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Artistic vision. (Books).

Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue

Baker Books, 2001. S21.99 (cloth).

Art and theological aesthetics are uneasy partners. For theologians who consider aesthetics, questions of beauty and the relationship of beauty to God are of primary interest. For many serious artists, as well as for those who write about their work, questions of beauty have largely been irrelevant for at least a century. Even artists who want to make work that is beautiful think less about what "beauty" means than what their art means. The primary questions of art, or what some might call "theories of art," have largely been those of meaning.

In Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue William A. Dyrness attempts to bridge this gap. Dyrness is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and a founding member of the Brehm Center for Theology, Worship, and the Arts based at that institution. With impeccable credentials in the somewhat conservative Christian Reformed tradition, he struggles to bring together the disparate fields of theology and art for an audience that is largely ignorant of the visual arts, and which is struggling to come to grips with a culture that is increasingly visual. A second intended readership is the growing number of artists who identify themselves as Christian, but find themselves unable to bring their artistic vision and their theological understanding into harmony. His primary purpose in writing this book seems to be to articulate a new vision of art for that part of the Christian world that has been alienated from it, and to find a way for art to speak the Christian message to those w ho are alienated from Christianity. As he puts it,

The fact that much controversy attends the use of arts in worship, that artists in Christian communities continue to be marginalized, and that Christians still express confusion regarding their engagement with the arts indicates unfinished business. (67)

This "unfinished business" is, first, educating his audience about the historical connections between art and faith, and, second, providing a theological grounding for engagement with the arts. For those who are Dyrness's intended audience, much of what he writes is absolutely essential; for those who are not, it is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating window onto a conversation that may seem a littie peculiar.

Because he knows that many of his readers are not familiar with the territory, Dyrness begins with a survey of the historical connections between art and the church. He looks at examples of art in each period, from the earliest Christian centuries through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Reformation, and into twenty-first century America, and shows how these paintings, sculptures, and other works epitomize a particular theological stance. He points out the recurrent tensions between those who stressed a pure, inward faith, and those who recognized that images can be helpful to understanding what is heard and read. This tension was an important factor in the repudiation of the use of art in worship during the Protestant Reformation.

As he traces this history beyond the Reformation divorce between art and the church, Dyrness attempts to show that not all the Reformers were completely anti-art, and that even those that seemed to be most antagonistic to the arts nonetheless placed some value on the visual. He attempts to lay a foundation for Christian artists today to understand their role in the world and in the church by noting, for instance, that most of the best-known artists of seventeenth-century Holland were Christians, or "at least ... influenced by a reformed view of the world." Similarly, he argues, a disproportionately large number of the founders of the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture were Reformed Protestants. Unfortunately, in this discussion and elsewhere, Dyrness seems to use the word "Christian" to mean "conservative Protestant." While this usage is common among those to whom Dyrness seems to be speaking, it ignores the fact that Roman Catholics and members of the various Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as liber al Protestants, are also Christian.

The middle section of Visual Faith moves away from art as such. One of the battle cries of the Reformation was sola scriptura--only Scripture is authoritative in matters of faith. For Dyrness's intended readership, this reliance on the Bible as the word of God makes it imperative that any approach to art be solidly grounded in a biblical aesthetic. This, as Dyrness points out, is difficult because the Bible doesn't actually provide much guidance towards a positive view of art.

What the Bible does provide, according to Dyrness, is a holistic worldview in which beauty and goodness are inseparable. A long section is devoted to the study of a number of Hebrew words, each of which has as one of its meanings something akin to "beauty," and whose other meanings are things like "honor" or "fittingness" or "desirability" or "goodness." Another section stresses the visual nature of many biblical passages, especially those in which God's holiness or glory is made manifest. A third section, titled "Toward a Biblical Aesthetic," wrestles with the second commandment's supposed condemnation of imagery. Here, Dryness asserts that idols, not images, are the issue. The Bible says that God actually commanded humans to make objects to be used in worship, and that many of these objects included images, so using images in worship cannot be the meaning of this commandment. Lest we think that, because of their potential power to effect change, symbols are the problem, he notes that the Bible, like art, is full of symbols.

While all of this biblical exegesis is interesting, as an artist and a Christian, I found myself constantly arguing with Dyrness. I found myself more than once frustrated at the lack of precision in his use of terminology. For instance, he seems to move among notions of beauty, textual descriptions of visual events, and concrete images without making the connections explicit. Especially slippery is his use of the word "art," which sometimes seems to mean essentially painting and sculpture, and other times seems to include dance, drama, film, music, and other art forms. I realize that this is in part unavoidable because of contemporary cultural understandings of the nature of art, but I found myself wishing he would clarify, for instance, how an aesthetic derived from biblical passages that use visual imagery might apply to arts like drama or dance. As some other Christian writers on the arts have pointed out, the opposite of aesthetic" is "anesthetic"--that which makes us unable to feel. I wish that Dyrness h ad spent some of his theological discussion on the broader issues of God's blessing on all our senses, and art's power to help us regain the ability to use them.

The last part of Visual Faith returns to a more focused look at the role of art in contemporary society and the role of Christian artists within and outside the church. Dyrness calls for a renewal of Christian involvement in the arts, and a return of the use of the arts in Christian worship. He notes that the development of certain forms of contemporary art, especially those that require the active participation of the audience, seem to respond to a hunger for ritual that is lacking in most people's lives. Collaborations between, for instance, visual artists and musicians, as well as the inherently collaborative arts of film, video, drama, dance, and music, are one of the marks of contemporary culture that Dyrness believes speak to the need for human interaction in an increasingly disconnected world. Further, he points out, much of modern and postmodern art reaches for a deeply spiritual experience, which speaks to a longing that, in his view, only Christian faith can finally provide.

In his concluding chapter, Dyrness contends that Christianity needs a "threefold renewal: a new vision for the arts, a renewal of the worshiping life of the church, and a restored tradition of Christian art" (155). In an increasingly visual culture, he argues, Christians can no longer afford to ignore the visual. He writes of congregations that regularly commission artwork to mark the seasons of the Christian year, and wonders what would happen if more church leaders would make a practice of commissioning artists to prepare materials for the worship and devotional life of their congregations. More grandly, he suggests that artists be commissioned like missionaries, to bring what he calls "their sanctified imaginations" into art schools and the larger world of secular art.

It is in this last chapter that Dyrness shows his true passion for both art and the church. The careful outline of art history, the patient biblical exegesis, and the analysis of contemporary culture, were simply a foundation for his enthusiastic recognition that a new, living tradition of Christian art is already coming into existence. While some parts of this book might be hard going for someone who does not share Dyrness's particular religious convictions, it is a valuable contribution to the two-thousand-year-old conversation about the relationship between Christianity and the arts.

Deborah Sokolove is the curator of the Dadian Gallery of the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and is working on her doctoral dissertation on the ways that Methodists use art to mark the liturgical seasons.
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Title Annotation:Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue
Author:Dyrness, William
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2002
Words:1552
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