Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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.

In the group of students I had an archbishop from Chile, a bishop from Nigeria, an "urban" arts minister, two members from the Falls Church in VA, a member of the worship and arts committee at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, a philosopher, a professional violinist, an iconographer, a few priests and several in the making. I also ate at Primanti Brothers four times. Two of those times I refused the french fries. I just couldn't do french fries on my salad. Shivers.

This entry follows up on my "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.

This entry concerns the kinds of questions that become especially acute in the context of corporate worship. With each of the following three entries, I simplify. I identify two problems and suggest two remedies. Please remember that life rarely works in terms of problems and solutions. I can hear Eugene Peterson over my shoulder. "Reducing the Christian life to a problem-solution binary is the death of Christianity, David. You know better." That's my rough paraphrase of Eugene.

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.


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.)

1. Ignorance
2. Anxiety

How many of us really understand contemporary visual art? Using the fingers of one hand, my guess is two. To be precise: 0.2% of Christians. C'mon, people, trying to understand the kind of art that you find in galleries across NYC or LA is like "looking" at strange languages: Urdu, Kaqchiquel, Gaelic, a Virginia Piedmont dialect. It's hard. Usually it's meaningless. Unless you speak it, you cain't understand it.

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's my point? It's not just Christians who have a hard time understanding the arts. It's society in general.  How does this make people feel when they are introduced to new art or to a new way of employing an old artform? Anxious. Those of us who are artists need to remember that fact. We also need to ask the Spirit to cultivate in us large doses of humble compassion. Modern dance or literary fiction may be our hobby horse. It may be our vocation, which we take very seriously. But there is no place in Christ's church for impatient pride. We need to remember that none of us "arrived" overnight at our love for and familiarity with art. If folks are anxious, there's probably a good reason for it.

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.)

4. Preach a series about Jesus’ use of metaphor and stories and the crucial role the imagination plays in his description of kingdom life. Begin with Jesus' parables, seek to understand how they operated in Jesus' teaching and ministry, make sure you keep in mind how they function in the Gospels at large and in the New Testament in general, and as companions for the journey I'd recommend Eugene Peterson’s 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.

1. Show or display examples of contemporary art. In whatever space this is possible, I think there are many creative ways that church leaders can help expose a congregation to good contemporary art, whether it's home grown or it hangs in major galleries around the world. You can hardly go wrong by starting here and here.

2. Invite a skilled actor or storyteller to "tell" Scripture dramatically. Yes, I've seen bad versions of this. I've endured my own share of spine-chillingly, sink-into-my-chair cringy drama. But I've also seen great examples and there are few things as satisfying as watching the Scriptures come to life.  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.

5. Experiment (carefully, thoughtfully and advisably) with different uses of music in your service. I once attended a handful of evening services at 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.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Anglicanism & the Arts

True religion, John Donne (1572-1631) once wrote, is not to be found “either in a painted Church, on one side, or in a naked Church on another; a Church in a Dropsie, overflowne with Ceremonies, or a Church in a Consumption, for want of such Ceremonies, as the primitive Church found usefull and beneficiall for the advancing of the glory of God, and the devotion of the Congregation” (cited in Horton Davies, Worship and Theology in England, Bk. 1, vol. 2, 151). My hunch, and a somewhat informed hunch I guess, is that this was easier said than done.

This Sunday I fly to Pittsburgh. It's been five years since I last taught a winter intensive at Trinity School for Ministry, and this time they've invited me back to teach a course on Anglicanism and the arts with a view to worship and mission.

I'm very excited. I've spent the past week reworking old material and developing new. Last I checked I have thirteen people in my class. Some are MDiv, some are STM, three are DMin. I've been told that I have three bishops signed up. That is so fun. I'm honored to be given this opportunity to share with them things I've learned over the last sixteen years since I first began attending Holy Trinity Anglican in Vancouver, B.C. I'm humbled by the bios that I've read for folks in the class and I look forward to learning just as much from them in the process.

Before I copy a portion of the syllabus here (in case you're curious), I want to throw out a question. While I've researched historical models (specifically in the 16th and 17th centuries) and have visited churches here and there, I can't say that I have a lot of concrete data on the range of what Episcopal or Anglican churches are actually doing with the arts. In that light:

1. Are you aware of Anglican/Episcopal churches that are doing "interesting" things with the arts? By "interesting" I mean, for starters, "newish" stuff or "traditional" stuff done really well, things that have struck you as both theologically and artistically significant.

2. Are there names of pastors, church leaders or artists that you think I should track down with this question?

Many thanks for any good leads you might send my way.

Here then is some of what I wish to accomplish next week.


This course is designed to help students make theological, liturgical and pastoral connections between the arts and the church. By looking at material as varied as the high-church “Laudian era” of 1620-1640 and the media-saturated era of “Web 2.0,” we will focus on ways in which the arts can deepen Anglican worship and mission. Music, preaching, Scripture, architecture, the artistic care of a congregation and the multiple possibilities for an artful mission will be given special attention.


1. To discern how theology in the context of our ecclesial life takes an artistic shape. Where you see art, I want to help you see theology.

2. To discern the ways in which art in an ecclesial context forms us theologically, for better or for worse. Where you see theological content, I want to help you see its artistic form.

3. To discover ways in which we as church leaders can employ the arts in such a way that they form our congregations, both theologically and practically, into the image of the Triune God. Where art is forming us poorly, I want to help us see how it can form us trinitarianly.

COURSE OUTLINE (a few subjects covered)

1. Monday: The Laudian experiment. Art and architecture. Creation and Christology. The aesthetics and ethics of space. Richard Hooker as model Anglican: towards a “sensible beauty.”

2. Tuesday: Psalms and music, both ancient and new. Anthropology and pneumatology. The aim of singing toward the whole counsel of God, such that our emotions are well-ordered and we learn how to ongoingly sing what the psalms call a "new song."

3. Wednesday: Artful preaching and narrative hermeneutics. The drama of our bodies. How liturgical art coordinated to the liturgical calendar can form us into the narrative of Christ's life.

4. Thursday: Shepherding artists. Ministering to artists in the fold, on the edge of the fold and far from the fold. The virtues and practices of a flourishing artist.

5. Friday: Jeremy Begbie on music, theology and other very inspiring things. Art and the mission of the church: a hopeful, multifaceted vision.

Needless to say, it will not be a boring week in the life and times of David Taylor, and, by God's grace, of those who participate in the class too. We'll take your prayers for a good learning experience and for the Spirit to reconfigure my plan however is needful.

Since I began with Donne, I shall end with Donne. Here is one of the most exquisite descriptions of the preacher's calling.

“Not only is the preacher a husband to his congregation: he is an archer, a watchman, a trumpeter, a harmonious charmer; he possesses the most desirable qualities of a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a man; he is an earthquake, a son of thunder, the fall of waters, the roaring of a lion.”

Friday, January 07, 2011

3 Videos, 1 Installation and a "Rebuke" of Sofia Coppola

1. Dance is beautiful: Part I.
One of the things I like about my siblings and their spouses is that they love to dance.  Cliff and Scranton are a mean pair of breakdancers. Christine throws down with the intensely kinetic African dances. Stephanie and Phaedra work a floor like nobody's business, especially when it comes to hip hop. (My parents have taken Irish dance lessons and are fun to watch too when they dance their jigs and reels.)

I'm fair on the floor. But when I get to heaven I want to devote several years to learning what these guys do. It's just breathtakingly astonishing. I have to wonder whether the angels invisibly look on from the side, taking notes, with an eye to future imitation.

(Thanks to Scranton for the video.)

2. Dance is beautiful: Part II.
What can I say. Gorgeously filmed, gorgeously rendered, fantastically interpreted. Very inspiring. (Thanks to Tim Stewart for noticing it first.)

3. Russians are funny.
I posted this on FB a couple of weeks ago on. It's quirky and ingenious.

4. DaVinci Installation.
From the Wall Street Journal:

"Presenting “Leonardo’s Last Supper: A Vision by Peter Greenaway,” an amalgamation of 8,000 years of art and 112 years of cinema, or so the artist said on the Upper East Side Wednesday morning. The installation uses 33 screens and over 2,000 lights, offering the audience an audio visual tour and cinematic lightshow highlighting two classic paintings -– Leonardo’s “The Last Supper” and Paolo Veronese’s “The Wedding at Cana.”"

5. A rebuke of Sofia Coppola.
You don't have to agree with all the parts of the author's argument to feel that he is on to something. There are, for the sake of the argument I'm about to make, two kinds of great movies: those that are genuinely profound in their ability to unpack the strange, mysterious nature of human behavior (I put "Babel" into that category) and those that are profound the first time around, but by the second and third become cliches and a sad commentary on the insular world of the writer(s).

For as much as I enjoy Ms. Coppola's movies, I leave them with a funny feeling of boredom. Like much that I see on cable TV ("The Sopranos") or hear via ITunes (Kayne West), Sofia's stories are a kind of peek into the author's therapy. Art has long been a way for people to make sense of their lives. From Sophocles' dramas to the tales of the Brontë sisters, art is a gift that God has given us to understand obliquely the many non-straightforward parts of our lives. For us as viewers/readers/hearers, the experience of such art can become an occasion for genuine self-knowledge, perhaps even transformation.

Where I quickly grow bored is when I'm watching the artist sit with their therapist, so to speak, refuse to grow up, refuse to grow into new things, and in their artworks recycle their issues over and over and over.

The spectacle of sound and sight can sometimes make it seem like they're saying something new. They're not.  If I were to venture a judgment, I might say that there is a glamor to the sadness of our lives. Dysfunctional pathos generates attention. The dark places in our souls keeps our imaginative and affective capacities acutely tuned, and for an artist that's an invaluable resources to have at a constant as well as immediate disposal. But I cannot admire this kind of art. Perhaps the artist doesn't know any better. Perhaps their theological horizons offer no possibility for hope beyond the grim circumstances of their life. Perhaps they are surrounded by self-indulgent friends, who offer no better help. So be it. Life's a mess. We can say a prayer for the artists that we care about. But I refuse to call art along these lines beautiful.

Whether Coppola is guilty of all that Noah Buschel argues against her is debatable. But just because an artist is described as "daring" or "formally audacious" or keeps her lens patiently focused on the broken pieces of our lives does not make her work profound. It makes her work predictable and quite possibly thematically juvenile. At worst it makes the art easily dismissible. After a while I just want to say, "Can we grow up a little?"

(Thanks to my filmmaker friend Mike Akel for passing the article along.)

Monday, January 03, 2011

A Little Ballistic Outing in Houston, Texas


We came, we shot, we made lots of noise with a venerable 30-30 and then we watched "The Fighter" and followed it with Indian food. It was a good day in the great state of Texas with the Wendler family.