For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts

Written by W. David O. Taylor, ed Reviewed By Stephen Um

With For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts, editor and contributor W. David O. Taylor has brought together a number of leading voices in the discussion on the interplay between the church and the arts. This book is the fruit of a 2008 conference where artists, pastors, and theologians gathered together to consider the church's relationship to the arts. As such, this volume captures something of the energy that is to be found running through this exciting, important conversation. And in the same way, it puts on display the tensions, difficulties, and remaining questions that result from the dialogue.

In total, eight contributors offer their thoughts on the church's need to develop and live out a robust theology of the arts or, in some cases, the artists' need to root themselves deeply in an ecclesial community. Together, the relatively diverse group of thinkers discusses topics ranging from theological foundations to practical dos and don'ts, from arts patronage to arts-pastoring. This broad scope of subject matter makes it a helpful, perspective-enlarging read for those who find themselves working in pulpits, art studios, and all the places in between.

The stated goal of the collection is “to inspire the church, in its life and mission, with an expansive vision for the arts” and to redress the deficiency of “a comprehensive, systematic, integrating, and grounding vision.” Taylor and the other contributors, mostly of the evangelical Protestant variety, all sense within that tradition the lack of a theology that demonstrates “how art and the church could hold together” (p. 21). The book's readers, it would seem, will be those who are looking for resources to fill this void. Therefore, the question is whether or not the writers can articulate the kind of sweeping vision at which they (and we) are hoping to arrive.

Following Taylor's introduction, the book begins with a compelling contribution from Andy Crouch: “The Gospel: How Is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience?” While he does not spend much time talking about the gospel itself, which some readers will find disconcerting, he does draw out some interesting implications of the gospel for our understanding of art. Crouch argues that “art” is another way of talking about “those aspects of culture that cannot be reduced to utility” (p. 36). In other words, art is the stuff of life that cannot be defined in terms of its “usefulness.” Similarly “useless” in light of God's grace to us in the gospel are our works, prayer, and worship: “What if we no longer have to offer a sacrifice that might waft up into [God's] nostrils-what if he himself has taken the initiative, become the sacrifice, torn the temple veil? What is left but gloriously unuseful prayer and praise” (p. 39). Note that he is not stripping these things of their value, or calling them unimportant: he is attempting to free worship, prayer, and ultimately the Christian life from the bonds of utility and production. If it is true that Christians are defined primarily not by what they do but by what has been done for them, then we will be a people characterized by a comfortability with the unuseful, including the arts.

Chapter two finds John D. Witvliet offering a helpful meditation on how the arts might fit into and serve the corporate worship of the church. Readers will certainly have differences of opinion with Witlviet on the specifics, but the implicit distinction he works with between the corporate worship of the church and other potentially church-sanctioned venues is very important. The waters of the church-arts debate are often muddied when artists and pastors clash over what is to be “allowed” in the corporate worship of the church. A distinction between the institutional and organic church (like the one made by Abraham Kuyper, articulated clearly by Tim Keller in Generous Justice) can help to create spaces wherein the church can support a variety of arts without necessarily introducing them into Sunday worship. For example, a church can be very excited about displaying the work of a painter at a “Night of the Arts,” or on the walls of their facility, without introducing the act of painting into the corporate worship service.

Lauren Winner and Eugene Peterson both take a more narratival approach to some aspect of the arts. In her characteristic style, Winner leads the reader through the thought process (and actual process) behind spending a significant amount of money on a piece of artwork. The questions she asks (and is asked) open up a new way for individual Christians to think about supporting the arts. Peterson's chapter on “How Artists Shape Pastoral Identity” skillfully weaves together personal and biblical narrative to make the case that “pastors need artists” (p. 97) in order to keep them from calloused overfamiliarity with the riches of God's glory in salvation.

The next three chapters focus on artists in particular, asking questions like, What is an artist? How do you pastor an artist? What does healthy (or unhealthy) art in the church look like? Pastors will find Joshua Banner's chapter on “Nurturing Artists in the Local Church” to be extremely practical and applicable. His approach includes sage advice on cultivating and critiquing artists. For instance, pastors can help artists to see that glorifying God is not something that happens only when a work of art is finally presented, but that he is also glorified “in the gracious and patient way we engage in the process of artmaking” (p. 141).

The always thought-provoking Jeremy Begbie closes the body of the book with a chapter on a vision for the future relationship between the church and the arts. He suggests that we must not develop our vision primarily by projecting from our present into the future, but that we must seek to project from God's promised future into our present. He makes the argument from Rev 21-22. This is similar to the distinction that can be made between a naïve, future-oriented, imaginative extrapolation and real biblical hope, which Peter describes as a living hope, an inheritance already made available in Christ. Only when our art aims at and is shaped by that future will the seemingly dissonant melodies of art and church meet in harmony.

Numerous critiques could be leveled, but only one bears mentioning here. There is no question that For the Beauty of the Church is a significant contribution to the ongoing discussion on the church and the arts. It is easily recommended to those who are a part of this conversation, as well as to those who would rather not be a part of the conversation. However, I would argue that it does not meet its goal of presenting the kind of grounding, expansive, systematic vision for which it reaches, and this is largely because it lacks an explicit center. In short, though the book begins with a chapter on “The Gospel,” throughout, and even in the first chapter, the gospel is largely assumed. The challenge for Taylor and others who continue to work on similar projects in the future will be to take the fruit of these labors and show how the church's relationship to the arts is explicitly shaped by the gospel, the person and work of Christ, and a thick understanding of what God is doing in redemptive-history. Of course, this assumes that the dialogue must continue, which further necessitates an eagerness among pastors to help artists make meaningful connections between their art and the rhythms of redemption. To the extent that this book holds out this tension and demands a developing discourse, it is to be heartily recommended.

Stephen Um

Stephen Um
CityLife Church
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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