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Featured: FOR THE BEAUTY OF THE CHURCH – W. David O. Taylor, editor. [Vol. 3, #18]

A Generative Excess in Reality

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

W. David O. Taylor, editor.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

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

W. David O. Taylor, editor.
Paperback: Baker Books, 2010.
Buy Now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

“Beauty is simply reality itself, perceived in a special way that gives it a resplendent value of its own. Everything that is, is beautiful insofar as it is real… The genius of the artist finds its way by the affinity of creative sympathy, or conaturality into the living law that rules the universe. ”

Thomas Merton, from No Man is an Island

For the Beauty of the ChurchThese lines from Merton’s essay “Conscience, Freedom, and Prayer” have seemed to me to be the most generous description of art as anything I’ve come across: it is expansive and encompassing (“everything…insofar as it is real”) and it binds art to the rest of life, and not just life, but life in its reality, (a “resplendent value of its own”). This broad vision for art (which I will try to expand further) is in contrast to theories of aesthetics, of work, of theology, of ecclesiology, etc., that are marked by limitation and fragmentation. What Merton does so wonderfully is to affirm that none of these can be separated; God is at work reconciling all things, and in our human arts we participate in that work. The reconciliation of all things seems to be the starting place for any vision for ‘the arts’ or for the church.

For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts is a new collection of essays edited by W. David O. Taylor, and birthed out of the “Transforming Culture” conference in Austin, bringing together artists and pastors to talk about the church and the arts. The eight essays in this book, from writers such as Andy Crouch, Eugene Peterson, and Jeremy Begbie, traverse often very different perspectives on said topic, from Andy Crouch’s chapter which offers a broad view of culture-making, to what seems to be more of an emphasis on some sort of “arts ministry,” whether it’s directly called that or not. That said, I have a hard time engaging with very many of these essays because of an underlying vision of art, church, worship, and work that is too narrow. I want to be careful because I do appreciate that these conversations are being had, but I hope to stir imaginations beyond ‘ministries’ or ‘outreach;’ beyond the once-a-week ‘worship service;’ and beyond making “Christian” a marketable adjective.

If I belabor this point, it is to stress the centrality of just how expansive and interconnected God’s reconciliation really is, and how often we minimize it. Andy Crouch opens For the Beauty of the Church with a chapter that takes a broad ‘vision for the arts’ in “The Gospel: How is Art a Gift, a Calling, and an Obedience,” reading the story of the Garden of Eden as God creating culture: “Without culture, without a garden, how could this human dustling survive in the wildness of even a very good created world?… God plants a garden. God begins the work of culture before he gives the work to Adam” (32). In this reading of Genesis, ‘culture’ is not something separate from ‘nature’ (so let’s cast out that dualism!), but is in fact bound up in the Creation; it is the means by which humans exist and make any sense of the world, and it is good. The work of culture-making is, in many ways, the work by which we enter into the work of God.

To describe this in another way, Wendell Berry writes elsewhere:

“If we understand that no artist – no maker – can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then we see that by our work we reveal what we think of the works of God. How we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them – all these are questions of the highest and gravest religious significance. In answering them, we practice, or do not practice, our religion” (from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community).

As Berry, Crouch, and Merton describe, the work of culture (which includes ‘the arts,’) is bound up with the work of the Church. And the work of the Church is to participate in God’s reconciliation of all things. Unfortunately, many essays in For the Beauty of the Church just don’t take this far enough.

There are a few notable sections, such as Eugene Peterson describing artist friends as a student and pastor (his architect friend Gerry Baxtor “taught me the aesthetics of space and the way color and light and material textures worked together, the ‘fit’ of the structure with the landscape and the community that would inhabit it” (92). David Taylor’s chapter has several excellent sections, especially in describing artmaking as “relationally ordered, contextually relative, and organically rhythmed” (157-62). The trouble overall, though, still seems to be the concentration on the Sunday morning worship service, as if that is the height and extent of the church, and ‘artists’ seems to be a category for ‘ministries.’ Perhaps it is a one-sided version of the role of a pastor or perhaps it is just a lack of imagination of the church as a real community, and not just a religious, worshipping institution.

The other notable chapter is Jeremy Begbie’s closing essay in which he resists his prompt to “outline a vision for the church and the arts for the next fifty years,” and instead takes the beautiful chapters 21 and 22 of Revelation to describe “the Spirit uniting the unlike,” “generating excess,” “inverts worldly importance,” “exposes the depths,” “re-creates,” and “improvises,” all of which, he suggests, are marks that artists and the church at large would do well to begin practicing now, embodying the kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and looking toward all things being made new. As Begbie elaborates:

“[the arts] always ‘suggest’ more than they could ever ‘tell.’ The most enriching art is multiply evocative and allusive… As such, art can point to what is true of all our engagement with the world – the world always exceeds our grasp of it. There is a ‘generative excess’ in reality that calls forth and provokes all human inquiry… it is highly consonant with a belief in a God who himself is excess, who lives as generous, excessive love, and who both creates and envelops his creation with this same love” (173-174)

For the Beauty of the Church will hopefully keep the conversation going about the church and art, although I must advocate a vision that goes beyond this book, and probably beyond what I have described in this space. To that end, I must recommend Dan Siedell’s excellent book God in the Gallery, particularly his notion of an “expansive aesthetic” for anyone interested envisioning how the arts and culture might be one part of the reconciling work of God.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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  1. Thanks for reading and reviewing our book! However, I think you are missing our main purpose. It isn’t to make a final statement on all things art and faith. The scope of our writings is to encourage pastors to begin thinking about the arts in a way that might make possible the very kind of broader aesthetic view that you mention here. I share your concern about a dualism between Sunday mornings and the rest of our lives. I think I can speak for all the contributors by saying that none of us would champion art fragmented from all of life and worship. I actually mentioned this briefly in my essay. I wish I could have elaborated. Perhaps that’ll fit into another essay someday. And I believe David’s chapter on the dangers of the arts (chapter 7) also covers these kinds of concerns as well.

  2. Joshua —

    Thanks for reading our review and initiating a conversation. I’ve alerted Brent (the reviewer) to your comments.

    I’ve only read parts of the book, so I don’t want to raise too many questions at this point, but I do wonder if the root of the concern being raised in the review was precisely that the book, as you say, was primarily targeted at pastors (and not say, artists or congregations as a whole)? I wonder if this choice of a target audience tends to reinforce the dualism (even unintentionally) in ways that other possible targets might not have?

    Grace and Shalom,
    Chris Smith