I remember a worship service in the mid-1990’s at my home Methodist church. It was in the early days of the launch of our very first contemporary service, and I was sharing the experience with several family members. One of my kin sitting next to me chuckled, poked me, and asked if the people in the middle section were raising their hands because they had to pee. It was an obvious mask of her discomfort in the midst of a charismatic worship environment – an admittedly foreign experience for her.
When charismatic worship moved into mainline churches, in many cases it left behind the theology out of which in came, creating dissonance. And for those, like my relative, unwilling to ask questions, this dissonance was magnified. I’ve had very similar experiences in contemporary art spaces. When encountering the unfamiliar, the chaotic or vague, ridicule emerges as a primary coping tactic. Risking extreme oversimplicity, the root of the Worship Wars was the same as the root of the Culture Wars – misunderstanding resulting from a lack of contextual grounding.
I’ve been belatedly reading Daniel Siedell’s 2011 book, God in the Gallery, and one of the art historian and curator’s foundational points is that contemporary art, when viewed apart from its historical context, fulfills nearly every conservative evangelical fear about the genre. Responses range from “my two-year-old could make that”, “I just don’t get it”… or stronger yet, offense taken because of a defamation of personal beliefs. Each of these and other responses result in a dismissal of the work in question, and typically, a dismissal of contemporary art more generally. And so it goes – we are comfortable with art in the church as long as it is executed in a particular aesthetic manner (typically with a preference for representation), easily grasped and/or didactic in nature, and devoid of offense. In short, we do not want art that leaves us with more questions than answers. We’d rather make fun of it.
History Helps Us Understand Our Discomforts
Now, a brief art history lesson for you. The modern art movement began when old values became entrenched and artists saw a platform to usher in the new, and in many ways, the absurd – just to prove a point. Think of them as the liberation theologians of the art world. A famous example is Duchamp’s “Fountain” wherewith he sought to “shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation.” Contemporary art, just like contemporary worship, has historically been a response to particular ideologies in the institutional art world that had become mainstream. And just like in many liberation theologies, the pendulum swings quite far in one direction in hopes that the middle section will normalize.
In answer to the dissonance created when many churches embraced charismatic worship, many pastors and musicians are now reimagining their services to include reworked hymns and a more robust liturgy. Those involved in planning worship services are engaging the past to help worshippers understand their present worship rhythms. So, as our church services continue to splinter, “blend”, or develop new traditions, we realize that the worship pendulum is in motion again, bringing us back to center.
Becoming Comfortable with Questions
The reason why contemporary art has not been embraced by the church is because it makes us uncomfortable. I agree that a piece like Duchamp’s “Fountain” need not be featured in a sanctuary, but we can understand its import when we examine its history. Similarly, we should not discount an entire genre of art because of the dissonance it may cause. Since Duchamp, a multitude of other contemporary artists have pushed the status quo with many different agendas from social to political to religious. In many ways, contemporary artists can be compared to modern-day prophets in our culture. The bottom line is that these artists often leave us, as noted above, with more questions than answers. And this begs the question – what does contemporary art have to do with worship? Where is this little back-and-forth dialogue taking us?
The answer is to the questions. When we have questions – in class, in conversations, in worship – we are invited to participate. To engage, to talk, to sing, to pray – to ask. Questions, when explored in a spirit-filled community, are catalysts toward holiness. You can recall from the parables that Jesus rarely offered up the answers with little effort from his hearers. If my relative had taken a moment after the worship service to inquire and understand the worship style (though this may have been an uneasy experience), some of her discomfort may have been alleviated. Similarly, when we look at contemporary art, we can tackle the fears many Christians have in viewing such visually challenging works by engaging the artists and exploring their histories. And hopefully these explorations will leave us with more questions than, “Do you think she has to pee?”