Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue, by William A. Dyrness. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001. 188 pp. $22.00.
One of William Dyrness’s primary concerns for the evangelical church today is aptly summarized in his statement: “It is possible that we might actually win the battle of words but lose the battle of images. And losing that battle could well cost us this generation” (21). In his book Visual Faith, Dyrness argues for the incorporation of art in worship in an age that already has a vested interest in the visual arts. Dyrness is a professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. He is co-editor of the Engaging Culture series, which is designed to help Christians engage thoughtfully on current cultural questions with appropriate theological reflection. Visual Faith is one of many helpful titles in this series, focusing specifically on the incorporation of visual arts in worship practice. The book addresses the Protestant Reformers’ rejection of images in the church, considers how that has affected the visual arts in the church today, and questions the biblical validity of this rejection in favor of a thoughtful revitalization of the visual arts in the church. Dyrness’s main argument throughout the book is that the church needs to incorporate the gospel further into our singing, working, and walking so that the recovery of an artistic imagination inspires renewal in the faith of God’s people (155).
Dyrness begins his discussion with a historical consideration of images in the church before the Reformation. When approaching the Reformation, he poses the questions that are at the heart of this book: “Did the Reformation church have good biblical and theological reasons for giving up on the visual arts? If not, what was the real motivation behind their attitudes? And what, if anything, can be (or is being) done to repair this breach?” (12). He discusses the Reformation church’s suppression of the visual arts through iconoclasm and some Reformers’ philosophy of worship that excluded any imagery. His mention of these issues displays a balanced understanding of the many factors that contributed to the extreme acts of iconoclasts, such as the worship of relics and icons. In transitioning to modern consideration, he looks at how this pivotal change in church history has continued to affect the church today. He uses the middle chapters of his book to reflect theologically on the visual arts, looking at biblical sources for practice and reflection on the arts as well as beauty related to God and embracing his will. He concludes with an application of his considerations, typifying this age as one of opportunity for artists and the restoration of visual arts to worship. Dyrness comments that “we have entered a visual era” and argues, “surely what is called for is a new alliance and interaction between the word and the image” (132).
In Visual Faith Dyrness discusses timely, relevant questions with a foundational inclusion of church history and tradition. He considers biblical passages for his application and recognizes the significance of both, stating that an “arguably more important part of our work is the recovery of a biblical warrant for our engagement with this dimension of culture” (67). The format of the book along with its plentiful inclusion of artistic examples ranging throughout history makes it accessible for academic or lay reading. Dyrness also effectively navigates the stony rapids of a culturally divisive topic without getting swept away or overturned by side points or small arguments. His work provides a thorough historical understanding of imagery in the church that enhances the contextual understanding of applications being considered today.
Weaknesses of Dyrness’s argumentation and overall discussion include some presuppositions and a seemingly over-simplified view of complex issues. Dryness’s failure to address a biblical definition of worship is a foremost concern. He even goes so far as to casually comment, mid-argumentation, “But what does it really mean to speak of worship that is ‘biblical’?” (138). While he seems to include this somewhat as a rhetorical question, the greater fear is that Dyrness genuinely has not given extended study to a gospel-centered application of theologically based worship practice. While many of Dyrness’s points are historically founded and certainly worth consideration, this reviewer’s lasting conclusion was that as well intended as he may be, his recommendation for the incorporation of visual arts in worship services is not much more than an appeal for the incorporation of popular trends in order to attract more worshipers. Because he does not start with a biblical evaluation of what it means to draw near to the presence of God by faith through Jesus Christ, seeking to honor him fully with heart, soul, mind, and strength, the author’s appeal aligns more closely with the main themes of cultural contextualization and attractionally designed worship. While Dyrness supposes that our failure to engage this generation with the image may cause the loss of this generation, his concerns could have been addressed with a more thoughtful consideration of biblical worship. Despite these shortcomings, when considered alongside materials that delve more deeply into biblical theology of worship, Dyrness’s Visual Faith can be a helpful tool for considering the historical context for the questions that are facing the visual arts in worship today.
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, TX