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“How Can Art Serve the Corporate Worship of the Church?” by John D. Witvliet

August 3, 2010
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Review of Chapter 2 in For the Beauty of the Church. Transpositions is hosting reviews of each chapter of this book between Aug 2 and Aug 9, 2010.

Antioch Baptist Church, Perry County, AL

John D. Witvliet’s essay examines how art should be used in the communal worship of the church, drawing on his experience in helping various congregations improve their worship life, especially their use of the arts. He begins by noting that although the grants program he is part of is specifically designed for enhancing worship, some proposals they receive would benefit only the arts, not corporate worship. He argues that this shows a wide lack of understanding of how the arts can be used specifically in worship services.

Witvliet then sets out three principles for liturgical artworks (his favored term for art used in public worship) that take account of the unique requirements of the genre. First, they “express and deepen the corporate nature of a Christian way of life and worship” (49); second, they “are never ends in themselves but … means to deepen the covenantal relationship between God and the gathered congregation” (55); third, they are “iconic and idolatry-resisting” (61).

In discussion of the first principle, he makes the excellent point that one difficult requirement of art intended for those who very often are not artistically or critically trained is that it be easily accessible. The best hymns, for example, are theologically and poetically rich, but also manage to be easily singable and understandable. This particular type of artistic excellence must be kept in mind if liturgical art is to elevate the communal use of art over individual appreciation. The content must also reinforce the communal, as illustrated by the design of Antioch Baptist Church. The windows along the side of the sanctuary look out on the graveyard to emphasize the connection of living and dead saints. Witvliet gives one final way to reinforce the communal, the fairly obvious possibility of involving the whole community in actually making a piece of art. He covers this only briefly, but perhaps it needs no more space than he gives it.

Witvliet relies on Nicholas Wolterstorff to support his second principle, stating that art with a clear idea of the actions it is supposed to support will be more effective in worship. In particular, he argues that beginning artistic commissions with delineation of the acts that a particular artwork is to assist with will avoid the common problem of sentimental art. Unfortunately, his discussion of this point is brief and lacks specific examples of sentimental and non-sentimental artworks, so whether his recommendations would be effective remains an open question in the reader’s mind.

Witvliet’s final principle quite neatly turns a common objection to art in worship on its head. Good liturgical art, he argues, actually fights against idolatry. This is because it points beyond itself, in the manner of icons, thus preventing the possibility of worship being focused on the art; simultaneously, it can break down our inadequate (and thus idolatrous) conceptions of God. He makes a convincing argument for this function of art, but does, I think, make one error. As he concludes, he speaks of the artist as a prophet, and this breaking down of error as part of his prophetic task. But I find it more helpful to consider some prophets to be artists, rather than considering artists to be prophets. That is, those given prophetic gifts will sometimes also possess artistic gifts and use them to convey their messages. But those with artistic gifts are not always given prophetic ability. This alteration would help avoid the possible problem of self-righteousness Witvliet acknowledges can crop up among artists.

Despite these minor flaws, however, Witvliet has excellent and well-argued insights that will be of value to everyone considering art within the church walls.

Photo credit: PKSB

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    August 3, 2010 11:28 am

    Thanks for this great post. You bring out the important points and themes is Witviliet’s essay. And you do so in such a way that raises several questions for me. First, what does it mean that art is accessible? We all want, of course, accessibility with dumbing down. But is accessibility the same as understandability? Does accessibility mean that art does not really challenge its audience? Does accessibility mean not offensive? Does accessibility mean not doing something that is too new or too different? And is there a place for art that is inaccessible (every now and then) in a worship context? Second, I wonder if “beginning artistic commissions with delineation of the acts that a particular artwork is to assist” really “will avoid the common problem of sentimental art.” And, is sentimental art always a problem?

    Sorry for this barrage of questions, but thanks, again, for the post!

  2. Ben permalink
    August 3, 2010 2:46 pm

    On accessibility, Witvliet says that being accessible “does not mean that every excellent liturgical artwork needs to be a kind of ‘least common denominator’ expression. The best artworks, while accessible to many, also reward repeated exposure over time. And as with songs and sermons, not every artwork can speak for or to everyone” (50). As an example of what he means, he goes on to commend Ralph Vaughan Williams’ hymn tunes. Witvliet writes in a note something that I would wish to emphasize as well, that congregations would benefit from education to broaden and deepen the art they can appreciate. I can’t speak for everywhere, but I have found there is often a major lack of artistic education, so that art that is in principle accessible may not always seem so to people.
    To give an idea of what I think Witvliet wants, and at the risk of seeming to have a one-track mind, I’ll use the example of movies. Avatar was widely accessible, but had a dumbed-down story, so was not great art. Toy Story 3 was both great art and widely accessible. Inception was good, but some considered it less accessible. It is indeed less accessible than Toy Story 3, but to those who know how to watch movies with good attention, it should be easily accessible, even if we will still argue about the ending all day.
    I’ll deal with the other issues later.

  3. Ben permalink
    August 3, 2010 7:50 pm

    On sentimentality, Witvliet points out that it is focused on our own feelings, so making artworks with particular liturgical actions in mind would help us not wallow in ourselves. This probably would not eliminate sentimentality, but I am inclined to think that it would very much reduce it.
    I do think sentimental art is always a bad thing, or at least less good than it could be, but at the same time I very much support sentiment. I don’t know if it’s possible to establish a rigorous evaluative mechanism, and I certainly haven’t done so. But roughly the distinction is this: in the case of sentiment, the work evokes feeling, perhaps quite strong feeling, that is warranted by the content. In the case of sentimentality, the work tries to create an emotional experience that is made more important than the content used to (illegitimately) evoke it.

  4. August 3, 2010 11:09 pm

    Ben, thanks for the excellent summary of Witvliet’s chapter. I’m sure John would be pleased. Two books come to mind around the issue of accessibility. One is Frank Burch Brown’s recent *Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully.* The whole book addresses the theme in one form or another, but his opening chapter takes a kind of virtue ethics approach to the way in which liturgical art, of all sorts, in different ways, in diverse times, can be both accessible and difficult. I also think he does a fine job with this issue in his book *Good Taste, Bad Taste and Christian Taste*.

    Jeremy Begbie takes a more strictly theological approach to this issue, and perhaps at a more general level, in the last section of his work *Resounding Truth*. There he employs the idea of a “Christian Ecology.” With it, or more exactly within it, he believes we are positioned to make good decisions. Begbie does a bang up job, in my mind, with the issue of sentimentality in the chapter that he contributes to IVP’s *The Beauty of God*. Of course Betty Spackman takes the cake with her near monumental work *A Profound Weakness: Christians & Kitsch*.

    Lastly, I found that the essays on Isaac Watts in Mouw and Noll’s *Wonderful Words of Life* helped me see how Watts applied his considerable skills in logic and philology to the work of hymn-writing, yet did so in a way that a) didn’t show off his poetic powers and b) harnessed them in service of a widely accessible hymn text.

    To sing John Witvliet’s praise, I think his whole outfit at the Institute of Christian Worship is not only without equal, it is also doing a fantastic job of nourishing a “difficult but accessible” ethos in the artists who take advantage of the Institute’s various offerings.

  5. August 4, 2010 12:30 am

    Apologies in advance if I don’t address any one post or thought directly here.

    I’d be curious to see some engagement of neglected examples of Biblical aesthetic practice that are clearly intended as instruments to draw the people of God into a genuine and appropriate recognition of who God is (the purpose of worship, I daresay), and that are not (by a long stretch) either accessible (at best) or even “pleasant” (at worst).

    (That word pleasant, in fact, is a gorgeously adorned minefield, and salient to any discussion of art in worship or beauty… but that’s a different topic.)

    I think it’s right to recognize the unifying, directing character of crafted, architectural, decorative elements (finials, arks, liturgical furniture, directed views and perspectives and whatnot), as well as the ceremonial, choreographed, and enacted rites, sacraments, etc. There is certainly an important role that these intuitively accessible artifacts and actions perform in the enhancement and potential richness of corporate worship.

    What I wonder is whether there is a place, or whether a place could be developed, within the Protestant worship tradition specifically, for more provocative, perhaps even jarring aesthetic moments, such as we see in Ezekiel 4 (admittedly, my favorite “God said to do what!?” passage in scripture). In this case we see God commanding his prophet to create objects and perform actions that would certainly have grabbed his people’s attention, and I’d venture to say that the performances in the latter part of the chapter may have even made “1970’s Chris Burden” blush.

    Granted, that Ezekiel’s object-based events took place outside of the context of any corporate worship services analogous to our own contemporary practice, but I’d suggest that they open the door to at least a little courageous (and careful) exploration of what the right artist, or artists, might accomplish within a liturgical setting. The unexpected can be a wonderful thing. How do we surprise “sleepy” parishioners with the aesthetic unknown, without alienating them — or unnecessarily pissing them off?

    🙂

  6. August 4, 2010 12:35 am

    Apologies in advance if I don’t address any one post or thought directly here. Thanks to everyone. I’m enjoying the discussion.

    I’d be curious to see some engagement of neglected examples of Biblical aesthetic practice that are clearly intended as instruments to draw the people of God into a genuine and appropriate recognition of who God is (the purpose of worship, I daresay), and that are not (by a long stretch) either accessible (at best) or even “pleasant” (at worst).

    (That word pleasant, in fact, is a gorgeously adorned minefield, and salient to any discussion of art in worship or beauty… but that’s a different topic.)

    I think it’s right to recognize the unifying, directing character of crafted, architectural, decorative elements (finials, arks, liturgical furniture, directed views and perspectives and whatnot), as well as the ceremonial, choreographed, and enacted rites, sacraments, etc. There is certainly an important role that these intuitively accessible artifacts and actions perform in the enhancement and potential richness of corporate worship.

    What I wonder is whether there is a place, or whether a place could be developed, within the Protestant worship tradition specifically, for more provocative, perhaps even jarring aesthetic moments, such as we see in Ezekiel 4 (admittedly, my favorite “God said to do what!?” passage in scripture). In this case we see God commanding his prophet to create objects and perform actions that would certainly have grabbed his people’s attention, and I’d venture to say that the performances in the latter part of the chapter may have even made “1970’s Chris Burden” blush.

    Granted, that Ezekiel’s object-based events took place outside of the context of any corporate worship services analogous to our own contemporary practice, but I’d suggest that they open the door to at least a little courageous (and careful) exploration of what the right artist, or artists, might accomplish within a liturgical setting. The unexpected can be a wonderful thing. How do we surprise “sleepy” parishioners with the aesthetic unknown, without alienating them — or unnecessarily pissing them off?

    🙂

    • Ben permalink
      August 4, 2010 11:13 am

      Perhaps I or another contributor will be able to write about this in the near future.
      For now, I’ll just give my first thought on the matter: I like the Ezekiel passage you mentioned, but I do think it’s significant that Ezekiel’s actions were outside of a regular worship service. There seem to be some messages and artworks that, no matter how vital they may be for the church to hear, do not fit well in the worship service. Of course, I’m sure that some unexpected or provocative works would fit in the worship service. The challenge is in working out the details of what would fit.

      • August 4, 2010 6:26 pm

        For sure, Ben.

        I think my response was leaning a little more toward the question of accessibility, or “understandability” than the question of appropriate form/content for corporate worship services.

        I think it’s vital, as you rightly allude to, to carefully parse the context within which any artwork is going to be primarily engaged. Understanding one’s “audience” is a key dimension of any excellent artist’s working life. What we have to be discriminating about regarding “art-in-worship” is Worship, in it’s broadest sense theologically, corporate worship, as in the sum total of a unique congregation’s recognition of who God is week-in and week-out in all of that congregation’s activities, and the corporate worship service, those discrete times set aside each week for a formalized, “theatrical” enactment of what that congregation believes. No doubt, in most contexts, baking cakes over fires of burning human (or bovine… sigh) feces would not enhance the participation of a congregation in their adoration of God on a Sunday morning or Wednesday night.

        But I’m not convinced that accessibility ought to be a primary consideration of the artist when presenting work in an appropriate congregational context. Jesus did not seem to be preoccupied with the word images that he employed (whether in parables or metaphoric conceits) being easy to access or digest. I love that in Mark 10 alone the disciples are described as being “amazed,” “bewildered,” “perplexed,” “shocked,” and “astonished” at Jesus words and images.

        I’m essentially agreeing with many of the comments above and affirming the questions, while encouraging some risk. I think this requires artists that are both bold, and pastoral/graceful in their approach – as Jesus was (“full of truth and grace”). I think any artist that has received any sort of recognition for good work by the contemporary art world, myself included, is in danger of adopting an elitist gracelessness toward “outsiders” that might be “amazed,” “bewildered,” “perplexed,” “shocked,” or “astonished” by their work. This is a conditioned response that has been institutionalized in order to protect the expertise of those institutions (premier museums and galleries, premier critical publications, top-tier art fairs, and premier educational institutions) that delineate the carefully-guarded boundaries of the contemporary art world.

        That is where many of the Kingdom’s best artists operate, and so I think work has to be done to build bridging “couplings,” or hallways, perhaps, that can help create cross-contextual points of understanding, allowing churches to be challenged, and her good artists to let their dang guards down.

  7. Anna permalink
    August 8, 2010 10:54 am

    Ben, I thought what you said about the “artist as prophet” image both in Witvliet and in Nicolosi most interesting:

    “But I find it more helpful to consider some prophets to be artists, rather than considering artists to be prophets. That is, those given prophetic gifts will sometimes also possess artistic gifts and use them to convey their messages. But those with artistic gifts are not always given prophetic ability.”

    I think this is a good summary of the situation and in some ways bypasses a romantic conception of the artist while still, and reasonably, acknowledging the prophetic gifts some artists most certainly seem to possess!

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