FOR THE BEAUTY OF THE CHURCH, edited by W. David O. Taylor

Reviewed by Steven Guthrie, associate professor of theology at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, and director of Belmont’s “Religion and the Arts” program

A few minutes ago I was skimming through a website that advertises job openings in church ministries. Among the fifteen or so positions listed on the first page were “Creative Arts Director,” “Media Specialist,” and “Pastor of Creative Arts.” My sense is that, a generation ago, a similar (though non-internet!) search probably would not have turned up any of these particular job titles.

For the Beauty of the Church – a fine new collection of essays edited by David Taylor – reflects the two realities I’ve just described. On the one hand, the very existence of the book points to the growing prominence of arts ministries in the American evangelical church. On the other hand, the essays in the book remark, over and over again, that this is in fact a new development. A number of the contributors, for instance, describe the ways in which artists are still overlooked and undervalued by the church. Others recall their own first faltering steps as they attempted to incorporate the arts into the ministries of the church. They had few models and few mentors to whom they could look.

We should be grateful, then, for this volume. There is in fact a new interest in the arts, and so there is also a real need for pastoral wisdom and theological reflection to guide that interest. Taylor’s book addresses this need and provides an ideal starting point for those involved in or preparing for some sort of arts ministry. Actually, “pastoral wisdom” is a good way to characterize the book as a whole. While it is theologically informed, it is not an academic theological treatise. And while some practical advice is given, it is not a step-by-step, “how-to” book. Instead, the eight essays in the volume engage in reflection, but reflection firmly rooted in the life of the church.

Very helpfully, Taylor recognizes that the life of the church has many different dimensions and includes people acting in many different roles. The essays reflect this diversity of activities and participants. Individual chapters consider the arts in relation to the gospel entrusted to the church (Andy Crouch) and the worship enacted in the church (John Witvliet). They explore the dangers that attend arts-based ministry (David Taylor) and the future of the arts in the church (Jeremy Begbie). Other essays approach the arts and their role in the church from the perspective of the art patron (Lauren Winner), the pastor (Eugene Peterson), the artist (Barbara Nicolosi), and the practitioner (Joshua Banner). Taken together, the essays comprise a rich, many-voiced conversation. Each chapter is engaging and readable. Each has some helpful insight to offer, and the best of the bunch should be essential reading for those involved in arts-based ministries. To mention just a few of my own favorites: John Witvliet, in an essay marked by great clarity and wisdom, outlines principles that should characterize liturgical art. Lauren F. Winner recognizes that the art world is often one associated with privilege, and she writes with sensitivity and insight about the ethics of spending money on art. Eugene Peterson shares stories about three artists he has known and reflects on how these artists helped form his own sense of vocation as a pastor. And in an eloquent and theologically rich essay, Jeremy Begbie considers the future of the arts in the church, in light of the subversive and re-creative work of the Holy Spirit.

If, however, the collection reflects some of the wisdom the church has gathered concerning the arts, it also provides evidence that there are still issues to be thought through. Two of the essays in the collection, for instance, insist that the essential character of art is that it is “useless” (Andy Crouch); that it “isn’t for anything” (Barbara Nicolosi). Two other essays however – those by John Witvliet and Lauren Winner – argue against this common association of art with uselessness. Far from being a “purely academic” difference, these different ways of understanding what art is lead in fact to different visions of what art should be in the life of the church.

Another example: in some essays, contributors attempt to make amends for the church’s neglect of artists by extolling artists as a uniquely gifted class of human beings. (Artists are uniquely insightful, uniquely sensitive to spiritual truth, uniquely responsive to meaning, and so on.) Artists, Barbara Nicolosi believes, “genuinely perceive spiritual realities,” which they then try “to get through to the rest of us” (118). In other places, essays encourage pastors to be patient in shepherding artists, because artists are (of course) brilliant but moody, creative but scatter-brained, sensitive but quirky, passionate but eccentric.

These characterizations, however—the Artist as High Priest of the Human Spirit and the Artist as Brilliant-but-Tortured Eccentric—are far from universal, timeless descriptions of creative people. Instead they echo a certain 19th-century Romantic vision of the Great Artistic Genius. Of course there are artists who fit these stereotypes. On the other hand, there are moody auto mechanics and creative, spiritually perceptive kindergarten teachers! I’ve also known Carnegie Hall-caliber musicians who—as human beings—were about as quirky and passionate as wallpaper paste. The point is, in order to think theologically about the arts, we need also to reflect carefully upon what art really is. We should welcome the arts into the life of the church. We should not, however, uncritically welcome every cultural stereotype about the arts. The essays in this book arise from a 2008 conference entitled “Transforming Culture: A Vision for the Church and the Arts.” As the title of the conference indicates, the church should not only participate in culture, but also transform it – and that includes our culture’s conceptions and misconceptions about art.

At many points, For the Beauty of the Church engages in just this sort of transformative reflection. At every point it encourages the rest of us to continue in such an engagement, and it provides us with resources to do so more thoughtfully and faithfully.

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  1. pcNielsen says:

    Just out of college (in about ‘01) I dreamt of becoming a “Pastor of Theology of the Arts.” But to my knowledge there was no such position 10 years ago, or if there was it wasn’t findable online. Every once in a while I still look around online for such a job — even though by a church’s standard I’m probably not qualified since I have no formal Bible training, just artistic training. A lot of those “Pastor of Creative Arts” positions, as I recall, are basically glorified music leader positions.

    It’s been about two years since I’ve looked at these jobs though, so maybe churches have begun to realize the importance of the visual arts. Let’s hope so.

  2. MaryAnn Mouritz says:

    Thankyou for this article relating to this thought-provoking book review.
    As a visual artist, I have often reflected on how to better express my gifting within the church context. I participated in Art School as a mature-age art student a few years ago, to gain an Arts Diploma, but did not wish to become a “professional artist” per se, because I believe public art can trivialize my artistic expression, as a Christian artist. But regardless of possible rejection, I believe we have to be seen in the wider art community. It is a world in our communities that I think requires a Christian presence. So “professional” or not, I like to attend some these exhibitions and functions and continue to make art.

    Recognizing that artistic part of myself, brought inner acceptance and healing in my life, and has helped me go on to gain confidence to become a part-time missionary as an English teacher and my art as a means to express my creativity whilst away in Asia, has given new inspirational impetus.
    Artistic creativity was a part of my personality which I had put to the back of my life for many years, as a busy mother of four and as a “serious” Christian; since I did not initially realize God wanted a more balanced person, by actually practicing the way He had made me.

    Now the music ministry, as wonderful as it is, is not the only art-form recognized of value in my small local church; but the gifts of visual artists, which I consider a fairly major break-through. Our small artist group last Christmas, were asked to do the back-drop jointly, for our annual Christmas Carols Community Outreach, and occasionally are asked by our leadership, to do artistic advertising for various outreach functions. Some of the artists are also represented in our music ministry, since they are multi-talented.

    Personally, I want to see the art of the Church, so popular historically, reclaimed in its contemporary form, so that the art of the world is not the totally dominant factor, as it mostly is. And as Christian artists proclaim their message to the wider world, it also needs to be expressed with acceptance, in its own domain, the Church.

  3. [...] interesting conversation has taken place in response to Crouch’s essay and to Steven Guthrie’s review of the book.  In response to Guthrie, and perhaps others, Crouch commented: “Personally I would [...]

  4. [...] interesting conversation has taken place in response to Crouch’s essay and to Steven Guthrie’s review of the book.  In response to Guthrie, and perhaps others, Crouch commented: “Personally I would [...]

  5. Hi!! I am so glad I came across this post! I look forward to reading For the Beauty of the Church. I am an artist… I paint! Actually, I recently completed a series of 12 contemporary paintings on The Church. Each painting depicts the different conditions of The Church which were inspired by the 7 churches in Revelation.

    I hope to encourage and inspire church leaders and followers of Jesus to BE the Church and make disciples!

    Thanks again for the encouraging post for artists in the church!


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