Psalm 96 is a rousing psalm of praise calling us to worship a God whose beauty reverberates through the heavens and is mirrored in the worship of God’s gathered people in the sanctuary. Worshiping in such “holy splendor” is a testimony—a common confession that “God is Lord” over all things, all peoples, and especially over all other rival gods.
For the ancient Israelites who sang this psalm, it would have evoked not only the beauty of creation with which the psalm begins and ends, but also the beauty of God’s sanctuary—the tabernacle and later, the temple in Jerusalem—where Israel’s corporate witness as God’s chosen people received a particular form of concrete expression. “Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Ps. 96:6 NRSV).
But what, exactly might this mean? It only takes ten minutes of focused discussion to recognize afresh how slippery the term “beauty” can be. We all love beautiful things. But we also recognize that we all think different things are beautiful! We also worry that beauty can be superficial, and even distracting—to use the choice Protestant term of disparagement.
The challenge of distinguishing true beauty from the merely pleasing, the challenge of arguing for beauty as an objective property of an object or as a subjective response in the viewer, has occupied many fine minds for hundreds of years. We are not going to come up with any new neat and tidy answers here!
Regardless of the messy challenges, though, I don’t think we are off the hook when thinking about beauty when we think about worship. God is beautiful. Christians believe that is an objective fact. If our worship is truly Christian, how can it not tell of, reflect, and rejoice in that objective fact? We also believe that we respond, subjectively and individually, to our encounter with God’s beauty with awe and wonder and praise. If our worship is truly Christian, how can it not bear witness to our responses to God’s beauty?
None of this is really controversial. Where we tend to struggle is not in agreeing that God is beautiful, but in agreeing about how God’s beauty is best reflected in the concrete acts and spaces and objects used in worship. For centuries, most Protestants have more or less preferred their worship services and worship spaces to be simple, plain, and understated. That, however, has changed in the last quarter-century. A rising interest in art in general, the technological ease of introducing images into worship via screens, and an evangelical urge to connect with the everyday experience of those around us have led to a flood of art-forms entering the church’s worship that would have been unimaginable to our grandparents. We now find ourselves trying to decide what does and doesn’t belong in the sanctuary on Sunday morning with very little guidance from within our tradition, but with lots of creative, and often professional, expertise from our surrounding culture.
Fascinatingly, in these new cultural circumstances, I’ve found the deliberations of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church supremely helpful in supplying language for productive conversations about worship and beauty in the modern church. The liturgical reforms of Vatican II sought to refocus Catholic worship on the beautiful character of our triune God, on the wondrous story of God’s redeeming work, and on the mysterious nature of the gathered assembly as the Body of Christ. Clarifying the heart of worship in this way required a radical simplification of both the form of the liturgy and the character of the worship space. (In fact, some Catholics complained their churches were “Protestantized.”)
This new, simpler approach to worship, however, was not meant to empty worship of awe and mystery. On the contrary, the previous liturgical clutter was thought to have distracted the worshiper from a genuine encounter with and response to the awe and mystery of God. Environment and Art in Catholic Worship (Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, National Conference of Catholic Bishops), the 1977 document that for many years guided American Catholics in their thinking about liturgy and art, introduces a number of useful terms I think Protestants would do well to consider. Here, I’ll highlight just three: “quality,” “appropriateness,” and “primary symbols.” If the word “liturgy” in the following quotes feels too formal and stuffy, simply substitute “worship.”
“Quality is perceived only by contemplation, by standing back from things and really trying to see them, trying to let them speak to the beholder. Cultural habit has conditioned the contemporary person to look at things in a more pragmatic way: ‘What is it worth?’ ‘What will it do?’ Contemplation sees the hand stamp of the artist, the honesty and care that went into an object’s making, the pleasing form and color and texture. Quality means love and care in the making of something, honesty and genuineness with any materials used, and the artist’s special gift in producing a harmonious whole, a well-crafted work.” (Para. 20)
“Appropriateness is another demand that liturgy rightfully makes upon any art that would serve its action. The work of art must be appropriate in two ways: 1) it must be capable of bearing the weight of mystery, awe, reverence and wonder which the liturgical act expresses; 2) it must clearly serve (and not interrupt) ritual action which has its own structure, rhythm and movement. The first point rules out anything trivial and self-centered, anything fake, cheap or shoddy, anything pretentious or superficial. . . . The second point (to serve) refers both to the physical environment of public worship and to any art forms which might be employed as part of the liturgical action. . . . (Para. 21-23)
“Renewal requires the opening up of our symbols, especially the fundamental ones of bread and wine, water, oil, the laying on of hands, until we can experience all of them as authentic and appreciate their symbolic value.” (Para. 15) “A second common problem in the use of symbolic objects is a tendency to ‘make up’ for weak primary symbols by secondary ones. . . . Bread and wine are primary Eucharistic symbols, yet peripheral elements frequently get more attention. It is important to focus on central symbols and to allow them to be expressed with full depth of their vision.” (Para. 87)
Of course, “quality” and “appropriateness” and “primary vs. secondary symbols” are terms that could each spiral off into their own debates. Nonetheless, they are a little closer to the ground than “beauty” and, as such, can anchor congregational conversations about what, in the end, will help us not only declare, but also enact that “strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Ps. 96:6, NRSV).
- Where do you see beauty in the place you worship?
- Using the definition of “quality” provided above, evaluate the physical environment in which worship takes place. How might the quality be improved? How can that idea of quality be applied to the act of worship itself? How is this definition of quality different from “excellence”?
- How are the visuals used in your worship space appropriate? What might it look like to increase their appropriateness or bring in different visuals that might be even more appropriate?
- What are the primary symbols used in your worship? What are the secondary ones? Is it easy to discern between the two? One way to honestly assess what the primary symbols are in your worship space would be to ask people what they see upon entering the space; particularly those unfamiliar with it.