William A. Dyrness. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
What exactly is beauty?
Last fall my kids took me to a film. In the film, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses portrayed a low-class, manipulative, rather loose woman. The film’s plot seemed shallow and pornographic, designed more to offend than to enlighten. I left the theater upset and annoyed, not entirely understanding why.
In his book, Visual Faith, William Dyrness writes:
Our modern images feature surface and finish; Old Testament images present structure and character. Modern images are narrow and restrictive; theirs were broad and inclusive…For us beauty is primarily visual; their idea of beauty included sensations of light, color, sound, smell, and even taste (81).
As the old adage goes, beauty is more than skin deep.
Beauty More than Skin Deep
In clinical pastoral education we were taught to look for dissidence between words and the body language of patients that we visited. This disharmony between words and body language is, of course, a measure of truth. In like manner, the Bible paradigm of beauty is that the truth of an object matches its appearance.
Dyrness writes: the biblical language for beauty reveals that beauty is connected both to God’s presence and activity and to the order that God has given to creation (80). The human spirit, although undefinable, is obvious by its absence: a beautiful, living human body emptied of its spirit is no more than a repulsive corpse. Morality works much the same way: Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion (Proverbs 11:22 ESV).
Art as Cultural Window
While Dyrness does not dwell on social criticism, he sees a lack of artistic imagination as an impediment to renewal of faith—especially in a society that is constantly stimulated by visual images (155-156). He cites the Prophet Joel:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28 ESV).
As barriers between high class and popular art are lowered, we see the democratization (all flesh) of art that Joel prophesied.
William A. Dyrness (www.fuller.edu/faculty/wdyrness) is a Professor of Theology and Culture at the School of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Visual Faith is written in 7 chapters:
- Development of the Visual Arts from the Early Church to the Middle Ages;
- Development of the Visual Arts from the Reformation to the Twenty-First Century;
- Art and the Biblical Drama;
- Reflecting Theologically on the Visual Arts;
- Contemporary Challenges for Christians and the Arts;
- A New Opportunity for Christian Involvement in the Arts; and
- Making and Looking at Art.
These chapters are preceded by a list of illustrations, a preface, and an introduction. They are followed by a conclusion, notes, bibliography, and indices.
Need to Explore Christian Art
Dyrness describes his objectives as to—extend and enrich a Christian conversation on the visual arts—and he immediately relates this conversation to the dialog on worship (9). Following Simone Weil, Dyrness observes that people are drawn to God through affliction, religious practices, and the experience of beauty. He then goes on to argue that because modern life has banished these first two draws, the church is limited to the third draw—beauty—in attracting people to God (22). Dyrness concludes arguing for renewal in three areas: a new vision for the arts, renewal in worship, and a restoration of the Christian art tradition (155).
Christian Art More than a Hobby
Dyrness speaks against the perception that interest in the arts is a Christian hobby practiced particularly by Catholics and mostly avoided by serious protestants. He argues persuasively that both Jonathan Edwards and John Calvin saw God’s artwork in creation as infinitely more interesting than human artifacts (59). In fact, Calvin’s outward focus in ministry—the whole of creation belongs to God, not just the sacred images of Jesus and the communion table in the church (the inward focus in the Middle Ages)—profoundly influenced art from the reformation period forward.
Visual Faith is a fascinating book. This review does not and cannot capture the subtly and freshness of Dyrness’ writing. My own interest in the visual arts and Dyrness’ work arises out of my need to understand how to appreciate and incorporate visual art in online ministry. In a visually sophisticated world, we need to understand images and how they shape our own thoughts.
What exactly is beauty? Dyrness’ Visual Faith is a good place to start the conversation in searching for an answer.