Theology of Art (Piper)
John Piper offers a wonderful theology of art, in which he defines art as that which is done not merely for utilitarian purposes, but to move or affect.
Strengths of this definition:
What we could add to this brief definition:
Urbanization & You
The world spins madly on, and as it spins, our population continues to increase.
Over and over again, artists have questioned our tendency to clump together in urban centers and destroy the natural world around us. At the same time, philosophers and theologians contemplate how historical truths apply in an ever-changing landscape.
We often take our surroundings for granted, but that can be dangerous. Rather than accepting the status quo, we should follow the lead of artists like Yang Yongliang and consider where our trajectory will take us. For those of us who believe in God, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our time, our energy, our people, and our world.
Good Design & Good Results
Good design has dramatic effects upon the human brain. We have all sensed that in one way or another — maybe through an abstraction painted by Pollock, a computer designed by Apple, or a sunset displayed by God. But have you ever wondered why?
“Why We Love Beautiful Things” (you can read it here) is a well-written article that explores the connection between good design and science. It is worth reading for anyone who enjoys art and its relation to our brains. Here is how the article ends:
“We think of great design as art, not science, a mysterious gift from the gods, not something that results just from diligent and informed study. But if every designer understood more about the mathematics of attraction, the mechanics of affection, all design — from houses to cellphones to offices and cars — could both look good and be good for you.”
I would add that science, too, is a gift from God. Science does not diminish from art, but adds to the incredible wonder of our complex, yet utterly coherent, world that God has made. From a theistic viewpoint, art and science compliment each other because they have a common Creator, so these findings should not surprise us, but rather encourage us as we pursue the arts and sciences.
Photo: NY Times (click image for link)
Why Update Hymn Arrangements?
An important, yet often neglected, reason to update hymn arrangements relates to chord structures and patterns. Updating a song, or becoming more relevant, is not merely a matter of instrumentation. Simply adding guitar and drums does not make a hymn contemporary. In fact, many of the hymns were composed for piano or organ, so we can do them a disservice by simply swapping instrumentation.
Arrangements need to be flexible. In the music world, arrangements are part of the “language,” just as authors vary their sentence structures. We need to be cognizant of this as musicians — not berating people for being born in a different time period, but being sensitive to how culture has changed. We cannot expect someone born in 1998 to speak the musical language of the 1730’s, and if we do, we are being elitist.
Certain chords (e.g., diminished chords) just aren’t as common in popular music these days, and it can sometimes create an extra barrier that prevents people from focusing on the lyrics of our worship songs. For that reason, it’s beneficial to rearrange hymns, so that more people can appreciate them — even if they are slightly updated.
Of course, we should not limit ourselves to I, IV, V chords. While we should slowly experiment and try to teach congregations different styles, we cannot force it upon them. As with any language, it is necessary to start with what people already speak and gradually teach the new language.
The Structure of Worship
Helpful comments from C.S. Lewis on experiencing the “art of worship” within familiar forms:
“Every church service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best– if you like, it ‘works’ best– when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it.
As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling.
The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God. But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about worship is a different thing from worshipping…
A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the question ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion to waste.
There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.’
Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. I can make do with almost any kind of service whatever, if only it will stay put.
But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship.”
–C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harvest, 1964), 4-5.
What Makes “Christian” Art?
What makes “Christian” art? This debate has gone on for many years, but at least in my circles, the discussion has not progressed very far. In some ways, this question can be misleading because there is not necessarily a single answer. There are at least 3 ways to define Christian art:
1. In terms of source: art made by a Christian individual or a group of Christians.
2. In terms of motive: art intended to minister to others or to glorify God in a general way.
3. In terms of message: art that communicates a message about the Christian God or is somehow influenced by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Considering the Oxford dictionary as an example, there are various alternatives when defining a word. A single definition is not more “correct” than another, so we would be better off describing what kind of Christian art we are talking about. As a result, the conversation can advance further when we avoid semantics and focus our discussion on a specific kind of Christian art.
Lyric Formatting for Worship
In many churches, there has been a subtle change over the past decade. When we started using PowerPoint for worship, the majority of churches would use a slide for a verse, another slide for the chorus, and so on. Today, however, the trend is to use a slide for 2 to 4 lines — more like a snippet — in order to display larger font, include artwork, or show video of the band.
While this generally looks better and in a few cases is helpful, we should not accept it without question. One downside of fewer lyrical lines being displayed on a slide is that it makes it more difficult to memorize the lyrics. Rhymes are split between slides, and congregants have a more difficult time determining what is the verse, pre-chorus, chorus, and bridge. Also, it is impossible to “look ahead” to scan what lyrics are coming up.
This may seem insignificant until you consider the consequences it has upon our worship. In my own case, I have noticed that I close my eyes and raise my arms less because I need to be more concentrated on figuring out what words are coming next. As with all new media, we need to examine how such media affects the way that we worship.
What is a Hymn?
A friend recently asked me to explain what a hymn is, and it is a great question. Here are a few observations. Feel free to comment and add any of your own.
1. A hymn is not determined by when it was written. The date is irrelevant. Many hymns are being written today — usually more modern in style and easier to sing.
2. Hymns often consist of a progression of lyrics, thus the need for multiple verses. (e.g., progressing from the incarnation to the consummation)
3. Hymns are generally more eloquent and theological, and for that reason, they appeal to the cognitive part of us. Hymns inspire by reminding believers of specific doctrinal truths.
4. Hymns are usually laden with complex truths, which makes them suitable to pair with praise choruses that are often simpler and more emotive. We need to worship in both spirit and truth.
5. Hymns often repeat words, especially during a refrain — a trait that they share in common with praise choruses.
6. Hymns are not inerrant. Some are well-written and worth singing, while others are not. Some wonderful hymns have been treasured by the church and passed down for centuries.
7. Hymns acquire deeper meaning over time as Christians sing them in church, at weddings, at funerals, decade after decade. As a Christian sings them over the years, the truth expressed in the lyrics becomes more precious.
8. Older hymns often have a difficult melody line to sing and can be out of the vocal range of many people. The notes and style are not sacred, however, so musicians should feel free to adjust the melody and arrangement for the sake of the congregation.
All of Creation – Psalm 19
Before God created music, He created the heavens and earth. Think about it for a moment. There are many styles of music, but we all share the oceans, the stars, the sun and moon. All over the world, we look at the same handiwork of God. Incredible!
Psalm 19:1-2 tells us that the skies display the glory of God. David says that the world around us declares, proclaims, speaks, and displays truth about God. In other words, God’s creation speaks to all cultures, to every part of the globe — regardless of language or dialect. Everyone can see God’s glory because He left no one out.
To inspire global worship in our churches, it is helpful to include images of creation in worship gatherings. Since most congregants spend a large part of their week indoors, Sunday is a great opportunity to remind them that the world is bigger than the sanctuary. In doing so, make sure that artwork and photography represents a wide scope of locations, not just scenes of North America.
God is committed to global worship, and we should try to reflect this in our worship gatherings.
Technology & The Church
I am a huge proponent of incorporating technology into the local church. It deserves to be said, however, that when it comes to technology in the local church, we need to think through our options. Just because we can do something, doesn’t mean that we should.
On a practical level, one instance of this is the recent increase of multiple video screens (usually in larger churches) and the rise of satellite churches (which incorporate sermons via a video feed). After nearly 2000 years of church ministry, only in the past decade or two has this technology been an option. In response to this growing phenomenon, much could be said about the importance of personal contact, proximity, and lifestyle as they relate to preaching. A quick illustration, however, will suffice to show why we need to think through these issues:
At the most recent Presidential inauguration, there were roughly 2 million people in attendance. Some of these people were near President Obama or within eyesight, while others were 2 miles away at the Lincoln Memorial. Those who were far away, of course, depended on video screens in order to see what was happening on stage. They were present in person, but in in a different sense.
That actual event reveals a very simple truth: people within eyesight had a greater sensory experience, while those far away (though enjoying their time) had a much different experience. For those watching a video screen (2 miles away), there was a personal disconnect that could not be fully resolved by technology. At least to a degree, they were removed from the action. They were participating, for sure, but in a more distant sense.
Of course, this directly relates to preaching because a preacher appeals on behalf of God and calls people towards a response. We should want as much “proximity” as possible and not allow technology to get in the way. On the other hand, some may argue that technology increases proximity more often than decreasing it. Maybe the question we ask is, “How does this particular technology change ministry (compared to New Testament times), and how do we overcome any potential weaknesses?”
While technology certainly has a place and can be very helpful — obviously, without technology there would be no internet or printing presses — we also need to be aware of the drawbacks. The point here is that simply adding more technology does not automatically ensure real, inner life change. Rather than simply accepting whatever technology is available to us, we need to be careful and weigh the advantages and disadvantages of incorporating technology in the local church. The solution is not a boycott of technology, but a greater effort to think through how we use technology.
Poem: Belated Eulogy
Nearly two years later, it is still difficult to write about our son, Jeremiah. For months, I could not write about his death. Then, after it became possible for me to write, I felt like anything that I wrote was far too trivial.
About a year ago, I wrote my first song about our experience and memories. Now, about two years later, I am writing my first poem. (I had tried to write one earlier, but again, it seemed too trivial.) I woke up today, a very snowy day, and was frightened by how easily I forget those lives that are so meaningful to me. I decided to write so that I could remember. I suppose it didn’t feel trivial because I was not writing for the purpose of writing a poem, but for the purpose of remembering.
This poem may evolve with time, or I may write another. In the meantime, you are welcome to read my first attempt: joeljupp.com/poetry.html
Theology of the Arts
Recently I was asked about my view of the arts in local church. I thought I’d post my brief response, in case it is helpful to anyone.
When it comes to the creative arts, I believe that art is a wonderful part of the Christian life. Various passages of Scripture reveal that God loves creativity, He enjoys various expressions of art, and He desires to be glorified through the arts.
In the local church, creativity’s primary purpose is to glorify God. A theme verse of mine has been Psalm 115:1, though there are many to support this. In no particular order, secondary purposes of the creative arts include: (1) delighting in creation, (2) expressing ourselves to God, (3) soothing/reviving our spirit, (4) edifying the church with sound doctrine, and (5) testifying to non-believers.
Worship is important to God and to His people. Although the creative arts should be enjoyable — very enjoyable — it is far more than being a form of entertainment. As I see it, the arts serve as the intersection between theology and expression. In biblical terms, this means worshiping in “spirit and truth.” We get into trouble when we neglect one or the other.
Finally, worship extends far beyond music and the other arts. It includes all of our actions. 1 Corinthians 10:31 makes it clear that we can even glorify God in our common, everyday activities, which extends far beyond a few hours on Sunday. (And based upon Amos, it is fair to say that this “daily worship” is much more important than the music on Sunday morning.) In a sense, creative arts are not an end in themselves, but a means towards greater service, sacrifice, love, etc. Worship beyond Sunday morning is the real test for the Church, and which ultimately determines the validity of its corporate worship.
WorshipGod Worship Conference (Sovereign Grace, 2008)
Very rarely do I post links to other websites, but this one is so beneficial, I couldn’t resist.
If you are interested in worship or lead worship at your church, Sovereign Grace has graciously posted 37 audio sessions on their website at:
Worship conferences usually cost several hundred dollars, so this is a blessing for those of us without such resources. Although I did not attend the conference, these audio sessions are the next best thing.
Animoto is kind of scary, yet also very cool. Using this service, you can insert photos and music, and it automatically creates a video. This is an extremely practical tool if you need a quick alternative to a slideshow. My guess is that these videos will soon be all over the internet.
I suppose that some people would consider randomness to be art. (Some fractals, for instance, are random.) But randomization can only go only go so far, especially if it requires little or no skill on our part.
As we enter into a new realm of technological possibilities, we should enjoy the latest forms of digital art, but we need to avoid confusing the latest technology with art.
Just as with any other decision that we make, it would be fair to say that true art must involve willful intent. Beauty can happen by accident, but not art.