Why Does Visual Imagery Belong in the Church?
Let me start with two simple claims. First visual imagery belongs in the Church because worship has always been visual, secondly, because today people are used to having culture packaged in visually attractive ways. Let me start with the second of these claims. Many people have observed what has been called the visual turn of contemporary culture. We are overwhelmed by imagery from the moment we awake in the morning until we go to bed at night. In addition to this many people are what are called visual learners. In fact, my anthropologist colleagues tell me that 60 percent of people learn by visualizing what they hear, and this seems to be true across cultures. Robert Wuthnow has shown that recent generations have been progressively more interested and involved in the arts, so that in our day, as advertisers have found, everyone likes to think of themselves as creative and interested in art and beauty. Whatever we might think of these trends, they shape the people who gather in our churches each Sunday to worship.
But my other claim is equally important: worship is inescapably visual and it always has been. The spaces of our worship, the images we look at and the things we do during worship, all these things invariably shape us one way or another—they lead us to deeper worship or they distract us. The spaces and images around us, the gear on the stage, the podium set in the middle of the stage, the cross hanging on the back wall, the clothing of the worship team—all these things are visuals, and they all speak to us, whether we notice it or not. So the question is not whether, yes or no, we should use images in worship, but whether the things we see during worship enhance our worship or obstruct it.
Now it is perfectly true that we Protestants have not been used to focusing on the visual aspect of worship, because our tradition tells us that deep meaning can only be carried by words and not by images. But many people today are wondering why these cannot be seen to reinforce each other, so that together they create spaces for worship that the Spirit can use to move us toward God.
You Are What You See?
In the medieval period people believed that “you become what you behold”—which is to say if you look deeply at things that are worthy and striking, you will be formed in positive ways. We Protestants by contrast act as if we believe we will “become what we listen to long enough.” Obviously both are oversimplifications, but the fact is both hearing and seeing are necessary parts of any worship experience. I have often pondered why we Protestant have learned to close our eyes during prayer, when up to the Reformation this had never been the consistent practice. Was it to shut the world out? To focus on God? But why can’t we provide images that assist us as we direct our attention to God?
Henri Nouwen has argued that just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we look at. We should not, he thinks, become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding.
We do not have to be passive victims of a world that wants to entertain and distract us. … A spiritual life in the midst of our energy-draining society requires us to take conscious steps to safeguard that inner space where we can keep our eyes fixed on the beauty of the Lord. (Behold the Beauty of the Lord, p. 12)
Of all the events in the week that help us to discipline our “seeing” and direct us to see the beauty of the Lord, our corporate worship together should be the most important.
The Visual Word
It is true that the reading and proclamation of Scripture will always be central to Evangelical worship. And it is also the case that among our congregations there will always be a lingering suspicion of images in worship. This has to do with long standing practices and habits of mind that stretch back to our Reformation heritage. But there are some important factors that argue for giving more attention to the visual dimension of worship, even as we honor what is good in our heritage. The first relates the changing cultural situation that I mentioned earlier.
Not only have expectations and proclivities changed among our contemporaries, but the widespread superstitions that the Reformers faced in their attempts to recover the gospel are no longer dangers for most people. The temptation to idolatry is alive and well in our culture, of course, but it is no longer associated with religious practices and with particular images, as it was in the late medieval period. But the second thing to say about our tradition is that a deep familiarity with Scripture, rather than impeding the visual, actually stimulates the imagination and suggests all kinds of visual mediation. God is revealed in Scripture as often by cloudy and fiery pillars, earthquakes, light and darkness, as by the prophetic word. All of this richly elaborated revelation calls for translation into a visual as well as aural language.
Visuals serve and support
Let me then lay out a few basic principles for how we might think about using visual elements in worship, to lay alongside more practical advice given elsewhere in this magazine.
- Serve the Service of Worship
First the visual environment must always be seen to serve the liturgy, or, if you prefer, the order of worship that is practiced. However we understand this, clearly the narrative shape of worship will be determinative of how visual elements are arranged and disciplined. Our structure of worship will include some form of call to worship, some reading and proclamation of the Scripture, and the Eucharist or Communion (and our own offering to God—which two practices are theologically joined), and finally the sending of believers into the world with the blessing of God.
There is no reason why any of these elements could not be enhanced and emphasized by some form of visual elaboration. Indeed the movement of worship itself is an explicit reference to the dramatic accommodation of God to us, and our obedient movement into the world, and this drama can as easily be visualized as it is performed and sung. Indeed traditionally various elements have been added to the worship experience that in many traditions have achieved great solemnity and beauty.
Processionals have often been used to carry in Scripture, often accompanied by singing, and even by dancing (as in the Black Church). Worship often involves some form of responsive singing or reading. It often calls for kneeling in prayer, and for periods of quiet listening and meditation. Scripture is sometimes read in the midst of the congregation while people stand. Music and prayer is often accompanied by the raising of hands. All of these are visual and aural, can be deeply dramatic and can impact our affections as well as our minds. I mention these because historically all of them have stimulated various forms of art, music and poetry. Indeed this stimulus is evident in the Bible itself, where prayer and praise have stimulated psalms of surpassing beauty, just as biblical instruction has fostered proverbs and parables that still strike chords deep with us.
But notice in Scripture, and in the history of the Church, none of these forms are autonomous; they all are made to serve some aspect of worship. And they spark for many not only deep seated encounters with God, but transcendent aesthetic experiences as well.
- Spirit, Soul, Body
This leads me to a second principle that helps orient the use of art in worship. Worship that is formative and even transformative involves the whole person, including their affections and imagination, and not only their reason and their wills. Too much worship today features a cognitive focus on ideas derived from Scripture placed within a general appeal to the will. The challenge to the will of course should be part of what is included in worship, but if worship is reduced to this, it does not allow the spirit to transform our emotions and our imagination. It does not allow us to dream and envision God’s alternative world. This is why Peter emphasized in his explanation of the pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost: “Your sons and your daughter shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). Experiences like this will invariably include aesthetic elements that are striking and that become potential instruments of the Spirit moving us toward maturity in Christ.
- Serve the Message
A further principle then would be that artistic elements—color, sound, movement, light and darkness—have their own special voice that can enhance the movement of worship. These styles and arts should be pressed into service to enhance the movement toward God we long for in worship. This might involve a variety of media but will surely include some of the following.
- Worship spaces have been designed to encourage particular styles of worship, whether they lead to the altar, feature the pulpit or font. But much can be done to imaginatively enhance the spaces of worship around specific themes, or times of the Christian calendar. Colored fabric arranged imaginatively, banners or specially designed sets can draw attention to specific worship practices and teaching.
- Visual projection. Electronic media can project colors, images and videos that can move congregations to deep worship.
- Stationary and installed art. Artists can be commissioned to create contemporary altar pieces for the space of worship. Such work has transformed worship spaces in many places and allowed Churches to again become patrons of the arts.
- Draw from the well of the past. Finally a recovery of ancient practices allow Christians to feel deep connections to believers that have gone before and recover a sense of the communion of the saints. Footwashing services on Maundy Thursday; praying the labyrinth. etc.
Art of course cannot of itself move people to true worship. Like all gifts of the congregation it is a “handmaiden” to the working of the Spirit through the Word embodied in Scripture. All our practices of worship, making use of all the gifts of the body of Christ, can be seen as part of the larger process of bringing all
of us, together, to maturity in Christ. For Paul insists in Ephesians 4, that all the gifts—I would argue including the gifts of artists, musicians and playwrights, are given finally to move the body of Christ toward maturity. Our work, as Nancy Chinn says, “is not so much to make the holy visible, as it is to proclaim that the Holy is present.”
Dr. William Dyrness is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has published work in a variety of fields, including theology and culture, apologetics, theology and art, and global missions. He is currently writing a book with art historian Dan Siedell on the religious influences of modern art.
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