Religion and the Arts

The Epiphany is a time of mystery with stories that are subject to a lot of interpretations: the visit of magi from the East to the infant Jesus offering strange gifts and all the characters in Matthew’s story being directed in their comings and goings by their dreams; the Baptism of Jesus by his cousin John with a dove descending and a voice from heaven heard only by Jesus; the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine (good wine!) at a wedding party in Cana of Galilee at the request of his mother, even as he protests that his “time has not yet come;” the infant Jesus being presented in the Temple by his parents who go through rites in which the Son of God is redeemed from being offered to God by the substitute offering of turtledoves and prophesied over by two elderly saints. It is a time in the church year that has inspired poetry, drama, art, and splendid worship.

This issue of Let’s Talk takes up the topic of art and religion: religious art and liturgical art.

Let’s begin with liturgical art. Retired Pastor Frederick J. Schumacher of Princeton, New Jersey, Executive Director of the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, shares his experience of learning to read and write icons. One does not “paint” icons, one “writes” them because they are a visual proclamation of gospel. They are venerated by the Orthodox faithful as windows into eternity, and the very act of creating them is a devotional exercise. Icons may be taken for granted today, but once they were controversial. The iconoclastic controversy tore apart the Byzantine Empire in the 8th century and the controversy had to be settled by an ecumenical council (the Seventh). Hence, icons now serve as marks of confession for the Orthodox Churches and might be claimed by us also for our worship spaces as affirmations that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

No less controversial was the play and the actors’ masks discussed by retired Pastor John Lang. He reached back to his earlier career as a college art professor and allowed memories of the masks used in Archibald MacLeish’s play, J.B., to surface in the course of teaching a Bible study on Job. The masks for “God” and “Satan” became well known graphic art in the 1950s and 1960s. Discussion of John’s article in the editorial board noted that the masks for the actors are white for God and black for Satan. While those colors of light and darkness may be conventional portrayals of benevolence and evil, after the 1950s they could also be seen as racialist. If that is how they strike us, it fits the conceit of the play. The actors wearing the masks are consciously “playing” God and Satan. The masks are human projections on God and Satan. In the play the real God is heard but not seen. Do our projections on God (and Satan) also include our prejudices along with our preconceptions? Does this not indicate the risk of creating images of God (and Satan, who, remember, in the Book of Job is God’s prosecutor)? Did the iconoclasts have a point? Yet, is there a value in taking the risk?

No less controversial is the role of vestments in worship, a form of liturgical art which I take up in my “As I See It” column art. Like icons, vestments have become signs of confession, since different types of vesture are worn by liturgical ministers in different traditions—or no vestments at all (which is also a confessional statement). Even the kind of ordinary street clothes a ministers wears to lead worship is chosen to make a statement. In those traditions in which vestments are used, they are not just to designate ministerial roles; they also provide religious identity for the worshiping people. Hence, the choice of vestments (or no vestments) cannot be left to the minister’s sole discretion. What is worn or not worn can provoke controversy.

Film is also an art form and my fellow columnist, Ben Dueholm, reviews the portrayal of clergy in film in his “On the Way” column. The films reviewed might be deemed “good” portrayals in the sense that they challenge us in our own lives of faith or unfaith.

Gordon Straw reviews Nadia Bolz-Weber’s latest book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. Pastor Nadia has become known for her body art, but her book is about much more than that. This is a memoir of her spiritual struggles with God and the Church. Our reviewer warns that this book is not for the faint of heart; nor should it be a manual for other pastors on “how to be like Nadia.” Nadia is trying to be “truthfully honest”—authentic to herself—and the rest of us are admonished to be authentic to ourselves.

The offerings in this volume of Let’s Talk are fewer than usual. It is not easy to get people to write for journals and it was especially difficult to recruit writers for this issue. Is this because Lutherans generally lack an aptitude for art, except for church architecture? In spite of Martin Luther’s cordial personal relationship with the Lukas Cranachs, senior and junior, who painted many altar panels in post-Reformation Lutheran churches in northern Germany, we heirs of the Reformation distrust the visual. We are people who have elevated the word, including the word that comes to us in musical tones. (“Faith comes from what is heard,” said St. Paul.) If we had looked for articles on music, we might have rounded up many. But we need to recognize that the visual mode of human perception provides a valuable and even indispensable mode for communicating the Gospel, and that the value of art in our churches and in religious life is more than just aesthetic. It is not just about beauty; it also has to do with truth.

Frank C. Senn

Evanston, IL