IDOLATROUSNESS . . . The separation of religion and art

We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true–even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” (Reference: 1 John 5:18-21 )

The historic Anabaptists who were captured and taken to the Italian port of Trieste wrote, you shall worship the Lord your God and serve him only (Deut. 6:4; Matt. 4:10). He is the true God and eternal life. Children, beware of the adoration of images (1 John 5:21)! Keep watch over your hearts! You saw signs of God on the day when he spoke to you out of the fire (Deut. 4:12) so that you should not become perverted and make an image like man or woman or an animal on the earth or bird in the air. There is your witness that God, who is the only God, desires that he alone is to be honoured, worshipped, and served. The whole Scripture is full of this testimony. These texts clearly reject, destroy, and condemn all idolatry, specifically all wooden, stone, golden, waxen, bread idols, frescoes, and carvings of images by all of which God is robbed of his honour. All such things are excluded in this commandment of God.”

Artistry and historic Anabaptism have had a long and difficult history and relationship. One would have to be so careful not to let your art work be constrained as worship of God. However, Anabaptists/Mennonites found ways to be artist without taking the chance of making images that would take the place of God’s presence in their lives. If you have ever seen a quilt made by some Anabaptist/Mennonite women or seen tools or furniture designed and made (especially wooden items) by Anabaptist/Mennonite men, you would know the yen to create and make beauty is alive and well. But as I said, care had to be taken. Few if any quilts will have images of any bird or animal. They are designs and shapes that cannot be misconstrued as replicas of things in our world. The same with tools and furniture; all basic utilitarian items that are used in every day life without representing any image found in nature. The craftsmanship and skill is evident in each piece.

Using pieces of art work in worship has made a slow come back, and only in ways that direct one’s attention to God instead of the image in the piece of art work itself. On Oct 14th I wrote very briefly about seeing the inside of an ornate Catholic church for the first time. I was entranced by the statutes and pictures on the walls, the silver and gold items scattered around the church, and the lushness of the seating. I could have wandered around there for ever. Was it perversion I wondered to have all these things in one place? It seemed to me like the type of place God would live in, just as well as our plain church with nothing on the walls and wooden benches with thin carpeting. Nothing adorned the church except maybe at Christmas, and even then in only a limited way.

I wondered if these things “robbed” God of the Lord’s honor. Or was it perhaps we who dishonored God by refusing the magnificence that evidently was available. Images have power. And beloved, the inside of the church I grew up in therefore had very little power but great austerity and strictness.

In contrast to this, in seminary we were specifically taught how to bring art back into worship. As I remember back, there was less instruction about HOW to bring it into worship than there was the emphasis that it was okay to have it in worship. It was like, in a sense, being given a new toy but not told how it works.

And I hold these two things in my mind; the plainness of the church I grew up in and the rush to re-place art back into worship. And the conclusion I come to is this; God is more powerful than any piece of art, be they “wooden, stone, golden, waxen, bread idols, frescoes, and carvings of images.” I do not think God fears art in worship, but neither do I think the Lord demands it. I think if we approach worship with proper parts of love, reverence, and fear – God will welcome us and whatever we bring. Selah!