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
The relationship between art & worship goes far back in history, almost to the beginning of the Church itself.
Only a few centuries after the Early Church began, art became one of the most prominent yet controversial contributions to the Liturgy.
By the 6th Century AD, paintings, mosaics & icons of saints adorned places of worship – creating a visually immersive experience for prayer & meditation. These sacred images were venerated & adored as they served as holy gateways to a greater Reality. They represented far more than the images themselves.
In a way, visuals were the main creative vehicle for leading worship – long before church music became a thing.
But the Church would see violence & bloodshed erupt over the use of these sacred images. One of the first major divisions in the Church was over the use of art in worship. Many considered visual depictions of Christ, His Mother & the Saints to be a form of heresy. It would take years for violent debating & fighting to come to an end, which resulted in the overall approval & acceptance of visual art in worship.
At the same time the Eastern European Church was tearing itself apart, a new form of religious art was being birthed in the West on the island of Ireland. While many Celtic Monks devoted themselves to being scribes – a way of creating & preserving the written text of Scripture – a handful of young, creative monks began adorning Gospel Books with intricate designs & symbols, known as “illuminations.” These illuminations weren’t mere illustrations of the text – their goal was not to literally depict actions or characters. But rather, these detailed images would contain deep yet hidden meaning that would shed light on the sacred text unlike anything else. But it required patience, training & stillness for one to hear what the images were speaking.
Fast-forward a few centuries, and the main expression for religious art was in the building of massive Cathedrals. Though many were built in order for tyrannical kings to intimidate their enemies with fear & religion, these super-sized sacred spaces became home to some of the world’s greatest art & architecture.
Ian Cron describes this in his book Chasing Francis:
“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 come in those doors. Stained-glass windows, frescoes and paintings, dimmed lights, flickering candles, the smell of incense, vaults and arches pulling your spirit upward, angels soaring on the ceilings. God sneaks up on you through the architecture.
Augustine said the human mind was particularly delighted when truth was presented to it indirectly, like in symbols and sacred space.
But many in the Church would not continue this creative tradition.
During the Protestant Reformation, well-meaning Reformers like Luther & Calvin took on a less than positive view of visual art, rendering it useless in the Liturgy & shoved to the margins of society. Then came along a Reformer named Zwingli, who marched soldiers into the Cathedrals & ordered that all the art be torn down & destroyed. Stained glass windows that once contained the Story of God were shattered. Sculptures of saints were smashed into pieces. Painting & Icons were ripped down off the walls & burned in the courtyard.
Some Puritan pastors would even board up their now-stainless windows to keep worshipers from being distracted from what they said was important – the Word of God.
I find it interesting that at the same time, an interesting shift in sacramental theology took place. The Eucharist was downgraded to merely a symbol, rather than it being the transformed Body & Presence of Christ. It seems that for the most part, mystery was excommunicated from the Church.
And that’s when Western Christianity made the shift. It went from being a poetic, image-rich experience that was designed to delight the imagination – & it turned into a white-washed, purely didactic religion that fed black & white information to the mind.
The Church had lost its color.
And the Protestant half of the Church would remain that way for centuries.
But with the Advent of Modern Technology came new possibilities. And with the popularity of modern church music came a desire to make worship services more exciting, creative & attractive using concert production methods.
It first started with PowerPoint & the ability to add background images to projected lyrics. Sometimes backgrounds would be swirling motion effects put there by the tech intern, & sometimes the church secretary, heart full of gold, would pick backgrounds that would be sentimental photos of a person with outstretched arms towards a sunset or waterfall.
And then pastors figured out they could play clips from movies like Braveheart to illustrated their sermons on leadership & strength. This quote “relevant” way of doing ministry had a direct impact on church attendance, and with increased attendance came an increased budget. This allowed fast-growing churches to up their production value. Intelligent lighting & Broadway-worthy stage design began to adorn modern-day altars, & tools like Environmental Projection allowed churches to wrap the entire sanctuary in augmented imagery - transforming their blank & barren spaces into digital cathedrals.
But in all of this technological advancement, there is still something missing from this equation:
In her book “Liturgical Art for a Media Culture”, Eileen Crowley writes this:
Typically, the introduction of new media into worship over the last century has been for the sake of better communications, evangelism, or increased congregational participation, not for the creation of liturgical art.”
So, where is all of this leading? It seems fine & innocent in the beginning.
But if using entertainment for the sake of chasing relevance is the main goal, then what kind of worshipers does that produce?
As Ian Cron continues to say in Chasing Francis:
“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.'”
And that’s where many churches find themselves today.
But there are a few who are exploring how we can use all this modern technology to create liturgical art once again.
Many artists are seeking to illuminate rather than entertain. To write icons that guide our prayers rather than magnify the image of celebrities on screens.
I don’t think we need to get rid of all the production, I just think we need to learn how to use it better. And to deepen our reasons for WHY we’re using technology in the first place.
I think some of those answers may lie in the past.
~ Stephen Proctor