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Art That Preaches

Call it "the preacher's friend." Certain types of visual art are especially good for helping people worship because they direct attention beyond the artist or artwork to God. A feature story exploring art that preaches.

Constance Aase, music director at New Life! Lutheran Church in Oak Grove, Minnesota, will never forget introducing visual art into a Lenten service.

The projected image showed Jesus surrounded by disciples, some standing, some seated, some touching him. People were asked to see and say where they'd fit into the picture.

"We have lots of unchurched people and church dropouts coming back. They're open to new things but not that used to being interactive in a service. With that picture, though, they were calling out answers. People I didn't ever expect would be interested in visual art had good insights, everyone from a young musician to our oldest member.

"I remember thinking I felt I was at Jesus' feet, in awe and wonderment and trying to serve. Using art in worship stimulated our visual senses into remembering what God has done for us," Aase says.

The kind of art that helped New Life! people worship better is a preacher's friend. It's creative-but not for its own sake. It preaches but isn't preachy. Instead it's evocative, nudging worshipers towards things they hadn't noticed or been able to verbalize about the Father's love.the Spirit's work.our unity in Christ.or the puzzle of how darkness and light, sin and grace, tinge all of life.

Elizabeth (Betsy) Steele Halstead, a painter and woodcut artist, describes such artists and their work as "vessels through which our focus is moved beyond the artist, beyond the art, to God, the Creator of all."

See yourself in the gospel story

Laura James began thinking about the intersection of art and worship as a child, growing up in Brooklyn, New York, and attending a Brethren church with her family.

"Even though the Bible story books at church and in our home showed a blonde blue-eyed Jesus, I always imagined that the Bible characters looked like me," she says.

She began painting acrylics on canvas, using the Bible as the text and subject of her art and picturing Bible story characters as African. However, she says her understanding of the Second Commandment left her "conflicted about whether it was right to depict biblical figures."

In 1991, she learned from Rastafarian friends that Ethiopia is unique in Africa because it has never been colonized and has a long history of Christianity. She started learning about Ethiopia on her own and, in a used bookstore, happened on a volume of Ethiopian Christian art.

"The bright colors really attracted me. And all the people were black. They didn't look like Europeans painted black or brown," James says. Seeing herself as part of a long tradition reassured her.

For centuries, visual art has shaped Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Many worship in ancient churches carved from rock and shaped like a cross. People descend into a pit to enter the cross-shaped church, climbing up to the sanctuary, so even their muscles "understand" the concept of dying and rising with Christ. Elaborately-carved crosses, illuminated manuscripts, icons, and wall paintings remind them of their biblical and ecclesiastical heritage.

James decided to add to the Ethiopian Christian iconic tradition by painting Bible stories she hadn't yet seen, including Miriam at the Red Sea, Jesus washing the disciples' feet, and Anna and Simeon recognizing Baby Jesus as the Messiah.

When Liturgy Training Publications commissioned James to create 35 images forBook of the Gospels, they requested one change to her customary practice. "They asked me to show the wide range of colors and people in the Catholic Church," she recalls.

This willingness to discipline her creative impulse for the sake of a community fits with James' philosophy of art: "I'm grateful to God, who has given me the gift of painting and a chance to share it."

Laura James visited Trinity Presbyterian Church in Denton, Texas, for an exhibit of her work. "The pastor preached about how you can use an artist's interpretation of the Bible, say Jesus healing a blind beggar, without needing the text to understand the story. It's just how I had imagined my work being used-to teach in a Sunday service," she says.

Make visible the invisible

Anneke Kaai acknowledges that some artists "are called to be salt and light in the world. For them the church is a refuge. Others seek to use their art in the church." Kaai is the latter type of artist.

A native of the Netherlands, she is married to a Dutch Reformed pastor and has been active in movements to bridge the gap between the arts and the church. She often works in acrylic on Plexiglass and describes her abstract paintings as windows to faith and inspiration.

"Portraying God can only be done in an abstract way," she explains. She uses colors, shapes, and brush textures in abstract paintings to invite meditation and conversation.

"I long for people to experience art that preaches and proclaims. Art can create a space to slow down and see God," Kaai says.

Her paintings of concepts that most Christians know as words-the Psalms, the Apostles' Creed, the Ten Commandments-help believers see new dimensions of what they profess. She uses titles and text to create a parameter for how viewers will interpret her paintings.

Many of her paintings appear in books that pair words and texts. For example, in I Believe: Meditations on the Ten Commandments and the Apostles' Creed, Angela Taylor's verses illumine Kaai's painting of God's command to keep the Sabbath holy. The painting, all in grays, suggests bricks. The accompanying words read:

     Slaves scratched hot dirt, 
     for straw scraps. 
    Bricks, bricks, bricks. 
    Eyes earthward, nails cracked, 
    backs curved to hissing whips.

     And on this day 
     with no manna to bake 
     stillness hangs on families 
     unaccustomed to rest 
     who eat yesterday's double gift

The recent In a Word: The Image and Language of Faith uses Kaai's abstract paintings and Eugene Peterson's brief meditations to explore concepts such as eternity, death, grace, and joy.

Recover the richness of scriptural symbols

When Betsy Steele Halstead lectures on using visual art in worship, she reminds worship planners, "Instead of asking how we do it, first ask why."

For example, symbols work like communal shorthand to those who have the key. A colorful fabric pattern shouts volumes to those in the know, whether the costume denotes a Palestinian woman's marital status or a Ghanaian guest's advice to a new ruler.

Steele Halstead believes churches should go beyond simply using more Christian symbols or using them more often. Congregations need help to see what those visual images mean in the dialogue between God and worshipers. Otherwise, "symbols may become more familiar but not more understood," she says.

She wrote and illustrated Visuals for Worship with 29 woodcuts-and connected the symbols to the Bible, faith statements, prayers, and songs-so worshipers can recover the richness of scriptural images.

"In Scripture, imagery and symbols are used to help us understand something beyond our grasp," Steele Halstead explains.

Her woodcuts explore the mystery, complexity, and beauty behind the meaning of Christian symbols such as a circle or harvest wheat. She pairs each symbol with an artist's statement that illumines its theological, biblical, and design layers. Steele Halstead's 29 symbols correspond with the 29 sections of The Worship Sourcebook, and her images and text can be downloaded from the CD accompanyingVisuals for Worship.

She expects that worship planners will use Visuals for Worship andThe Worship Sourcebook side by side, as they choose visual art for worship service bulletins, written liturgies, or large screen displays.

Read the images like a letter

Whether he's teaching art at Hampton University, making prints or sculptures, leading seminars, or engaging kids and churches in art, Steve Prince offers a consistent message. "We are all living epistles, whether we want to be or not," he says, referring to 2 Corinthians 3:2-3, where Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are epistles "known and read by all."

Just as medieval artists created stained glass church windows so illiterate people could "read" the Bible, Prince intends his images to be read. He describes himself and his art as conduits to God's grace, helping people to make sense of their lives and realize that actions have consequences.

His print "Living Epistle: Letter to the Church" uses paraphrased words from 2 Corinthians 3:3 to form the pattern of a woman's skirt and blouse. "You read me. I read you. Whatever we put inside ourselves will be read on the outside," he often tells young people, encouraging them to fill their hearts and minds with the Bible.

Someone who spends time with "One Fish: Letter to the Christian" might start to think about how God calls us to be fishers who reel in others with the word of God. "Think about that hook," Prince says. "Ooh, being reeled in, that's gotta hurt."

He also intends that viewers will read "One Fish" as a call to work together and erase stereotypes. That's why he shows both the prosperous and drug-addicted as needing salvation.

Prince's large-scale linoleum cuts and drawings are often complex, filled with words and symbols that refer to the Bible, history, and contemporary social issues. "How I juxtapose them and title them are your ways into the story," he explains.

Prince deeply desires that people who view his art will see their stories as part of God's story. "We are all cogs in the wheel. We all have purpose and significance in God's story," he says. 

Learn More

Don't miss Steve Prince's advice on using visual art as a vehicle for ministry. Laura James, Anneke Kaai, Betsy Steele Halstead, and Steve Prince spoke at a seminar about art that preaches. The cassette set (look for item 12469) can be ordered through the Calvin College Campus Store. You can purchase work by Steve Prince and Laura James through Eyekons.

Betsy Steele Halstead's Visuals for Worship will be available in January 2006 from Faith Alive Christian Resources and at the Calvin Symposium on Worship (January 26-28, 2006). Arts-related symposium presenters include Steele Halstead, calligrapher Timothy BottsGrunewald Guild Director Richard Caemmerer, textile artist Catherine Kapikian, art and architecture expert Karen Mulder, and video artist Doug Porter.

Check out the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship's visual arts resources, including books, events, downloadable images, and artist of the month archives.

Read "Ten Commandments for Artists," by Makoto Fujimura, a contemporary Christian artist who uses ancient Japanese painting techniques. Subscribe to magazines that explore faith and visual arts, such asImage and ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studiespublished by the religion and the arts program at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

Learn about the influential (past) exhibit "African Zion: The Sacred Art of Ethiopia." Or order the book that accompanied the exhibit.

Browse related stories on church renovationsvisual arts in church, and using technology in worship.

Play a free "Faith Shapes Memory" game online and learn the meaning of dozens of Christian visual symbols.

Start a Discussion

These questions will get members talking:

  • Please share an experience where seeing something during worship (art, gesture, action) powerfully affected how you understood something about God or faith.
  • Do you generally know the worship purpose of each song, scripture reading, litany, or other written or spoken element of a typical service?
  • Which visual arts elements do you include in services? Whether these elements are bulletin art, banners, vestments, projected or hung images, or other visuals, what is their purpose? How do you know the congregation understands the purpose?
  • Imagine that someone unfamiliar with Christianity visited your church for a month. What would your visitor know-from your church building, worship space, permanent or portable arts elements-about who God is and what God does? 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you've found to use or commission visual art that deepens the worship experience?

  • If your church sponsored an art show or visual arts seminar, or commissioned visual art, or found another way to use art to fulfill a specific worship (or other purpose), did you contact your local media? If a story or broadcast resulted, please let us know!
  • Did you survey members and address their concerns or misgivings about introducing more visuals into worship?
  • Have you written out your process for forming, training, and encouraging small groups of people to collaborate on creating visuals for worship? If so, have you shared your model with another church or at a symposium?
  • Have you found an effective way to plan services far enough in advance so that there's time to create or find appropriate visuals?