Christianity and the arts

Several recent essays remind us of the importance of the arts for religious faith and practice.

First, Richard Hays asks, “Why should we care about the arts?” He cites four reasons:

  1. “There is no escaping the arts. They create the imaginative symbolic world in which we live and move; we are constantly surrounded by images, music and stories.”
  2. Worship is nothing else than shaping beliefs and practices into artistic forms and more people (60% of the American population) hear live music in worship than in any other setting.
  3. Participation in artistic performances is useful instruction in faithful discipleship.
  4. Created in the image of a creative God, we are by nature fashioners of images and stories and it is through creativity that we make our selves more fully into God’s image.

I was reminded of the role of the arts in worship this past Sunday while attending services at the church in which I grew up. In many ways, the space is a generic Protestant church–there are no images in the stained glass or on the walls; the ceiling, pews, and front of the church are all plain. What differs from my youth is the presence of instruments in the church–a piano and drum set. But this past Sunday, the hymns were sung in four-part harmony as they were when I was a member. All of them were familiar to me and I was struck by the way in which this unaccompanied, four-part singing had been and perhaps continues to be, an important means for creating and shaping community. As one member shared a story that had to do with singing, I became aware of something else, too: through singing, members also take on particular roles in the community.

A conversation reflecting on the differences between Christian (in this case, specifically Thomas Kincaide) and Modern art poses similar questions. It seems that although most modern artists whose work hangs in great museums are not Christian, or even religious in any conventional sense, but nonetheless, many found that ideas or experiences of the transcendent were central to their work:

Artists who don’t have an orthodox Christian bone in their bodies are making paintings that they’re intending, even in subconscious ways, to function in this very specific, sacred, and you could say a secular-Christian, environment.

One of the conversation partners, Curtis Chang, observed that

When I visited the modern art wing recently, it struck me that there was far more silence and contemplation there than I’ve found at any church service …

Rob Goodman reflects on the differences between bad and good religious art in the course of a discussion of Terence Malick:

But I don’t want to be so hard on Malick’s failed comforter: there’s painfully little any of us can say to grief, or to any of the other human needs that inspire religious feeling. And I think it’s an inability or unwillingness to recognize that fact that is the deeper mistake of bad religious art: it wants to argue us into faith. It won’t rest without a moral, a message, a lesson to take home. But religious persuasion can’t work that way—because religious thought doesn’t work that way.

When we reach for our most fundamental beliefs—whether these are beliefs about a deity, or politics, or family—we aren’t likely to find words there. We’re much more likely to find images, metaphors, memories, half-felt impressions. We’re likely to find, that is, something far more slippery, more vague, more illogical than discursive argument. Words come afterwards—but the fact that they so often rest on a foundation of images goes a long way to explain why the most seemingly persuasive arguments fail so often: why we seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs; why we ignore evidence that does not; why being caught in contradictions often makes us hold on to them even tighter. Arguments rarely touch our central beliefs where they live, and the most perceptive religious thinkers understand this.

I think that’s one of the appeals of beautifully-executed Episcopal liturgy, words that are themselves beautiful, spoken or sung beautifully in a lovely space, all of which connects deeply to images and feelings within ourselves. Oh, it’s not for everyone, of course, but for those who seek beauty in life, may find beauty, and the sacred, in our worship.

Consultation on Same-Sex Blessings

On Friday and Saturday, there was a gathering of lay and clergy deputies to General Convention to discuss the development of liturgies for same-sex blessings. The consultation is in response to the General Convention’s mandate in 2009 to the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Mission “to collect and develop theological resources and liturgies for blessing same-gender relationships.”

Reports are beginning to trickle in. Here’s the article from Episcopal News Service. One attendee’s reflections are here.

To be honest, I’m not sure where I am on this. That same-sex blessings are taking place in the Episcopal Church is obvious; that such blessings are probably quite diverse theologically and liturgically also probably goes without saying. My guess is that we are at the very initial steps of a process that will take some time to come to fruition. I doubt very much whether General Convention will be prepared in 2012 to publish such liturgies.I think moving slowly on a denominational level is wise. I wasn’t around when the Book of Common Prayer was under revision but I should think such a process, even for a single rite like same-sex blessings, should include a great deal of feedback, including after using such rites.

What I do like about this process is the openness with which it is occurring. To have a conversation that includes not just liturgical or theological experts lets a wide range of voices and interests to be heard. On the other hand, I’ve never been a fan of editing by committee…

It is worth noting that recent polls suggest a majority of Americans now support gay marriage.



The holy fire

Thomas Lynch has a fascinating article on cremation in a recent Christian Century. He’s a funeral director who has written eloquently on death, burial, and his occupation. He begins this article with observations about changing American attitudes toward cremation, and the impact of those attitudes on our funerary rituals. He uses Thomas G. Long’s Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral. Both lament the relative absence of concrete experiences of the mourners with cremation. We have all attended burial services, but few of us have witnessed a cremation. He writes about contemporary “memorial services:”

If not made to disappear entirely, the presence of the dead at such services is minimized, inurned, denatured, virtualized, made manageable and unrecognizable by cremation.

He continues:

The issue is not cremation or burial but rather the gospel, the sacred text of death and resurrection, suffering and salvation, redemption and grace–the mystery that a Chrisitan funeral ought to call us to behold, the mystery of life’s difficult journey and the faithful pilgrim’s triumphant homegoing. The memorial service, by avoiding the embodied dead, the shovel and shoulder work, the divisions of labor and difficult journey to the grave or pyre, too often replaces theology with therapy, conviction with convenience, the full-throated assurances of faith with a sort of memorial karaoke where ‘everyone gets to share a memory.’

Now, I’ve never witnessed a cremation, but then what Lynch says about burials is not quite accurate, either. In my experience, burials are hardly visible to the mourners. In fact, it seems that most cemeteries are reluctant to let us see the open grace, instead covering it with astroturf.

The liturgy instructs priests to cast dirt on the coffin. In the antiseptic funeral, an experienced funeral director will supply me with a tiny vial of what looks to be mason’s sand. There is no connection with the body, or with what Lynch calls “the spade and shoulder work.”

Contrast that with the cremations in which I’ve participated. At St. James, we dug a hole, we carried the ashes and poured them; often they sifted through our fingers. I’ve found those ashes much more real, more embodied, than the artificially made-up faces of loved ones in open caskets.

I will agree with Lynch that more work needs to be done. There are problems with the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer as it moves from the burial service to the graveside, and especially in dealing with the reality that a burial may take place at a very different time and in a very different place than the memorial service. Families struggle mightily to make those services meaningful and to find meaningful ways to say goodbye to the mortal remains of their loved ones.

Lynch seems to think that we ought to develop some rituals related to cremation and fire. Perhaps. He doesn’t realize the ritual power and sacred meaning in the ashes themselves. He seems to assume the memorial service takes place without either body or ashes present and that the norm is for it to occur before cremation. In my experience, the ashes are almost always present. And I’ve been struck repeatedly by the ways in which loved ones deal with the presence of those ashes, the care and awe that they show.

The full text of Lynch’s article is here.

Reflections on Palm Sunday

Holy Week is going to be interesting. I probably didn’t articulate it to myself or to anyone else, but my approach coming into Grace was to experience worship and then to make changes to reflect my own theological and liturgical concerns. My predecessor gave me a very clear road-map and when talking to worship leaders and altar guild, it seemed that they were expecting something of the same of me.

Instead, I wanted to experience it. Part of that has to do with the people, their gifts, assumptions, and needs, but a great deal of it has to do with the space. One of the questions that I ask repeatedly is “How do we best worship in this space?”

But I’m also interested in shaping the liturgy in ways that I find meaningful. There were already some last-minute changes. Someone pointed out to me the rather obvious starting point of the Guild Hall for our Palm Sunday procession, rather than the undercroft. It made sense, both for those of our parishioners who have trouble climbing stairs, and because it was a beautiful day.

There’s the other challenge, the one created by the hybrid nature of Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday. How do you move effectively from the joy and celebration of Blessing of Palms and Procession to the Passion?

What I want to know is how to use the church’s space to help make that transition.

Stay tuned.

The Great Litany, 2010

I posted on the Great Litany last year and wondered whether there was anything interesting and new to say about it. Whether it’s new or interesting, I don’t know, but I have been reflecting throughout the day on my experience of it. Part of it is doing liturgy in a new and very different context. Madison’s Capitol Square is a radically different place than Piney Mountain Road in Greenville, SC. I was very conscious as we were chanting it today how a newcomer or visitor might have reacted. It’s not user-friendly, it’s very much niche marketing (I suppose there are those to whom the traditional language, piety, and chanting might appeal, but that can’t be a large demographic).

In the nearly 20 years I’ve been attending Episcopal churches, I can’t recall a single one where the first Sunday of Lent didn’t include the Great Litany and I was preparing for the service today, I didn’t give its inclusion in both services a second thought. Still, I wonder about its utility and meaning in the twenty-first century.

At the same time, I’m quite aware that our worship is counter-cultural on almost every level and in a way it is appealing for that very reason. We don’t construct our worship to get an audience; we worship the way we do because it is a bond with Christians throughout history. The sursum corda, “Lift up your hearts,” goes back to the very earliest extant Christian worship. In the same way, the Great Litany is part of the unique Anglican tradition of liturgy, with its origins in Thomas Cranmer’s work in the 1540s. For that reason alone, it may be worth dusting off every year.

Moreover, it may be that the catalogue of petitions is appropriate from time to time. We seem to pray for everything and everyone, and that in itself is a reminder of our place in God’s universe, and our dependence on God. The repetition of the petitions and the congregation’s response, “Good Lord, deliver us” and “We beseech thee to hear us Oh, Lord” help us to understand our relationship to God more profoundly than many other liturgical actions.

Sermon post-mortem

I’m never quite sure whether I pull off what I’m working on. Yesterday, given the constraints of other commitments, I wasn’t happy with the final shape of the sermon. But some of what I was groping toward must have come through. A parishioner called me today and said lovely things about my sermon yesterday.

That’s not why I’m writing. Instead, I’m writing about two other things. First, a series of conversations at coffee hour about our decrepit dishwasher and how we should proceed. We can get it fixed. The problem is, it doesn’t do what we need it to do. It constrains our ministry because our kitchen is not adequate for the purposes to which we put it, or could put it, with the proper equipment. Our food pantry can’t re-package bulk food for example.

Then, I saw a post on the Episcopal Cafe that led me to this. There’s much here with which I disagree but it seems to me that the right questions are being asked. I especially like the parable of the life-saving station. I’d heard it before but it had slipped my mind. In some ways, it captures the history of Christianity in America. The full parable is here.

I was involved for a couple of years in a parish that was a fairly recent church plant. It was successful at the level of bringing people in, but I don’t think it was particularly at shaping and forming disciples.

I do think on one level that it is all about liturgy or worship. The old Anglican/Episcopal mantra was lex orandi, lex credendi, praying shapes believing. We have a gift to offer the larger church and the world–a gift of an experience of God rooted in beautiful music, beautiful language, and at Grace, a beautiful space. We need to find ways of sharing that.

St John Chrysostom, January 27

St. John Chrysostom, whom we remember today, was one of the great theologians and bishops, and perhaps the greatest preacher in the early centuries of Greek Christianity. Born in Antioch in 349, he spent some years as a monk and apparently practiced extreme ascetism. Ordained a deacon in 381 and a presbyter in 386, his preaching brought widespread fame. Because of his renown, he was made Archbishop of Constantinople in 398. In Constantinople he repeatedly aroused the wrath of the imperial court and was banished twice and died in exile in 407.

He is most famous for his sermons, of which many survive. He attacked the ostentatious show of wealth and repeatedly urged his listeners to care for the poor. Here is an excerpt from a homily on Matthew 14:

For what is the profit, when His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger? First fill Him, being an hungered, and then abundantly deck out His table also. Dost thou make Him a cup of gold, while thou givest Him not a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Dost thou furnish His table with cloths bespangled with gold, while to Himself thou affordest not even the necessary covering? And what good comes of it? For tell me, should you see one at a loss for necessary food, and omit appeasing his hunger, while you first overlaid his table with silver; would he indeed thank thee, and not rather be indignant? What, again, if seeing one wrapped in rags, and stiff with cold, thou shouldest neglect giving him a garment, and build golden columns, saying, “thou wert doing it to his honor,” would he not say that thou wert mocking, and account it an insult, and that the most extreme?

Let this then be thy thought with regard to Christ also, when He is going about a wanderer, and a stranger, needing a roof to cover Him; and thou, neglecting to receive Him, deckest out a pavement, and walls, and capitals of columns, and hangest up silver chains by means of lamps. Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, 50, (from

He is also famous for a series of sermons directed against Jews, the full texts of which can be found here.

In addition to his sermons and many other writings, The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom continues to be used by Orthodox Churches. An English translation is found here.

The “Prayer of St. Chrysostom,” which appears in The Book of Common Prayer, is a late-medieval addition to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and was not written by him.