Liturgical art both reflects and inspires faith. Unlike other forms of fine art, liturgical art is intended to be a communal expression of belief. Unfortunately, for reasons dating back to the Reformation, many Protestant denominations have historically given the visual arts short shrift. The Protestant tradition, rooted in Sola Scriptura, has some work to do to embrace art as a means of exploring spiritual mystery, reflects professor of art Chris Cuthill. “Art is not about finding solutions. It’s about opening the mind to divergent ways of thinking and responding,” he continues. “So for an intellectual tradition built on catechisms and clear answers, art, which poses more questions than answers, may still take a while to build a rich, living tradition within the church.”
But congregations are warming to the idea of introducing the visual back into worship. “There’s a hunger to experience things with your whole being, and that’s a lot of what art is about,” observes Phil Irish, professor of art at Redeemer. “There’s mystery to God, mystery to our life and faith, and catechism doesn’t necessarily take us there.”
Art and its place in the church does indeed offer more questions than answers for the contemporary Christian worshipper, as conversation with Cuthill and Irish quickly proves. Their frank discussions of art and faith are peppered with questions that hang in the air. What can we learn about theology through the arts? How do you connect creativity and prayerfulness? How can the visual enhance worship? What does art teach us that words cannot? For a start.
These questions inform artistic study at Redeemer. While liturgical art is not their primary focus, Cuthill and Irish both encourage students to think about how art and faith speak to each other. When Irish reflects on their desire to equip students, he points to similarities between ancient religious practices that quiet the mind and the methods artists use to prepare themselves for the studio, such as repetition, habitual practices, listening and trust. “You’re made in a certain way,” Irish tells his students. “These things that make you thrive creatively are also the things that God wants to use to make you thrive spiritually.”
Art also meets faith in culture making. Cuthill and Irish help students to recognize the role they play in shaping culture. “Culture isn’t something we’re removed from. We’re in it and we have a voice in it. Clarify your voice,” Irish urges. Cuthill and Irish have worked with students to engage culture by showing their work in venues like galleries and churches.
One of the advantages of Redeemer’s liberal arts ethos and small size is that students have opportunities to participate across disciplines. In many larger institutions, studio space is reserved for only those who major or minor in art. Redeemer encourages people from different disciplines to take art courses. “They might bring in psychology or science or whatever they’re studying, and it feeds into the conversation in the studio,” comments Irish.
This valuing of diversity is part of what makes art so essential to the church, suggests Cuthill. “Church is an odd thing. We bring together people from different backgrounds, life experiences, careers, and we put them all together in one place and say, now you need to respond in the same way.”
But congregations benefit from a variety of forms of worship. “So when we incorporate the visual into the worship experience, we’re recognizing that we’re a body unified, but also a body that celebrates difference,” Cuthill says. “That’s the really cool thing about church. That difference in unity can come together in one place.”