Media Art in Worship 101: An Alternative Vision (Part III)
August 04, 2008
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Eileen D. Crowley
A local ELCA pastor, Monte Johnson, approached me in September 2007 and invited me to consider being his community’s artist-in-residence. He proposed that I put into practice the alternate vision I have shared for many years with students, pastors, and other church leaders through my courses, lectures, and workshops: Communal Co-Creation of liturgical media art. My book, A Moving Word, Media Art in Worship (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg, 2006), had fleshed out this vision as it might play out over the course of a liturgical year. He asked that I guide his community, Immanuel Lutheran Church located on the north side of Chicago, in the Communal Co-Creation of liturgical media art for Easter Vigil 2008. In particular, he requested that I work with members of his community and those of the Arabic ELCA congregation also on-campus, St. Elias. We were to focus on the seven Old Testament readings members would proclaim during the vigil.
Communal Co-Creation, as I envision it, involves an open invitation to a community to come together to reflect on scripture assigned for a liturgy or on aspects of a liturgical season. About a dozen people accepted the invitation at Immanuel. On a Saturday morning in October they reflected together on the seven passages chosen. They shared the word images that spoke to them and what rose inside them as they heard the passages proclaimed. I then introduced them to the concept of liturgical media art. I explained that this kind of media art was not to be a literal, didactic, or illustrative form of art. Rather, it was to be metaphoric, “imaginative and allusive,” qualities Calvin Seerveld uses to characterize art. (1) As liturgical art, it was to offer another dimension of the Word that would work in concert with the scripture proclaimed, not to overpower it. Through a combination of spoken word and this “moving word,” listeners might encounter afresh God’s kept promises of salvation. I presented examples of liturgical media art from other churches and worship settings. I explained that the pastor and other church leaders had agreed that we might not ultimately have liturgical media art to accompany each of the seven readings. We would only use what we together deemed potentially helpful in worshipers entering more deeply into the scripture and the experience of really “hearing,” in multiple ways, God’s trustworthy promises. This was a process, not a product, and only the Holy Spirit knew what might result!
Over the months that followed, members interested in this ministry used their different talents to “proclaim” though their art. One young woman chose to focus her camera on the art already present in their worship space: stained glass, wooden sculpture, altar and pulpit carvings, ceiling paintings, inlaid designs on their pews, and wrought iron silhouettes on their chapel door. Another member offered her art, calligraphy. A member of St. Elias, originally from Egypt, pondered how he could contribute to the story of the crossing of the Red Sea. A visual artist who had been an art educator collaborated with her husband, a UCC pastor. He took up the challenge of working metaphorically with God’s promise of a “new heart” and “new spirit” through Ezekiel (36:24-28). Together they combined their talents in opening up the story of the Three Men in the Fiery Furnace (Daniel 3:1-29). She welcomed the idea of working with the Sunday School children from Immanuel and St. Elias on creating art to accompany the reading of the Flood (Genesis 7). A member teaches sailing to young Sea Scouts on Lake Michigan took on the story of Jonah tossed into deep waters (1:1-2:1). Two women explored possibilities for photographic images that could capture something of the diverse moods of Zephaniah (3:14-20). Another member knew that creating visual art of any kind was not her talent, but she was happy to participate in brainstorming and reflecting on what others created. Other members agreed to work on the logistical aspects of creating a screen. Together, they comprised the “Moving Word Team.”
After worship services on many Sundays, during coffee hour in the Founders’ Hall, team members shared with each other – and anyone else at their table – what they had been working on. We affirmed some approaches as promising; we agreed others were not “working” for various reasons. From the start, everyone knew that what they produced might not appear at the Easter Vigil. Out of more than 100 photographs taken of art in the church, for example, only a handful ultimately wound up serving the liturgical proclamation at the vigil. The calligrapher produced multiple renderings of the titles of scripture passages; only seven illuminated the Vigil readings. The Sea Scout photographer never got the chance to shoot the crashing waves of Lake Michigan as he had wished because winter cut short his sailing. He borrowed a stunning photograph from a friend who had captured the wild waves of Lake Superior crashing over the bow of a ship. The St. Elias member never could find just the right image of the Red Sea, but he ended up using his Arabic software to create calligraphy to be paired with the English titles. Both were “reversed” to white-on-black for the liturgy.
The Communal Co-Creation process at Immanuel was indeed a messy process. Various team members would meet, but not all could come at the same time. What created the most excitement was the process that engaged the children. The visual artist worked with the Sunday School teacher. She brought the art supplies. On three separate Sundays in Lent, the children listened to a part of The Flood story. Then the visual artist invited the children to depict as they wished the feeling of the storm, the pounding of the rain, the opening of the skies, and the sending of the rainbow. Each week the children, ages 3-11, eagerly set to work. The artist then scanned their colorful, very expressionist art work. And, what beautiful art it was, indeed. When transformed into digital images and presented on a laptop or TV monitor, the children’s art was highly evocative, simply stunning. We had so many wonderful works that the children’s art ended up not only serving The Flood story but also as art to accompany many of the psalms.
On the night of March 22nd, when the community processed from the outside Easter fire into the Founders’ Hall, a simple “screen” made of a white King-sized bedsheet covered part of the stage curtains. Located to the side of the canopied lectern where the readers proclaimed the Old Testament passages, the images were simply “there.” English and Arabic calligraphic titles appeared briefly as each reader came up. A close-up photograph of stars from one of the church’s stained class windows accompanied the Creation story. One of the children’s paintings “sang” with the sung psalm that followed. Then we went to black for the psalm prayer, the pattern to be followed for all seven readings. A Photoshop-enhanced image of silhouette figures from the chapel door that depicted the Exodus story then appeared and remained for that story, followed by another one of the children’s artwork whose reds seemed to “dance” to Moses and Miriam’s song. Then to black…The children’s choir proclaimed The Flood story, as the children’s art drew listeners into the changing moods and colors of the tale. Multiple stylized images of a potter progressively crafting a clay vessel accompanied the proclamation of God’s crafting a new heart and new spirit. A photo of a stained glass fruitful tree stood by as the Zephaniah passage rolled along. The borrowed crashing wave photograph gave listeners a sense for the danger Jonah and his shipmates encountered. A series of images presented a golden idol (actually a statue at the University of Chicago) as looming over the assembly and then gradually becoming lost in flames as the Three Men danced in the fiery furnace…and then the “screen” went to black as the whole community literally got up and danced to the font to renew their baptismal promises.
Six months of reflection on those scripture passages and of diverse artistic efforts concluded as the community then processed into the church for the rest of the Easter Vigil liturgy. Will liturgical media art again be attempted? I don’t know. Only time will tell. But I do know that in the process of this Communal Co-Creation, many people, including children, became involved in a new spiritual practice. They not only encountered scripture more deeply but they also stretched their own religious imaginations as they strove to serve God and their community through this new liturgical ministry.
(1) Calvin Seerveld, Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 2000) 8.
Eileen D. Crowley, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Word and Worship at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author of A Moving Word, Media Art in Worship (Minneapolis MN: Augsburg, 2006) and Liturgical Art for a Media Culture (American Essays in Liturgy) (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2007). She was also guest editor of Liturgy 23:3 (2008), the entire volume of which concerned media in worship.
Images provided by Mary Davies
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