In his recent book, The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation, and the Liturgical Arts, David Taylor chooses John Calvin as a conversation partner to discuss what role the arts might play in the worship of the church.
Calvin is an interesting choice of dialogue partner for this discussion, not simply because the reformer did all of his writing in an ecclesial world of 500 years ago, but because Calvin was opposed to the use of “physical aids” in worship. But that’s not all there is to the story. Calvin’s writings contain both an inspiring theology of the goodness of the created world, and an incongruous refusal to see creation play a role in the church’s worship.
Taylor’s project essentially explores these two threads in Calvin’s teaching and asks what might happen if we allowed Calvin’s creational and Trinitarian theology to override his stated views on the liturgical arts. In Taylor’s hands, Calvin’s diverging views are put in dialogue with one another. This becomes a heuristic device that yields some interesting insights.
Calvin’s suspicion of liturgical art
Taylor explains that Calvin’s big hangup with using the material, the embodied, in worship is that it violates what he sees as the Bible’s trajectory from an allowance of physicality in the Old Testament to an insistence upon spirituality in the New. While God found a way to make the material world serve his purposes (particularly in the Old Testament), God’s intent ultimately is to free us from all this stuff and draw us to himself in spirit (and in truth), which Calvin views as the opposite of “in body.”
While this view was—and remains—prevalent in the church, it actually comes far more from the writings of Plato and his followers than from the pages of the New Testament.
Now, Calvin was not anti-matter across the board (I don’t mean to suggest that he was broadly Platonic), he was simply suspicious of its potential for use in the church’s praise. Though he was positive about the use of musical instruments in homes, when discussing worship Calvin slipped into a more Platonic view that physical aids to worship are at best unnecessary and at worst harmful. Calvin often flirts with a Platonic dualism that sees the mind and soul as good and the body as evil, or perhaps as something only slightly less sinister: as a prison.
Calvin’s high view of creation
If this were all we had from Calvin, we could safely call David Taylor crazy for choosing Calvin as a discussion partner in a book like this. But Taylor seems to see the other emphasis in Calvin as more foundational to Calvin’s thought (I agree). We could, of course, use Calvin’s negative statements on materiality to dismiss his creational theology as inconsistent. But Taylor takes the opposite approach and asks where it would lead if we set aside Calvin’s liturgical suspicions and extrapolated from Calvin’s creational theology. The results are hopeful and uplifting. Consider this statement from Calvin’s commentary on Genesis:
“We see, indeed, the world with our eyes, we tread the earth with our feet, we touch innumerable kinds of God’s works with our hands, we inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers, we enjoy boundless benefits; but in those very things of which we attain some knowledge, there dwells such an immensity of divine power, goodness, and wisdom, as absorbs all our senses.”
Calvin presents to us a world dripping with God’s glory and goodness. Few theologians have given better statements on the wonder of the created world. And this was not an a-typical statement for Calvin, who, in commenting on Psalm 104, even speaks of God clothing himself in the fabric of this world.
Creation is good. The material stuff of this world is not the problem. The world is made of matter because God designed it to be so—and then declared it good! We must always remember that sin is a stain, not the fabric itself. So if we follow the implications of Calvin’s high creational theology, we can begin to imagine an inspiring role for materially rooted, physically embodied practices in our churches.
Sorting it out
Taylor argues—rightly, in my view—that our human worship of God belongs within the larger framework of creation’s praise to God. God’s glory is constantly being declared through the things—things!—he has made, so when we open our mouths to praise, we are obediently joining in with the rest of God’s world.
When it comes to our bodies themselves or the embodied practices in which they participate, Taylor insists the point is not to get these material aspects “out of the way” for true worship, but rather to utilize them in the expression of praise to God. This is what the liturgical arts do. A liturgical practice is a prayer we say with our bodies. It goes beyond what we think in our minds and it reaches down to our guts, to that which is entrenched in our very bones.
Taylor commends the liturgical arts to us as a means of “feeding and forming the church” (193). When we tap into the arts to engage the bodies, not just the minds, of our congregations in worship:
“[This] will remind them that they do not perceive their bodies rightly simply by moving them about throughout the week. They perceive them rightly by being gathered in their own bodies, as Christ’s body [the church], around Christ’s body [the Eucharist].” (143)
Who is this book for?
There are many great books on the intersection of faith and art (see my long list here), but Taylor’s approach here is certainly unique. I found it helpful, not least because it brought out some possibilities within the Reformed tradition, which historically has been suspicious of the role of the arts. Sticking with a single dialogue partner (i.e., John Calvin) is certainly an unnecessary restriction for a book of this sort. I did at times find that restriction, well, restricting. But that’s not to say it’s the wrong approach. Every artist must embrace constraints, and in doing so, they find that limitations can actually enhance discovery and creativity. Even self-imposed limitations can be extremely fruitful. I think that is true of Taylor’s work in many ways.
So if you read this review and think, “why would I care what Calvin says about anything?” then this book isn’t for you. But if you’re thinking through the role of the arts for corporate worship, there is great fuel for reflection here.