Book Symposium: Review of Benson’s Liturgy as a Way of Life (Ed Phillips)

We begin our Book Symposium with a fantastic review by L. Edward Phillips. Ed’s engagement with Bruce raises a series of excellent practical and philosophical questions. His review will be of interest to academics, but especially reflective practitioners. You’ll find Ed’s bio below.

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Over the course of history, Christianity has had a bumpy relationship with the arts.  For example, the catacombs of Rome contain ancient paintings of Christian religious themes, but church orders of the 3rd-5th centuries list painting and playing musical instruments, theater, and dancing among professions prohibited to those seeking baptism. During the Reformation, Luther promoted music and singing, while Zwingli banned instrumental music from his congregations. Until fairly recently, western evangelical churches have tended to bend more toward the prohibition end of the spectrum, though this is not an entirely fair caricature. It is better to say that modern evangelicals have been open to art as a means of moving people emotionally, so long as the art (music, theater, etc.) was “wholesome” and promoted good moral and religious values. Evangelicals engaged art, but they were mostly indifferent to the debate about “good art.” Visual art meant the saccharine cartoons of Sunday School literature; sacred music included “Singing Christmas Trees” with lights flashing along with Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” By the early 1970s, however, some young evangelical Christian artists were challenging the assumption that the church’s art had to be kitsch. As Larry Norman, the seminal Christian rocker of the 70s, asked bluntly, “Why Does the Devil Have All the Good Music?”

The pendulum among evangelicals is now swinging toward serious engagement with art, and Bruce Ellis Benson has provided a philosophical, theological argument about why this is a good thing.  Benson also has his cautions about the wrong turns a Christian approach might take, but in essence he argues Christians must embrace art as a vocation because this is the form of the Christian life:  God is the master artist; human beings are God’s art. When we engage in art, “our artistic creation is a participation in God’s making” (p. 45).  This participation is our human response to God’s Call to us: God initiates, we respond, and our response is a form of art.  Moreover, authentic human response to God (and the Christian life and worship) is improvisation.  Christian life is not a paint-by-numbers project or a robotic machine playing a piano role—it is like jazz improvisation with its recognizable scales, rhythms, harmonic voicing and chord progressions, and especially like a jazz ensemble with musicians engaging in creative, communal give-and-take.  To Benson’s project I give my hearty “Amen.”

This book is full of more provocative ideas than I can engage in this short review, but I will focus on a few very diverse questions I hope Benson can address more fully than he does in his concise book.

  1. Benson references Lawrence W. Levine (Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, 1988) who connects the rise of American “fine art” culture with the development of American social class “snobbery.”  (Note, perhaps he could also reference Pierre Bourdieu’s study, Distinction, on French attitudes toward art and social class?)  Benson comments:  “I would very much like to say that there is a much less sinister motive at work in making such a distinction, but I simply don’t see any such ‘neutral’ motive” (p. 34).

    The previous “Art and/of Worship” movement of the early to mid-20th century, led by Von Ogden Vogt, William Sperry, Albert Palmer, Andrew Blackwood among many others, seems to me to have been guilty of the  aesthetic snobbery Levine describes. These Protestant worship reformers unabashedly evaluated worship arts according to high-brow, European aesthetic standards. Benson himself does not discuss this earlier “Art and/of worship” movement, which among other effects, gave low-church Protestants gothic revival chancels and altars. However, I have sometimes wondered if the current worship and art movement, especially of the “emerging church” with its approach to “curating” worship (Jonny Baker, Mark Pierson), mirrors this earlier approach, but substituting an “avant garde” aesthetic as the standard for evaluation.  The reverse snobbery of post-modern grunge in place of gothic revival.  Does Benson have any thoughts about that?

  2. Benson is clearly enamored with the eclectic art and ritual of St. Gregory Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, a congregation that has also fascinated me for decades.  But what is the nature of the attraction of Ethiopian Crosses, Tibetan bells, Syrian chant, etc. for the folk at St. Gregory Nyssa?  As fun as all this multicultural bricolage may be, is it possible that it basically is like the food court at the mall–decontextualized, commodified culture?  And is it practical to hold up as a model a congregation that, despite its work among the homeless, also has the tremendous intellectual and artistic resources of the highly-educated and sophisticated members that make up a large percentage of the core congregation?  Any cautions worth raising about this?  As a teacher of worship, I sometimes wonder if I’m guilty of holding up such examples (and I’ve used St. Gregory Nyssa on numerous occasions) and saying, in effect:  “Isn’t this wonderful?  Unfortunately, there is no way you will ever be able to do such worship in any of the congregations you are likely to serve.”  In short, what does St. Gregory Nyssa look like when such a model is applied to the little United Methodist Church in my hometown of Linden, Tennessee?
  3. Benson’s use of “improvisation” as the form of human response to God’s call is helpful.  However, as he ties human improvising to the imago dei, he seems (especially on pp. 72-6) to suggest a form of panentheism, a God who creates creatio ex improvisation.  Am I correct in my reading here?
  4. After finishing Benson’s book, I read carefully for the first time, Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, which I found to be provocative and troubling in some of the ways Benson suggested I might. But there are a few points Kant makes that I think I find more persuasive than Benson does.  Where does Benson finally stand on Kant’s notion of the universality of aesthetic judgment?  On the one hand he suggests that Kant’s view is fascist (p. 62).  On the other hand, Benson too wants to hold that there is something transcendent about beauty—that beauty is not “purely relative to whoever happens to behold it” (p. 63).  But isn’t Kant also really trying to account for the odd fact that my subjective judgments concerning beauty, while not objectively provable, nevertheless are not simply my own personal whim?  That beauty is compelling? That we have a fundamental, if ultimately mysterious, urge to be at one with the human race in judgments of beauty?  Does Benson think Kant is right about this?

There are many more fascinating questions I’d like to explore with Benson, but I hope these will give us a good start.

Ed Phillips

L. Edward Phillips is Associate Professor of the Worship and Liturgical Theology at Emory University, Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Liturgy. His publications include The Apostolic Tradition: A Commentary (in the Hermeneia Commentary Series, co-author), In Spirit and Truth: United Methodist Worship for the Emerging Church (co-author); and Courage to Bear Witness:  Essays in Honor of Gene L. Davenport (co-editor and contributor).  He is currently working on a book on patterns of worship in contemporary American Protestantism.