If you’re Catholic, or pretty much an adherent of any mainline Christian denomination, then it isn’t news to you that many in roles of authority within the Church have fully embraced modern and post modern art movements as perfectly appropriate for the use of sacred art.
Even though the intellectual and philosophical movements that animated this cultural shift feature a lot of agnostic and atheistic tendencies and even though, if you connect it to modernism itself, you may, or may not know, that Pope Pius X condemned it as a heresy, and not just any heresy, but the synthesis of ALL heresies.
But maybe connecting them isn’t accurate. The point is, the 20th Church has gone all in on modern and now post-modern art. The vast majority of church buildings from this time, at least where I live, were modernist, so much of the religious art that adorns our sanctuaries was also modernist, and the same can be said for liturgical music.
But so what? Maybe, as many will insist, we need to embrace new and innovative ways of expressing the faith. We need to ensure that the gospel doesn’t grow stale and irrelevant. And I agree with that if it means we should continue to build upon what came before and steadily improve as we strive to communicate beauty and the story of salvation history through art.
But modernist movements did not do that. They discarded what came before them and held them in contempt. This was, in many cases, literally done as Church sanctuaries that were masterpieces of religious art and craftsmanship were the victims of enthusiastic church professionals who were all to happy to embrace these new trends.
The reason I think modern art is intrinsically incompatible with Christian worship isn’t because I don’t like it, although I don’t, and it isn’t because it lacks universal appeal, which it does, and it isn’t because it violently clashes with it’s surroundings, which it does.
It’s because it doesn’t meet what I believe to be an essential criterion for sacred art according to Christian doctrine and to explain what I mean, I think we need to revisit what has been a seemingly timeless controversy in the Church which is whether or not using images in worship is idolatrous.
Protestants took up this controversy in the 16th century when they began smashing stained glass windows and beheading statues, and I’ve often been left with an impression that Protestants think they introduced this great insight in the Church when in fact, iconoclastic tendencies have been with us since at least the 8th century when the Eastern Church had to confront the exact same speculation.
And of course, the reason this controversy and confusion exists is because of the 1st commandment in the decalogue which says that we shalt not have any strange gods before the true God of Israel and that it forbids making images to worship (like the golden calf).
But iconoclasts took this to mean that all imagery was forbidden lest we fall into idolatry. After all, it says right there in scripture, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.”
But does that mean all imagery is idolatrous? Well, it can’t mean that because just a few chapters later in the book of Exodus, God sanctions the use of carved images for religious piety by telling the Israelites how they are to fashion the tabernacle with two carved angels on each side of the cover.
So obviously carved imagery is to be used in the context of religious piety, but the original concern still stands. We should be as cautious as possible that we not violate that first commandment.
And this is tricky for Christians because our faith is a sacramental faith in which the invisible is made visible. In which matter, space and time, and sound are employed to communicate the reality of the spiritual life and there is no better example of this than the incarnation of Jesus in which the invisible God becomes flesh, becomes human so that we can meet him face to face, hear his voice, and know him like we know most other things that we can see and touch.
And so, it is our instinct to follow that pattern and to make visible that which is invisible – to make spiritual realities like our re-birth as followers of Jesus through the signs of water and the words of baptism or the presence and sacrifice of Jesus made available to every generation through the signs of bread and wine.
And also, through art that can clarify what might otherwise be difficult to understand and visualize – the stories depicted in the Bible or visions of the divine or the kingdom of Heaven. God as pure spirit, can seem remote and hard to comprehend which runs the risk of us treating him like a mystical force or something abstract like a cloud, but that only makes God more less real when in fact, he is more real than anything we can encounter in the physical world.
God’s solution was to become as explicitly recognizable as possible by becoming one of us.
When we talk about God’s interactions with us through the stories we find in scripture, we refer to it as revelation. God’s work since our estrangement with him has been to reveal himself to us as a prerequisite to relationship with him. He wants to make himself MORE explicitly known to us.
And that is the principle that sacred art should follow. It should be used to make spiritual realities or the stories in the Bible less ambiguous than they might otherwise be if they were just left to our imagination.
And this is exactly what Christians aspired to do by telling the stories of the Bible through representative imagery. It was used to enhance our prayers, help us feel closer to God as we worshipped him, and to teach and catechize the faithful, especially in places and times where literacy was low.
But that’s not what modern art does. Modern art embraces the abstract, the foreign, the strange, and the novel and abstraction is the opposite of revelation.
Representative art is the least likely to get showcased in a modern art gallery and it’s the same infatuation with the abstract and obscure that has become common in churches.
And instead of helping incarnate the semi-transparent visions in our minds as we try to immerse ourselves in the faith, they only further obscure it. They portray the stories of scripture, which are told as, especially in the new testament, occurrences within history, as something more incorporeal when that is the exact opposite of how God chose to reveal himself, in unmistakable and material presence available to our senses.
When we use images and songs that obscure that fact, we’re promoting confusion not clarification and when we promote confusion, we start to travel dangerously close to that line that God said we cannot cross in the first commandment.
Think about what happens when you go to a chapel to pray. You kneel down, hopefully, with the intention of encountering God who is other. God who is not the creation of your own imagination but is what you need to be made new and transformed. This is a process of stepping outside of your self and being liberated from your brokenness.
Now, if you’re surrounded by imagery that is true to the stories as they are known and further reveals those stories and the reality of the incarnation of Jesus, then you will be taken outside of yourself and immersed into something that God intended.
But abstract imagery doesn’t do that. Abstract imagery is designed to encourage us to treat it subjectively and to seek our own meaning in it. We are supposed to discover our own thoughts about it and thus turn it into something that suits our preferences. It becomes a devotion of the self which is precisely the thing that true spiritual devotion is supposed to liberate us from.
And if we can accept the logic of this, it should help inform controversies like what we saw at the Amazon synod with the statues that some claimed were pagan idols and others claimed where enculturated images of the Blessed Virgin.
Well, the fact that nobody knew for sure what they were is a good indication that they were inappropriate for use in devotions or prayer. The thing about our faith, as JRR Tolkien explained to CS Lewis on the eve of his conversion, is that it’s a myth that actually happened in history.
Taking any image and saying “it’s Mary or it’s Jesus” when the visual doesn’t correspond to the actual historical reality of those people doesn’t help us encounter the story or those people.
It doesn’t reveal the reality of salvation history – it obscures it. And when revelation is obscured, it leads to confusion, and when you’re praying in a state of confusion, you can easily be led from that disorientation into idolatry.