Sunday, August 23, 2009

Let the Painting Begin!

Visual art. Some of the best art has been historically found in churches, and yet now it is conspicuously absent from much of protestant church life. Many of you who know me will know that this is a subject of great interest and concern for me. Thus, while I know that there is an increasing amount of writing and thinking being done on the subject, I will let this post be an opinion piece, drawn out of my thoughts and experiences.

It has been said that a church is not just a building, but a church building does reflect a lot about a church(see also a previous post). I have been inside so many churches with bare white or brick walls, conservative architecture, and direct lines to the pulpit at the front. The focus is on the spoken word (as taught during the sermon) and, only slightly indirectly, on the written word.

This makes a lot of sense with the birth of the Protestant tradition. The epistemic focus shifted from church authority to individual understanding of the Bible. The beginning of the modern era, so linked to the Reformation, revealed a confidence in the human ability to reason and understand God's word. These things, combined with the break from the traditions of the Catholic church, meant a significant change in the church's attitude toward images.

I am arguing here that the church needs to more consciously and carefully think through its use of images, especially visual art. Intentional change may be needed. First of all, we in the church worship an incredibly creative God! Not only that, but we have been made in his image, and I think creativity is a big part of that. Doesn't it make sense that we should express our exuberant joy in God through the arts? Much of this has been done with music. But why neglect the visual arts?

Many of the most artistically impressive cathedrals were build during a time when your average person could not pick up and read a bible. The art served an important role in helping people understand God and his workings in our world. It is much different now, of course. Or is it?

We live in an image-saturated world. Everywhere we look there is a billboard or a colorful label or a screen. The advertising world has certainly picked up on the power of an image. Children grow up with high visual stimulus through TV and computer screens. Many people, myself included, absorb information much more easily visually than aurally. And sometimes words are quite simply inadequate. Perhaps the church is in need of the arts more than one would think.

I want to close by noting a few of what I would call "successes" or "inspirations" pertaining to art and the church.
  • St. Andrew's Ottawa: I was struck during a visit that they had on display the work of an artist who had done these beautiful textile works which included passages of scripture. I just visited their website and noted that they have installed a sculpture outside.
  • HTB, London: the prodigal son sculpture, by artist Charlie Mackesy, is a powerful work and features prominently in the church space.
  • Orthodox and Catholic churches: I think we need to be willing to learn from them
  • Nathan Turner: a Canadian artist I was first introduced to through his show in a local gallery. His work is not always explicitly Christian, but it certainly speaks of his faith.
Thanks for taking the time to read this far. I challenge you to get involved in some way in bringing the visual arts into our protestant churches.

Nathan Turner. "Through The Veil". Charcoal, conte, graphite, gesso on plywood.

1 comment:

  1. A good thought, Bethany, and I agree with you. I understood the reasons behind the Protestant tradition's fear of idolatry, but it's a case of the proverbial "throwing the baby out with the bath water". I'm with you--why have we denied the sense of sight in our worship? It may explain partly why worshiping God as I walk through creation is so important to me--it's the only place Christians can safely worship God with what we see. (Jeanie)