Friday, February 26, 2010

Martin Luther's Views on Art - Part 2

Even if Martin Luther does not treat the subject of art thoroughly or systematically, perhaps other aspects of his theology could help inform this project if they could be applied towards a justification of images.

One interesting idea that has come up in the course of my reading is Luther's view on the irregular aspect of God's Word. Although Carl Christensen notes that for Luther "it was above all the spoken or preached Word that really constituted the chief means of grace,"1 perhaps there could be other means as well. God speaks to us in ways we do not expect. Missiologist Paul Chung notes that "From an irregular perspective, according to Luther, God's presence is attested by the sun and moon, heaven and earth, and all of the fruits on earth. If we do not recognize God's presence in the cultural and natural world, it is not God's fault but our fault. God does not desire to be hidden from our eyes."2 Taking Chung's reading of Luther's incarnational theology to heart, perhaps there is room for the idea that God might speak to us through images (or even sci-fi film). One could argue that human-created images are in some way an extension of the fruits of God's creation.

Christensen asks the question directly: "Must the Word of God take an exclusively verbal form?"3 It seems for Luther, images can aid scripture in conveying the Gospel, but Christensen thinks Luther would not go so far as to place the two on equal ground. In fact, the written Word is not even as prominent as the oral or preached Word as a means of conveying grace. Christensen lays this all out:

"The relationship of religious art to the means of grace must be seen finally within the context of this larger question of the nature of the Word and its expression. Visual images for Luther indeed are useful instruments for conveying the message of the Gospel. They assist in making the Word manifest by providing additional media— with their own particular type of pedagogical effectiveness— for its proclamation. But, ultimately, the fine arts cannot claim for themselves a full equivalence with preaching and the sacraments as channels of divine, saving grace. For they not only share the disabilities of the merely written word (as compared with living oral proclamation), but they also suffer from an inadequacy at the point of indicating explicitly and without further elaboration what the true content of God's message is."4

It appears that Luther would allow that art can convey grace (Luther is especially amenable to music for this possibility), but there is this hierarchy of effectiveness in a given medium's conveying of the Word. Images are less effective, in Luther's eyes, than words, and much less effective than spoken words. I have experienced this argument recently from a mentor of mine seeking to challenge me. I explained that people will use different forms of non-verbal art (singing, painting, dancing, sculpting, filming, etc.) as sources of meaning-making whether or not the Christian Church endorses them. To this he replied, yes, but do these sources "speak" in the same sense? This is certainly a provocative question, and I'm not exactly sure how to answer it.

No, non-verbal sources of meaning-making will not speak in the same way as verbal sources. They do not as directly convey the gospel message as verbal communication is the most direct form of language humans have devised. However, such verbal communication does not engage significant portions of who human beings are (and who God has created human beings to be). Mind, body, and spirit are not engaged by just words. We need more than words! Images may not directly speak in the same way as words, but might they provoke reflection on the Gospel in a unique manner? Non-verbal art gives more room for ambiguity of message, but might this ambiguity offer the viewer or participant the possibility to engage more fully with the form and subject of the art? This is not to say that as a rule this is the case. It is to suggest that the non-verbal Word of God might "speak" more deeply to a person who is especially receptive to non-verbal mediums.

There is much much more in Luther to chew on for this subject, but I must move on. Having dealt with questions of method, hermeneutics, theological aesthetics, etc., it is time to turn to the meat of the course. Coming up: "What does it mean to be human?"

1Carl C. Christensen, Art and the Reformation in Germany (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1979), p. 63.
2Paul S. Chung, Christian Mission and a Diakonia of Reconciliation: A Global Reframing of Justification and Justice (Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran University Press), p. 48.
3Christensen, Art and the Reformation in Germany, p. 60
4Ibid., p. 64.


  1. I'd want to coax/confront your mentor a bit! I think you're right to wonder if perhaps certain kinds of art (music, image, etc.) might engage more deeply, allow for more participation, than linear text. I'm also not at all sure that anthropologists would agree that verbal communication is the most direct form of language humans have devised. Daniel Stern's work with infants and mothers suggest that this is vivid and potent communication happening long before verbal language.

    Also, reading this post reminds me that you should take a look at Joseph Sittler's book "Evocations of Grace" , because there's a TON in that book that, from a Lutheran perspective, from a preacher's perspective, that will help you get at the Christological implications in ways that aren't focused only on verbal language.

  2. Mary, thanks for reminding me about other forms of direct communication. Touch, it could be argued, is a more direct form as well. But I suppose it should be noted that regardless of the question of which is more direct generally, some people will be more in tune with certain forms of communication than others. For instance, when I was in first grade, I was having a hard time with my teacher who had a more stern approach (much less gentle than my kindergarten teacher). At a teacher's conference, my mom, knowing that I was having a hard time, encouraged the teacher to use touch to engage with me. For instance, a hug every once in a while or a high five. Apparently, after she started doing that, I responded much better to her.

    Yes, I am sure that there is a lot more to mine in Luther than I had time for in this go around. Thanks for the Sittler suggestion, and for the suggestion to seek out some Luther scholars for more opinions on the matter. If I don't get back to it this semester, I'm sure I won't be able to resist when I take the required Lutheran Confessions course.