Provocations on the Church and the Arts

by Joseph Sittler

Theological education was prominent among the many interests of Lutheran scholar and theologian Joseph Sittler, who died on December 28, 1988. Following are some of his more provocative reflections on that subject, excerpted from his recent book, Gravity and Grace (Augsburg Publishing House), copyright 1986; reprinted by permission.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 19-26, 1986, p. 291. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


We must somehow become less frenetic in activity and more dedicated to reflection. Maybe we should write less and ponder more, travel less and reflect more, say fewer things but better things. There is so little of this in the church today.

The relationship between religion and the arts has long been one of theologian Joseph Sittler’s primary interests. This spring Augsburg is releasing a collection of Sittler’s recent short reflections on various topics, and we are here publishing some of those dealing with aesthetic concerns. From the forthcoming Gravity and Grace, copyright © 1986 Augsburg Publishing House. Reprinted by permission.

I have been reflecting on when and where I first learned to carry on a lover’s relationship with the physical world. I think it began in elementary school, when I had a remarkable teacher whose name was Miss Davis, as I now recall it with affection. She had a habit which would be regarded in these days with disdain by educational theorists. She began each class session with a bit of writing of memorable beauty, and some of those things she read to us runny-nosed, cap-askewed little kids haunt me to this day. I think my love affair with the natural world began on hearing the lines she read to us.

We sometimes suppose that people look upon the world and find it beautiful and then look for a language with which to adorn what they behold. I think that is true, but it also works the other way. Sometimes we are partly blinded toward this world, and then someone puts the beauty of which we had not been aware into a gorgeous line. Thereafter we behold it in a new way. We go not only from beholding to language, but we may go from the beauty of language to the enhancement of beholding.

One of the selections Miss Davis read to us was from the last act of The Merchant of Venice when the great action has really finished and the young lovers are united. Lorenzo leads Jessica out into the night, and then come the beautiful lines:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!

Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Sit, Jessica. Look, how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:

There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins [V.i. 54-62].

I learned to look at the sky in a different way by virtue of hearing that passage.

And then as a lad growing up in the small Ohio town where my father was a pastor, I learned further to look at the world in a kind of fascinated and determined way. I owed part of this further fascination to the first four lines of John Keats’s "The Eve of St. Agnes":

St. Agnes’ Eve -- Ah, bitter chill it was!

The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;

The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,

And silent was the flock in woolly fold.

Anyone who has lived in the country or in a small town will resonate to that passage. All of my life I’ve been a passionate lover of our rich American land’s variety: the lonely beauty of New England, the great chain of the Appalachians and the Green and White Mountains, the sweep of the prairies, the majesty of the Rockies, the unbelievable fecundity of the West Coast valleys. It all comes to expression in lines by Walt Whitman which Miss Davis first read to me. It occurs in his "Song of the Exposition," in which the undulating length of the lines is so like the undulating shape of the land in Iowa and Nebraska:

Thy limitless crops, grass, wheat, sugar, oil, corn, rice, hemp, hops.

Thy barns all fill’d, the endless freight-train and the bulging storehouse,

The grapes that ripen on thy vines, the apples in thy orchards,

Thy incalculable lumber, beef, pork, potatoes, thy coal, thy gold and silver,

The inexhaustible iron in thy mines.

Is it not possible that we can learn to regard the world as a place of grace, because there have been those among our fellows who have celebrated it in such language that the transcendent grace of God resonates and is reflected in the common grace of the creation?

By contrast, I think of the beautiful old building at the University of Chicago that houses the divinity school. It is in the Gothic style: old-fashioned, grave, dignified, rocky. There is not a false piece of material in it. The floors are real slate, not plastic tiles. The windows are real. The decor is quiet and serene. It is celebrative outwardly of what we are supposed to be about inwardly.

Too many church-related buildings look like they could just as well house some insurance company. The faculty in many seminaries sit in rows of little cubicles, one indistinguishable from another. In that way we become indistinguishable from one another. I don’t know how we stumbled into the stupidity we have committed whereby we affirm grace and create banality, affirm beauty and create ugliness. It makes no sense at all.

In the uses of literature, the uses of art, I find our intellectual obligation being unfulfilled. We simply are not cultivated people in our time. Of the old church an ancient historian said, "The church in the first three centuries won the empire because it outlived, it outthought, and it outdied the pagan world" -- including intellectual and artistic achievement. But much of the intellectual and aesthetic life within the contemporary congregation is simply contemptible. The intellectual content of the ordinary sermon is contemptible. It is often full of moral fervor and piety, but it is usually absent in the clarity of ideas that thread against the accepted norms and offer new possibilities for reflection.

How is it possible that our church social room should be filed with pictures that are mostly Kitsch -- to use that eloquent German word -- when centuries of artists have taken religious symbols and given them eloquent expression? I am continually amazed by the fact that something happens when one become pious. Is the price of piety stupidity? Is the result of being devout that one becomes intellectually and aesthetically insensitive so that the actualities of this world are no longer available to us?

I am not saying we must ignore science and technology. For example, some years ago an architect whom I had long known was invited to build a chapel for the Illinois Institute of Technology, where most of the architecture is in the Bauhaus style -- very technological and mathematical. So my friend designed a beautiful chapel in that style. But when he designed a stainless-steel altar rail all the people on the building committee became upset. They thought of course that altar rails are all made of wood and that they are all manufactured in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They were offended. "You can’t use a bare metal like that as an altar rail," they complained.

But the formula for stainless steel was worked out at this institution, and stainless steel is a beautiful product. Why not shape stainless steel to the glory of God? This was my friend’s view, and he was quite right. His attitude was a refinement of aesthetics: using a material so as to honor it, using it in its proper context.

Materials are important. There is a beautiful Lutheran church in Eugene, Oregon, designed by Pietro Belluschi. As one walks into that church, one becomes silent. It shuts you up, literally. There is something about the proportion, the use of materials, the combination of strength and serenity in that church that is utterly right.

It is not magic. Belluschi did things that are specifiable. He used a high brick wall in the back of the altar that doesn’t look like just any brick wall. When one gets close to it, one sees that those bricks are laid in and out so that they cast tiny shadows and give a depth of texture to the wall. One wonders why sounds reverberate so magnificently and finds out that the architect did careful planning, making use of the mathematical laws of acoustics. It is possible to reduce serenity to mathematics. We can accomplish these moods not by prayer alone, though the architect may have prayed about it. It is possible to use management of known principles in the creation of a church without rendering it banal or ugly.

We ought not permit the meaning of the term "experience" to be confined within the brackets of one’s own existence. The meaning of experience is a poor and haggard thing if it refers only to what has happened to me. The meaning of education and of culture is that we live vicariously a thousand other lives, and all that has happened to human beings, things that have been recorded not by my experience but by the experience of others, become a second life, and a third, and so on. I’m annoyed by those who define experience by saying, "Well, I haven’t met it yet; it hasn’t happened to me. Therefore, it has no authority." I would be a poor person if the only things I knew were what I have found out for myself.

Through great poetry and drama and essays I have experienced things that my own bracketed life never permitted me to experience firsthand. I have sailed the seas with Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. I have lived in a hundred strange places with Ernest Hemingway and Nathaniel Hawthorne. By reading Joseph Conrad, a particular favorite of mine, I have learned something of the horror of estrangement, alienation and the life-destroying energies of loneliness.

I have known how to comprehend my own moral embarrassment by the magnificent achievement of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Othello and Macbeth I have known something of human terror, to which the fairly pleasant and confined limits of my life gave me no access. Hamlet and King Claudius and Gertrude are more real than real, because they are the compressed essence of every king, and every queen, and every titled person before a moral problem. They are the fine essence of human reality. They are truth.

Traditional musical settings had a variety of forms, but they were all characterized by gravity. I am not sure you can be grave with the time beat this generation likes. I remember an old Sam Johnson statement that the jollity of the clergy much displeased him. Well, much contemporary liturgy is just too jolly! In the Christian faith there is certainly a mood of celebration and thanksgiving. But when one gets beyond the age of 25 or so, the celebrative mood is no longer adequate to one’s deepening awareness of life’s ambiguities. The God of our worship is indeed Lord of the dance; but there are nondanceable requirements that he is obliged to satisfy. So this jollification of the liturgy, this bounciness of the musical lines, is an appropriate mode for some occasions; it is bitterly inappropriate for others.

I am not here appealing for mordancy. Nor do I believe that the Gregorian chant is the necessary model for all liturgical music, but I am violently protesting against it disappearance. The old stance of the church that floats with a timeless, high impersonality -- this is the very essence of the Christian God-relationship. This was before I was; this will be when I am gone. God’s initiative toward me does not hang on the vagaries of my subjectivity. There is something in the old chants of the church that brought a necessary, audible balance to the self-incurvature of contemporary Christianity, and I very much lament its loss.

The problem of God -- whether or not God is and what is his disposition toward human creatures, and what God’s intent is in nature, history and human life -- pops up under a million labels, all the way from Wallace Stevens to Joyce Carol Oates. The problem of God eludes human labels, but God clearly does not fall simply within the confines of religious discussion.

The force of the feminist movement would be greatly strengthened if its contemporary vehemence was more deeply rooted in the larger and older chorus that cried out against earlier injustice.

There’s something in the mood of our culture that hates that. We want to hurry up and get to what something means to the individual. But this notion presents a serious danger for the true meaning of any important text -- biblical, literary or otherwise. The text had a particular meaning before I saw it, and it will continue to mean that after I have seen it. It expresses an intention that is meant to be heard by all, not interpreted according to any one individual’s preferences or biases.

Recently I spoke with Walter Holtcamp, Jr., who now runs the company, about those early days when we sought above everything to get clarity in the organ tone so that there wasn’t a big sonorous romantic mush but clear voices to articulate the polyphonic music of the period of Bach and Buxtehude. "Well," he said, "I’ve got news for you! They don’t even want clarity anymore. The new generation wants mush. The more romantic and mushy you can make it, the better they like it."

This evoked a deep sadness in me, but I won’t try to understand it. The older I get, the fewer things I understand. Some of you may have heard of the response from a famous literary figure who, upon the acceptance of a prestigious award near the end of his life, was asked to make a brief statement. He said: "I’m an old man; it’s a strange world; I don’t understand a damn thing." The older I get the more sympathy I have with this sentiment.