Zombies in the Lights
A few days ago, I ended up in a really fascinating dialogue on Twitter with thoughtful worship leader, Jordan Atwell (@jordanatwell) and visual liturgy smart guy, Stephen Proctor (@stephenproctor). We were entertaining the question, in response to my tweet about this wonderful article, about what it looks like to pastorally engage visual aesthetics in worship. We tend to think of things like projection, screens, lights, and other visual atmospherics as either neutral cultural phenomena or (more negatively) as yet more capitulation to culture’s rock show idolatry. Usually, all the conversations about those visual elements stop there. Either we’re relegated to pragmatic, technical conversations about the latest, coolest LEDs, gobos, robotics, and immersive projection, or we’re (not inappropriately) decrying the commercialization of worship through zombifying overstimulation.
But what if there’s another conversation to have? What if the discussion about lights and projection can be framed pastorally? I think the above mentioned article is a great example of what such reflection might look like with regards to screens and slide projection. But that’s not what I want to talk about in this post.
The Debbie Downer of Visual Arts
Stephen mentioned what many do when these discussions get rolling—namely, that the Reformation’s iconoclasm (rejection of much visual art) threw out a lot of the helpful and sacred visuals of the church, impoverishing our “sacramental imagination.” Stephen, of course, is dead on. Perhaps some want to justify the Reformation’s general over-reaction to stained glass, art, and other aesthetic riches due to how far the medieval Roman church had gone in the opposite direction.
Nevertheless, I have observed a chink in the Reformation’s generally iconoclastic armor, and I believe we’re witnessing, slowly but surely, that chink being identified, yanked on, and peered through. The hole is getting bigger, and those of us who cherish much about the Reformation may find a way through Reformational principles to recover a sacramental imagination that can appropriately, imaginatively, and richly re-embrace the aesthetics that aid and abet a holistic worship experience (and a holistic faith). The Reformational chink is Augustinian affective anthropology.
Here’s what I mean. With the continued influence of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (and now his more accessible simplification in You Are What You Love), more and more folks in Reformational traditions are awakening to the reality that human beings are centrally affective creatures. We operate, most fundamentally, out of what we love. Our affections, much more than our brains, are our life’s behavioral rudder. This is a notion rooted in Augustine, the early thinker who had more influence on Reformational thought than perhaps any other church father or mother. (I should mention that hopefully this notion is rooted in Jesus…and I think it is [e.g. Luke 6:45].) Augustine’s view of the human makeup (his anthropology) is that we are centrally desiring creatures. Augustine believed that the Bible reveals to us an affective anthropology.
I believe that this anthropology was at least tacitly present in the minds of all the Reformers. But we find it leaking out particularly in the writings of Luther (scattered about), Melanchthon (his 1521 Loci Communes), and Cranmer (his homilies and in his Prayer Book). David Taylor also unearths aesthetic dimensions of Calvin’s theology in his dissertation. (I mention this, because Calvin is often the chief poster boy for the Reformation’s iconoclasm.)
The Aesthetic Portal to New Horizons
What we find in the work of Luther, Melanchthon, Cranmer, and Calvin are expressions of affective anthropology that are in tune with some aesthetics. Cranmer, in particular, seemed very comfortable employing the riches of the rhetorical arts. Reading his 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books is like taking a journey through Erasmus’s rhetorical teachings: word couplets/triplets, evocative language, etc. Cranmer’s poetic prose was an intentional use of the art of language to engage the senses and emotions of the worshiper.
Cases like these help us to see that while it is fair by and large to call the Reformation iconoclastic, even the Reformers understood that aesthetics were a gateway to help form the sacramental imagination of the people of God. Could it be, then, that we can re-enter some much needed discussions about the aesthetic and pastoral use of visual arts (lighting, projection, color, haze, etc.), through the Reformational portal of affective anthropology? Could it be that Protestantism’s historic emphasis on affective spirituality will open up fresh pastoral discussions about visual aesthetics that neither remain in the superficial realm of pragmatics nor pharisaically dismiss all such talk as blind idolatry?
Not everyone will buy into this, but I, for one, am optimistic.