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by Colin Harbinson

So the Reformed tradition in public worship sought to discard all that would come between a men and women and their God. The sermon was central. Worship was not only being caught up in praise and adoration; it was also God speaking to us. God spoke to His people and the vehicle He chose was the “foolishness of preaching.” The arts could have no place here as creational gifts. The proclamation of the Gospel was not the proper sphere of the arts within the creation.

Any critique of the Reformed tradition of worship must take into account the fact that the Reformers were no more anti-art than they were antiintellectual, and the historic tradition reflects this fact. Calvin had a strong sense of the responsibility of the arts for the common good, and it was this that governed his approach and appreciation.  However, the arts of men were to have no place in worship. The English Puritans also had this attitude to the arts. Although they forbade music in the Church—other than the unaccompanied human voice—they encouraged music-making in the home with the family gathered round the organ, or enjoying violin or fiddle music.  One of the greatest English Poets, Milton, was a Puritan. So the Puritans, in the Reformed tradition of refusing a place for the arts in worship, did not attack the place of arts in the world.  It was the lewdness and decadence associated with the theatre that they objected to rather than the art of drama; similarly, they objected to dancing because of the lasciviousness associated with it.

The Arts in Public Worship?

So the Reformed tradition that has sought to be faithful to the Word of God does have a meaningful, dignified simplicity that has not always meant a discarding of the arts in all of life. But should the arts of humanity—themselves the gift of God—have no place in public worship?

Whether consciously realized or not, the arts are present in most church services. Apart from the  architecture of the building and the craftsmanship and colors of the furnishings, there is music, the poetry of the readings, the rhetoric of the prayers and sermon and the dramatic reenactment of the Last Supper. But, in spite of the dangers and temptations, is there not a need for a greater use of the arts? Properly used they can be an aid to worship and can create an atmosphere of reverence and praise. They can also bring a real challenge and demand a valid response.

The Bible teaches that, while our citizenship is in heaven, we are also creatures of earth. The things of earth have their own particular effect upon us. We are not purely spiritual beings whose sole function is to live on a spiritual plane. This is why the psalmist found comfort in lifting his eyes to the hills and why Jesus told his disciples to look at the lilies, sparrows and grass of the field—all part of the physical creation.

These things are not wrong. As Calvin himself asked: “Should the Lord have attracted our eyes to the beauty of the flowers, and our senses to pleasant odors, and should it then be a sin to drink them in?  Has he not made even the colors so that one is more wonderful than the others? Has He not granted to gold and silver, to ivory and marble, a beauty that makes them more precious than other metals or stones? In a word, has He not made many things worthy of our attention that go far beyond our needs?”5

To those who are spiritually aware and awakened, beauty can bring them closer to God and create a sense of awe and worship. A sunset or sunrise, the moon reflecting on placid waters, a sparkling stream on a heather-clad hill, the shining rain or flashes of lightning in a darkening sky—each can bring the awareness of another dimension transcending time and place. The arts can have the same effect. The echo of a few bars of music, some lines of poetry, the expression on a sculpted face, a painting or a noble Cathedral can all touch the heart with wonder and awe.

So while recognizing that worship is more than a diet of artistic expression, and that the arts do not automatically lead to worship, there is the need to see afresh how they can be used to God’s glory and the good of His people within the context of worship. They can make it easier for burdened and weary hearts to be lifted up and dimmed eyes to be opened to catch a glimpse of something of the glory and majesty of the God who has made all things.

The image of the Christian faith as seen by most people is expressed in the Church building. “Architecture for churches is a matter of Gospel. A Church that is interested in proclaiming the Gospel must be interested in architecture, for year after year the architecture of the church proclaims a message that either augments the preached Word or conflicts with it. If the Gospel of Christ is worthy of accurate verbal proclamation week by week, it is also worthy of faithful architectural proclamation,
where its message speaks year after year.”6

Poetry and music together make an excellent didactic tool. This linking enables words to be easily recalled by the memory. With the considerable number of worship songs that are being written and sung today, it is all the more important to be able to identify poor poetry and equally poor theology. A good tune is never enough because the words, when engraved in the mind, become part of the theology and philosophy of Christian living.

Poetry is not confined to songwriting. It is a medium of the arts much used in the Bible and an excellent vehicle for communicating the truth. A suitable poem could provide a call to worship or prayer or even be used as a prayer in itself; many of the psalms are poetic prayers. Poetry can give a dramatic opening to a sermon or climax the message with a challenge in a sharp, concise way that demands a response. Poetry has the power to cheer the downcast, comfort the bereaved and crystallize the hope that lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel. But it must be poetry that is worthy of the name of art.

Cheap, sentimental verses that are not true to life should have no place in worship or in the life of the mature Christian. True art not only has the ability to create an immediate response but also is capable of lodging in the heart and mind, revealing fresh insights as it germinates. A poem, which is the work of a true craftsman in words, is always fresh and relevant.

Drama was used by the Prophets and has something to add to services of worship. Biblical drama can help in understanding the historical reality of the faith—a faith based on the God who acted in history. The dramatization of biblical stories can bring to life real people in real situations. However, it is not only biblical history that can be examined dramatically. Contemporary problems—indeed all of life—can also be fruitfully explored.

But such drama, as in all Christian involvement in the arts, must be true to the art form and to life, as well as to the Word of God. Romantic sweetness and glib answers must be avoided. The Greeks used the “god from the machine” device—the god who came down at the end of the play to resolve all problems. It is not a valid contribution to drama to substitute Christ for this deus ex machina and to imply that all dilemmas and difficulties can be immediately solved by the acceptance of Christ and the Christian faith. Such art is artificial. Life is not like that, and the Bible does not give easy answers to all moral and intellectual problems in a world where all things are darkened by sin.

Mime and dance can also disclose fresh aspects of human experience and portray new ways of showing the goodness of God. Emotions are often too deep for words and the non-verbal arts of music, mime and dance can express the inexpressible. Certainly they were used among the people of God in the recorded history of the Scriptures.

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