If you don’t think that art has the ability to shape the spirituality and worship of the Church, hopefully this little exercise will shift your perspective. What’s your reaction to the statement, “God is an intensely joyful God”? Or, perhaps more starkly, “God is Joy.”
My Pentecostal brothers and sisters have no problem with joy in worship. Modern worship capitalizes on it. But what about the more traditional-liturgical traditions? Is there a sense of joy in our worship? Many of my somber, cerebral, liturgy-loving friends would say, “Of course! It’s just internal, reverential joy.” Okay, sure. If I’m honest with myself, though (I won’t speak for others), when I’m experiencing the richest joy there is, I would have a terribly hard time containing it within a “reverential” shell. It would probably burst forth. I might smile. Perhaps I’d even shout. Perhaps I’d even dance. Come to think of it, are reverence and joy at such odds that to express one would be diametrically opposed to expressing the other?
Even if my more high church brothers and sisters aren’t responding to these little jabs, perhaps we might see how our historic Christological art has affected our thinking and worship of God, and specifically the Second Person of the Trinity.
John Jefferson Davis, in his fabulous work, Worship and the Reality of God,1 points out that evangelical worship could stand to rehearse more often one of God’s most inspiring attributes—joy. (By the way, since when have we seen “Joy” as one of the sections of communicable attributes of God in systematic theology texts?) Davis briefly proofs his claim through showing the richness of joy in God and in early church worship (Acts 2:46-47; Lk 10:21; Jn 15:11; Jn 1:1-3; Prov 8:30-31; Zeph 3:17; Lk 15:5ff; Rev 19:6-7). He then reminds his readers of God’s joy through what may be a shocking statement: “heaven is a happy place; God the Father and God the Son have smiling faces.”2 And, in a footnote, Davis points out something quite profound about ecclesiastical art in both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions:
The images of God in the church and in the Christian’s imagination can have powerful impacts for good or for ill in personal piety and worship. The crucifix in Roman Catholic churches, portraying a dead and suffering Christ, and the icons of ‘Christ Pantocrator’ in Orthodox churches, portraying a powerful but very somber Jesus, do indeed portray profound biblical truths—but not the whole truth; the joyfulness of the inner life of the Trinity is missing in these images.3
Let it sink in. When you scan in your mind the depictions of Jesus you’ve seen in paintings, sculptures, and film, what is the prevailing mood? Now scan your theology (what you believe about God) and your resulting spirituality (the habits through which you personally relate to God). What do you see? Is God a highly joyful God in your mind? Do you relate to God in public and private worship in ways that others would describe as a relationship “full of joy”? Perhaps a discussion about how art over history has shaped this is a bit chicken-and-egg. Did art shape our spirituality, or did the ways we thought of God seep into our art? It’s probably some of both, a symbiotic relationship. But, nevertheless, here we are.
Perhaps I can’t appeal to your intellect. Maybe you remain unconvinced that you need to see God as more joyful and that this could have a dramatic impact on your individual and corporate worship. So I’ll try appealing to your hunger. Don’t you want, deep down inside, to believe God is intensely joyful? Don’t you yearn to know and love a God who is pulsating delight—delight in Himself, delight in His creation, and delight in you? I sure do.
Artists: it looks like we have some work to do. We have an opportunity to fill a significant gap that could have a shaping impact on Christ’s church going forward. We need more songs, more paintings, more sculptures, more film, more drama, and more dance that give us a balancing picture of God’s eternal joy!