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Entries in art and church (7)


The Chink in the Reformation’s Iconoclastic Armor

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.


Two Posts Not To Miss

So, I've been doing a lot more guest-posting, especially over at LIBERATE, but you'll also see me writing articles a few other places, like Reformed Worship and Doxology & Theology. For those that follow my blog, I wanted to make sure you didn't miss these articles.

A Review of Dan Siedell's
Who's Afraid of Modern Art

"Hearing Art Tell Me Who I Am"

First, and most importantly, I want to commend to my readership an unparalelled book that weaves together art and theology like nothing I've ever read. It exposes how the art world, like all of our other "worlds," is a place where human beings struggle for self-justification, identity, and meaning. It asks probing questions about the way Christians in particular have thought of modern art, and it does all of this through a thoroughly strong Reformational lens that I buy hook, line, and sinker. So, if you might be on the fence about obtaining the book, please go read my post and be convinced!


The Story Behind Our Title Track

"Why the Church Should Sing About Prostitution, Slavery, and Addiction"

Our modern confession hymn, "Come And Make Us Free," serves as the thematic crown jewel of our new album by that title. This song is full of many scriptural allusions and was written through the process of an honest, personal journey. It dives into the theology of sin, particularly as the Scriptures expose sin as prostitution/adultery, slavery, and addiction. 


"Art Diagnoses Me" and Other Fabulous Thoughts

I recently watched this 45-minute lecture by my friend, Dan Siedell, and I found it challenging, compelling, and fresh. He gives a very different angle on how Christians think about art and its purpose(s). I don't hear others talking like this. It's vulnerable and autobiographical, but its points aren't just subjective musings.


  • What Dan describes as "art interpreting me" gets at art's prophetic role in our lives, causing us to question ourselves, analyze ourselves, as it forth-tells truths to us about us.
  • He graciously challenges the understanding of some of the seminal works on art that have influenced evangelicals


The work of art...makes a claim on the viewer: "You, whom I see; you, who stands before me; you must give an account." And I have felt that claim. Theologian Oswald Bayer simply but provocatively states: "We must be told who we are." A painting does something like that to me. It diagnoses me, tells me who I am and who I am not. And one of the ways it does that is to disclose the present moment. As sons and daughters of Cain, we live our lives as restless wanderers and enveloped in a fog of discontent. We find comfort in the past with our nostalgia or regret and in the future with our fears and ambitions. We reign as kings in what David Foster Wallace once called "our tiny, skull-sized kingdoms." The work of art jerks us out of that fog back into the present moment where I stand being looked at by another, spoken to by another, reminded by what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians: "What do you have that you did not first receive?" The painting, when I happen upon it at a museum, exists at that moment for me. I am the intended audience for that work, and it speaks to me. What do I hear? That is the challenge and opportunity of art criticism and theology.

One of the things that compels me most about this lecture is that it seeks to understand (especially modern) art from the motivation of love, first and foremost. I don't hear that preeminent motivation in the way other Christians sometimes speak of modern art. Also contained in this talk is some very important reflection on the how the law and the gospel play out in life, particularly through art. 

The lecture begins at about 4:30 and ends at 46:00, after which begins a time of Q & A.


Gratuitous: We Worship as God Creates (Part 2)

Gratuitous beauty one Sunday at Coral RidgeIn the previous post, we explored the shocking gratuity of God’s beauty displayed in the earth.  We discussed how the Trinity’s lavish outpouring of excessive beauty should be reflected in our worship, because our worship reflects our God.  We now briefly turn to the pragmatics of how we as worshipers and worship leaders might see that gratuitous beauty come to life in our churches.

Toward a Way Forward

Here are some thoughts, off the top of my head, toward seeking more gratuitous beauty in our worship services.  (I’d love to hear yours!)

Have a keen sense of smell for the off odor of hyper-pragmatism.  (Notice that I said "hyper"; being practical isn't necessarily bad.)  Pragmatism doesn’t have to be the enemy of beauty, but in our history, it often has been (just think of educational budget cuts in schools and which departments first get hit).  When “what works best” is the prevailing mantra, just know that sometimes beauty gets suffocated.  Beauty, for everyone but God (Who is neither wanting nor wasting), often requires a bit of excess—excess money, excess raw materials, excess time, etc.  And excess is not a part of the pragmatist’s paradigm.  Excess feels very impractical.  We evangelicals have a long history of prioritized pragmatism (you hear it in the quip, “Win the lost at any cost.”).  We just need to have our antennae up for how pragmatism sneaks in to choke out beauty, and we need to be able to willingly and lovingly call it out.  (This is sometimes what is behind the tension between a worship pastor and a lead pastor.  Many worship pastors intuit or lean toward fighting for beauty, and sometimes lead pastors are wired with a heavy dose of pragmatic, bottom-line thinking.)

Cast a vision for a big budget.  Gratuity involves expense, especially the kind that seems inordinate.  I remember one of my college church music professors bemoaning the anemic worship/music budgets of many churches.  Sometimes that sounds like rich-guy talk…first world problems.  It’s more complex than that.  Whether you’re a big church or a small church, urban or rural, Western or majority world, you might try encouraging a budget which, as a percentage of the whole, seems a bit much.  But then, once you do that, you need to carefully steward such gratuity.  Gratuity should not be frivolous waste but lavish love.  Remember when Mary expended a whole pint of expensive perfume on Jesus' feet in one shot (John 12).  She “wasted” a big budget.  (I praise God that at Cherry Creek and Coral Ridge I’ve been alongside leaders and church bodies that get this!)

Begin to ask how you can beautify the elements of worship that already exist.  Sometimes, when we think about “arts and worship,” we pigeonhole our thought-patterns into adding “artistic elements” to our worship (you know, freestyle sculptors and interpretive dance and such).  But, what if we took inventory of what we already do and simply asked, In what ways can we make these things more beautiful?  How can I help beautify the music?  How can our prayers and Scripture readings be more beautiful?  How can we beautify our preaching? (Many don't think about the sermon as an opportunity for beauty, but oratory is just as much aesthetic as it is didactic.)

Beautify your worship space.  This might be one of the more obvious ones, but in recent years we’ve tipped the scales heavily in favor of pragmatic function over aesthetic impact, replacing cathedrals with warehouses. So it might be worth asking the question of how we can turn our drab, dated, overly-functional, or industrial-looking spaces into inspiring, beautiful ones.  (You can think about this whether you're a church with an established building or a community meeting in temporary spaces.)

If you're at a loss in the physical-space-and-beauty conversation, a great place to start for some building blocks is Bifrost's Arts' Liturgy, Music, Space Curriculum, available for free download here (see esp. pp. 38-47).

With ALL of the above, consult artists and artistically-minded people.  Don’t just commission an artist (or worse, ask for a donation) to paint some murals for your fellowship hall.  Don’t just bring them in to do a flash-mob sculpting of the bust of Jesus during your service.  Don’t just replace the sermon one Sunday with their Shakespearean recitation of the Gospel of John.  Engage their gifts and skills in the consultation and execution of addressing the big picture stuff, like budgets, worship elements, décor, and architecture.


I've only scratched the surface. What else would you add in the discussion of reflecting the Trinity's generosity of beauty in our worship?


Gratuitous: We Worship as God Creates (Part 1)

God's Gratuitous Beauty - courtesy of National GeographicTrinitarian Gratuity

I’ve been getting a lot of spiritual mileage off reflecting on the Trinity, and Michael Reeves’ little book, Delighting in the Trinity,* has been the source of a lot of it.  I’ll no doubt be jamming on several Trinity-related posts over the next few weeks and months.

Reeves discusses the Trinity’s fountain-like qualities—a relationship overflowing with so much love that it spills outward in perpetual giving.  Creation itself, he describes, is the manifestation of that overflowing love.  He goes further,

As it is, there is something gratuitous about creation, an unnecessary abundance of beauty, and through its blossoms and pleasures we can revel in the sheer largesse of the Father (p. 57).

That is so true.  In one sense, we could say that the entire scientific enterprise of discovering, analyzing, and cataloguing the world is an exploration of the seemingly endless--indeed gratuitous--beauty displayed in creation.  There’s something no doubt perverted or mal-formed about a scientist who doesn’t periodically sit back from his or her work and just say, “Wow!”  Anything gratuitous has that effect.  Gratuitous beauty especially has that effect.

Our Triune God is a God who has chosen to not only make His world incredibly functional, but exceedingly beautiful.  Many theologians have pointed out how the ongoing scientific discovery of the immensity of creation (e.g. organisms in the ocean's deep, celestial bodies in space previously beyond our sight, microscopic complexities at cellular and atomic levels) serves to corroborate God's passion for beauty...not just that He likes it, but He almost can't help Himself in over-filling the world with beautiful things.  Any attempt at surveying the beauties of the world would lead us to one conclusion: God is gratuitous when it comes to beauty.  We can't possibly take it all in, yet it is for His pleasure, His glory, His majesty, His delight.  

Our Worship Reflects Our Theology

Worship thinkers often talk about how our worship itself reflects the kind of God we serve—that the elements, structure, and experience of worship all “explain” Whom we understand God to be.  So here’s the question for us: How does our corporate worship display that God is a Trinity Who revels in pouring out gratuitous beauty?  If confession reflects God's holiness, if songs of praise reflect God's joy, if prayers of thanksgiving reflect God's bounteous provision, then what about our worship reflects God's passion for an overabundance of beauty?

If you’re a Protestant like me, something in our DNA starts sending freak-out alerts to our brain.  We’ve spilt Reformational blood trying to get away from the “excesses” of our brother and sister Roman Catholics, and in the process some of our revolutionary grandparents swung that beauty-pendulum about as far away from the gratuitous-pole as possible.

SIDENOTE: The interesting thing about the modern worship movement (which has remarkably transcended some of these old wars) is that they’re experimenting in new forms of gratuitous beauty that don’t look much like the smells and bells of yesteryear and therefore evade some of our historical baggage.  I think back to the 2012 National Worship Leader Conference.  In one of the worship services, the sanctuary was absolutely taken over (every square inch of wall) by projected names of God alongside complementary backdrops.  The cultural critic in me wanted to cry “overstimulation,” but the aesthetician in me (and perhaps the best part of me that "hopes all things") exclaims, “Gratuitous beauty!”

SIDENOTE 2: I am so grateful for the renaissance of Christian reflection in and around the arts, coming out of places like Bifrost Arts, CIVA, Cultivare, and IAM and from institutions like Duke Divinity School, Gordon College, Union University, Belmont University, Fuller Seminary, Biola University, King's College (NYC), and people like Makoto Fujimura, David Taylor, Isaac Wardell, Jeremy Begbie, and my colleague, Dan Siedell.  Something about this resurgence is awakening our aesthetic palettes to crave beauty, such that I think, in our worship services, we’ll be seeing more experiments in gratuity over the next few decades.  Perhaps the old wars have been fought and run their course, and new generations are no longer holding the same grudges, such that we can healthily move forward.

In the next post, we'll explore just a few ideas about engaging lavish, gratuitous beauty in worship.


*Michael Reeves, Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Downers Grove, IVP: 2012).

Connecting Old and New: Denver Artist Jake Weidmann

Denver’s local 5280 Magazine recently highlighted one of the most exciting new artists I’ve seen in recent years.  Jake Weidmann is no bohemian, though.  He’s a deep thinker, distilling through his art concentrated amounts of psychological and anthropological insight all through a theological grid.  Hearing him talk about his art up close and personal is inspiring and moving.  Fellowship Denver’s Worship Arts Director, Adam Anglin (check out his new album with Edbrooke Collective), and I recently got to visit Jake in his studio, and what you see in this post are some of the shots taken from that visit.  (By the way, if you want closeups of any of the art featured here, Jake has it all on his site.)

The "final exam" of a Master Penman is to execute one's own certificate. This is Jake's. He also carved the frame.Jake is perhaps best known as one of the eleven Master Penmen in the world, being skilled and certified in the painstaking, nearly athletic craft of multi-formed calligraphy (e.g. script, off-hand flourishing, illumination, and black letter).  He uses this skill to create a lot of mixed media pieces that are deep, evocative, and loaded with meaning. 

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Introducing Edbrooke Collective and Their Debut Album, Rewritten

I began praying several years ago, as I became more and more aware that God was raising up like-minded musicians and worship leaders across the country, that He'd stir up gospel-centered, theologically-minded, historically-aware, tradition-embracing artists in Denver.  Whether it's God's direct answer to those prayers, or whether it's the law of averages (actually my understanding of God's providence doesn't allow for "laws of averages"!), I'm watching our sleepy mountainous city wake up.  And I'm finding many not-so-strange bedfellows crop up, particularly in the Acts 29 network of churches and church plants.

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