I’m listening, but I can’t see anything (Light from the Dark Ages 3)

I’m not sure how many sermons and lectures I’ve attended in the last thirty-nine years. But, it’s a lot. And, after countless hours spent in such oratorical contexts, I’ve learned one very important point. I don’t learn well that way. Unless I take a lot of notes and really force myself to pay attention, I’ll walk out with very little idea of what I just heard. Hearing is not my strong suit.

Indeed, my wife always gets frustrated with me in church. She’ll lean over during the sermon and ask a question. And my usual response is, “Oh sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

It’s not that I don’t care. I’m big fan of the Bible, and I think preaching is fundamentally important. Nor does it mean that my pastors don’t preach well. I’m fully capable of losing focus in the midst of the most outstanding sermon. I just drift. Within five minutes, the preacher will have said something that sparked a thought…and I’m gone. I’ll tune back in again a little later and try to pick up the thread of the sermon, but that usually doesn’t last long either.

I’m much more of a visual learner. What I see has a far greater impact on me than what I’ve only heard. I’m sure that’s largely why I love books and have always been fascinated by movies, TV, and the internet. It’s taken me a while to appreciate other visual arts, but I’m getting there.

I learn best with my eyes, not my ears.

And no, putting the main ideas on power point slides doesn’t qualify.

From what I understand, I’m far from alone. Lots of people struggle to learn well with their ears. Yet, the only mechanism many churches use to teach and train people is the spoken word. Should there be a greater role for the visual in Christian worship and education?

From its earliest days, the church appreciated the importance of visual elements in worship. Whether they worshiped in a house, a catacomb, or a church, the early Christians went out of their way to decorate their worship sites will all kinds of art. Such artistic productions stood alongside the written and preached word as a key aspect of Christian formation.

Despite this long history, two events in the early medieval church contributed to an even greater emphasis on the visual arts in worship. First, as I mentioned in an earlier post (Should we teach classes on how to speak Christanese?), the loss of Latin at the popular level rendered many people incapable of understanding most of the liturgy. Thus, the visual and kinesthetic (bodily movement) aspects of the liturgy took on an even greater importance. Hearing took a back seat and other modes of cognition rose to prominence.

At the same time, the iconoclast controversy provided greater theological justification for the use of visual representation in Christian worship. Without going into the details of the controversy, it revolved around the question of whether it was legitimate to have “images” in Christian churches despite the prohibition of the second commandment. After decades of turmoil and conflict, the consensus emerged that the doctrines of creation and the incarnation both support the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of recognizing art as a legitimate expression of Christian worship. (For a good resource on this, see “Saint John of Damascus and the Iconoclastic Controversy.”)

Together, these two events placed the medieval church on a strong trajectory toward the use of the visual in worship and education.

I can see a lot of value in this development. But, there were some problems as well.

  • The neglect of the spoken and written word. To the extent that we are a people of the word, we simply cannot ignore or neglect the word spoken and written in worship and education. To be fair, the medieval church didn’t sacrifice this entirely, but it was often sadly neglected and underappreciated. Combined with some of the other weaknesses on this list, this left the medieval church exposed to all kinds of problems, setting the stage for the reaction against the visual arts in many segments of the Protestant reformation.
  • The neglect of certain modes of learning. An illiterate laity (often accompanied by an illiterate clergy) and an overemphasis on the visual led to an almost complete neglect of other modes of learning. As much as I appreciate the visual arts, there are some things they just don’t do well (e.g. explain complex ideas, sustain careful arguments, etc.). Losing these modes of learning weakened the church in devastating ways.
  • The failure to train viewers. Though appreciating the power of the visual, the church often failed to understand that people need to be trained to understand the visual arts well. If you doubt, just walk into a modern art museum. (Or, if you already understand modern art, take someone who doesn’t.) Look at those black and red splotches. You can “see”, but can you “see as” the art intends? Can your imagination be shaped by those red scribbles as the artist hoped? Probably not. If you’re like me, you’ll just be annoyed by the pretensions of the modern artist and wonder if you can get your money back. Christian art works the same way. Unless you’ve learned how to “see” the art properly, you may not see it at all. Or, possibly worse, you may end up seeing all kinds of things that were never intended to be there – which takes us to our last point.
  • The interpretive openness of the visual. One of the things that renders the visual arts so powerful is their openness to interpretation. Granted, all forms of communication bear a similar openness. But there’s something distinct about the ability of the visual to remain open before the interpreter and host a wide range of ideas and meanings. This is its power, but it can also be its weakness. Used casually or carelessly, the viewer can find meaning and application far removed the art’s original intent, subverting its own purpose. And, in the middle ages, this often contributed to rampant syncretism. Without proper training in how to see the art properly, people easily integrated it much of their pagan religiosity and superstition. The eucharist becomes a magical ceremony to appease the wrathful gods; Mary morphs into a fertility goddess; and God becomes Odin (or some other deity).

So, what can we learn from all of this today?

  • The need to engage multiple modes of learning. Many of the Reformers responded harshly to the medieval emphasis on the visual. And, given some of the problems mentioned above, that’s understandable. But, we’ve also seen that medieval church had good theological, anthropological, and pedagogical reasons for its visual practices. And, we’ve seen that an overemphasis on one learning style alone can have negative ramifications for the church. So, we would be well advised to learn from those who have gone before and recognize the need for a more holistic approach to worship and education.
  • The need to retain the word written and spoken. At the same time, we should heed well the problems that the medieval church encountered and the serious objections raised by the Reformers. We are and must be people of the Word. We should, therefore, tread lightly and thoughtfully down any path that might take us away from this focus. The visual does not need to be one of those paths, but it has been before and it could be again.
  • The need to use the visual carefully. We teach people to read, to think carefully, and to speak clearly. But, for some reason, we think that everyone intuitively understands how to use and respond to the visual arts. We don’t talk about how to watch a movie, how to view a painting, or how to watch a ballet. Why not? Do we think all people have an innate ability to watch Glee well? Of course not. As we’ve seen, used carelessly, the visual arts can have tragic consequences for the church. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use them. (All modes of expression have their own potential for misunderstanding and misuse.) But, it does mean that we need to use them far more carefully than often seems to be the case. Indeed, the resurgence of the visual arts in many churches today makes me nervous for this very reason.

Many of us are visual people. And, from what I’ve seen of God’s creation, I think he’s okay with that. Yes, God spoke. And he speaks. So, let’s speak and speak boldly. But, God also painted, sculpted, acted, and so much more. Let’s learn from the medieval church and see if we can engage all of these modes of expression carefully, thoughtfully, and worshipfully.

(For the rest of the posts in this series, see 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.)


About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on March 15, 2011, in Anthropology, Medieval Church, The Church, Worship. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Two non-verbal vehicles for teaching and learning: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You can feel them and taste them – and they are participatory, and not just observed.

    Some overstated push back: You wrote: “we think that everyone intuitively understands how to use and respond to the visual arts.” So, should I go to worship to learn this? God obviously cares about numbers (given all the lists of names, censuses, etc.). But do I go to worship to learn accounting? He cares about animals, e.g. creation, ark, etc. Do we teach people to build coops for urban chicken growers? Where does it stop? And why privilege “the arts” over any other category that we might discern from Scripture?

  2. My response got a little long, so I’ve cut it up into a few comments.

    Yes, communion and baptism are great non-verbal vehicles. Indeed, one of my greatest frustrations at my current church is that our current practice really minimizes these as an effective means of ongoing formation (i.e. quarterly communion and separate baptismal services).

  3. I definitely did not mean to imply that we need to learn this during the worship service. That would be like spending all our time talking about worship rather than actually doing it.

    But, I would reject your analogies as parallel to what I’m talking about. The question is really whether a particular practice is a valuable expression of corporate worship and whether people need to be educated to engage that practice well. Reading scripture is a valuable practice, but neither accounting nor husbandry are necessary for reading scripture well in worship. But, literacy is. So, if we had mostly illiterate people in our churches, I’d be promoting literacy as conducive to good worship. (Of course, you can worship without literacy, but I think it’s conducive to worship and worth promoting. So, I’d prefer education to changing worship practices in this area, which is the alternative.) That doesn’t necessarily mean the church has to have reading programs, but it does mean that the church has a vested interest in making sure that people are learning to read.

    I’m just saying the same about the visual arts. I think that done well they can be conducive to good worship and that it takes education to do them right. The church doesn’t necessarily need to be the context for this, but it has an interest in making sure that it gets done, and done well. (And, since I think a proper appreciation of beauty requires a theological framework, I’d be skeptical that this can be done well entirely outside the framework of the church.)

  4. I focused on the visual arts specifically because that’s the issue that the medieval church was addressing, which is the starting point for the series. There may well be other modes of expression worth considering in worship.

    So, I definitely wouldn’t want to “privilege” the visual arts. That’s exactly the kind of pendulum swinging I’m arguing against.

  5. One of the greatest sermons / devotionals I heard – seen was by a RC priest at a inter-demon-national prayer meeting. There he produces and lit a number of candles and explained how they represented us and the smoke represented our prayers going to heaven.
    He explained how the scent was representative of our prayers being a pleasant incense to the Lord.

    I have never been able to look at a candle the same since. 😉

    Also the Jewish worship was highly visual and used all the senses of smell, sight, touch and taste along side the spoken word… Last year we had a Messianic missionary come and explain the pass-over meal at church – during the actual meal… that was like WOW!

    Another pastor I know took an unusual and yet powerful stance one Easter. They didn’t have a proper service…as such. They blacked the church windows out, set up a number of projectors which displayed random pictures over the walls. They had quiet back ground music and hymns playing – with a table set up with the communion elements for people to come and partake of when they liked….the church was open the whole day and allowed visitors to come and go as they liked.

    If I ever get the chance as a pastor – I would so much like to do that myself.

  1. Pingback: 6 things we can learn about worship from the Dark Ages « scientia et sapientia

  2. Pingback: No Blog is an Island – 3.18.11 « Nate Navigates the Bible

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: