A Report on the Summit of the Visual Arts and the Church at Calvin College
by Daniel A. Siedell
Last month I participated in a two-and-a-half day summit on the visual arts and the Church at Calvin College, sponsored by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Seminary in cooperation with Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC, and Christian in the Visual Arts (CIVA). The summit brought together over thirty visual arts professionals and practitioners to reflect on the relationship between the visual arts and the Church. John Witvliet, Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, moderated the summit, organizing our conversations around subjects that brought seminary faculty, museum professionals, artists, scholars, and pastors in different kinds of conversations about the visual arts and the Church.
The relationship of the visual arts to the Church is a very large and complicated subject that can be approached in a number of different ways. And the summit approached it from the perspective of “worship and the arts,” which is primarily concerned to re-energize church worship through the arts. This defines the work of most of the summit participants. They were theologians, seminarians, or worship pastors. Many of them were involved in establishing or participating in various “worship and the arts” programs at seminaries or divinity schools and have worked actively for worship renewal through the visual arts for several decades. Although there were others, like me, who fell outside this framework, coming at “art” and the “church” in very different ways, the “worship and the arts” field served as the intellectual framework within which all conversations took place.
The field of “worship in the arts” is largely a Protestant project. I am reading Roger Lundin’s excellent book, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (Rowman and Littlefield, 2005) and he quotes G.C. Lichtenberg: “there is a great difference between still believing something and believing it again.” This could not be any truer of Protestantism and the visual arts. While Lutheran and especially Reformed churches in the sixteenth century proclaimed their disbelief in the power of the visual arts and their distrust of the aesthetic, the twentieth century has witnessed these church traditions trying to put them back in. And “worship and the arts” is nothing if not the embodiment of the trials and tribulations of “believing again.”
Not only is the “worship and the arts” project distinctively Protestant, it is now largely defined by the project of Liberal Protestantism (hereafter LP). The problem with LP is that in its effort to bring Christianity in line with culture, it systematically reduces the sting of the Church, its power to be counter-cultural, to offer cultural critique, to testify to the Kingdom, in short, to speak to culture. I was raised in a conservative evangelical home and my father read Francis Schaeffer not Paul Tillich, so LP has never really been a theological or philosophical temptation for me. Or so I thought.
But LP is not dead. It is not only alive and well, it is also actively defining and shaping what it means to consider the arts in and out of the Church, largely through the “worship and the arts” framework. It controls the institutes, seminaries, funding agencies that sponsor projects, and therefore the entire conversation. Let me suggest that LP’s last authoritative foothold is in the visual arts. This is important for those of us who are engaged in the “postmodern project” in various ways, working through continental philosophy, Radical Orthodoxy, post-liberal narrative theology, and participating in the emergent conversation. As we are piled into our “ancient-future” van on the highway to the Kingdom, talking about St. Augustine, Foucault, the spiritual disciplines, the desert fathers, Zizek’s virtues and vices, and what Jesus would deconstruct, it would behoove us to be mindful of the fact that LP owns the aesthetic in the Church. And we need to change that because LP is built on a worldview that is no longer compelling and if the Church can’t get its aesthetics and poetics straight, it can’t speak authoritatively, prophetically, and constructively to culture about art and aesthetics. The capacity to speak thusly might not be a major concern for many in the Church, but it is part of the universal witness of the Church. And the kind of witness I have in mind bears no resemblance to the kind of “witness” that is content to condemn Serrano’s Piss Christ and moan about federal funding for the arts.
LP in the visual arts has a tendency to baptize all aesthetic work for the Church. This is very attractive. Think big about Christianity and culture, particularly with contemporary art. It is an appealing antidote to the narrow approach to the Church and culture that fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism has spawned. And at root, my own project is inspired by the ambition of the LP writers on art and culture, like Tillich and the Dillenbergers. If, as Alexander Schmemann once said, a Christian is one who sees Christ everywhere, then we should look for him in culture where we might least expect him to be, like the contemporary art world. I admire this aspect of LP.
In fact, I have discovered that LP tends to be my default key in times of interpretative distress. When I am faced, for example, with a choice between the Church and culture, LP allows me to mold the former to fit the latter. (It is almost too easy to criticize the Church’s philistinism.) LP thus can define how art is talked about for those who would define themselves against it theologically and philosophically. It has co-opted the work of its opponents to its aesthetic cause, thus extending what little life it has left, life which now trades on the assumption that there needs to be a “progressive” Church to do justice to “progressive” art. But this is simply not true. Even while I have argued in previous posts that I believe that the emergent conversation might be the most productive place in the Church to have a discussion about the visual arts, I fear that most of those discussions of the visual arts have simply imported LP’s working assumption. This threatens to reduce the emergent contribution to art and the aesthetic to a footnote of the waning LP project.
For LP working definitions come not from the Church but from culture. I found this exemplified by the summit’s disinterest in defining just what art is. It already seemed to know what it was, which is dangerous. The assumption is that art is what (high) culture tells us it is. No more, no less. For the “orthodox” LP perspective, it takes the form of a highly romantic notion of the artist as a lonely self-expresser, working contra mundum, who has an important message to give a stubborn culture (and Church) via painting or sculpture.
LP also lingers around the tendency of some of the summit conversations to conflate aesthetic with spiritual practice. It is commonly believed that “the artist” and her aesthetic practice in the studio have much to teach the Church. However, little was said about how the Church’s spiritual practices and disciplines, including liturgical practice, can underwrite and sustain aesthetic practice, which was the case with iconographers in the ancient Church and remains in the East. The influence between artist and Church seems to work just one way. The assumption was that the Church would be far healthier if there were more artists, making art for their churches, without asking why. The ancient Church had some pretty serious reservations about the conversion of pagan artists, poets, and intellectuals and, rather than shape the Church to fit them, they subjected them to an even more rigorous testing of their faith. (Unlike Plato, they didn’t advocate banning the poets, but they made darn sure they knew what they were getting into and who was calling the shots.)
The problem, ultimately, with LP is that it has become a caricature of itself. Rather than the edgy, progressive, and risky perspective, LP has become reactionary. First, it is out of step with the Church. Whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or even Protestant, the Church is rediscovering the power of its ancient traditions, creeds, and practices as the means to speak authoritatively to the contemporary situation. LP’s modern, Enlightenment-based reticence to embrace the Church’s dogma, cuts it off from the richness of the literal and spiritual implications of Nicaea II and the important role that the theory and practice of icons have played and, in the East, continue to play in the life of the Church. Classic mid-century LP rejected the authority of the living tradition of the Church as out of step with cultural progress while embracing the authority of the historical development of contemporary art. Present-day LP, in contrast, continues to reject the authority of the living tradition of the Church. However, instead of embracing contemporary art, LP remains locked in a mid-century definition of art and culture. The Protestant church of “believing again” needs to learn from the innocence of the “still believing” Orthodox and Catholic traditions. The Church of the Seven Councils trained its iconographers within the Church; it did not merely “import” secular artists as a way of demonstrating how “culturally engaged” the Church was. Second, LP is even out of step with culture. Its understanding of art and the artist, defined as it is by a soft mid-century existentialism, appears less and less progressive after two generations of artistic practice and interpretation. In the light of current art historical research and contemporary artistic practice, LP is anything but progressive. LP senses this, in fact, and this is why it tends to write off areas of contemporary art that do not conform to its aesthetic. And this is often the way it’s been lately with LP. It rarely finds itself on the cutting edge of culture. It is always playing catch-up, trying to get a seat at the table, hoping to be taken seriously by the cultural establishment.
Now, the Reformed among us will cry foul and argue that Calvin Seerveld and Nicholas Wolterstorff, for example, armed with their Neo-Kupyerian creational worldviews, have offered compelling alternatives to LP. And this is to some extent true. However, both the Reformed and LP perspective, given their similar “affirmative” views of culture (there is a fine and sometimes wavering line between “baptizing” and “transforming” culture), tend toward giving the lie to an aesthetic shaped by LP. Seerveld and Wolterstorff, in the last analysis, end up working for LP.
LP also has another side of its coin. And it is just as problematic. It is the side that is usually adopted by conservative evangelicals. Although they by and large reject high culture, they are often prone to take for granted what popular culture values, hence the interest in movies, advertisements, website design, and the like. Both sides of the LP coin merely baptize different forms of culture. But when non- LP’s, like the emergents, want to “engage” the arts more seriously (and they increasingly do) they merely adopt the other side of the LP coin. They do so because they seem to have no choice. We need to provide alternatives.
“Worship and the Arts,” then, seems an anachronism that, despite its best of intentions, remains locked in the prison house of an LP paradigm that, despite some virtues, which I am first to admit, is ultimately doomed to greater and greater irrelevance. It is high time to move the discussion of the visual arts in the Church outside the parameters of the “worship and the arts” framework, where it can hash out new conceptions of the role of the artist and the function of the work of art, which incorporates the best of contemporary artistic practice and interpretation because it has already retrieved insights on worship and the arts from the ancient, pre-schismatic Church. Only then can the Church have something of substance to say to culture; only then will the Church be able to take the lead in matters aesthetic and artistic.