Contemporary Art and the Church

A Conversation Between Two Worlds

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Editor(s): 
W. David O. Taylor, Taylor Worley
Studies in Theology and the Arts
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , June
     2017.
     280 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830850655.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Contemporary Art and the Church takes the lived experiences of Christian artists seriously by understanding a conversation exists between “two different worlds, with their own logics, their own gravitational fields, their own ecologies, and their own motley collection of communities” (1). In the introduction, the editors (W. David O. Taylor and Taylor Worley) begin a dialogue on understanding, locating, and living between the two worlds of church and art, a dialogue which interweaves the questions and answers of the collected essays. Three questions begin the conversation: What does God, what does the church, and what does the church’s corporate worship have to do with contemporary art? (4). The discussion proceeds through four divisions in the book: understanding the conversation between the church and art; theological concerns of modern art; the relationship of worship and art; and the lived experiences—both past and present—of Christian artists.

Leading the first group of essays, Wayne Roosa offers a conceptual understanding of how the two worlds of the church and art relate. Roosa argues that the two realms are distinct, but the conversation which takes place between them acts as a mediator. Linda Stratford responds, arguing that while the church and art are unique, they are nonetheless planting in “the same soil” (35). Thus, it is not the “between” the two worlds which serves as the discursive starting point, but rather the letting either world “speak on its own terms” (35). Jonathan A. Anderson, however, asserts that “art and the church are in fact playing such different games” that it is impossible to speak to both by their shared sense of meaning (38). Anderson proposes using the field of art criticism to form a common dialogue amid the two. The section concludes with an essay from Sandra Bowden and Marianne Lettieri which explores the ways artists can serve “as witnesses in the church and in society at large” (47).

The second division begins with Ben Quash continuing the discussion contending that the church and art are “a marriage in mediation,” before steering the discussion towards theology. Quash maintains “the church needs art that helps it to speak in all moods” (76). Taylor Worley responds to Quash by claiming that Christians should engage this conversation from the overlapping place of the church and art, but can only do so by developing these places with direct engagement. Furthermore, Worley presents an ethics Christians may use to experience the art world based on “the ancient and eternal triad of Christian virtues: faith, hope, and love” (82). Christina L. Carnes Ananias presents an encounter of these two worlds, arguing that, in a theological interpretation of the silence in the work of Yves Klein, “we are decentered and forego control of our experiences or expressions” (102). Chelle Stearns concludes the division by offering an ethic of a “haptic mode of knowing” with which to engage art (104). Stearns understands that the “Holy Spirit works with and enlivens the human imagination,” thus art can assist in this process (104).

The third division discusses the topic of worship and begins with Katie Kresser presenting a survey of art history, which provides the basis for her claim that “art belongs in the church because everything worthwhile belongs in the church” (134). Yet, this does not suggest art in worship is not problematic. One of the difficulties proposed by Kresser is that “abstraction,”—a central theme in certain art traditions—is not appropriate as the focal point of the church” (125). W. David O. Taylor critiques Kresser’s essay for a vagueness involving key terms, such as art, church, and worship. Taylor pushes against Kresser’s prohibition of abstract art in church,  observing even some forms of worship developed within the church are contested. Thereafter, Jennifer Allen Craft—in what I would call the standout essay of the volume—demonstrates how art can help the church define a sense of place. Craft combines the conceptual discussion from section one with the more practical discourse from section two, presenting a theology of place that “is at once social, historic and symbolic” (150). David W. McNutt echoes this thought by employing the ecclesiology of Karl Barth, which he argues enables the possibility that “contemporary art can have a legitimate and important place in the life of the church” (161).

The volume concludes with two symposiums and two personal reflections on the development of the discussion of the church and art. The first symposium, moderated by Nicholas Wolterstorff, focuses on the progress of this dialogue from the founding of the CIVA (Christian in the Visual Arts). The second, moderated by Kevin Hamilton, centers on the advancement of this conversation in the public square. Both symposiums are insightful and place the topics of the previous three sections into a larger temporal context. The final two essays, by Calvin Seerveld and Cameron Anderson, are directed towards those contemplating art as vocation. Each of these final chapters helps ground, and thereby clarify, the various dialogues running through the book through the lived experiences of everyday life.

Most impressive is that this volume is not simply a collection of essays organized around a central topic, but develops as a conversation—a dialogue—that began over three decades ago, one that is still taking place and that this volume encourages to continue into the future. The struggle to find a place between the two worlds of church and art is realized within the dialogical nature of the volume and, just as impressive, this volume presents a compulsion to reimagine not only how these two worlds relate, but how all lived experiences of Christians in contemporary society find their place between the church and the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C. M. Howell is a graduate student in the Department of Theology at the University of Oxford.

Date of Review: 
January 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

W. David O. Taylor is Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and director of Brehm Texas, Fuller’s regional campus based in Houston. An ordained Anglican minister, he is the editor of For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts. Taylor previously served as a pastor at Hope Chapel in Austin, Texas, where he supervised an arts ministry and the adult education program in addition to serving on the preaching team.

Taylor Worley is Associate Professor of Faith and Culture as well as Associate Vice President for Spiritual Life and Ministries at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois. In both these roles, he focuses on enabling students to see how their gifts and passions can be leveraged for greater vocational impact in the kingdom of God. He is coeditor of Theology, Aesthetics, and Culture: Responses to the Work of David Brown.

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