by Nadine Ellsworth-Moran
I stared at it for a good 10 minutes, maybe 15, maybe more. I was transfixed by Dali’s painting, “The Last Supper,” despite its odd location, alone in the elevator alcove of the National Art Gallery. It didn’t matter to me where it was; I was transfixed by its image of the Christ with numinous, yet solid, looming arms outstretched across the canvas. It’s one of my favorite paintings, yet I wondered: Does even this work belong in the sanctuary? Can it carry the weight of theology and should it be asked to do so? Do art and worship mix without causing harm to one or both? I come to these questions without expertise in fine art, and while I do not claim to be a theologian, I am a pastor struggling to wrap my mind around this particular relationship, at this particular time, in the life of the church.
The sanctuary of the church where I serve is plain. White walls, clear glass windows, the ceiling covered in warm wood, arched like the upturned hull of a boat. The only ornamentation (if we can call it such) is the large cross, centered on the back wall of the chancel. The occasional floral arrangement finds its way in, but otherwise Calvin would smile. Being such a simple design, the space itself recedes into the background, as I imagine the early Reformers would have liked. Not surprisingly then, our worship (as perhaps in most other Presbyterian churches) is clearly geared to the auditory — the Word proclaimed, hymns, the prayers filling the space with sound.
I wonder about the lack of visual art in our sanctuary and whether the absence lessens our worship by not more fully engaging our other senses. In an attempt to address this question, one Sunday I brought in several prints by an artist I know whose subject matter and backstory are compelling. I built a sermon using these pieces for illustration, then left the prints on display at the back of the sanctuary for several weeks. After a while, and for those who had not heard the sermon (or had forgotten its finer points), the artwork was becoming more and more disengaged from its context, already once-removed without the artist’s statement to accompany it and lacking any obvious theological symbolism. This experience led me to consider, and then reconsider, the place of art in worship.
Even after attending conferences, engaging in conversations with theologians and artists, and reading authors from varying perspectives on the topic, I cannot say that I have any definitive answers. However, as a pastor in the pulpit week in and week out, I do know that there are other ways of proclaiming the Word that need to be not only heard, but also seen. Our Book of Order clearly states that in addition to drama, poetry and pageant, “most other human art forms are also expressions through which the people of God have proclaimed and responded to the Word” (W-2.2008). So the first question is not “can we” use art in worship, but what kind of (or which) art? How we go about this endeavor will make all the difference and “those entrusted with the proclamation of the Word through art forms should exercise care that the gospel is faithfully presented in ways through which the people of God may receive and respond” (W-2.2008).
While the question of visual art in worship is far from new, it is perhaps becoming increasingly important for us to consider it in this age of the visual, with widescreen monitors in sanctuaries and even art installations popping up in worship spaces around the country. Are we simply moving forward in a natural pastoral progression or are we reacting anxiously by attempting to attract, distract or even provoke our congregations with the use of visual art? If we are not taking the time to educate ourselves or our congregations to speak the language of the artists and for the artists to speak the language of theology, then art runs the risk of becoming more gimmick than revelation.
There are also places such as the Rothko Chapel in Texas. Many would call it a worship space with its 14 solemn abstract paintings of fields in juxtaposition adorning the walls. There is little else there except for a few benches for attending to these works in quiet reflection. However, if it were to be utilized as a “traditional” worship space with the addition of a few more places to sit and a pulpit or lectern, would the paintings serve the same function as they do now? Would they be preaching their own sermon every Sunday in competition with the one proclaiming the Word or would they be “blank” canvases in the sense that their abstract representation might well add to each service as a silent witness to the words now accompanying them in the space? Is contemplation of artwork that has no narrative, no history, no identity tied to it a suitable dialogue partner for worship? And is worship a suitable dialogue partner for this type of visual art?
I want the answer to be yes, that visual art does belong in the sanctuary as part of worship itself. But I have concerns. My fear is that for most congregations it would be akin to inviting a minister of a foreign country to come and preach to your English-speaking congregation in his or her native tongue. There will be some gestures and expressions that may translate — and perhaps the truly attentive may glean some meaning from tone and emphasis — yet the depth of the message will be lost because we simply aren’t speaking the same language.
Perhaps that is the crux of the issue, because once loosed from its creator’s hand — in this case the artist’s — does the work now become a “free agent” and open to the many and sundry interpretations it may inspire in interaction with the viewer? This, in turn, opens up new avenues. Should art then be unquestionably identifiable as representative of a biblical truth (as we would define it within the Reformed tradition) in order for it to be installed, permanently or not, in a worship space and made a reference for the congregation?
In the ideal relationship between an artist and congregation there is something sacred at work in the endeavor to translate lines and colors, forms and abstractions into something that speaks beyond its own aesthetic and meets our eyes with more than image. This collaboration can be revelatory, yet if the image comes to us without reference to God or identifiable biblical narrative, then while the work may have intrinsic artistic value, it may not be serving the act of worship.
While Christian artists labor in the far country of God’s unseen and bring something back for us to consider, the form they give through visual art of what cannot be held or even fully understood can carry us into deeper understanding — but only if the work itself speaks a language we already know, at least in some rudimentary form. This then begs the question: Should visual art be asked to meet the same requirement of spoken proclamation in that it “present the gospel with simplicity and clarity, in language which can be understood by the people” (W-2.2007)?
Art historian Katie Kresser put it this way: “Christian doctrine is not merely a set of principles — it is a narrative about the evolving relationship of God with humankind. It is not merely a grammar — it has special, perpetual Nouns and Verbs. It has an algebra, but this algebra is built on ever-present Constants that must be a part of every formula, no matter how minor or complex.” What she raises here is, I believe, the heart of the issue. Have we sufficiently defined the “constants” that our dialogue with the visual arts must maintain so that we will at least be aware when we are beginning to undermine or ignore those constants for the sake of expediency in our conversation? If we do, I hope that will lead us to more questions such as those being asked in churches exploring relationships among the church, theology, art and artists.
I’m not sure that my first attempt to marry art and worship did any harm, but it may not have met the threshold of proclamation I am advocating here. I think I made a mistake with this service and, as author Deborah Sokolove would say, “instrumentalized” the artwork. I gave it a single meaning tethered to my interpretation of both the artwork itself and the biblical passage with which it was paired. I also ignored the absence of a constant. I think other pastors may be doing the same. While we may argue that the passage at hand was properly exegeted, can we say the same of the artwork, or are we simply “proof texting” the visual art to suit our own didactic purposes?
If we, as pastors and worship leaders, are simply finding the art to complement our text and superimposing our interpretation of the visual to meet our theological objective, we are likely doing a disservice to the art and the artist. And if we’re unconcerned about the artists or their perspectives, then we are potentially marginalizing their works as legitimate witnesses to Scripture on their own and downgrading the artists’ contributions to worship as well. So we do, I believe, need to consider the artists.
Where our worlds converge, as artists and pastors, is in our passionate pursuit of vocations that ask us to communicate in some way the truth about something larger and beyond ourselves. In our vocations we often find ourselves simultaneously revered and dismissed as irrelevant. We have a common ground to engage in conversation about the out-working of our calls. Where there are common truths about our human nature, our brokenness, our need for grace, our sense of mystery regarding the divine nature of our God, the artists’ particular gifts may provide expression and even revelation. Is that enough? Or do we need to ask more when it comes to an actual, specific piece of artwork? I think we do.
This is perhaps the stickiest question. Should art have a function at all? If placed in dialogue with a worshipping congregation, then I would argue for the affirmative. And we may find the foundation for this position by going backwards. As art history teacher Lisa DeBoer reminds us, prior to the arrival of romanticism, art was far less an individual experience, and far more a corporate endeavor. Prior to this era, art functioned as the visual historian for the people, and in the church, it communicated the basic doctrines of their faith. Its place in worship was a continuation of the story being told and re-told from the pulpit and as a way for the people to find themselves, their identity, as a people of God in their shared understanding and relationship in dialogue with the visual art.
I find all these questions compelling because I believe that we are losing our ability to speak about God and our faith in ways that are compelling and amplify and illumine God’s nature, particularly God’s “otherness,” God’s depth and breadth, that draw forth awe and wonder in the act of worship. It is into this void that I believe visual art in the church can offer its greatest gifts and bring us those constants of our faith while moving us into nuances of understanding that break the bounds of verbal imagination. Visual art has the ability to convey, for instance, the exquisite agony of the crucifixion in a way that increases our underlying knowledge of God’s grace, humility and sacrifice in Jesus’ death by use of color, movement, the play of light, the position of the body or even the texture of the cross.
The witness of the canvas can take us off the page and into new dimensions of understanding, but it can only do this corporately, in worship, if we start with the same basic theological vocabulary. Returning to Kresser, I think she offers a way forward: “For worship, for corporate contemplation, we have to seek basic things that are so simple and foundational as to be easily accessible, but so rich with meaning that they reward constant re-viewing.”
If we as theologians, pastors and educators in conversation with artists can find that common language that is already embedded within our callings to speak about God from out of our mutual faith, brokenness and need for grace, then I imagine we have a solid place to start speaking more deeply, asking the more particular questions and thinking more theologically together.
There are seminaries (mostly outside our denomination) that are already bringing artists and future church leaders together at the classroom level. They are investing in the conversation early on and envisioning worship that is collaborative as well as theologically and artistically authentic according to their constants. I believe we should be doing likewise in the Presbyterian seminaries.
I have asked many questions because I believe they are worthy of asking and because I have come to believe that there is a deep wounding that has and is occurring between our Christian artists and the church due to our lack of a mutual corporate language. I believe that it is important not to allow this gulf to widen, nor to disenfranchise those artists who are called and able to capture in some visual way, those constants of our faith, those identity markers that are both creative and transportive yet grounded in a common understanding. The key is education at the base level, in the seminaries, where we prepare those who will go and proclaim the Good News. If we can teach them this language, then the dialogue that can occur between faith and art in our worship will enrich us all.
NADINE ELLSWORTH-MORAN is the pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and also works on staff at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Charlotte campus. She continues to ask questions in hopes of moving the conversation forward between worship, theology and the arts.