illuminate.us
by stephen proctor
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HISTORY

HISTORY

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.

~ Ecclesiastes 1:9

Written & Narrated by Stephen Proctor | Music & Sound Design by Michael Gungor | As featured on the The Liturgists Podcast, ep38 "Religious Art"

 
 

ORIGINS

Letting the past inform the future.


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ICONOGRAPHY

WINDOWS into HEAVEN

The earliest form of “visual worship” was iconography. This art-form came about just one generation after the original Disciples. Icons were images created to aid in prayer & meditation. 

These ornate images weren’t meant to simply depict the physical features of Biblical characters but rather represent the spirit & story of each character through intentional artistic features. In other words, icons aren’t trying to show you what that person or event may have literally looked like, but rather represent its character & spiritual qualities. If Scripture was the Gospel in words, then Icons were the Gospel in images.

Icons were “written” to guide the viewer into a deeper reality. Just like the icons on our phones & computers, when we engage them, they open a window into a larger world that is represented by the icon. 

“An icon is usually thought of as a painting of a saint or a biblical event. Seeing more broadly, an icon is a window into Heaven. It’s an earthly representation of a Divine Reality.”  ~ Thomas McKenzie, “The Anglican Way” 

Ask the Spirit to give you dreams & visions of what it might look like to create windows into Heaven in your church.

{ Recommended Reading } The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ

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ICONOCLASM

WHEN ICONS become IDOLS

In the Early Church, visual worship was much more common than musical worship.  Icons became one of the main tools for “leading worship” – much more prominent than singing, which hardly existed back then (unless you count chanting).  Yet the use of icons became one of the Church’s first great controversies, known as Iconoclasm. 

Though icons were known to facilitate mystical encounters with God, they themselves became objects of devotion & worship. People began adoring & worshiping the images themselves instead of the One to whom the images were designed to point. 

When art’s place in worship is misunderstood & abused, icons turn into idols. 

But instead of re-educating worshipers about how to properly engage imagery in worship, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater; sacred images were simply destroyed & cast out – & not without great conflict & bloodshed. Though the Church would eventually recognize the proper role of imagery in worship, it would take years for this great controversy to fade away.

Today, many Christians (especially evangelicals) are surrounded by images of Jesus: The Bible Storybook, The Passion of the Christ film, Son of God, etc. There is a casual, market-generated acceptance of images of Jesus. But it is neither a principled-embrace of Iconography (“Iconophilia” – a love of images) nor is it a calculated refusal of imagery (Iconoclasm). Evangelicals seem to have more of what art history professor Matthew Milliner calls “Iconapathea” – a casual in-between. This causes a “meh” attitude, which creates a mindset that allows for bad art that values sentimentality over sacredness, creative laziness over discipline, and white-washed colonial aesthetics over realistic authenticity.

Are there any icons in your church that have turned into idols?

{ Recommended Viewing } Seeing Icons with Protestant Eyes by Matthew Milliner

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ILLUMINATIONS

TURNING DARKNESS into LIGHT

While Icons were being destroyed in the East, a unique form of liturgical art was emerging in the distant land of Ireland. 

Long before the printing press was invented, Irish monks dedicated their lives to hand-copying the Holy Scriptures. Alongside the scribes, young artist-monks known as “illuminators” adorned the sacred text with intricate & ornate decorations known as “illuminations.”

Similar to Iconography, illuminations are very different than illustrations. Illustrations are designed to be easily understood at first glance; they are much more literal in nature. But illuminations are much more abstract & intricate, rich with symbolic theological meaning hidden like buried treasure just waiting to be discovered.

The most famous of Celtic illuminations can be found in the Book of Kells (9th Century AD) – four Gospels immersed in intricate beauty & whimsical imagery. They called it the book that turned darkness into light!

A few modern-day artists have resurrected the ancient art of illumination. (see Makoto Fujimura’s “Four Holy Gospels” & the Saint John’s Bible) In fact, it is in the spirit of Celtic illumination that this website is named!

In what ways are you seeking to “illuminate” your church’s sacred space?

{ Recommended Viewing } The Secret of Kells

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CATHEDRALS

STORIES in STAINED GLASS

“Medievals built huge, ornate churches so that people walking into them would feel like they’d left one world and entered another reality – the kingdom of God. Think of what happens to your senses when you walk into a cathedral:  stained-glass windows, frescoes & paintings, dimmed lights, flickering candles, the smell of incense, vaults & arches pulling your spirit upward, angels soaring on the ceilings. God sneaks up on you through the architecture.

St. Augustine said the human mind was particularly delighted when Truth was presented to it indirectly, like in symbols & sacred space. Unfortunately, most churches today are designed without any sense of the iconic because moderns like straightforward, unambiguous communication. We want ‘worship centers’ where hominess is more important than holiness.

It seems that most church architecture today focuses on the utilitarian more than anything else. We want our architects to load us up with all the technological goodies that you’d find in a world-class performing arts center. But what we’ve ended up asking for is ‘Lights, Camera, Action!’ rather than ‘Father, Son & Holy Ghost.’”

~ Ian Morgan Cron, “Chasing Francis” 

In what ways does your worship space visually speak “Lights, Camera, Action” over “Father, Son, & Holy Spirit”?

{ Recommended Listening } “The Witness of Stones” by The History of the Christian Church podcast

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THE RENAISSANCE

ART RISING

Around the year 1400, a creative awakening began to emerge in Italy. Along with philosophy, literature, music & science, there was a revolution in the world of art.  New techniques & artistic sensibilities were explored by many artists, including two notable men named Leonardo da Vinci & Michelangelo. 

Much of this creative expression was harnessed by the Church, as various leaders & Popes commissioned artists to decorate the walls of cathedrals with fresco cycles & painting depicting Biblical scenes. The most famous of these was “The Last Supper” by da Vinci & the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. These set the benchmarks for religious artistry & became supreme masterpieces that are still revered today. 

Along with stained glass, these works of art immersed illiterate worshipers in the Story of God, leading them to be caught up in awe & wonder, despite the fact that they could not read the Bible on their own. As with previous forms of liturgical art, the goal was to let the images do something with you before you try to do something with the images. Good art has the power to transform the soul in ways the intellect cannot. As Richard Rohr says, “good images have the power to evoke an epiphany in you & to transform you at deeper levels.” 

But not everyone was a fan of this. 

Who are some emerging artists rising up in your own community? What are some ways you can both encourage them & commission them to create beauty? (Pro Tip: it’s always more interesting when a church is FOR artists rather than coercing artists to be FOR a church. There’s a difference.)

{ Recommended Listening } Refractions: a journey of faith, art & culture by Makoto Fujimura

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THE REFORMATION

A RETURN to ICONOCLASM

This Iconoclastic sentiment re-emerged with the Protestant Reformers. None of the major Reformers were too keen on icons or paintings depicting Jesus, the saints, or Biblical imagery – and in my opinion, this was one of the tragedies of the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther did not really appreciate icons or elaborate works of art, but he believed that if people understood God’s grace, they would eventually stop painting. 

“For where the heart is instructed that one pleases God alone through faith, and that in the matter of images nothing that is pleasing to Him takes place, but is a fruitless service and effort, the people themselves will willingly drop it, despise images, and have none made.” 

“It is true that they are dangerous, and I wish there were none of them on the altars. But we cannot prove it right to mutilate & burn them instead of tolerating them.” 

John Calvin didn’t mind works of art, but he said that they must not portray God in any way, and they certainly shouldn’t be used in worship. Instead, people could paint nature scenes for secular purposes (think Thomas Kinkade). Also, Calvin argued that the only hymns that should be sung in church should be taken directly from the Psalms, therefore squelching lyrical or poetic creativity as well. 

Ulrich Zwingli was a third Reformer from Switzerland who took a radically different & much more fundamentalist direction. He actually went into church buildings and had all of the artwork destroyed, opting instead for plain and simple church structures. Many of the church buildings didn’t even have windows because Zwingli didn’t want anyone to be distracted during sermons by looking at the world outside. 

Zwingli is also the main Reformer who introduced the theology that says the Eucharist (Communion) is merely a symbolic memorial meal & that there is no sort of “transformation” (whether metaphysical or mystical) with the Bread & the Wine. Perhaps there is a link between Beauty & Sacramentality to be explored and questioned here.

Most churches today do not hold the same views as their forefathers, but because of these traditions, many churches still have a very awkward relationship with art. In many churches, artwork will be celebrated as long as it fits into nice neat categories; beauty belongs but only in the background. We do not hold the same extreme positions perhaps as the Reformers, but we do not really know what to do with art. So, we have a dualism. Art serves primarily a utilitarian purpose. 

Churches love graphic artists for their web design and worship leaders who can write powerful but simple worship songs, but they are often disinterested in what the artist does outside of these specific purposes. 

If you’ve ever wondered why the Church used to be the center of culture & creativity but isn’t anymore, then look no further than Zwingli & his ilk.

{ Recommended Listening } this podcast episode with pastor Preston Sharpe

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MODERN WORSHIP

THE LITURGY of the ROCK CONCERT

In the last two decades, live production technology has progressed like we’ve never imagined. And it’s found a home in many of our churches.

Despite the fact that most art & imagery was excommunicated from the Protestant church, many evangelical & charismatic Christians have become fascinated (& at times, slightly obsessed) with the use of technology in worship, particularly in the area of projection & concert lighting.

Many ecclesial communities have been using projection & visual media for a myriad of reasons, mainly to bring a fresh sense of attraction & excitement to worship services, in hopes of making themselves more “relevant” to newcomers.

It’s all been fun to be a part of, but after a dozen years, my soul has become weary. My eyes are tired. The noise has just become too much.

And while I still believe there are times for raucous celebration, I believe we have lost the practice of reverent reflection. We have very little sense of “sacred space.” Very rarely do I find a worship environment that slows you down & stirs up a prophetic imagination.

The art of sacred space isn’t just about creating a nice aesthetic…although that is always nice. (like all those wood palettes & Edison bulbs we see everywhere.) It’s also about telling a Story.

… a “visual liturgy” if you will.

We have a verbal liturgy for our ears, but what about a visual liturgy for our eyes?

If our bodies are sacramental, then how are we forming ourselves through what we see? And if we are feeding the eyes of our community, shouldn’t we serve more than eye candy as the main course?

Unfortunately, modern worship has borrowed the liturgy of the rock concert, which forms worshipers into fans & critics.

“When the worship leader and the Object of our worship occupy the same visual space, the worshipper is easily confused — consciously or subconsciously — about Who the Center truly is.” ~ Glenn Packiam, “What Does the Visual Layout of Our Worship Service Say?”

By default, the posture of entertainment encourages consumerism over consecration. In a sense, we never got away from the use of icons & images; we just substituted the art for celebrity & personality.

As Lisa Gungor wrote in her song “Shiny Buildings”,

“Art and architecture purposed all to point Something Else… slowly turning into stages where we’re pointing to ourselves.”

We’ve traded the Meal for the microphone. We’ve lost the sacrament & gained the stage. And we’ve packaged this new entertainment liturgy & sold it at conferences & in exhibit halls. No wonder our houses of worship feel more like a showroom instead of a sanctuary.

The environment we meet in WILL, over time, shape the way we worship. What we see will affect how we pray.                                              

Or as I like to say “Lex Videndi, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi” – seeing shapes believing.

“We shape our environment, then our environment shapes us.” ~ Frank Lloyd Wright

Pastor/Priest Glenn Packiam puts it this way: 

“Our visuals need to line up with our verbals.”

We all desperately need a stronger, healthier visual liturgy… from our media to stage design to lighting to the entire posture of the room. We need to embrace a Christ-centered visual language of beauty & space.

We’ve seen this practiced historically through the building of cathedrals, but hardly anyone is doing that these days… especially not in the evangelical world.

Now I don’t think every church needs to go build a big ornate cathedral. But how can we reclaim a sense of sacred space where we gather weekly? How are we sharing that sacred space with our entire community & allowing it to shape our city’s imagination? How can we use technology & creativity in subtle yet immersive ways that bring back a sense of awe & wonder like the cathedrals of old?

“A building together with its furnishings and arrangement of space is a physical expression of a particular congregation’s attitude toward worship” ~ Robert Webber

At one of my former churches, we had a saying: “Creativity must be the subtle amplification of our worship.” Subtlety is key. Immersive environments should slow you down & stir your imagination, not create more noise & frenetic feelings.

It’s also important to note that when I’m talking about a new visual liturgy, I am not talking about STYLE.

What I’m talking about is POSTURE & FORM. Rock is the style, & the concert is the form.  This is what needs to change… not necessarily the style. Although, I would argue that not all styles are conducive for certain postures & practices of worship. But that’s another conversation. ;-)

Another way of thinking about this is having dinner with your family. It doesn’t really matter what food you are eating (unless it’s constant junk food), but it does matter whether you gather around the table or the TV. Or think about when you are all in the same room but everyone is on their iPhone. Practice this posture consistently over time, & we become “alone together.” Form matters, people.

Michael Rudzena from Trinity Grace Church in Tribeca NYC shared a comment by one of his parishioners: 

“The service felt sacred. It drew me in. It didn’t feel like a rock concert or a pep rally. It made me quiet my soul and then allowed me to engage the presence of God.”

This is my hope when curating sacred spaces… with or without projection.

There’s nothing wrong with large productions, only how you use it in certain contexts. But from what I’ve seen in the past few years (and I have seen a LOT), the popular way production is used is not the healthiest. We need to recalibrate the layout our worship services from the stage back to the Table.

Please, don’t take this as church bashing. I love the Bride of Christ! I am for Her. She is a messy garden of resurrection & redemption. But even gardens need to have the weeds pulled out. So if anything, take this critique of performance-driven worship as weed-pulling. It’s a messy, dirty, holy business. I also realize that I am not talking to every single church out there. But one thing I’ve learned in the industry is that what is new & popular with the early adopters today will be mainstream for the rest tomorrow.

I also have hope. I have also seen a lot of things that give me a sense that things are headed back in the right direction.

Like the illuminators & stained glass artists of old, there is a generation of technical artists, prophets, & priests that is rising up to recover the ancient practice of sacred space. … to bring back a visual theology for our eyes… to illuminate our blank & barren worship centers … to recalibrate the big productions so that they shine a light on the beauty of the Word & Sacraments.

…and by doing so in a way that keeps Christ, not our creativity, the center of our visual worship.

And that’s what this illuminate.us is all about. Helping pilgrims sort through the weeds. Guiding artists who are still in the Church & haven’t given up on Her. And showing churches that you can still use technology without it turning into a “show”. There is another way.

Read more about “Visual Liturgy” here.