Protestants in America have historically shied away from visual art; call it our Calvinist iconoclastic roots showing themselves. But Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper offers a different understanding in “Calvinism and Art,” a lecture he delivered at Princeton University in 1898. There, he broadens the term “Calvinism” to simply mean a Reformed perspective on life. For Kuyper, Calvinism is a life system that informs and influences all spheres of life, including art.
In effect, Kuyper reframes the indelible tension between Protestantism and art, maintaining that Calvin himself:
1. “esteemed art, in all its ramifications, as a gift of God.”
2. “fully grasped the profound effects worked by art upon the life of the emotions.”
3. “appreciated the end for which art has been given.”
4. “believed “that by [art] we might glorify God.”
5. “attributed to [art] the noble vocation of disclosing to man a higher reality than was offered to us by this sinful and corrupted world.”
Kuyper further explains that for Reformed theology, art is tied explicitly to beauty. It acts like common grace flourishing within and outside the church.
So how does this theology about art physically affect the local church? By using art as a supplemental tool for ministry, subordinate to the gospel, it in turn magnifies and glorifies Christ.
Recently, I had the chance to expand this idea at REACH, a bi-annual youth camp at Old Powhatan Baptist Church (OPBC), in Powhatan, Virginia. Although a small rural church of about 200 under the direction of senior pastor Brad Russell, OPBC has created a local missions trip for their teens that has steadily grown to include other churches from central Virginia. Students partner together to learn more about Christ, share the gospel, and influence their community through service projects. For this year, Brad asked me to develop an art project that related to the week’s theme of prayer.
I began by prayerfully considering the assignment. I read about prayer as a spiritual discipline that gives us access to the throne room of God through Christ. Thinking about prayer’s individual and corporate nature, I wanted to create participatory projects that fostered the students praying together and alone. This brought me to secular artmaking and examples from art history. Participatory art is just another name for “relational aesthetics,” theorized by French theorist Nicolas Bourriaud. As the name suggests, it is a term for artmaking that encourages community, requires participation, and leaves a level of production to the audience. By meditating on the scriptures, listening to the Holy Spirit, considering examples from contemporary art and art history, and reading about prayer as a spiritual discipline I chose to make a three-part installation, titled collectively Presence. The installation included a(n):
1. Sound Installation. In the church, we set up a small soundproof closet with a microphone and computer for recording. Students and chaperones were invited to sign up for five-minute segments during their quiet time to record themselves praying, reading Scripture, or singing songs. At the end of the week, we compiled the tracks together to form a cacophony of voices praying.
2. Ribbon Installation. Each night, during worship, the students prayed together in the sanctuary for their friends, communities, and the nations. After praying, the students picked up a color-coded ribbon for each prayer. For example, one black ribbon represented one prayer for the persecuted church. Each day, I tied the ribbons into an installation that progressively grew over the week into a multi-colored tapestry representing their prayers.
3. Entranceway Installation. Before the event, men from the church built an entranceway out of wooden pallets. Students would then pass through this entranceway to reach the worship service each night. For every five prayer ribbons chosen by the students, a piece of wood was nailed to the entranceway. Like the ribbon installation, the entranceway grew in size as the week progressed.
At first the students were apprehensive. As the week went on, they started to see the visual results of their prayers and became more excited about participating. Students even began to place ribbons throughout the day into the box to indicate prayers they prayed outside of the worship service in their quiet time or while on site. At the end of the week, we compiled all three components into a video piece that featured the sound installation layered over images of the ribbons and entranceway (see below). This video became a powerful—and accessible—visual testimony for the students. Although founded on theoretical ideas and non-representational in form, the art projects connected with students as they physically contributed and understood what each component meant.
Similarly, it was meant to edify a larger audience. Presence was not just for REACH, but also the church. Visually, the installations connected the teens’ efforts to the local church. It became a straightforward visual aid that reminded the students and the congregation of the importance of prayer as well as the value of the intergenerational body. As the pastor’s wife, Jo Anny Russell, explained, “[The installations] played out in the most beautiful ways . . . symbolically beautiful and piercing to the heart. Looking at the ribbons displayed, you couldn’t help but worship our Maker and rejoice in his work and the power of prayer. Hearing the prayers during the video was one of the most beautiful tastes of heaven I have had.”
Creative art that mediates the physical with the spiritual is artmaking that Kuyper—and Reformed theology—affirms. Acknowledging God as the source of all creation, Kuyper maintains that art is meant to direct us to the spiritual as it enhances our praise of and glory in God. Within the local church, art can become an effective tool that further develops our worship and devotion to Christ and his church, bringing about community, fostering fellowship, and pointing us to an eternal perspective.