An additional element of the website is a chapter-by-chapter set of Discussion Questions designed to help communities and their leaders assess the role that artworks might play in the places where these communities do their work—(a) the physical settings in which they perform their work and enact their missions; (b) the formal liturgical actions that celebrate and inspire that work; and (c) the stories that matter to their identity. That is, a purpose of the book is to help contemporary communities find lessons and examples from the past that can foster good design and provoke sophisticated decoration in their own places.
Introduction: The (Dis)placement of Art
How has your own family and church and cultural background influenced your view of the visual arts in general, and the role (or lack thereof) of the arts in the life and worship of the church?
If you do go to galleries and museum with any frequency, does this experience have any felt relationship to your life of faith? If you enjoy going to an art museum or a gallery show, why? What exactly is the pleasure?
Do you have any experience at all of artworks that have a specific relation to the life and identity of a family or local community (as the Sassetti family chapel in Florence would have had)?
The Place of Architecture
Chapter 1: The Community Gathered
How much of your life is identified with – or lived within – places that are associated with particular actions shared with other people? Is there a room in your house, for example, where you gather for meals – keeping that room reserved for the action of dining in exclusion of other activities? Do you ever experience some actions as violating the purpose of the place (perhaps bringing coffee into church, or a cellphone ringing in the middle of a concert or lecture, or, as a workplace supervisor, you see an employee doing some on-line shopping while studying a spreadsheet)?
Reflect on how you actually experience artworks. Are they self-contained objects placed on walls for decoration, but transferable, without intrinsic relation to the architecture of the space itself? Do you have any experience of an artwork distinctly associated with a particular space (such that it can only operate there, and would lose meaning and impact if moved)?
What is your experience of “impropriety” or “propriety” when it comes to art? That is, by what terms do you see an artwork as fitting and appropriate for the place where it hangs or stands – or as inappropriate? (For example, it’s too large, or the colors clash, or the subjectmatter makes people feel awkward – a reproduction of Monet’s Woman Bathing may be right for the bathroom but wrong for the kitchen? If your spouse wanted you to buy a painting or print for the bathroom or bedroom or kitchen, what would you gravitate towards? Now ask the same sort of questions about church-y spaces (the sanctuary, the children’s Sunday School area, the vestibule, the place where the clergy get ready, and so forth).
Have you ever “commissioned” a piece of art (or even thought about doing so)? Why or why not? What might you consider to be occasions worthy of commissioning a work of art?
Chapter 2: Architecture Shaping Art
Does the present worship space of your church community lend itself towards – welcome the presence of – works of art? (“No, because the walls are mainly windows.” “No, because we use a rented gymnasium or movie theater and can’t introduce our own decoration.” “We meet in a gymnasium, but it feels just right because it reminds us that the church is the people, not the building.”)
Do you have any experience of artwork that frames your entry into a place; that helps to set you up for the important experience you are entering into? (After all, the people in charge of many of the places in which we spend time have given considerable attention to orchestrating our entrance. To get to the movie theater, we pass the popcorn and snack counter.)
Are there places in your life where you experience architectural surroundings as incongruous with the actions performed in that space? (Does the platform area with the pulpit or altar in your church make the congregation feel distant – so that the pastor carries a music stand down into the pews when he preaches? Are the overhead projector screens designed for ease of viewing from every spot in the congregation? Do you like or not like how your large worship space is designed to look like a concert hall? Is the children’s Sunday school area in a windowless basement area?)
How does the architectural design of buildings in your life guide your movement through the space? (All IKEA stores follow an identical template that obliges the customer to pass through every section of the store.) In the tradition explored in this chapter, the architecture of churches led from the baptism by which one entered the Church to the altar to the eschatological East end of the church. How about the architecture of the churches you have known? Does the architecture or spatial-design of your place of worship imply a narrative, a direction of movement that suggests beginning and goal? If not, why not?
What are the really important elements of your church community’s ‘life of the faith? (Is it listening attentively to the sermon; singing praise songs; celebrating Holy Communion every week; caring for the poor or the homeless or the refugees; inviting in the unchurched or the seekers?) How does (or not) the architecture and decoration identify and ‘house’ and celebrate these elements?
Chapter 3: Art Shaping Architecture
The hunch of the author is that most readers of this book are likely to have been trained to see artworks as things hung on a wall – and entirely moveable to another wall somewhere else. We think of artworks as independent of a room or building’s architecture. We are likely to have little experience of settings where the artworks fully determine our experience of the architectural space, and from which the architectural space cannot easily be separated out.
Can you think of any spaces or places in your experience where art and its spatial location begin inextricably to merge? (Perhaps Mount Rushmore is an example shared by many; it’s almost impossible for the viewer to imagine the mountainside before, or apart from, the massive heads of the four presidents.)
Can you think of any places where the movement of your eyes, where the lean of your body, is influenced by the artworks housed by the architectural fabric? (Perhaps an example for many of us might be the Lincoln Memorial the on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where the majestic statue of the seated Lincoln, sculpted by Daniel Chester French, is less an object brought inside a pillared temple-like building than the thing to which the building is entirely subject. We don’t see the building as having any independent existence apart from the statue.)
Noting and sharing what you can from your own experience, can you imagine artworks that would transform irrevocably your community’s experience of a place important to it?
Does such pressure – such powerful and community-wide influence – enacted by a work of art on a place feel off-putting, even a bit scary, to you? Why or why not? How can we mark the difference between a place-shaping art that is coercive, and a place-shaping art that is wholesomely answerable to the community housed in the place?
The Place of Liturgy
Chapter 4: The Community at Work and Worship
Have you ever had experience of a work of art (as was Duccio’s altarpiece made for the Siena cathedral) that caused such a stir that it was processed around the town or the church or the campus or the factory?
Does a community that you belong to (faith-based or otherwise) have a treasured object – an object whose significance lies at the heart of the community’s identity – that is not publically processed, but might be?
Can you imagine your community commissioning (or purchasing) a work of art that would justifiably be processed ceremonially to its intended position?
Few communities nowadays commonly make processions, whether solemnly festive or sorrowful. Why not? When do they occur? With or without beautifully crafted objects rich with significance? Can you name a reason, an occasion, a valued object, in celebration of which your community could very well make a ceremonial procession?
Chapter 5: Recovering the Sense of Liturgy
Civic magnanimity – or “the sense of obligation to contribute to the public good of the whole community” (p. 86) – was exemplified by wealthy civically-engaged people such as Cosimo de Medici; what is your diagnosis of the state of “civic magnanimity” in our own day and age? What sectors of society are more and less likely to be the beneficiaries of the “liturgy” (in the old Greek sense) of underwriting a public service at one’s own expense?
The author makes the distinction in chapter 5 between “liturgy” as “the work that a given community is called to do,” and as “the formalized occasions when its members remind themselves in inspirational mode what they are and what their mission is” (p. 89). Can this distinction be helpfully applied to the “work of the people” that defines the communities of which you are a member? (If you serve on the team that runs your church’s weekly soup kitchen, does the team also have an annual pot-luck supper just for team members to reminisce and celebrate this good work?)
Does the author’s sense of the “eclipse of liturgy” in our own age (or “the lapse from ceremony,” in George Steiner’s phrase) resonate with your experience? Where? Among whom? Where do you see signs of W. B. Yeats’s “rough beast … slouching towards Bethlehem”?
Do you spot counter-movements engaged in the restoration of community work and community-wide celebration, of “liturgies” that nourish a sense of common purpose and belonging? Would you want to identify any ersatz communities in your own neck of the woods that sabotage human flourishing?
What do you think: Is there a natural, perhaps inevitable connection between communities that know and embrace their “liturgy” – their work freely done in service – and their desire to frame that work with artfulness?
Chapter 6: Life, Liturgy, and Art in Premodern Italy
In chapter 6, the author gives “a basic survey of the zones in medieval-Renaissance Italian culture that can be marked as liturgical” (p. 100), and which served as places for artworks that enriched and assisted liturgical actions. (The author suggests that our own contemporary culture has many fewer of such zones.) Take up that list (the sacraments, the careful shaping of the order of public worship, altarpieces that frame Holy Communion, pulpits that dignify the action of preaching, the lectionary that formalizes the church’s obligation to read through the Scriptures, and so forth) and reflect on how your own church community presents the actions that define its practice of faith. (What does your pulpit look like, if one is even used?) How does your church community underline the importance of Baptism (or other fundamental marker-points of life)?
Do the same exercise in reverse. That is, identify the actions that your community of faith holds as central, and reflect on the means by which these actions are enhanced, lifted up, set apart. Such efforts to say “Listen up here, pay attention now” are (in most of human history) occasions for putting art to work. How, if at all, has your community enlisted artfulness to signal importance?
Do any objects in your places of worship and work have special resonance on particular “holy days”? (For instance, the Stations of the Cross plaques around the sanctuary that are put to collective work only on Good Friday, or the special banner that is unfurled on the holy-day that it marks.) Would you say that these objects continue to carry lively and appreciated resonance for your community, or might they be ready for replacement with artfully made objects that speak afresh into the present conditions of your community?
Can you identify themes or days or occasions that are certainly important for your community, but which are without any enhancement through the arts?
Chapter 7: The Church Year and the Daily Office
Perhaps the best place to start with group discussion of the issues raised in this chapter is with honest sharing of which year-long cycles and patterns actually govern (with different degrees of power) our sense of the passing of time (whether the school year or the work-year measured by vacation breaks or the year punctuated by sporting events, and so forth, or the so-called church year itself, or liturgical calendar that begins in Advent and ends with the Feast of Christ the King).
How and to what degree does “artfulness” – the special table setting, flowers and special decoration of the mantle or the coffee table, flags, menus particular to the day, behaviors more strictly choreographed in the home or in the church community – kick into gear at the “high” days that punctuate the year? (What elements would really upset the children if you forgot them?)
For readers or groups from church communities that operate consciously with the liturgical calendar of the traditional church year, how exactly does your community mark the major feast-days and seasons?
And for communities whose churches are in fact named in honor of particular saints or doctrines or aspects of Christ (St. Peter’s or Holy Trinity or Christ the Redeemer, and so forth), how, if at all, are these patronal figures given special (artful) celebration? Perhaps they aren’t. How might they be?
Does your community setting presently contain any works of art (perhaps stained glass windows or paintings or statues or carvings on the pulpit or liturgical banners, and so forth) that highlight doctrines or inspirational figures from scripture or sacred history? Are these artworks presently put to work in the life and worship and devotion of your community – or have they lapsed from visibility?
If your group or community came to the conclusion that artworks and artful features could be more powerfully set into place – put to work – in the settings of the “work of the people,” what might these look like?
The Place of Narrative
Chapter 8: A Community with a Shared Story
Just to see where you stand, take a stab, either privately or with your group, at the big question (asked on p. 144): “Which sort of “time” is the most “real” or fundamental or original? Is time fundamentally chronos, empty of plot, with no apprehensible trajectory by which we can be oriented toward a goal? … Or is time truly kairos? In which case, the deepest truth about time is that it is indeed a “story” with a beginning, middle, and end …?
Do you have some set of personal stories that you can “tell” without stumbling and without unnecessary digressions or filler (meeting your spouse, an accident or illness or injury that you lived to tell about, a notable athletic event, a narrative of ‘conversion’ …)?
Do you have some novels or (perhaps more likely) movies that you deeply relate to? Why? … because they are “like” your life, or not like your life, because they inspire you, or uncover a deeper truth about life?
Do the communities you belong to (perhaps neighborhood, church, sports team fandom, workplace colleagues, mission or service team, etc.) have stories about itself that y’all often turn to? When and why do these come up?
Most of us have probably spoken of being “really drawn into” a story. What do you mean by this, exactly?
What’s an honest list (a) of “stories from the Bible” that you don’t really connect with (that don’t have any particular grip on your life), and (b) of stories that really do “resonate” with your experience and identity or your character
In your experience, is having a “shared story” with others something that helps fashion a group of people into a real community?
Chapter 9: The Sources of Visual Storytelling
If your church has a patronymic (named after Saint James, or Saint Joseph, or the Church of the Ascension), do you experience moments when this name “clicks”? (As when, as a parishioner of All Saints Church, I suddenly behold us motley crew traipsing up to receive communion as, in the gaze of the Lord, a glorious company of the Saints, redeemed despite our flaws and our peculiarities.)
Be honest: are there stories or characters that may not be drawn from holy scripture but which matter a great deal to you or to your community’s life of faith (perhaps the Three Kings, although many of the trappings of the story are not in scripture; or Saint Francis, or modern saints such as Mother Theresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, etc.)?
Can you relate to any of the stories mentioned in this chapter which may be unfamiliar to you but which are deeply embedded in Christian tradition (the childhood of the Virgin Mary, the Harrowing of Hell, the Legend of the Holy Cross, for example)?
Can you point to visual-narratives-in-art that really do matter to you, that stick in your imagination, that have influenced how you read stories from the Bible or sacred history? Inversely, are there stories from scripture that really matter to you, but which you’ve never seen in visual-artistic form?
Do you have any favorite illustrated versions of a beloved book (perhaps the illustrations in the original editions of the Narnia Chronicles, or the Beatrix Potter tales, or Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, or N. C. Wyeth’s illustrations for Robinson Crusoe or the Knights of the Round Table)?
Is there a story you wish was painted in a prominent place in your place of worship or work or service (perhaps the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the hall where you serve meals to the hungry)?
Chapter 10: Episode, Plot, and Theme
(For honest group discussion) How clear and active is the distinction made in this chapter between plot and theme? Can you apply these distinctions to your experience-and-critique of movies (as when, for example, you felt there was extraneous material that could have been cut; “It didn’t have to be so long …”), or of television shows (such as sitcoms that made you laugh but whose themes were at odds with your own moral values)?
Practice this distinction between plot and theme in referring to stories from the Bible. (What is the theme of the parable of the prodigal son, etc.? What exactly is the plot of all the stories concerning Joseph?)
Practice giving a plot summary of a favorite novel or movie (a good round-the-circle exercise for a group).
Can you call to mind any experiences of “episodic” storytelling that didn’t actually cohere as a “story”? (Perhaps listening to someone “rambling” so that you want to say, “What’s your point?” [theme] or “Where is this going?” [plot].)
Are there parts or periods of your own life that you just can’t narrate well because the “narrative” just isn’t clear to you (at least yet)?
Can you apply the language of virtues and vices to stories that you have read or watched? Do your comments apply more to personality or to character? (“I love this character in my favorite sitcom because she’s so spacey or awkward or painfully shy,” or “The actor gets across perfectly the character’s vanity or arrogance or generosity or compassion.”)
Chapter 11: Parallel Stories, or Typology
In the gospels, Jesus calls out only several parallels between himself and Old Testament figures (“Even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” for example). Such parallels are expanded somewhat by the writers of the New Testament epistles. Test yourself (or your group): how far are you willing to go in drawing such parallels? (Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as a parallel to the sacrifice of Christ on the wood of the cross?) Name an Old Testament story that sure seems to work as a parallel to Christ, and name one that doesn’t.
Is there danger in over-reading the Scriptures for “parallel stories”? Contrarily, is there danger in resistance to spotting such parallels?
For readers of this book whose church traditions follow the historic Lectionary, do your priests/pastors commonly try to highlight in their sermons the linkages among the readings from the Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament epistles, and the Gospel? If you use the weekly lectionary to structure your own devotional reading, do you try to be attentive to such connections among the passages?
A discussion topic for brave groups!: Is it worthwhile and edifying to be on the look-out (as did earlier generations of Christians for many centuries) for parallels between classical literature (or even between classics of modern literature) and the Bible? (Do you point out to your children that Aslan in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia tales is notably like Jesus?) Are you inclined to see such parallels as something “read into” stories by those who wear the lenses of faith, or as parallels that are “really there” in the stories (perhaps as evidence of God’s leaving of tracks and traces for people from all cultural traditions to seek and find)?
Are the visual arts especially adapted to accentuate parallels between stories?
Do you see the lives of those more advanced in their sanctification as also more marked by parallels with Christ and with the figures of faith in scripture?