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“You Are a Ritual Artist!”

17May
  • “You Are a Ritual Artist!”

Think Like a Filmmaker blog bannerIn this excerpt from my new book, Think Like a Filmmaker, we’re unpacking the idea of what it means to be a ritual artist. You’re invited to use the reflection questions at the end of this post to guide your own exploration of your identity as a ritual artist.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Marcia McFee’s new book [Think Like a Filmmaker © Marcia McFee, 2016]. Find out more HERE.

We are going to learn interesting and valuable lessons from artists in the field of motion pictures: directors, cinematographers, screenwriters, art directors, editors and composers. What these folks know about creative processes and telling great stories is going to help invigorate and streamline your task of preparing weekly worship. But we need to get one important thing clear before we begin so that you can see these analogies clearly:

You are also an artist… a ritual artist.

Not many people have ever said that about themselves. Perhaps both words feel a bit foreign to you. We often use the word “ritual” to connote worship that feels dried-up and rote. And we sometimes think that if we aren’t Van Gogh or Nureyev, we dare not classify ourselves as “artists.” But let me reframe each of those words.

By ritual, I mean those things we do that help us know who we are. Those of you who drink coffee in the morning are engaging in a ritual because the act of drinking coffee is not just about the caffeine or the hot beverage, it signifies the beginning of your day. It may even be that moment of taking a deep breath before the busy-ness ensues. It has meaning beyond just the cup of joe in front of you. Worship is ritual because it contains both new and repeated elements that signify the spiritual journey of which we are a part. Ritual is something we actively participate in and therefore we are formed by it. We are innately connected to others who participate in the ritual as well. When worship is meaningful and memorable (what I call “M-M-Good” worship), it is because we have connected the faith narrative with our own life stories through the combination of words, visuals, actions and media of the ritual.

But someone had to put those elements together. This is where the artistry part comes in. Taking the elements of human communication and putting them together in such a way that we are drawn powerfully into the story with our whole selves takes imagination, creativity, and skill-sets of vision and collaboration. This is artistry. Those who choose the words, those who carry out and lead the melody and harmonies, those who think about color and image must understand themselves as ritual artists.

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My understanding of the mission of worship is to build up the Body of Christ for its work in the world through encounter with the Holy Living God. Such an awesome task requires a specific kind of artistry. Communicating seemingly ineffable (intangible) concepts wrapped in mystery is the domain of artists. And whether you have ever thought of yourself as an artist, if you have answered the call (clergy and lay alike) to bring the Word of God to the people of God in speech, music, visual, dramatic or media expressions, you are a ritual artist.

My first career was in professional dance and musical theater. I was based in New York City and toured the world. It was a dream come true. But at the height of my career I encountered a line from Cecil Williams’ book, I’m Alive, that said, “If your doin’ doesn’t dance with your sayin’, you haven’t chosen life.” And I knew my life would change. You see, my faith journey had always walked hand-in-hand with my love of the arts, from the time at 12 years old when I put a little cassette tape recorder in the front pew of First United Methodist Church, Adrian, Missouri and had someone read from Isaiah over the music as I danced with “wings like eagles.” That little rural church let me play keyboards, sing, dance, mime and act my way through my childhood and adolescence. I knew all along that God had a call on my life that would come to fruition through my artistry.

Marcia dancing at the Saint Paul School of Theology

Marcia dancing at the Saint Paul School of Theology

Some of us came to this task from an arts background. Our love of a particular art form and our love of God brought us to an intersection of ritual and art. In the process we found out that this task required us to be theologians—to dig deep into the rich texts and traditions in order to feed our art form in the context of worship. On the other hand, some of us came to this task because our love of theology or mission or pastoral care guided us to vocational ministry. Along the way (perhaps in our first worship class at seminary), we realized we had to be public speakers, spiritual guides at crucial rites of passage, and those who wed words, music, and visuals together week in and week out. In other words, we realized we had to be artists.

Whether you came from the artistry or ministry end of the spectrum, we are all in the same boat now. Ritual artists do not create visual art for the gallery. They create in order to engage a faith narrative through color and texture and line and dimension. Ritual artists do not create music for the concert hall. They describe encounter with the divine through crescendo and legato and phrase and pause. Ritual artists do not create poetry or prose for the page. They write for living, breathing bodies to hear, recite, whisper and shout, expressing life’s range of joy and lament.

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So even if you don’t think of yourself as an artist, if you have chosen or written words for yourself and/or the congregation to say, music for them to sing, arranged poinsettias on the chancel area, played or sung a note, lowered the lights, clicked on a slide or turned on a microphone, you are a ritual artist.

Questions to Ponder:

In what ways do you participate in the offering of worship each week? How can your gifts be seen as a practice of ritual artistry?

Seeing ourselves as artists can put a new and intriguing perspective on our approach to worship. How is this perspective challenging? Or liberating?

Stay tuned for next week’s post, in which I’ll be talking about how we can move from being simple “story-tellers” to sensory-rich “story-dwellers”. If you’d like to learn more about Think Like a Filmmaker, visit the book’s website HERE!

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