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William A. Dyrness on Visual Imagery in Worship

These video excerpts come from a conversation between William A. Dyrness and John D. Witvliet at the annual Calvin Institute of Christian Worship—CICW—grants colloquium in June 2019.

William A. Dyrness, dean emeritus and senior professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, is a founding member of Fuller’s Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts. This conversation at the CICW annual grants event in 2019 marked the end of his twenty-year service on the Vital Worship Grants Advisory Board.

The hour-long conversation included discussions about developments in theology and arts over the last few decades, how people experience the arts in worship, and insights from Dyrness’s many books.

Dyrness said his interest in teaching theology and the arts predated most institutions’ readiness to address the topic. After earning his doctor of theology degree from the University of Strasbourg in France, he sent letters to many institutions to inquire about teaching theology and the arts. “I think I mystified people,” he said. Instead he served for years as a youth pastor, a missionary to the Philippines at Asian Theological Seminary, and dean at Fuller Theological Seminary.

In 2000, about the same time he joined the CICW grants advisory board, Dyrness finally got the chance to teach theology, culture, and the arts at Fuller’s new Brehm Center. His book Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue came out in November 2001. "My teaching and writing since then has been informed in part by CICW. Reading grant applications is like doing on-the-ground research," he said in his June 2019 conversation with Witvliet.

Dyrness said that when he first began evaluating worship grant proposals, few involved the arts. In the most recent round, however, nearly a third of proposals dealt with worship and visual arts.

Role of visuals in worship varies by tradition

Related book: Senses of the Soul: Art and the Visual in Christian Worship, reviewed here

Contemporary hunger for visuality

Worship is visual

Related book: Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life, reviewed here

Learning from abstract art

Good art critics

“We need all the gifts”

Dyrness recommends that Christians and churches use the full range of their God-given gifts as well as learning from non-Christians such as Colm Tóibín, whose powerful novel The Testament of Mary can help Christians think deeply about how to portray her.

Best arts-related worship grant proposals