The Chink in the Reformation’s Iconoclastic Armor

Zac HicksArt and Worship, Church & Ecclesiology, History of Worship and Church Music9 Comments

Zombies in the Lights

A few days ago, I ended up in a really fascinating dialogue on Twitter with thoughtful worship leader, Jordan Atwell (@jordanatwell) and visual liturgy smart guy, Stephen Proctor (@stephenproctor). We were entertaining the question, in response to my tweet about this wonderful article, about what it looks like to pastorally engage visual aesthetics in worship. We tend to think of things like projection, screens, lights, and other visual atmospherics as either neutral cultural phenomena or (more negatively) as yet more capitulation to culture’s rock show idolatry.  Usually, all the conversations about those visual elements stop there. Either we’re relegated to pragmatic, technical conversations about the latest, coolest LEDs, gobos, robotics, and immersive projection, or we’re (not inappropriately) decrying the commercialization of worship through zombifying overstimulation.

But what if there’s another conversation to have? What if the discussion about lights and projection can be framed pastorally? I think the above mentioned article is a great example of what such reflection might look like with regards to screens and slide projection. But that’s not what I want to talk about in this post.

The Debbie Downer of Visual Arts

Stephen mentioned what many do when these discussions get rolling—namely, that the Reformation’s iconoclasm (rejection of much visual art) threw out a lot of the helpful and sacred visuals of the church, impoverishing our “sacramental imagination.” Stephen, of course, is dead on. Perhaps some want to justify the Reformation’s general over-reaction to stained glass, art, and other aesthetic riches due to how far the medieval Roman church had gone in the opposite direction.

Nevertheless, I have observed a chink in the Reformation’s generally iconoclastic armor, and I believe we’re witnessing, slowly but surely, that chink being identified, yanked on, and peered through. The hole is getting bigger, and those of us who cherish much about the Reformation may find a way through Reformational principles to recover a sacramental imagination that can appropriately, imaginatively, and richly re-embrace the aesthetics that aid and abet a holistic worship experience (and a holistic faith). The Reformational chink is Augustinian affective anthropology.

Here’s what I mean. With the continued influence of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (and now his more accessible simplification in You Are What You Love), more and more folks in Reformational traditions are awakening to the reality that human beings are centrally affective creatures. We operate, most fundamentally, out of what we love. Our affections, much more than our brains, are our life’s behavioral rudder. This is a notion rooted in Augustine, the early thinker who had more influence on Reformational thought than perhaps any other church father or mother.  (I should mention that hopefully this notion is rooted in Jesus…and I think it is [e.g. Luke 6:45].) Augustine’s view of the human makeup (his anthropology) is that we are centrally desiring creatures. Augustine believed that the Bible reveals to us an affective anthropology.

I believe that this anthropology was at least tacitly present in the minds of all the Reformers. But we find it leaking out particularly in the writings of Luther (scattered about), Melanchthon (his 1521 Loci Communes), and Cranmer (his homilies and in his Prayer Book). David Taylor also unearths aesthetic dimensions of Calvin’s theology in his dissertation. (I mention this, because Calvin is often the chief poster boy for the Reformation’s iconoclasm.)

The Aesthetic Portal to New Horizons

What we find in the work of Luther, Melanchthon, Cranmer, and Calvin are  expressions of affective anthropology that are in tune with some aesthetics. Cranmer, in particular, seemed very comfortable employing the riches of the rhetorical arts. Reading his 1549 and 1552 Prayer Books is like taking a journey through Erasmus’s rhetorical teachings: word couplets/triplets, evocative language, etc. Cranmer’s poetic prose was an intentional use of the art of language to engage the senses and emotions of the worshiper.

Cases like these help us to see that while it is fair by and large to call the Reformation iconoclastic, even the Reformers understood that aesthetics were a gateway to help form the sacramental imagination of the people of God. Could it be, then, that we can re-enter some much needed discussions about the aesthetic and pastoral use of visual arts (lighting, projection, color, haze, etc.), through the Reformational portal of affective anthropology? Could it be that Protestantism’s historic emphasis on affective spirituality will open up fresh pastoral discussions about visual aesthetics that neither remain in the superficial realm of pragmatics nor pharisaically dismiss all such talk as blind idolatry?

Not everyone will buy into this, but I, for one, am optimistic.

9 Comments on “The Chink in the Reformation’s Iconoclastic Armor”

  1. Zac – way too often I find you putting thoughts and words to things that are banging around in my head and heart. Thanks for sharing this. Too often (at least in my tradition – Christian Church/Church of Christ) we distrust anything that brings emotion into play. I'm hopeful we can find a common ground somewhere in here and reclaim some beauty that may have been lost in the name of utility.

  2. It's a big, big leap to go from "use words beautifully" to "violate the 2nd commandment." It is ironic that you pick Cranmer as an example of someone representing a way "through" the reformers to embrace images. He dedicated an entire section of his Homilies to opposing idolatrous images (below).

    I cannot imagine that he would so blithely dismiss a concern to guard the purity of the worship of God in the arena you are addressing as pharisaical. I'm sure you meant otherwise but the text seems to suggest, without saying out right, as much.

    You can find Cranmer's homily on Images/Idols here:

    …what penaltie and horrible destruction, he solemnely, with inuocation of heauen and earth, for record, denounceth and threatneth to them, their children and posteritie, if they contrary to this Commandement, do make or worship any Images or similitude, which he so straightly hath forbidden. And when they, this notwithstanding, partly by inclination of mans corrupt nature most prone to Idolatry, and partly occasioned by the Gentiles and heathen people dwelling about them, who were Idolaters, did fall to the making and worshipping of Images: GOD according to his word, brought vpon them all those plagues which hee threatned them with, as appeareth in the bookes of the Kings and the Chronicles, in sundry places at large. And agreeable hereunto are many other notable places in the old Testament, (Deuteronomy 27) "Cursed be he that maketh a carued Image, or a cast or molten Image, which is abomination before the Lord, the worke of the artificers hand, and setteth it vp in a secret corner, and all the people shall say, Amen.

  3. Ok, you've hit one of my hot buttons. Why exactly do we have all those floating stars, and fuzzy somethings wandering around the projection of words to a song or hymn? Are they an encouragement to worship? To me they are a distraction. Do they add anything to the words? Mostly, not. What is there function? I really don't know. I'd just prefer if they'd be removed so we can focus on the intent of the song and worship Christ.

    PS I love art and technology and beauty but the One who should be our source of titilation and sobriety should be Christ not a visual, or an audible for that matter. I'm all for art and the second commandment.

  4. Jeff, thanks for those insights.

    David, great thoughts. That's definitely for another post, another time. I think the short answer is that those questions need to be theologically reflected upon and then pastorally applied.

  5. Great post.

    One factor that I think is often left unexamined in this ongoing and evolving dialogue is the reality of the little cottage industry that is growing to create this endless stream of "those floating stars, and fuzzy somethings wandering around the projection" (to quote David Schwartz above). This whole micro-industry is built to "resource" the local church. These "creative resources" are increasingly distributed on a subscription model – a new pack of looks every month!

    The ubiquity of projection and video surfaces in churches of all sizes paired with this growing economic reality means we get well intentioned resource providers feeding a constant stream of more-or-less meaningless abstract visual noise to well meaning tech and creative teams in local churches resulting in worship spaces that actually erode our value of beauty, art and creativity. It's all cheap and disposable and flavour-of-the-month.

    I once asked the question to some peers in this creative church tech space online, "what if instead of spending budget on 'motion backgrounds' we commissioned an artist in our community to create something?" to which one person replied, "Sure, can you make me something for 10 bucks? Like 10 of them?"

    That's the air many churches – big and small – are now breathing. And its due, in part, to a consumeristic model for producing the images that we see on Sunday that doesn't seem to be going away any time soon.

  6. I like the idea of using art (even children's art) if we are going to use visuals. I hesitate though to use this in worship. While I have no problem with Christian art at all (I love art), I don't think it would be appropriate in worship. I don't have enough time at the moment to explain why (2nd commandmentish). Art can make us think in a way we wouldn't think to consider something. The Word though needs to remain central in worship.

  7. Probably a bit simple for the scholars, but for those of us who are of the laity, I think has some good thoughts on this subjec here:

    Art for Whose Sake?

    Here: Images in Worship

    And here: The Role of Beauty

    Knowing the dangers of idolatry and being keen to avoid them are crucial, no doubt, in keeping our worship from becoming anything but adoration of God. On the other hand, if one is insistent on *not* having art in worship, isn't there a danger of pride taking over–especially if one thinks he is following the true commands of Scripture?

    Perhaps danger lurks on both sides of the question. 🙂

  8. The primary problem was a misinterpretation of the 2nd Commandment. That commandment does not forbid making images per se; rather, it forbids making images in order to bow down to them. It is the liturgical use of images in acts of physical veneration that is the target of the commandment. Making images for the purposes of glory, beauty, and theological pedagogy (as the early church did) is not condemned by the commandment. If it were, then God himself is guilty of breaking his own commandment because God instructed Spirit-filled artisans to make environments for corporate worship (the Tabernacle and later the Temple) full of visual images that are laden with beauty and rich theological symbolism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *