Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Blight of the Arts... according to Luther

As Luther stated in the preface to the 1524 Wittenberg Hymnal, he was “not of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim.”

That is what Luther said.  That is not what Lutherans have done.  Whereas Luther would “like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave and made them,” Lutherans have had a history of being cheap with and dismissive of the arts.  Yet wherever Lutheran renewal takes place, there is a rediscovery of the arts in service to the Word and as a means of proclamation of the Gospel.  It is encouraging to me, then, to see a renewed sense of appreciation for the place of beauty and the arts in worship -- our utmost for His highest, so to speak.  Yet it is not without resistance.

There are some who harken to the days of little boxes or the experimental shapes of the 1960s and 1970s in which forms were somewhat plain, if not stark, to match the plain, simple, if not stark, liturgical function that these buildings housed.  Textiles were appreciated for their texture more than their symbolism.  Paint was utilitarian and not ornamental.  Shapes were blunt and the edges hard.  Supporting structures were exposed and often became the only ornamentation in the entire building.  Altars became as plain as the folding card tables of the 1950s.  Pulpits were lowered and crosses made smaller in scale so that they seemed to disappear into the walls behind them.  The focus was definitely upon the people, the most important ornamentation of the building (at least for some).

Such plainness is a pseudo-piety as much as those who worship the art without looking at the Gospel it speaks -- confusing an aesthetic purpose with the goal of knowing Christ and Him crucified.  Today the ornamentation is likely to be more a reflection of our love affair with technology than it is with art and beauty.  It is the grand attempt to manipulate the attention of the people in the pews (or theater seats) and keep everyone on message.  PowerPoint has become the new means of grace and the power of the visual image is seem less in how it speaks the Word and more in how it impacts the people.  My family loves to parody the commercials for abused and stray animals and the mournful tones Sarah McLaughlin singing on the arms of an angel...  Sadly, much of what we do with technology in the church has about the same purpose -- to loosen up the emotions of the folks watching so that they react more, appreciate more, and give more.  That is pretty pathetic for the Church of Bach.

As we have come through Lent, Passiontide, Holy Week, and Easter, my thoughts go back to the Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach.  As much as I long for the ones lost, I am supremely grateful for the ones we have.  Here is art in service to the Gospel in depth, in beauty, in gift, and in skill.  Sadly, the Lutheran Church that produced such a talented composer and gifted performer has all but lost the sense of beauty in service to the Gospel that his work epitomizes.  We cannot play his music on the electronic boom boxes we call organs.  We cannot sing his music because our choirs are in love with Twila Paris and think she is the end all.  We cannot hear how his music sounds because we do not foster individual players (when was the last time other than a high and holy day your Lutheran Church had strings or woodwinds or brass?).

No, we look at what works... and what works cheap.  When we put up our buildings, when we staff them, and when we put together Sunday morning.  When we get to heaven I am not sure that God will laud how much we saved in His worship.  The devotion of the woman who "wasted" expensive ointment on the Lord will be lauded for all eternity but our cheapness before the Lord in art and beauty will last only for a moment.  And for those who say that this money could have been used for the poor (who said that in Scripture???), I counter that it seldom is...


Unknown said...

I could always tell which was the Lutheran church in any town I visited. It was always the smallest (in height), the least ornamented (the altar may have had a cloth on it), no crucifixes, maybe a cross, some stained glass, but with more colors rather which did not carry any theological point, walls of brick with maybe one or two schlocky banners hanging from them.

If the church is the physical realization of the Kingdom while we yet sojourn here on earth, why do Lutherans insist on keeping it earthly rather than heavenly? Lutheran architecture of the last 85 years is abysmal. Lutheran art? What Lutheran art? Lutheran music? The best was in the Baroque. Today's stuff is crap.

The senses and the faith cannot and should not be divorced from one another and yet that is exactly what has happened. I don't want to worship in a warehouse. I want a place which uplifts not only the soul, but also the body. Does the body also not play a part in repentance and worship? Until Lutherans get over their quasignosticism, the diminishing of art for the glory of God will continue unabated.

Janis Williams said...

"Does the body also not play a part in repentance and worship?"

Exactly. Our age of "Christian" neo-gnosticism eschews beauty. Beauty is visceral, and sensual. It is not fit for a building concentrating on worship, a thing not tangible (their opinion).

I find it hard to believe, unknown, that Lutheran churches beat out Baptists in your experience. Of course, not every town in America has a Baptist church building - uh, box - on every corner.

It seems few people view or hear enough real art to appreciate it's message. Unless it is blatantly Christian (has crosses, Bibles, saints, spiritual words, etc.), the artist is considered secular. No depiction of Christ or Bible events? Not fit for a church building.

At the risk of shooting at sacred cows: Christian publishing houses don't help. The literature coming out of them is illustrated not half so well as a comic book. Subjects are trite, poorly executed, and frequently mis-focused. We feed our children cartoon Jesus, Precious Moments (do they scare you, too?), CCM, and they play with plastic "swords of the Spirit." Is it any wonder there is a paucity of good Art?