Thursday, September 11, 2008

Transforming Culture Symposium #3: THE WORSHIP

Transforming Culture: The Worship
Plenary #3: John Witvliet

(Communal Songs - Taize', France)

The Question:
How can our actions and spaces be artfully shaped?
How can our corporate actions (the liturgy) and physical spaces (the architecture) be informed by an artistic perspective? How, in fact, can the arts reinforce and enliven our theological convictions about worship?

The Goal:
Our desire here is to help pastors and church leaders understand the peculiar nature of the arts as epistemological aids to our knowledge and experience of God as well as media to support our theological commitments as a community; but also to challenge and expand them when necessary. The arts are not neutral. They can aid or hinder our corporate experience. They can conserve, confront, grow and revive our traditions. And each artistic media will do so in unique ways.
For us as pastors to become wise stewards of the arts we need to have a basic understanding of the "liturgical" function of the arts and a basic sense of how the different arts perform this function in unique ways. The purpose of this talk, in short, is to offer a basic landscape of understanding about artfully shaped actions and spaces.

The Speaker:
John Witvliet (associate professor of music and worship, Calvin College; director, Calvin Institute for Christian Worship)

The Talk: (in summary)
1. Definition of Worship We have one term in English language that has to do a tremendous amount of work. We have one term to mean three different things.

  • Worship of God in all we do in life (24/7)

  • Worship as an assembly

  • Worship in private moments of adoration
All three meanings are very important. A big part of this conference is transforming culture through acts of worship meant in the 24/7 context. But for this talk the focus is narrowed primarily to artworks for public worship assemblies.
2. What about the liturgical arts? (all traditions – formal liturgy or not)
Here he showed 30 slides that represent many of the grant recipients at Calvin and many forms of artworks in public worship assemblies.

  • Significance of communal song: Taize and Iona community; new outbreaks of indigenous music on African continent and in South America; rethink what communal song should be as “Revival is coming to many of the cities in the U. S.; it’s just that so little of that revival is coming in the form of the English language”.

  • New hymn tunes – musical excellence is not just about great soloists and choirs, but also in congregational singing

  • The Choristers Guild – forming children to pray deeply using well-crafted music; one of the most strategic forums in Witvliet's opinion "teaching children to pray deeply through song"

  • Temporary and Permanent Installations
(Nancy Chinn, Washington National Cathedral, Washington D.C.)

(Sculpture - M.J. Anderson, Witness: Women of the Resurrection)

  • Garments

  • Stained glass contributions (not just an artwork of the past)

  • Furniture designers

  • Sculptors (communion vessels)
(Communion vessels - Carl Huisman)

  • Architects in other cultures (ex., Papua, New Guinea works with local craftspeople to design a space that is intentionally designed to be sound permeable in order to let the sound of the worshipping congregation will spill out to the community)

  • Painters
  • (Portrayals of individuals in community - Laura James, Psalm 100)

  • Children – artwork can often teach a great deal; example of children's artwork used as bulletin covers)

  • Woodcut artist

  • Calligraphers

  • Graphic Artists

  • Film/Projected Art (including how screens are used in worship; not just to display words, but to use artistic opportunities to display God's Word)

  • Dancers

  • Textile Artists (dress the Lord’s Table; worked in collaboration with dance)

  • Dramatic performers (rethinking liturgical drama; not just vignettes dropped into the middle of a sermon)

  • Art of sign language (move into a more visually prominent place in worship in order to engage the larger congregation)

  • Writers (more hymns written in the last 30 years than in any other period in Protestant history)(70 published hymn writers – Hymn Society; Sylvia Dunstan, Carl Daw)

  • Preaching arts

  • Translators (i.e., The Message)

(David Hetland, Let Heaven and Earth Sing, Concordia College)

What all these artists do is to think about the particular kind of excellence that is found in forming God’s people for prayer and proclamation in the context of public worship assemblies. There are remarkable constraints on this process. To lead music in worship imposes more constraints than in the context of a concert, and the same is true for every other form of artistic expression.

If we’re not careful we can promote the idea that the art we use in worship is kind of a watered-down version of the art we really want to do. Set aside that way of thinking.
There are profound relationships between the art we make for spaces and events outside the worship assembly and that for the worship assembly. There are some differences. There are some wonderful excellencies in the constraints that need to be celebrated. (“a particular kind of excellence”) Taking art to the ordinary is a constraint and it imposes a great constraint on the artist. This can be something not to be resisted or lamented but celebrated.

[Note: the remaining points from John Witvliet's talk as well as his worshipful conclusion will be available in the book being edited by David Taylor and published by Baker Books.]

My thoughts:
You know, right now I'm too tired to add anything more to this summary. Out of all the amazing teaching we heard at the symposium, this talk hit the rawest and achingest places in me. It is quite possible I have felt this ache ever since I was a young child and listened to my uncle play the 12-string guitar in our worship service in the unfinished backroom of a Christian bookstore. It was beautiful. It was scripture plucked and strummed and sung to chords and a melody line that he had composed. I don't think I've been the same since. Our surroundings were dank and dingy, but that worship was beautiful.

I am disappointed at the stark and, often, kitschy surroundings of my Protestant background. Stingy might be a better word. Or, maybe, uninspired. Whatever it is, I don't think I'll ever give up hoping for something more beautiful and grand in our public worship assemblies. I do not understand the sterile white walls and drop ceilings and mega-store plastic that we surround ourselves with. I do not understand how we remodel and redecorate our homes within and inch of its life and can go decades without changing the curtains and late-80's stencilling on our church walls. I can not fathom how we got to the place that the Lord's Supper has become an event that we can barely remember to fit into the church calendar.

I have a feeling it has a whole lot to do with a need for rousing of the individual me's into a corporate we.

In my church family I am excited about some signs of life coming from the we. We have some beautiful landscaping: tall sea grasses and a variety of seasonal flowers bloom for as long as we have thawed ground (which is not very long, it seems!). A new atrium has been built with windows that bring in natural light and views of the glorious trees from our upstate hills. We've begun to incorporate a slight recognition of the church liturgical calendar.

I will hope now and hope always. But greater than these will be love.

(Union Center Christian Church, Easter service 2008)
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