foster an aesthetically rich life, no matter what your ecclesial tradition. Here again I offer five practical suggestions.
here and here.
Max McLean, Bruce Kuhn and Alison Siewart, to my mind, set the kind of standards for this practice that we should generally aim for.
3. Invite trained dancers to participate in your worship. We invited Gabe and Susan to dance with and for us at Hope Chapel in Austin, TX. I've seen Celeste Snowber do beautiful work. Church of the Servant (CRC) in Grand Rapids makes really lovely use of highly skilled, as well as of less skilled but still disciplined, dancers in their liturgy.
4. Incorporate good poetry into your sermons. Do this regularly enough and watch your congregation fall afresh in love with Scripture's own poetry. Watch them begin to see the world around them differently. The good folks at Image journal can probably point you towards a solid bunch of poets.
St. John's Shaughnessy in Vancouver, BC. The music director did something I'll never forget. At the end of the liturgy, in this case an Anglican liturgy, after the final benediction had been spoken, the congregants remained in their seats. At first I felt nervous. I didn't know what was happening.
Then the music director began to play. Sometimes he played the organ. Sometimes he played the piano. Borrowing from a broad musical vocabulary, he played around five minutes of instrumental music whose purpose was to create a contemplative space for people. Its purpose was to protect a small space of time for us to allow the contents of the service to sink into our hearts, perhaps even our bones, before we headed out into the pell-mell of the night. Liturgically, I thought the idea for this kind of musical space was brilliant. Personally, I loved it. It has been one of the most beautiful worship experiences in my life. It's something I wish I could experience on a regular basis.
The kinds of books I would recommend for this section are Frank Burch Brown’s Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully (lucky for me, Sara over at Transpositions just wrote a review of it), Robert Webber’s multi-volume Music and the Arts in Christian Worship, and yours truly's For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (especially chs. 2, 4, 6 and 7).
If we offer good teaching and expose our congregations to good examples of art, over the time there is a good chance that the culture of our churches will mature and that the gospel will be deepened. We might even have a small-scale revolution of culture-making on our hands. My prayer regardless of the practical outcome is that our corporate worship would irradiate the glory of God.