Form and Meaning in Liturgical Art

Form and Meaning in Liturgical Art June 10, 2021

In April of 2005 I was busy waiting tables and preparing to finish my undergraduate degree. Mike Dodaro was already thinking deeply about art and liturgy, and doing some writing about it. His blog, Alienated in Church, is a treasure trove of insight about the status of worship, and much of his work has proven to be prophetic. Mike recently shared this post with me in response to my own recent post, and I found it to be an incredible treatment of the issue of form and meaning as it relates to worship. I share it here with his permission. Check out his other posts, as well.

A guest post by Michael Dodaro.

Discussions of art in the ministries of the church tend to draw a line between artistry and abstract theological content that supposedly transcends form and is the meaning communicated by music, liturgy, or the visual arts. If pop music is used in worship, it is claimed that it is the message that is important, not musical style. Simplistic praise choruses may be artistically bland and the texts of little theological substance, but, it is claimed there is conviction, faith, and true worship in the hearts of worshipers so engaged. It seems common sense to err in favor of earnest spirituality rather than reverence for art. Elegance in liturgy is getting to be a rarity, and it is considered stifling in many places. It also seems pointless, on the face of it, to argue about whether we will have guitar strumming or choral music by Palestrina. Occasionally, we consider whether art may have meaning in and of itself and how this meaning might aid worship or detract from it. Most people have some sense of the power of art to elevate the mood or arouse the passions. Plato thought that art that evokes passion was unsuitable in a rationally ordered republic. What might be latent in states of mind induced by the sensory stimulation of the arts?

Stimulation of the senses does seem a strange method, if communication of abstract meaning is the objective in liturgical art. Liturgy means literally “work of the people.” Why not let readings from the scriptures or the homily explicate the substance of our faith in plain language? If we want to be perfectly clear, why do we sing our texts and adorn our sanctuaries with symbols? Christians have created art from earliest times, even while enduring persecution. Paul and Silas sang hymns in jail. Believers hiding underground from the Roman authorities painted on the walls of the catacombs. We know they encouraged one another in plain language as well, because some of their writings are now canonical. But the Bible is not in the form of a theological discourse. The artistry of scripture conveys mysteries more profound than an abstract presentation of ideas or a paraphrase. Meaning in art cannot be a paraphrase. There may be no text. J. S. Bach dedicated his works to God’s glory, but how could one paraphrase one of his organ preludes?

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. We might add that an artistically rendered work of art communicates more than a thousand diagrams of the sort found in gospel tracts. The liturgical forms of the medieval church are in fact sacred music dramas. Opera began as a teaching ministry of the church. The defense of male clergy in liturgical churches is based on a reasoned anthropology in which the priest in the mass acts in the role of Jesus at the consecration of the Eucharist. This is drama of the most serious kind. The early history of musical drama in the church is summarized well by an excerpt from a 1993 book by Carl Gerbrandt. (Gerbrandt, Carl; Sacred Music Drama: A Producer’s Guide; Prestige Publications, 1993)

The historical evolution of the church’s liturgy and development of the Mass is in itself an example of ceremonial music drama. The Mass contains nearly all the ingredients of a music drama with members of the clergy serving as the solo performers and the congregation becoming the responsorial chorus. The varying rituals, the choreographed physical movement, the chanting, and the text are all in place to create a drama.

From about the tenth to the late thirteenth century, a form of liturgical music drama occupied an important place in the church’s worship activities. Various personages, at first only members of the clergy, were selected to portray the characters represented in the scripture reading of the service. Thus, a very simple scene was visually dramatized in the midst of the liturgy. The most commonly enacted scenes were taken from the Gospels and centered on seasonal events such as the Marys’ visiting the tomb of Christ and the activities and characters surrounding the birth of Jesus.

By the fourteenth century, cycles of such scenes known as mystery plays were being performed which covered the entire range of Biblical history from the creation to the last judgment. With few exceptions, these plays grew into something of an elaborate entertainment with lavish scenery, costumes and large casts.

With liturgical drama so entwined with the development of Western music, it is hard not find theological meaning in music, even in grand opera. A great deal of what we think of as the Western canon in literature has been explored in musical settings. When literary works are sung, another dimension is added to their meaning, whether the drama is enacted or simply becomes the text of an oratorio or choral setting. The controversy surrounding the influence of various kinds of music has a long history. Many theorists have argued that music has an effect on character formation. For a history of this discussion from Plato to Nietzsche, refer to Carson Holloway’s book entitled All Shook Up; Music, Passion, and Politics; Spence Publishing.

Though the theological rigor of creeds and confessions is never entirely adequate to delineate the topography of faith, it is still true that theologians, not artists, govern churches. Those inclined to formal statements of doctrine are apparently more decisive in action than common folk who gaze on parables in stained glass or the artists who create them. Effective preachers do recognize the power of anecdotes and stories, especially when they are vividly represented in sensory images. The theoretical writings of Jonathan Edwards argue that preaching must stimulate the senses.

Communication through the senses–the stock in trade of art–is not just a concession to human limitations. It is recognition of the physical nature of being human. We are created by God from the dust yet beloved in our earthly humanity to such a degree that God, at a critical stage in history, took on human flesh to fully participate in our world. Considered in light of the Incarnation, the sensory and physical aspects of art gain immeasurably in importance. It begins to seem as if it may be missing the point entirely to say that only the content of our worship matters, regardless of form. An analogy can be drawn between the historical error known as Docetism and the now popular misconception that form is unimportant if what we sing, or the meaning we intend by our art, is sincere. Docetism is a heresy that maintains the Incarnation of God in human flesh was an illusion or a temporary phase. A parallel fallacy is the claim that sincere worship can take any form. It verges on something outrageous. Imagine, for the sake of comparison, claiming that God could have communicated the forgiveness of sins just as well through announcements of amnesty in the news media as through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. These days it is claimed in all seriousness that the church is the same “in content” regardless of whether it observes traditions forged in the furnace of history or “contextualizes” the gospel in rock and roll idioms.

If we learn anything from advertising, we should know that how something is presented determines its impact, and, it must be acknowledged, a share of the meaning of what is communicated. Unfortunately, the wrong lessons are being taken from commercial art, and we end up marketing the gospel. The result is often just what the connotations of the word marketing imply—selling church at a price the traffic will bear and to the largest buying constituency. Sure, we can use methods from advertising and advanced technology. We can try to imagine Jesus as a radio talk-show host if we wish. But we should be cognizant of the messages that lay between the lines of our verbal communication and, most certainly, those that are latent in the images of our art. When there are resonances with pernicious cultural influences in our music, we are communicating something alien to the faith delivered to the apostles. The interesting thing about Martin Luther’s alleged superimposition of Ein Feste Burg on a tavern song is not that he contextualized Reformation theology for Heidelberg pop culture, but that classically trained composers soon harmonized this contraband melody in settings fit for church. Now we take perfectly serviceable Christian hymns and transliterate them into the vernacular of the tavern. The pastor of nearby church likes to kid me about such things. “That’s a nice tune,” he’ll say about some hymn standard, “Now can’t we tattoo it!”

How long, oh Lord! These reflections are being written during a day of seemingly endless waiting as I serve a term on jury duty. Civic responsibility and compulsion have prevailed over practicality this week. No telling at this point whether the lost time will have been a minor inconvenience or something that will set me back weeks or even months and take a toll from my family commitments and finances. A few observations are in order. First, though I didn’t want to do this, I should do it, nonetheless. Jury trials and jury duty are necessary in a just social order to apply the law with human comprehension of the subtleties and contradictions inherent in all legal codes. That is to say, we apply the law in a manner that might be compared to the nuances of art in worship as opposed to didactic and often tedious preaching conventions. Jesus, of course, had quite a lot to say about religious dogmatism and the privilege that attends those who are in positions to practice it. That many religious authorities are now the ones urging us in a direction that indiscriminately increases the numbers of trend followers in the church should not come as a shock. Preaching has come to be synonymous with simplistic reductionism and lack of subtlety or nuance. But, my second observation on jury duty is that in court there is a rigorous attempt to hear all sides of a given case before making judgment. This argument is an attempt to gain a hearing for a perspective on art that has been notably lacking both in advocates of pop music in church and church leaders who will hear the merits of persisting against the trends in favor of historic art and culture.

We began with what seemed to be a common sense opinion that art is not so important if sincere worship is our goal. Maybe it begins to intrude that “sincere” worship that ignores or is simply ignorant of the greatest expressions of Christian culture and liturgical forms that have endured for millennia is perhaps not really very sincere given the education and levels of affluence in American churches. Is it worthy of the God who reveals Himself in history for college-educated Christians to worship in ways that are so little informed by the traditions through which the faith has endured and been handed down to them? If it is ignorance that is at the root of this casual disregard of tradition, then the church has an obligation to teach. Where are the scholars who can explicate liturgical forms and give their students the understanding to embody theology in worship that sounds like the church of the ages instead of a lounge show or hootenanny? Most of the talk about new wine and old wineskins is misguided, as if the metaphor had always been applied to contextualization and not a distinction between law and gospel. If not ignorance of excellence in art, but willful abnegation from the magisterial succession that brings the church militant into the company of the church triumphant, then adopting contemporary anti-culture in church is probably something resembling the arrogance of youth. A callow self-assurance does seem to permeate the mood and music in our sanctuaries lately.

How many centuries did it take for the chanting heard in synagogues, monasteries, and even now in Eastern Orthodox Churches, to be molded by practitioners of the musical craft into the masterpieces of Victoria, Josquin, and Tallis, the baroque masterpieces of Bach and Handel, or the joyful vigor of Mozart, until even an agnostic like Brahms ordered his deepest sentiments in the musical idioms of Christians who preceded him? Blood was spilled in recurring iconoclastic controversies. Do we have to relearn the lesson that what we take from “pagan” culture must be things of beauty that are consistent with the transcendent ideals God has implanted in creation, not sensuality or worse, idolatry? The answer to these rhetorical questions is, of course, that it took as many centuries for the church to develop the forms of worship that molded the standards of Western art as it did for Christian theology to permeate Western culture. The noblest art does not come out of the minds of people working with the skills they have acquired in a few years of study, especially when their efforts have been mainly in an entertainment milieu. Great art is the result of centuries of development that builds on what has been learned through many cycles of study and innovation. In brief it comes out of a tradition like that of music in Western standard practice. If pagan Rome was not built in a day, how can we abide the folly that tries to justify pop art in a church that has outlasted Rome by a thousand years? If we made the same argument for contextualization of doctrine as we do for dressing up theology like a drag queen in contemporary art, we would have to throw out the Bible, the creeds, and the confessions. We would demolish thousands of magnificent buildings. Protestations that the “content” of our worship is unchanged hardly conceal the alien motive to fill our churches without really being the church.

If it is not pragmatism that impels us in the direction of swine the demons sent stampeding over a cliff, what is it? A senior statesman where I go to church reminds me that the big-band music of his youth was never imported wholesale into church. One of the demons of our own time is cultural relativism. It has so penetrated our thinking that inner-city ministries earnestly teach children African drumming without ever asking if the children under their tutelage can read or do basic arithmetic, these being skills valued by a dominant culture of dead white European males. Diversity is like a mantra chanted in every sector of public life. In church the response comes back, “Contextualization.” If it is conceded by our leadership that we should have good music, in the next instant the objection is raised, “But what is good music?” It’s sophistry like that of the Pharisee who asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?” Try to answer and contemporizers will dispute that there are even premises upon which the question might be decided. In antiphonal fashion we hear, “Diversity, Contextualization, Diversity, Contextualization.” Then amplified guitars drown everything in an undistinguished droning and somebody with a microphone who can’t sing wails amen.

No doubt the church will sound different in Los Angeles than in Boston or Butte, Montana. The high liturgy of Boston may not be feasible in Butte on a regular basis. But don’t bet on it. In Montana in the nineteen fifties in a town of eleven thousand people where I grew up, there were half a dozen churches with better choirs than most large urban churches can muster today. Many people can remember when quality mattered more than excitement. It isn’t for lack of the way that we don’t accomplish now what was done out in the boondocks years ago. It’s lack of the will. Easier just to let a juvenile mentality take over. The loudest music wins. To hell with the old people.

In the Christian tradition, the question of what is good music has largely been settled. Contextualization, if there is anything in it at all, should not be about debasing all points of reference, but translating, as in mission work, Christian truths into images that mean the same thing as the original gospel narratives. How do you communicate a theology of redemption from sin through the passion of Christ in easy listening harmonies? Maybe in evangelism raucous noise like a hell from which we wish to be delivered can describe the crucifixion, but to worship in the vernacular of a rock concert is like a dog returning to its own vomit. The church has only been in Borneo for a hundred years. Maybe it has been in parts of India since the twelfth century. But it has been the dominant cultural force in the West for nearly two millennia. The Biblical culture has been extant since Abraham left Ur. When Jesus said a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough, he could not have used a more apt metaphor for the pervasive influence the Biblical world-view would have on culture. What we now refer to as a culture war is in reality a revolt against normative formal order in the infrastructure of Western Civilization, an order that is Judeo-Christian to the core. Contributions of Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Africans, and a few others in art, in science, and in governance, have been evaluated and interpreted under the auspices of the church in light of Judeo-Christian moral premises. It should not surprise anybody, when revolutionaries are denouncing the ethics and epistemology in our “canonical” texts, that cultural accommodation in church leads to scorn for “robed choirs” who can still sing our best music.

Art is not in essence self-expression. Art is an embodiment of culture that teaches on a very profound level as it inspires, or ravishes, the whole person. When schmoozey praise choruses, and now even hard rock, drive historic music from the sanctuary, it surely says something about the substitution of subjective values for the rootedness of faith in history and in fact. These cautions are often diverted by the argument that disputes about musical style are trivial. Usually this is a shameless ploy to keep decision-making about the arts in private conferences. Your questions are old stuff, now just let us decide. In court, at least, the defense has an opportunity to cross-examine. But those inclined to sell the birthright for a mess of pottage know their ideas won’t stand up to open investigation of the issues.

Yes, art in worship must be accessible. Yes, classical musicians are often snobs. But it is important to remember that “classical” is by definition that which has been proven accessible and viable in diverse cultural contexts over countless generations. Palestrina and Mozart are much more universally accessible than any of the derivative pop being touted as the way to reach our generation for Christ. American Revival era music was roughly the equivalent of the sentimental fluff we’re hearing today, but fortunately, immigrant churches kept European traditions alive, and many converts of the revivalists, or their children, found their way into tradition-honoring churches. The Catholic Church has had digressions of its own to contend with, but some semblance of traditional liturgy has prevailed. Even down in the Bible-Belt, the musical culture was not bad until the boomers took over. Out in places like Oklahoma and Texas they used to listen to Texaco-sponsored broadcasts from the New York Metropolitan Opera. The lion’s share of contributions came from radio land. I don’t know if this is still true. Texaco has abandoned the project, perhaps to have its name associated instead with music coming out of Nashville. The church should have more commitment to its heritage.

To the hundreds of ethnic groups now living in American cities, the suburban values imbedded in the Gospel According to Jive are not more accessible than Gregorian Chant. A Korean church, not more that ten minutes from two local megachurches, does Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, etc. on a regular basis. The tenor soloist there was involved in an operatic production under the direction of Gian Carlo Menotti at the Olympic games in Seoul. Missions managed by church-growth specialists in the two-thirds world are running into an instructive backlash. At a conference in 1999 sponsored by the World Evangelical Fellowship based in Singapore, church leaders and missiologists from fifty-three countries gathered in Brazil. As Christianity Today editor David Neff reported, “Attention came to focus on American paternalism in the form of pragmatic marketing paradigms.” Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar criticized an “anti-theological” statistical approach that “has no resources to cope with suffering and persecution”. Joseph D’Souza, chair of All-India Christian Council indicted missiological trends that “have tended to turn communication into a technique where we market a product called salvation.” The large numbers of people from the two-thirds world living in American cities make this criticism applicable here. The best American church music came out of suffering, not pop culture. Black gospel and spirituals are still viable forms, though spirituals are being supplanted by “gospel” music not much better than that in the mainstream. And even in black spirituals, the influence of European Classicists is evident. Dvořak’s New World Symphony was written after a sojourn here. His copyist and protégé was none other than Harry Burleigh, one of the big three composers of spirituals. Dvořak taught him how to transform the folk music of slaves into something that conveyed their suffering and their faith to people all over the world. Marian Anderson was an early ambassador for civil rights. And don’t even begin to suggest that black Christians don’t appreciate Handel and Mozart.

A lot of nonsense in the dispute over worship styles can be boiled down to enthusiasm opposed to tradition. Edmund Burke’s prototypical essays are still among the best statements of the case for cultural stability maintained by tradition. His argument was intended to avert in England a debacle like the French Revolution. The state, he maintained, is like an organism, and any living thing grows in such a way that its health and vitality is not likely to be improved by revolutionary innovation. Trying to reinvent the church to evangelize every generation or subculture may add numbers to the rolls of the church in some places, but a church in revolt against itself is not the church. Burke also wrote that, in the final analysis, “Manners are more important than laws”, because manners precede and inculcate morals. The religious right is as unsophisticated in its understanding of the “two kingdoms” theory of Augustine as church-goers are becoming in their understanding of music. Using political power is not, in the long run, as effective as molding culture. If we can’t maintain the cultural ethos inside our buildings, why do we argue in public that our Judeo-Christian heritage needs to be preserved? Western Civilization is, in addition to regenerated lives, the best evidence we have that the gospel preached by the apostles was not mythology born of cognitive dissonance after Jesus’s crucifixion. A tree is known by its fruit. Let us not consign the high art that goes with the moral advances of the West to the dustbin of history in the name of cultural neutrality. Neutrality is impossible when we’re talking about basic ideals by which the church either thrives or languishes. Rooms full of enthusiasts who have no grasp of the historical revelation in which salvation is embodied do not by virtue of their numbers constitute an argument for dismissal of the best of Western art. There probably is, as we are being told, a place for pop art in some of the ministries of the church, but not when it drives out sublime art that has been created through the patronage of the church and Christian people through so many centuries.

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