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“To an angel, art must seem a very foreign thing indeed.” —Nicholas Wolterstorff in Art in Action: Toward a Christian Aesthetic (Eerdmans, 1980)

Imagine this: There is a woman in your congregation who is a talented quilter. She’s covered all the beds in her house and most of the beds in her children’s and grandchildren’s houses with her handiwork. Inevitably, she begins making quilts for members of the congregation – particularly those who are ill or grieving. Nothing says comfort, after all, like a warm, handmade quilt. Soon other members of the congregation join her in this work, and it becomes a communal project. Then the founder of the quilting circle is herself diagnosed with cancer of a particularly aggressive and malignant type. The quilters understand that this woman knows her craft, so the quilt they make for her needs to be extra-special. They also understand that this quilt will likely not see their friend recover. They choose a white-on-white palette and use a trapunto technique to create an intricate raised pattern of wheat sheaves – a symbol of resurrection in the color of Easter – for their friend’s quilt.

Eventually their friend dies. The quilt is draped over the casket in lieu of the expensive bouquet of flowers the funeral home tried to press on the family. Because it is such an effective representation of warmth and care and congregational belonging, soon others in the church ask to use the quilt for the funerals of their loved ones. The quilt becomes a marker of congregational belonging for families in the midst of their grief.

After functioning in this manner for some time, collecting the memories of so many in the congregation, it occurs to a member of the worship committee that this year, for Lent, perhaps they could hang what is now known as “the memorial quilt” in the sanctuary, backed by a purple cloth. On Easter Sunday, they would change the backing to gold. What better way to weave our individual journeys of grief and hope into the fabric of the congregation’s shared faith in the redemptive power of God’s love?

What better way, indeed. After its stint as a Lenten and Easter banner, the quilt goes back into circulation for funerals and memorials. But now it bears the additional resonance of communal Lenten sorrow and shared Easter joy. What began as an individual initiative gradually, organically and contagiously grows into an incredibly effective distillation of the identity, memory and faith of the congregation.


The scenario described above is imagined, synthesized from several stories I’ve heard in my years of talking with Christian artists and art-interested congregations. But it’s also entirely plausible. I begin with this scenario because it highlights two key points basic, I think, to making effective use of the visual arts in our congregations. The first highlights our peculiar notions of what gets to count as art. Does a quilt count as art? Or is it craft? The distinction, though highly problematic, remains nonetheless common and turns on our deep-seated but mostly unexamined conviction that art should be useless, that as soon as we seek to turn art to some purpose beyond pure looking or listening or enjoyment, it ceases to be art and becomes something else. Advocates for art in our churches often have “high art” or “fine art” in mind, which is in fact often thought to be definitively useless. We thus overlook the broad array of objects and skills present in our congregations that might be used to deepen worship and enrich congregational life.

In its new, post-Romantic incarnation, people began to look to art, whether as makers or viewers, primarily as a manifestation of the self.

This leads directly to a second key point, concerning not definition but function. The effect of my imaginary quilt has little to do with aesthetic contemplation or a radiant encounter with transcendent beauty. (Though, we must note, were the quilt ugly or shabby or cheaply made, it could not have borne the weight of memory, belonging and hope that it came to bear.) Rather, this imaginary quilt exemplifies functions for art that are mostly overlooked in our modern Western culture: art as a vessel for memory, art as a marker of identity, art as a distillation of story. For most of pre-Romantic, Western history and for much of the rest of the world to this day, these are the basic functions of the things we designate as art in the modern West.

Let me pause and say a word about that adjective “pre-Romantic.” Romanticism, along with the emergence of the commercial art market at roughly the same time, effected a sea-change in how Europeans and European immigrants in North America came to understand art. Certainly, before the emergence of Romanticism, there had been singular artists and avid private collectors. But the assumed norm was church- or state- or civic-sponsored art that was understood to be a vital part of the social fabric. Art was meant to speak to groups of people, informing them (often problematically, to be sure!) of who they were, what they should value, to whom they owed their welfare and therefore their fealty. Romanticism, along with an emergence of the market as the point of contact between artist and viewer, radically shifted the normative assumptions about what art is and what it is for. Engagements with art moved from being imagined as normatively social to being imagined as normatively private and individual. I say “imagined as” because even as engagement with art was formerly imagined as social, it still had deeply individual motivations for artists and viewers that can be acknowledged and explored. Similarly, even as Romantic and post-Romantic engagements with art are imagined as essentially private and individual, there remain, nonetheless, deeply social dynamics that should be acknowledged and explored.

In its new, post-Romantic incarnation, people began to look to art, whether as makers or viewers, primarily as a manifestation of the self, as a vehicle for personal expression and individual encounter – be that with beauty or with the sublime or the aesthetic or the transcendent or even with God. It’s no surprise, then, that at this time, we begin to see art-loving pastors and religiously sensitive artists mapping aesthetic experience onto religious experience. The work of the German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich, inspired as it was by the poems, novels and sermons of the Romantic, nature-loving Lutheran pastor Ludwig Gotthard Kosegarten, is only the most famous example of such a collapse of the realm of religious experience into aesthetic experience.


It’s understandable, then, that today, when Christian artists and art lovers – who in the West are largely heirs of Romanticism – seek to justify the importance of art for the life of the church, they often do so by reaching for those elements of art that seem at first glance to be most resonant with the experience of faith: a personal encounter with transcendence, a sense of ineffability, the desire to be drawn into a larger realm beyond the here and now. Like Clive Bell, the important modernist critic from the early decades of the 20th century, they might argue that “great art remains stable and unobscured because the feelings it awakens are independent of time and place, because its kingdom is not of this world” (Art [1914]). It’s an attractive argument, an argument that claims tremendous power and caché for art and an argument that meshes easily with our generally post-Romantic notions about art, what it is and what it’s for. And yet – as a justification for art, it is also incredibly limited and limiting. Not that art can’t evoke the transcendent, or never transports us beyond the here and now. But art can and does do so much more. When we contrast Bell’s conviction that art’s “kingdom is not of this world” with Nicholas Wolterstorff’s statement that “to an angel, art must seem a very foreign thing indeed,” we enter a very different world of thinking about art. Or perhaps not such a different world after all. Perhaps we merely enter more fully into our own world.

Art speaks to our deep belonging to this world.

Students in my Theory and Criticism in the Arts class read both Bell and Wolterstorff (in addition to many other thinkers) over the course of the semester. Without fail, that sentence from Wolterstorff’s Art in Action brings them up short. We always have to pause and talk about what it means that, to an angel, art is a very foreign thing. The sentence occurs in the section of the book where Wolterstorff develops the implications for the arts of our human embeddedness in the created world. He finishes that section by reflecting:

With our bodies, among rocks and trees, among colors and fragrances, we find our fulfillment; and only thus do we find it fully. Earthly existence is one of God’s favors to us. When the Christian affirms the goodness of the physical creation, he is not just praising its magnificence. He is saying that the physical is good for human beings. It serves human fulfillment. Earth is man’s home, the world is his dwelling place. (72)

Later in that same section, Wolterstorff points to how “a bit of natural reality which is in itself of minor significance – marks on paper, sounds, gestures – is caught up into the fabric of human action and given a significance which bears no relations whatsoever to its inconspicuousness in the natural order of things. … In man, nature speaks. Without nature, man could not speak.” Art, it seems, is not so much “a kingdom not of this world” but rather a phenomenon that speaks to our deep belonging to this world.


After a semester of abstract, ethereal and often contradictory theorizing about art, Wolterstorff’s down-to-earth concreteness comes as something of a shock to my students. But after the shock settles, it’s followed by a palpable sense of recognition and relief. These are, after all, young artists who have committed themselves to intense dialogue with the material world. While there are certainly abstract concepts, commitments and ideas involved in their art-making, their work is also inescapably embedded in the stuff of this world. Even those working in the more ephemeral media of performance or projection have to deal with the concrete limitations of light, space and time. Of all the people we encounter over the course of the semester, Wolterstorff is the first to dignify that materiality, as materiality, with profound theological significance. For those of us interested in recovering the power of the visual arts for the purposes of Christian worship and congregational life, this is where I think we need to start – with our human creatureliness, with our abiding relationship to the created order of which we are a part. We speak through nature, and nature speaks through us.

But what is it that we speak through nature? Certainly we speak of our deep longing for transcendence, and we express through art our hope of things not seen. Those who point to the power of art to take us out of or beyond ourselves are not wrong. But to understand what else art might do for the worshipping church, we might turn to the range of functions that art plays in non-Western cultures. In Non-Western Art: A Brief Guide (Prentice Hall, 2001), her primer on understanding art in a global context, Lynn Mackenzie notes four major roles for the kinds of things Westerners call art found in most cultures around the globe: art for documentation, which preserves a people’s history; art for affiliation, which organizes people within community; art for intervention, which seeks to direct unseen forces or connect people to unseen realms; and finally art for aesthetic contemplation – the dominant function of art as it has come to be defined in modern Western culture but a function that also is found in other cultures around the world. Though there are certainly more functions for art than documentation, affiliation, intervention and contemplation, these four do capture the main roles that art plays in a global context. They also offer a helpful correction to the conventional narrowness of our typical post-Romantic assumptions about what art is and what it is for.

Returning to the example of my imagined quilt, we could parse the meaning of this object through the lenses of affiliation and documentation. In its role as a memorial quilt used for funeral services, it marks the deceased person as a member of a particular community, as more than an isolated individual, as more even than a member of a nuclear family. This is affiliation. In its role as a Lenten and Easter banner, it becomes associated with key moments in the Christian story: Christ’s passion and resurrection. This is documentation. As an object that moves from the funeral service to Sunday morning worship and back again, it weds affiliation to documentation, inscribing individual stories into the larger arc of God’s redemptive story. While it might be pleasing to look at, only those in the congregation with no exposure to the quilt’s use and history would regard it solely as an object of aesthetic interest. And while church members might find its appearance in the sanctuary during Lent and Easter profoundly moving and deeply consoling, certainly none would view it as a magical object that mysteriously effects the salvation of the deceased. It is an example of visual art in worship. But it does not function as an object of aesthetic contemplation. Rather, the memorial quilt, like many arts around the world as well as in the pre-Romantic West, is useful: it affirms belonging; it inscribes story. And it does so through the very stuff of our created world: through the physical spaces (funeral home, church sanctuary) and specific times (memorial service, Sunday worship) in which it is encountered, and through its expressive material qualities of color, texture, scale and image (white, soft, enveloping and symbolic). We speak through nature, and nature itself speaks through us.


One might wonder, at this point, whether I’m engaged in some quixotic, nostalgic project to roll back the tide of Western culture in order to recover the practices of some supposedly purer, more pristine era. No. That’s not what I’m up to! It is worth noting, however, that even if I were advocating a return to the past, I wouldn’t be the first to have tried. Alongside the emergence of our modern, Romantic notions of art, there arose a number of movements meant to challenge the emerging consensus. In his Invention of Art: A Cultural History (University of Chicago Press, 2001), Larry Shiner calls these “resistance movements,” and they—the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Arts and Crafts movement and the Bauhaus, for example—took ai m precisely at the narrowness of what was allowed to count as art and at the limits placed on what it could properly do in its modern incarnations. Today, much art produced under the umbrella of postmodern theory also attempts to chip away at our dominant post-Romantic norms by undermining market mechanisms, or by critiquing assumptions about art’s autonomy and its relationship to private, individual viewers.

However, none of these movements, past or present, has managed to fundamentally dislodge the Western consensus about what “art” is and what it’s for. That’s because, ironically, our ideas about art are maintained in community. Art’s supposed autonomy, individuality and expressiveness are maintained by a thick set of social institutions like galleries, museums and art schools, and by a thick set of social practices like subscribing to art journals, attending openings, collecting art and visiting museums and galleries. All these communally enacted activities and communally sustained institutions uphold and enact the post-Romantic party line. It would be beyond quixotic (idiotic, in fact) to reject them. We need not reject them, only relativize them. Holding our current art norms lightly and at arm’s length gives us enough distance to recognize some of their limits and permission to push beyond them.


If contemplation, then, is our Western default position on the proper use of art, perhaps in our congregations we might learn to make room for creative instances of documentation (the story of God’s redemptive acts) and affiliation (our identity as members of the body of Christ). That accounts for three of Mackenzie’s four common uses for art around the world. But what about art for intervention, art that is meant to direct unseen forces or connect people to unseen realms? Does that have any place in Christian life and worship? Interestingly, I think, with some adjustment, it might – precisely because of our embeddedness in God’s created world. But rather than imagining art for intervention as human-made art that seeks to manipulate or control God (anathema to faithful Christians), we might recognize the ways in which God works on us in and through the created world and our creaturely nature.

Here the post-Vatican II learning of the Catholic Church might be of help. Worship was one of the earliest topics discussed by the council, and the Constitution on the Divine Liturgy was one of the earliest documents it released. The Constitution changed the shape of the liturgy, expanded the languages in which it could be spoken, increased the amount of Scripture read, re-established the place of the sermon and, above all, in worship sought to animate the role of the laity as the body of Christ. All these reforms to the liturgy were aimed at clearing away anything that could possibly detract from worshipers’ “full, conscious, and active participation” in worship, the Constitution says (par. 14). Fascinatingly, that goal entailed removing quite a bit of art from Catholic sanctuaries. The works that were removed, or often moved to the back of the sanctuary, were typically devotional pieces – statues and paintings from side altars, Marian shrines and sometimes even the tabernacle for the reserved host – basically any imagery that did not directly support corporate Sunday worship.

Holding our current art norms lightly and at arm’s length gives us enough distance to recognize some of their limits and permission to push beyond them.

What remained in front of worshippers’ eyes were works of art that functioned as “secondary symbols” to the “primary symbols” given to us by God (US Catholic Conference of Bishops, Committee on the Liturgy, “Environment and Art in Catholic Worship” [1978], par. 99). Primary symbols are grounded in Scripture. They are gifts of God and means of grace: water, Word, bread, wine, oil, fire, the cross and the gathered assembly of worshippers itself. If there is any “art for intervention” for Christians, it is here: God’s gracious art of washing us, nourishing us, healing us and, in Christ, meeting us in and through our embodied, embedded, creaturely existence. Secondary symbols point to primary symbols. These are any objects or images that might connect God’s eternal gifts to a particular space, time or people. They might include the design of the font, altar and other liturgical furniture or the use of incense, seasonal paraments or vestments. Secondary symbols enhance our worship and locate it in a particular time and place. They typically speak, in fact, to affiliation and documentation. My imaginary quilt is a secondary symbol.


The Catholic discussion of primary and secondary symbols is helpful on two levels. First, the power of these symbols, both primary and secondary, reminds us of the goodness of our physical world and of our creaturely nature and that God meets us here. That, as Wolterstorff writes, “earthly existence is one of God’s favors to us. And that “among colors and fragrances, we find our fulfillment; and only thus do we find it fully” (Art in Action, 72). Second, acknowledging the difference between primary and secondary symbols helps us distinguish between the water and the font, the bread and the table, the wine and the cup. Seeing primary symbols as distinct from secondary helps us remain focused on God, God’s gifts to us, and God’s presence and actions in worship. When the font – or the table or the chalice or the video that introduces the sermon or the worship painter or the installation in the front of the sanctuary – attracts all our energy or attention or consternation, something is amiss. No matter how exquisite, how exemplary, how artful or how impressive a secondary symbol may be, it does not have the same status or meaning as the universal, primary means of grace given to us by God. That’s a salutary check for those of us who are dedicated to deepening and enriching our worship through the arts.

So far in this essay I’ve attempted several things, all quite abstract. I first attempted to relativize our culture’s dominant assumptions about art (for example, that it is only for contemplation) by pointing beyond the West. I then introduced a handful of other uses for art found around the world (and also in the West, before the emergence of “art”). Finally, I introduced a distinction between primary and secondary symbols that helps direct our creative enthusiasm into channels that deepen rather than dilute our worship. I’ve grounded all these points in the conviction – suggested in the title – that art matters for worship and for the life of the church because art’s embeddedness in the materiality of creation is a way to experience and express our creaturely existence before God. If you’ve followed me thus far, you are probably willing to do some parsing and discovering of your own.

I’ll end by inviting you to explore the good work done by two congregations ­– one Protestant, one Catholic – in the arts. For many years, Covenant Life Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, has employed a director of worship and arts who, working collaboratively with teams of artists in the congregation, develops installations to accompany sermon series or church seasons. (To see a sample of their work from the mid-2000s, visit Across the country, and just down the road from where I live and work, Our Lady of the Angels, the cathedral of Los Angeles, consecrated in 2002, is a very different but equally rich example of how visual arts can deepen and enrich worship. (Use the “art” tab at the top of the church’s home page,, to view the works created for this congregation.) For both congregations, you can also do a Google image search for additional pictures. As you consider the objects and images at play in these spaces, imagine yourself there, as part of the congregation. Ask yourself, how do these objects communicate via color, scale, texture, image? What specifically are they communicating? To which primary symbol do they point?

Then imagine each space devoid of images. And imagine what has been lost.

Lisa J. DeBoer teaches art history at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, California.

 Image: Maresa Smith/Death to the Stock Photo