LEX VIDENDI, LEX ORANDI, LEX CREDENDI, LEX VIVENDI
Over the past few years, I’ve been taking inventory of my faith & re-examining what it means for me to worship in creative ways. One of the buried treasures I’ve discovered is the gift of the liturgy. And by “liturgy”, I mean the historic order of service that has been handed down throughout the ages. Think of it as the Sacred Setlist.
A typical Liturgy will contain ritualistic elements such as creeds, confession & communion, as well as congregation-led readings of scripture & prayers. It’s much more than a setlist of songs & a sermon; it’s all intentionally structured to take worshipers on a journey that ultimately leads to the Table.
I would even submit to you that liturgy is much more than the words we speak or the songs we sing. Liturgy is also visual; it’s about what our eyes see & how our environments form us & makes us more like Christ.
It’s been healthy for me to remember what my good friend Glenn Packiam says:
“Liturgy isn’t the point. Jesus is the point. Good liturgy reminds us of that.”
Whether or not your church’s worship space & style is “high” or “low”, there is something everyone can learn from the Great Tradition.
We have liturgy for our ears, but what about liturgy for our eyes?
In the same way repeated words, creeds & songs form our faith, imagery has the great potential to shape our imagination & open our eyes to the world around us. Art can be deeply formational; Beauty can lead to transformation.
The images we see over & over again make an impression on us. Over time, they change how we believe & see the world. They can even affect the way we behave... for the good & for the bad. Remember, if liturgy is either true or false, so can the visual liturgies of our lives.
We see this practiced in all kinds of places, from church to the marketplace to the inside of our homes, even on the phones we carry in our pockets. Imagery is constantly informing our worldview & shaping our lives. Here are a few examples.
A few years ago, in the Sundays leading up to the Fourth of July, I saw a very large & prominent church have multiple weekends of patriotic worship services where the lighting colors were red, white & blue and where the congregation was given American flags to wave during the music. There were full-on pyrotechnics ablaze on stage, & they even utilized “environmental projection” to display the emblems of various military branches above the choir. The next week, the stage backdrop was a massive American flag while the orchestra & choir belted out a new anthem titled “Make America Great Again!” (which was made available on CCLI for those churches wanting to recreate this particular expression of worship. cool cool cool.)
Patriotic Sundays are no stranger to the American Christian. Honoring & remembering those in military service is a common practice around national holidays. But this was next level. When I saw this unfold online, I thought to myself, “This is the perfect example of visual liturgy.” There are colors, symbols, banners & flags, fire, & icons - immersing an entire space - driven by a liturgy that follows a calendar with its own “holy days.” Except this isn’t the visual liturgy of the Kingdom, it’s the visual liturgy of the Empire. And its religion is Christian Nationalism.
Here’s another example. James K.A. Smith has written a lot about cultural liturgies & the spaces that occupy our communities. One of his greatest examples is the shopping mall, the Cathedral of Consumerism. There’s a great hall with high ceilings & windows filled with “icons”. There are stations you can visit to learn about new products that can enhance your life. Both sides of this cathedral have a long line of visually immersive chapels dedicated to certain brand-saints that stir up certain longings & desires. And at the end, you are met by a “priest” standing behind an “altar”, ready to receive your offering & to give you the elements you desire. Even in the Cathedral of Consumerism, the liturgy ultimately leads us to a table. But this is a table of transaction, not transformation.
There are so many more examples of visual liturgies that shape us. Repetitively looking at pornography subconsciously shapes our relationships, our view on intimacy, & can even transform us into sexual addicts. Looking at social media feeds over & over is dulling our minds & literally making us dumber, & it’s shaping people into influence-thirsty narcissists filled with fear, insecurity, & anxiety. It’s even shaping how we vote & elect our leaders.
Eyes are the window to the soul. We choose what light we want to let in. Are we letting in true light, or artificial light? Even with the best intentions, are we simply creating light pollution?
My way of seeing people & different cultures used to be so narrow, & then I began to travel. My eyes were opened to all kinds of experiences & theological frameworks. I began to fear less & hope more. I developed a love for diversity & multi-ethnic expressions. The faces I saw & the aesthetics I was exposed to began to change the way I saw the world... even how I viewed the Kingdom of God.
For me, travel has become a form of visual liturgy. Not only am I seeing the vast beauty of creation, but I’m introduced to the face of Christ through the poor & the oppressed. The faces of “the least of these” – the “other” – whether overseas or across the street, have become living icons that reflect the glory of God.
This is the essence of visual liturgy.
It’s in the stories we tell.
It’s in the experiences we have.
And it’s in the images we choose to surround ourselves with on an ongoing, habitual basis.
From our phones to our living room TVs to the screens in our churches… the repetitive images & narratives that we expose ourselves to will shape how we pray, how we worship, how we believe, & ultimately, how we live.
Visual Liturgy isn’t about projection or doing motion backgrounds behind your lyrics. It’s so much bigger than all of that. It’s about the images we are exposing ourselves to over & over again. It’s about the environments we are curating & allowing to shape us. It’s about recovering the practice of sacred space & using art (digital &/or analog) to care for our culture. It’s about knowing when to pull back, turn everything off, & rest in visual silence. It’s about inviting Beauty back into our lives to both inspire our imaginations & wreck the small ways in which we see & love the world. It’s about shifting away from “Lights, Camera, Action!” & towards “Father, Son & Holy Spirit!” Sometimes in obvious, literal ways… and sometimes in unspoken, abstract & imaginative ways.
And once in a while, it’s cool to wrap an entire space in projection! =)