IV. Ethnographies of Listening to Churches: aesthetics and rationality

Playing the Sensual Card in Churches: Studying the Aestheticization of Religion

Anne Margit L0vland and Pal Repstad


'More adventure, less memorizing psalm verses', was the headline when the Norwegian newspaper Fadrelandsvennen interviewed confirmation leader Anne Bj0rnholmen about new methods in confirmation work in the Church of Norway.[1] The point of departure for this chapter is a general hypothesis that dogmatic and cognitive dimensions of religion are giving way to more sensual, emotional, narrative - in short, aesthetic - aspects. The chapter will offer some examples of this trend based on empirical research in Norway, although we believe that this is a general shift in Western religion, perhaps even globally. We will also analyse possible tensions arising between sensual, artistic, symbolic and emotional expressions and moral, dogmatic and functional boundaries prevalent in the religious milieus.

Processes of aestheticization can be traced in many different religious contexts, ranging from changes in musical taste in congregations to a more narrative and less propositional style of preaching in churches. Our aim is to introduce aestheticization of religion as a general topic, substantially as well as methodologically. However, in order to add weightiness to the subject, we will briefly present some conclusions from a recent research project in Norway consisting of over 20 empirical subprojects. The project title is 'Religion as aestheticizing practice', and we use the acronym RESEP to refer to the project. Furthermore, we will present in more detail a phenomenon that we have studied together, namely the emergence of increasingly popular Christmas or Advent concerts in Norwegian churches. This case is well suited to identifying the relevant changes as well as tensions in question.

We also intend to discuss social factors lying behind the trend of aestheticization. Finally, if religion is changing its modes of expression, researchers may need to change their methodological approaches to religion. Interwoven in the chapter will be reflections on our attempt to combine sociology and contemporary social semiotics as tools of analysis and interpretation.

A Broad Perspective on the Aestheticization of Religion

The Concept

Although we will not go deeply into philosophical and conceptual discussions about aesthetics in this chapter, a working definition is needed. A common-sense definition often identifies the aesthetic with the beautiful, but according to Alexander Baumgarten, who introduced aesthetics as a core concept in modern philosophy, aesthetics is about sensory impact and configuration - and often, but not always, about beauty. Dramatic, shocking and repulsive experiences also belong in the realm of aesthetics. Baumgarten explicitly includes the experience of 'the ugly' in this realm (Baumgarten 1983 [1750]; see also Meyer 2009). It follows that aestheticization takes place when sensory impacts increase their significance compared to other perspectives like moral worth, spiritual edification or truth content.[2]

The Working Hypothesis

We claim that aestheticization is a general process, changing many forms of religion, both inside and outside religious institutions. This is a very rough hypothesis that needs to be modified and elaborated upon when confronted with empirical material. We do not claim that old time religion in the Western world was all about dogma and correct religious teachings, or that no feelings were involved among religious people, or that contemporary religion has lost all cognitive and dogmatic content. We are talking about a shift among the main dimensions in religion, not a complete transformation. We do not claim that the relation between aestheticization and dogmatic fervor is a zero-sum game, so that when aesthetics becomes significant, teachings and theology automatically become less important. Aesthetic, multimodal expressions can intensify dogmatic dimensions as well, sometimes even more than 'pure' verbal, cognitive communication. One can for instance think of liturgies, psalms and icons with a distinct and rather well-rehearsed and authoritative dogmatic content. But our claim is that in modern society narrative, sensual, symbolic and emotional - in short aesthetic dimensions - often start to live their own life, partly independent of the official and dogmatic framework. In the RESEP project we have found many examples that aestheticization implies less precise dogma and less importance of the cognitive, theological teachings in faith communities.

The Historical Background

An alliance of strange bedfellows, Pietism and Rationalism, has limited the positive evaluation of aesthetical creativity in religious life in Northern Europe, including Norway. Historically, the 'rage for order', to use Charles Taylor's (2007) expression, could emerge in Rationalist circles, denouncing religious aesthetic flourishing as primitive. But the strict Protestantism that regulated much public and private life in Northern Europe in the centuries after the Reformation has probably been the most forceful barrier against aestheticization. These sentiments, in Orthodox as well as in Pietist versions, implied an ascetic and restrictive attitude towards rich aesthetical expressions, for moral and religious reasons. Aesthetic richness could seduce you and tempt you to leave the narrow path, and it could distract you from concentrating on the necessary focus on salvation.

This focus on moral purity and dogmatic correctness did not mean that emotions and sensual impact had no place in the conversionist revival movement setting its mark on Norwegian Christianity in the nineteenth and early parts of the twentieth century. Seekers were to feel strongly about their own inadequacy, and feel quietly happy when they reached the status of being saved. Songs were always sung at revival meetings. But all the time the unfolding of emotions was expected to take place within a correct dogmatic framework. People found themselves under a double regime, a dogmatic as well as emotional one.3 Today, the symbols have become ambiguous, narratives have replaced propositions in religious preaching, and verbal communication has diminished its importance. In short, the contemporary trend of aestheticization offers more space for subjective and personal interpretation. As Tord Gustavsen, a well-known jazz pianist very often heard in church concerts, expressed it in an interview with the national newspaper Aftenposten:

Instrumental music gives all individuals in the audience a possibility to fill in their own histories ... Music at its best is sacred, but in a totally undogmatic way.

Some Examples from Norway

Quite a lot of anecdotal evidence, as well as some more systematic projects, point in the direction that religion is becoming gradually more a matter of good feelings and sentiments, with less weight on existential agony. We also note that there seems to be less dogmatic pondering, especially when it comes to discussions between different confessions and creeds. A large research project on religious change in a religiously conservative region in southern Norway inspired RESEP's working hypothesis about the increasing importance of the sensual dimension in contemporary religion. This project, called 'God in Sorlandet', concluded that the region's Christianity is less concerned now with correct teachings and cognitive convictions, and that subjective, positive experience and appeal to the senses have become more important (Repstad 2009).

A survey among vicars in the Church of Norway in the region of Sorlandet showed clearly that the interest in art and aesthetics as an integral part of Sunday worship is on the increase (Olsen 2008). A national survey from 2008 showed that church buildings came second on a list of different types of buildings most frequently used for local cultural events, beaten only by community centres that are often called samfunnshus, and often owned by the municipality or voluntary organizations. And churches, indeed the oldest type of such local buildings, actually had the fastest increase in use for such purposes. While concerts are the most important type of such cultural events in churches, art exhibitions are also becoming more frequent (Aagedal 2009: 228).

Let us present some conclusions from a few of the projects in RESEP. Changes can be found even in the homes of active Christians. Hans Hodne (2008) has studied what kinds of art and decoration are to be found on the walls in conservative Christians' homes in Norway. He concludes that there has been a change from ascetic decorations, often embroidered scripture texts and mass-produced pictures of Jesus, to more varied and in a sense more ecumenical decorations. Confessionalism seems to be on the defensive. Icons showing Mother Mary would have been rejected as Catholic or Orthodox heresies two generations ago in the Norwegian Lutheran inner mission, but today such icons can be found in the homes of many of the low-church faithful. Hans Hodne (2013) has also studied the interior of several bedehus, that is fellowship halls owned by lowchurch movements in the Church of Norway as well as the interior of so-called 'free churches', Protestant minority churches outside the majority church. Hodne has found an increasing openness to professional art and decorations, even with a modern abstract style in some cases. Quite often the historical heritage is taken care of by moving old traditional pictures and embroidered scripture texts to smaller rooms, away from the main congregation hall.

Harald Olsen (2013) has studied discussions connected to the building of new church buildings in the Church of Norway over the last 30-40 years. He concludes that there has often been a tension between functional concerns and aesthetic expressions. The aesthetic norms are sometimes modernist, sometimes traditional ('A church should look like a church'). Olsen also finds that over the last 30 years, there is an increasingly prevalent view that new churches should have spectacular and professionally accepted artistic value. Sometimes such concerns collide with religious norms ('Can we depict Jesus like this?'), or with functional concerns, but there has been a definite movement away from the practical, functional and simple arbeidskirker (commonplace churches). Helje Sodal (2013) finds a similar trend in the Pentecostal movement in Norway, a movement described by her as going from tents to temples. Pentecostals have traditionally preferred the simple and functional; however, in recent decades, aesthetic ambitions have emerged.

Irene Trysnes (2013) has analysed changes in Christian songs for children, especially songs used in Sunday schools. Contemporary songs present a kinder and less strict and judgmental God than did many songs a couple of generations ago. Markers of difference are hardly presented any more. They were quite common in the old days, for instance between boys and girls ('I want to be like Daniel, and I want to be like Ruth'), between salvation and perdition, and between the Christian nation of Norway and the world of the heathens in Africa and elsewhere. The anthropology has also become more optimistic. References to sin have disappeared. Contemporary Christian songs for children are inclusive. Furthermore, they support self-confidence and self-realization, often underlined by an active body language accompanying the songs.

Hildegunn Schuff (2013) has studied how dancing has entered the Christian arena, in the free churches as well as in the Church of Norway. In a few decades, dancing has changed from being a controversial thing to being a very common and popular part of worship in churches. RESEP is not limited to studying organized Christian settings. One empirical study deals with how the style of Muslim dress codes among women in Oslo is negotiated in a process where norms of decency and puritanism meet aesthetic norms of being chic (Furseth 2014). Furthermore, some representations of religion outside organized religion are also analysed, such as references to religion in contemporary Norwegian fiction. We find less than before of the debating, critical, polemic approach to religion prevalent in many Norwegian novels and short stories in the twentieth century, where church and religion were criticized on moral or rationalist grounds for being repressive, hypocritical or naive. Today, many authors approach religion with fantasy, openness and fascination. They are curious, but have no dogmatic constraints. This corresponds to a similar development inside institutional Christianity. A new translation of the Bible has been on the Norwegian bestseller lists of fiction(!) for several months since 2011. The marketing of the new Bible has stressed its literary qualities, its aesthetic value and the fact that many famous Norwegian authors have offered advice in the translation process.[3] Since RESEP covers religious expressions inside organized religion as well as in other parts of the culture, the breadth of empirical material has inspired a hypothesis that the differences between constructions of religion 'from inside' and 'from outside' are smaller than before. As we have seen, aestheticization from the inside can imply that religion becomes less defensive, apologetic and dogmatic, and more sensual, narrative and emotional, and is expressed more often by non-verbal symbols. Aestheticization from outside can imply that religion is constructed more as narratives about lived religion - more openly and less reductionist - for instance, less psychologizing. If both these tendencies manifest themselves, the representations of religion from inside and outside will converge.

There Are Still Tensions

Even if we claim that religion has generally grown softer and is presented in more varied and less propositional terms, the traditional Protestant cognitive and dogmatic approach to religion is still present in Norway and other European countries. Aestheticization can still be associated with superficiality and lack of real commitment, such as in this biting extract from Olav Egil Aune, editor of culture in the national Christian newspaper Vdrt Land. Aune comments upon a multireligious Sacred Music Festival in the city of Drammen, under the heading 'Sacred Nonsense':

If we reduce ourselves to an audience, the sacred loses its power ... Ritual acts without deep roots ... are probably wasted. Window shopping in others' culture is probably best left to Saga Sun Travels ... Serious and demanding issues in all religions are reduced to zero, to a pleasure-sick piety, a sensual intoxication for people who will not take a risk.6

Aune's comment may be seen as an insistence on existential seriousness, possibly with a Protestant religion of difference heritage somewhere in the background. We may also see the shadow of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1987 [1843]) somewhere back there, with his ironic description of the aesthetic young man, living completely in the empire of the senses as a slave to his desires, finally feeling empty and bored after seeking pleasure all the time, and being allergic to any serious commitment. The same heritage may have contributed to the initial scepticism towards dance as an art form in churches, as studied by Hildegunn Schuff (2013).

Other concerns than moral and dogmatic may also create tensions. We have already mentioned Olsen's study of contemporary church buildings in Norway. Several church fires have occurred over the last 25 years in Norway, a few of them started by more or less dedicated Satanists, others because of outdated electrical wiring. In many of these cases, lively discussions have followed: should the church be built just as the old church was, and on the same site ? Or should one move the new church to a more central location and build a more functional church? Actually, the active congregation members have often been in favour of the functional alternative, while less regular churchgoers (although with a deep commitment to the church building) have supported the idea of copying the old and beautiful church.

From a sociological point of view, tensions over aestheticization can also be an issue between different professions. For instance, a more varied spectre of expressions in religious life may threaten the traditionally powerful position of the clergy. Ministers have usually been experts on the verbal dimensions of religion, and may lose influence when other dimensions come to the fore.

  • [1] Fadrelandsvennen, 7 May 2011. The Church of Norway is the Lutheran majority church in the country, with about 80 per cent of the population as members.
  • [2] This understanding of aestheticization is inspired by Herbert (2011)
  • [3] For these trends in the Norwegian literary field, see Gulliksen and Justnes (2014).
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