W. David O. Taylor, ed.,For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts

~Reviewed by Wes Vander Lugt, a PhD student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts who edits and contributes to Transpositions, a new blog exploring transpositions between theology and the arts.

Whether Catholics or Protestants, Reformed or Charismatic, younger evangelicals or older evangelicals, emerging or traditional, a growing number of churches and denominations worldwide are interested in and supporting the arts. While there has been a plethora of conversations about the arts in the church, few of these conversations have been as practical and stimulating as For the Beauty of the Church, a collection of essays edited by David Taylor, originally given at the “Transforming Culture: A Vision for the Church and the Arts” conference in Austin in 2008.

In the ‘Introduction,’ David Taylor identifies two prongs of the typical ‘problem’ of the arts in the church. One prong is pragmatism, incorporating whatever art we like, makes us feel good, and works well in our worship, which usually leaves theology behind. Another prong is traditionalism, which in its Protestant variety offers little impetus for the aesthetic concerns of the gospel. How do we surmount these difficulties?

Andy Crouch
(chapter one: ‘The Gospel’) situates his answer within the framework of God as
Giver and the world and culture as gift. We can explore or exploit this gift,
and part of exploring the gift of creation and culture is to make things that
have no apparent ‘usefulness.’ In short, Crouch provisionally defines art as
“those aspects of culture that cannot be reduced to utility,” that which goes
“far beyond straightforward purposefulness.” Some reviewers have challenged
this definition, maintaining that art does
have a purpose or an end, even though churches often misconstrue this purpose
as purely pragmatic. As Nicholas Wolterstorff astutely argues in Art in Action, people do things through
art, but this doing does not have to be trite and merely utilitarian. Art can
contribute to shalom.

John Witvliet
(chapter two: ‘The Worship’) concurs that art has a purpose, more specifically
that art can enhance public worship. Not all art is fitting for public worship,
however, unless it deepens the corporate element of worship rather than
promoting isolation, builds the covenantal relationship with God rather than
promoting sentimentality, and appreciates art as iconic rather than promoting
sinful idolatry. Although Witvliet recognizes that art is ‘useful’ for worship,
he strengthens Crouch’s proposal that art should not be utilized uncritically
or flippantly.

Lauren Winner
(chapter three: ‘The Art Patron’) deals with the objection that because art is
expensive, a more appropriate use of money than art patronage is giving that
money to the poor. Winner weaves together several personal narratives to
explain how her art buying habits are not irresponsible, but actually serve to
support Christian artists and act as a prompt for hospitality by sharing them
with others. In other words, there is a time for art buying and there is a time
for giving the poor, and these two expressions of Christian discipleship can be
integrated for the glory of God.

Eugene Peterson
(chapter four: ‘The Pastor’) writes as a retired pastor, articulating several
ways that artists have made him a better pastor. He relates that these artists
enabled him to perceive “the formation of salvation, detail by detail, day by
day, in the bodies of men and women and babies, neighborhoods, homes, and
workplaces.” Peterson’s practical reflections encourage pastors to make friends
with artists in ways that continually renew their vision, in other words, in
ways that “restore color and texture and smell to the salvation that has become
disembodied in a fog of abstraction.”

Barbara Nicolosi
(chapter five: ‘The Artist’) begins her chapter with some big picture
reflections: art is about wholeness, harmony and radiance and not what is cute,
easy, banal, silly, sweet, nice, unthreatening, statement making, egalitarian,
and a soothing distraction. In short, Precious Moments figurines are not art.
She then launches into practical suggestions of how to recognize artists: they
show up early, their work has emotional power and the quality of something
fresh or new, and they are obsessed with details of form. Although I
appreciated Nicolosi’s practical bent, I found her characterizations of artists
a bit too stereotypical, and her brief suggestion of art as revelatory begged
considerable explanation.

Joshua Banner
(chapter six: ‘The Practitioner’) highlights several ways that pastors can
nurture artists like a farmer nurtures his field. The pastor must begin by
building trust with the artist, and only then promote the artist by creating “a
safe place for artists to risk.” In addition, a pastor can “produce” an artist
by offering critique, but only after getting alongside the artist with the
patience of a farmer. I applaud Banner for recognizing that the proof of the
theologically pudding is in the process. He concludes: “We glorify God not just
with our final art presentation; we glorify him in the gracious and patient way
we engage in the process of artmaking.”

David Taylor
(chapter 7: ‘The Dangers’) pinpoints six dangers of artistic activity in the
church: bad art, supersaturation, stubborn stagnation, utilitarian reduction,
art as distraction, and immaturity. He follows these with three characteristics
of healthy artistic growth in the church: relationally oriented, contextually
relative, and organically rhythmed. Throughout the essay he integrates the need
for “festal muchness and cleansing simplicity” in the church’s art, patterned
after God’s own expression of extravagant beauty.

Jeremy Begbie
(chapter 9: ‘The Future’) makes a case for the “hopeful subversion” of culture
rather than either resignation or triumphalism. This hopeful subversion comes
by the power of the Spirit, who unites the unlike (including artists and
non-artists), generates excess (that which artistically alludes rather than
explains), inverts and turns the world’s values upside down, exposes the depth
of sin, recreates a new universe, and improvises. Regarding this last point,
Begbie summarizes one of the primary reasons why pastors and artists need to
collaborate: “the richest fruit comes from the interplay between order and
non-order, between the given chords and the improvised riff, between the
faithful bass of God’s grace and the novel whirls of the Spirit.” This playful
improvisation does not arise out of nowhere, but builds from tradition and
works toward new creation.

In conclusion, For the Beauty of the Church is a
magnificent collection of essays that communicates an invigorating and
challenging vision for the arts and artists in the church. These essays have
already sparked a host of stimulating conversations, like the series of posts
at Transpositions, and hopefully
will continue to instigate and sharpen many more. Like David Taylor’s
reflection in the ‘Afterword,’ I feel hopeful about the future of the arts in
the church. The key, however, is for this hope to materialize in practical

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