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.
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.