Culture At Large

Contemplation and sacrament: did the Reformation go wrong?

Andy Rau

Over at Image magazine, William Dyrness has a challenging piece about Protestants, art, and contemplation. He suggests that in the zeal to bring the Christian faith outside the church walls and into the world, Protestants have inadvertently lost a healthy appreciation for the role that art and sacrament play in worship:

What happened to contemplation at the Reformation? Here is what I think: in recovering at least the possibility for personal spirituality and opening up the inner life for development, Calvin appeared at times to open this inner door of worship by closing an outer one--unnecessarily privileging the ear over the eye in worship....

Now there is much that is good in this--the Spirit enlivening the preached word, the need for personal appropriation, all seen in a corporate context, but there is another, frequently unnoticed implication. If any external mediation is unnecessary, and the Spirit only works within, there is really no need of what the church had come to know as sacraments. (Incidentally, as nearly as I can tell it was around this time that people began to close their eyes during corporate prayer.) As a result, though Calvin probably did not intend this, little by little, people, especially in the pietist stream of this tradition, would come to find the ground cut out from finding any substantial theological meaning in objects or acts.

It's a long and challenging piece, but well worth the read. One of the more interesting ideas he puts forth is that contemplation and quiet meditation have a special draw today because we're bombarded with so much information, chaos, and busy-ness in our everyday lives. A pastor's sermon might get lost in the vast sea of punditry we hear each week, and church music has to compete with our 30-gig iPod music collections; in this environment, understanding the worship potential of simple quiet and rest can be exceptionally powerful and relevant.

Is Dyrness on to something? Has the Reformation had unintended consequences for our ability to appreciate art, contemplation, and sacrament? I've seen a number of Protestant churches (including my own) making efforts to incorporate art and contemplation a bit more into worship services, which suggests that Dyrness isn't the only one who feels this way. What do you think, and where does your church fall on this spectrum?

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