January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
July 15, 2013
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.
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.
There are many more fascinating questions I’d like to explore with Benson, but I hope these will give us a good start.
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.