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17 October 2022

What is the place of art in our Christian imagination? How does art inform our theology and enrich our worship? Can artistic expressions aid and shape our spiritual formation and lead us to a fuller understanding of scripture and God?

Art forms like music and poetry already dominate our worship in liturgies, hymns, and songs. How about paintings, sculptures, dance, and drama? As the church today meets in modern halls and digital spaces, how do lighting, transition, visual, and other forms of digital aesthetics shape our spirituality? How does our theology determine the use of digital and other forms of aesthetics?

Although theological aesthetics is not a new conversation, it is one that has not been adequately aired in our Singaporean church context. We need to locate a place intentionally and faithfully for art in our worship, formation, and theology. Art that is tethered and subject to scripture and the Gospel offers an important contribution to Christian imagination and theology because art can express dimensions of the invisible and transcendent when words fail us.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century bequeathed a legacy of caution and suspicion toward the arts in the religious life of the church that continues to linger in the present. The Reformation challenged the pervasive and idolatrous use of religious objects and art within the Roman Catholic church at that time. A period of destruction of religious art and objects ensued, followed by a great reduction in the production of religious art in general, and the use of, or engagement with, art in churches and in worship.

Protestant hostility was directed especially toward publicly displayed painting, sculptures, and grand artwork within churches. There was a deep suspicion of art that honoured or venerated clergymen and personalities. Subsequent Protestant art retained humble renderings of biblical scenes and everyday life. However, there was a significant retreat from grand depictions of Christ, Mary the mother of Jesus, major biblical scenes, Catholic saints, clergymen, and artistic engagement with spiritual and theological themes.

The Protestant hostility towards, suspicion of, and retreat from art was not uniform across the denominations. Protestants have in many limited ways continued to engage the arts even in public spirituality. This movement has been gathering pace in the past few decades as we have seen the introduction of different genres of song writing, additional types of musical instruments, the use of dance, flags, and drama in church services, and even live painting accompanying the preaching of sermons.

Biblically, a place for art in our Christian imagination and theology should not come as a surprise. After all, the Bible is full of poetry and describes the artistic nature of our Creator. Scripture speaks positively of artistic expression as a divine gift and mode for worship.

Genesis describes God’s artistic design in creation—the colours with which he paints, the textures he imbues landscapes with, the dramatic transitions between planets and space, and the deliberate design in which God sculpts every living thing. God breathes life into humankind and animates our theatre of life. God renders life with both grand dimensions and the fine artistry which is “the work of [his] fingers” (Psalm 8:4).

Isaiah 64 speaks of God as a clay artist and Jeremiah 18 describes God using a potter at work as an object lesson to visualize and dramatize the prophetic message Jeremiah was to convey. Art is also a divine gift to God’s people for their enjoyment and for the praise and worship of God. Exodus 31 records how God fills Bezalel with the Spirit of God and gifts him with artistic ability for craftsmanship with metal, stone, and wood. Bezalel and other workers are divinely enabled to craft the tabernacle, ark, and furnishings for the tent.

Immediately after these instructions for Bezalel, Exodus 32 relates the making of the golden calf and presents a warning of how art and craftsmanship can also be used in an idolatrous fashion. Yet, our gifts, including artistic expression, are meant to be used (Romans 12:6-8) and part of our living sacrifice of worship, and also to serve others (1 Peter 4:10). Two theological voices aid our concern for a faithful engagement with art in Christian worship, formation, and theology.

William Dyrness is a Protestant professor of theology and culture. Cecilia González-Andrieu is a Roman Catholic scholar of theological aesthetics. Together, they offer complementary bases for a recovery from the aesthetic retreat triggered by the Reformation.

In Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life, William Dyrness offers a Protestant vision of theological aesthetics which he calls poetic theology. Dyrness alerts us to what matters to people and our shared “human longing for a good (even beautiful) life” which he calls the “poetics of everyday life.” Such poetics of life include poems, paintings, and also symbolic objects and practices that represent and reflect the orienting desires and dreams of people, as well as the way people make sense or meaning in and through their senses, forms, and experiences.

Dyrness points to the “movement of the soul” in people that can aid their discernment of the divine. Aesthetic experiences and symbolic art are “spiritual sites” where our human longing can meet the present and active God of creation. Therefore, authentic faith requires both cognitive understanding and retains a role for feelings and emotions. Dyrness assuages our fear of a false imagination with the remedy of reliance on scripture, prayer, and scholarship even as the church explores new imagination and theology through the poetry of art.

Resonating with Dyrness’ poetics of life, Cecilia González-Andrieu depicts art as “an effective container of a community’s sense of God, of its theology” in Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty. Therefore, we must awake to the religious in art in its various forms, including architecture, paintings, plays, worship spaces, and also the “artfulness of all life.” Religious art functions as a revelatory symbol to provide a bridge to asombro or wonder, experiences of radical ambiguity, and prophetic wonder. Art functions as a carrier of religious tradition, a source of theology and as a bridge to the glory of God.

Such a bridge requires attentiveness to not just the art itself, but also the people involved – the artists and the communities behind and before the art, who contributed to the art or who are recipients, users, and interpreters of the art. A dialogical exchange between art and theology both helps and requires us to pay attention to, and deepen relationships, in human community. This communal interpretive engagement with art points to the “shimmering glow of the presence of God” and reveals both the Gospel and God.

Dyrness and González-Andrieu offer a way to regain Christian engagement with art that is prophetic and anchored on scripture. We can engage in a dialogue between aesthetics and Christian worship, formation, and theology and remain firmly tethered to scripture. We do so with the mutual accountability that communal discernment and interpretation of art and theology afford, and which inoculates us from the danger of idolatry and falsehood.

Christians and churches need not view art as a threat to devotion but a resource for faithful discernment. Art also offers a new language and vistas for worship to express the beauty of divine creation and revelation, and our response of awe. Art is not a replacement for theological precision but a conversational partner that enriches our understanding as an additional layer of perception—like the music that accompanies a hymn. Poetics or art in various symbolic forms can serve as sensorial reminders or even sacramental bridges to rouse people to the transcendence of God and awaken us to the immanent presence of Christ.

Rev Rev Dr Bernard Chao is Lecturer in Practical Theology, and Director of EQUIP, a lay training initiative, at Trinity Theological College. A former litigation lawyer, Bernard is an ordained elder of The Methodist Church in Singapore (Trinity Annual Conference).