Feast for the Eyes: We need a visual dimension in our worship

From the time I was a teenager I enjoyed doing and viewing art—so much so that I made it my profession. But it was only recently that I began to contemplate how to relate the rich heritage of art, and especially the art that inspired generations of Christian worshipers, to public worship. Increasingly I have begun to crave the same visual feast that has fed worshipers in the past.

My appetite for this feast grew out of two factors. I had become tired of the vast expanse of empty brick wall facing me as I sat Sunday after Sunday in the large church I attend. The church was built in 1979, and a year or two before that the design committee, of which I was a member, had read and taken to heart the "Thou shalt/Thou shalt nots" of Reformed architecture in Bruggink and Dropper's Christ and Architecture (Eerd-mans, 1965). That book convinced us that less is more. So the only real visual interest in our sanctuary came from the pulpit, Lord's table, and baptismal font.

The second factor that fed my appetite for the feast was my daily work as an art history teacher. In the classroom also I am confronted by an expanse of blank space: two projection screens. But I can project on these empty screens the most wonderful images ever produced (the next best thing to seeing the real art). Many are works of art that were created by Christians for the church.

And I began to think about what our society is like today. This is an age of "projected images," of television, films, and videos. Our ability to conjure up images through verbal description has lessened. Linear thinking is "out," so we hear. It seems obvious that in such a society the church, too, needs to be visually revived. It must create rich, truthful, innovative imagery.

This is especially true if we hope to catch and keep the attention of our children and young people. What do children typically get out of our worship services? I fear that all our attempts to teach them to sit still and keep quiet may be building up a lifelong habit of tuning out. Perhaps instead we should be catching their interest through visuals. Art in the church could stimulate their worship in ways that preaching, singing, and prayer cannot.

It is true, of course, that some Reformed churches have created artistic expressions other than the symbols of the sacraments. The ubiquitous banner is one. And if well done, banners can be a helpful aid to worship.

But I would encourage our churches to develop more visuals—to create a visual sacred history. The centuries that have passed since God promised the Christ to Adam and Eve have been filled with accounts of God's dealing with humankind—a virtually inexhaustible source of imagery. Let us celebrate through murals, weavings, sculpture, and other art the life arid redemption of Christ, as well as the Old and New Testament stories of God's people.

Creating such a visual feast may even deepen our theological understanding. The lack of rich visual imagery in Reformed churches has frequently led, I think, to a certain kind of preaching. Many of the great accounts of how God has dealt with people in a particular time and place, under a peculiar set of circumstances, have been spiritualized or moralized. The men and women in these accounts frequently become prototypes or metaphors, or else they are jerked out of their times and given modern personalities. Our exposure to visual depictions that do justice to text and time can help us transcend ourselves arid our time so that we can walk with Ruth, or Jacob, or Ezekiel.

Caveats are in order, however. One concerns quality. Not all art made in the church is great art. The Christian artist's flesh might be willing, but the talent is often weak. Banners are often slipshod aesthetically or trite in content.

And we need to be willing to learn the lessons of the past. Perhaps the Seventh Ecumenical Council's edicts led to a dependence on holy relics rather than on internalizing the truth of the preached Word. But how meager is our own Reformed heritage in comparison to the splendor of the Greek Orthodox church, in which worshipers are confronted with the rich imagery of Scripture, and especially of the majestic and holy Christ.

We should also be aware of the traditional Reformed stance on images. The Reformers were wary of art in the church, and their fear of idolatry is reflected in our confessions and theology. The Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 96-98) speaks forthrightly about images: we are commanded to be instructed only by preaching in church, although we are allowed to make "creatures," as long as they are not created for worship.

But the truth is that neither Calvin nor Luther closed the door on visual representation in the church; they only sounded a warning of excesses. Keeping this warning before us, isn't it time that we Reformed Christians open our eyes and minds and hearts to the visually articulated word? It's time to let the miracle of God's creation and saving grace reverberate in our churches through the spoken, sung, and visually articulated Word.

Cornelia Kennedy is a lecturer in art history and curator of the Dutch Heritage Collection at Northwestern College, Orange City, iowa. She is a member of First Reformed Church, Orange City, Iowa.


Reformed Worship 34 © December 1994, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.