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Liturgical arts: do they serve as a source of worship beyond the church walls?

Nadine Ellsworth-Moran, de’Angelo Dia and Smith Podris speak about how to engage liturgical arts in public spaces.

Nadine: For years now, I have suspected that many, if not most, churches have underutilized the liturgical arts as an essential worship element, available to all, and a path toward expanding the worship experience, increasing awareness of diversity, and ultimately, drawing us closer to the heart of God. (Catholic Archbishop) Albert Rouet has said, “the arts are indispensable to human existence; they are necessary for the incarnation of faith.” In the introduction to his book Liturgy and Arts, he says “Faith is not simply an individual thought process, nor personal opinion; nor is it only the public witness of a person. Faith produces a way of living, therefore culture, and thus, art.” I was curious how my colleagues might receive this statement.

Smith: I would agree with Rouet that a lived-in faith pushes us each into creation of some sort. One individual may respond creatively by developing sustainable technology that cares for the hungry, while another expresses her testimony through music. I suspect God calls both “art.”

Nadine: Smith brings up an important consideration. What do we call art? This question has been debated for centuries, but when an expression of faith incorporates our gifts to proclaim the Word or share our story in testimony, isn’t that fulfilling our call to serve faithfully with intelligence, imagination, and love — isn’t that liturgical art?

Dia: I love this Rouet quote. This brings to mind the book Terraform by writer/artist Propaganda. We talk about terraforming planets, but I think the arts are terraforming (re-establishing new norms) of worship. My understanding of my gifts and spiritual formation come primarily through the arts. Art has informed my life journey and what I consider sacred, even though my journey as an artist might not always have been described as Christian.

I was raised in a Christian home, but artistic mediums and outlets weren’t available. Then I began to see Christ’s ministry of nurture and community-building across lines of division through street art and graffiti. The street artists’ community is extremely diverse, but the church was monolithic and homogenous. Theology was the same for me, but once I started engaging the sacred, street art was a way of defining my gifts from God, of nurturing community, and seeing the divinity beyond my own self. Street art was a connection to the sacred, the Holy Spirit at work, so I brought this liturgical art into my vocation with the seminary and St. Paul Baptist church: exploring gifts, nurturing community, encountering divinity. The arts have also helped even my mistakes become divine because they push me to ask ‘where am I being exclusive, and where can I be more invitational with mediums I haven’t always embraced as being meaningful or sacred?’

Nadine: Dia, what mediums have now entered into your understanding of liturgical art?

Dia: Mostly the functional arts (i.e., fiber art), because now I can appreciate the holistic experience of repeated patterns. They are like rosary beads or meditation. I now also appreciate classical sculpture because I look both at and beyond the object to the process. What went into making that creation? For me, this reveals the hand of God, the ultimate artist.

Nadine: We’ve touched on this a little already, but how would you define liturgical arts and their purpose?

Smith: I might define them more broadly than some, inasmuch as I think creativity often involves questioning foundational assumptions about what worship can or should look like and what art can or should be. On a fairly simplistic level, I believe liturgical arts are anything that assist a collective to worship the Triune God in spirit and in truth. That assistance can be, among other things, confessional, revelatory, prophetic or simply cathartic.

Dia: Liturgical arts make theology accessible to non-artists by talking about the divine without using theological terms. This can even include such arts as glass blowing or floral design.  Meaning can be conveyed in design, color, texture. At this point, I’m actually trying to dismantle how I was socialized to view “traditional” liturgical art, such as lectio divina or liturgical dance. God can teach through so many different mediums, so any form of artistic expression (including the creative process itself) that allows someone to examine their own sacredness (set-apartness) and worldliness beyond the body exposes myself to myself, which is also theological work.

Nadine: We’ve covered a lot of non-traditional liturgical arts, which says to me God hasn’t put boundaries around faithful expression and proclamation of faith, but perhaps we have as congregations. What is your perception of the current role of liturgical art in worship in our churches?

Smith: We have an arts ministry at my church that is active and visionary, but not all churches do. My perception is that it varies greatly from congregation to congregation.

Nadine: Absolutely, Smith. I imagine some congregations might even actively avoid anything that deviates from “how we’ve always done it” or might push some boundaries within traditional worship services. Dia, in your opinion, is there any art that cannot be brought into the worship experience?

Dia: Great question! I was raised AME Zion, and worship was very defined by the church, but at 15, I was allowed to leave the church, so I stayed home practicing graffiti, writing, reading poetry and comics. These creative mediums were my way of finding moral influence, gaining values, ethics, morality — they were affirming of the same principles my parents were trying to instill within the confines of the church. The encounters with other artists in the community became church and sacred for me. So, really, not sure, what could be excluded? In fact, Chicano street art even sparked my theological formation. I encountered Chicano street art on cars, the Virgin Mary graffitied on car hoods and iconography of saints on cars, homes, trashcans. There is a resourcefulness there — to up-purpose something basic and use whatever medium is available to them to speak their art and faith. I love it when I see artists doing this sacred work without maybe realizing it, without recognizing it is inspired by universal faith traditions, that it is liturgical.

Nadine: Dia, this is definitely church in the world, unbound, a found liturgy, so to speak. How do we bring this into the church?

Dia: I think I would rather see the church in those spaces rather than vice versa. What does it look like to have worship in a skate park, an abandoned warehouse, to step into these places as a way of honoring their space?  Maybe we need to redefine our worship experience and what is sacred. If kingdom building is taking place in those spaces, then they are churches.

I’m wondering, how have the arts (in whatever form or genre) influenced your experience of worship or, if you prefer, has the presence of liturgical art drawn you nearer to the heart of God?

Smith: My early encounters with liturgical art opened my heart to the wonder and mystery of God. Presently or contemporarily created art in particular revealed to me the truth that God is still actively working in our lives. The Holy Spirit still moves, still inspires, still dwells among us, unchanged through our changing circumstances. And the incredible, indescribable beauty of that is the conclusion that God is not indifferent to us. His love is real. It’s all very real and very true.

Dia: For me, the experience of lined hymns, the old hymns, the African American Baptist hymnal choir lining the hymns gets me every time. This transports me to a time and place of ancestors who couldn’t read, reminds of the privilege of now. Just doing the creative work, the process, is another way. Right now, I’m working on a piece, “Cocktails with Jesus,” a Black poet’s reimagining of the last seven words of Christ. I started writing this and found theologies were coming through, that I was co-laboring with God.

God was writing and inspiring this intersection of Black liberation theology and theo-poetics and conflating this with artists from outside the church. This feels divine because it nurtures community between these resources and the teachings of the past, puts them in dialogue, and in this way becomes liturgical, spiritual and sacred art, nurturing this community within ourselves.

This work is never really done. The work of becoming a work of liturgical art is never complete. Yet I am content with the work when it makes space for pain and celebration because this is Christ’s work, too, but it also encompasses optimism and hope — much like the hymns.  That’s what I want to do in my artwork.

Nadine: Yes! So, in the end, we become a work of liturgical art ourselves. Rouet’s quote seems to be finding its voice in our conversation. When we cease to recognize boundaries between the arts and our faith, maybe all becomes praise, all becomes liturgical, all becomes sacred.

Rev. Dr. de’Angelo Dia is the director of admissions at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a member of the Goodyear Arts collective and is assistant to the senior pastor for social justice at St. Paul Baptist Church in Charlotte.

Smith Podris is a multidisciplinary artist living in Charleston, South Carolina. She has contributed spoken word poetry and visual art to her home church’s worship experience and also serves as a vocalist on their worship team.