Placemaking and the Arts

Cultivating the Christian Life

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Jennifer Allen Craft
Studies in Theology and the Arts
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , October
     2018.
     380 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830850679.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

I enthusiastically approached Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life after discovering Jennifer Allen Craft’s work in her contribution to a previous volume (Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds, IVP Academic, 2017) in the series “Studies in Theology and the Arts.” Craft develops the exciting thesis that our understanding of our place in the world is informed by the arts. Craft explains that “the arts are a form of placemaking,” by focusing “on four different arenas of Christian life and work—the natural world, the home, the church, and society” (2). Employing a “somewhat functionalist” approach to the topic (21), Craft passes through these four “arenas,” gleaning helpful insights along the way, to culminate in “a call to all Christians to engage with the arts more deeply in all areas of their lives here on earth” (5). Craft explains that the way we imagine our place in the world, which is heavily influenced by the arts, can offer helpful approaches to a range of pressing issues, from ecological and social justice concerns to “notions of cultural and personal identity” (17).

In chapter 1, “Why Play? Why Art?,” Craft clarifies her thesis by first defining “place” as a particular location in “space” that is inhabited by humanity as “embodied creatures,” and thus becoming “an undeniable fact of our existence” (8-9). She defines the process of “placemaking” as the shaping of our sense of the places we inhabit. This is a communal affair performed through the nurturing of relationships. Our actions within a place are in a “mutual relationship” with the images of the place possessed by the community. As such, our “sense of place” is intimately linked with our love of place (11). When viewed from a theological perspective, Craft argues that a “Christian sense of place” is a reflection of a “love for the creation,” “a proper sense of community,” and a responsible and thankful response to “the gifts of God” (14).

Chapter 2, “Cultivating Responsible Relationships: The Arts and the Natural World," introduces “nature” as the first “arena” of reflection on placemaking and the arts. Here, Craft argues that our sense of place begins in our relationship to nature. However, our specific actions—such as the act of naming—shapes our perspectives of this relationship, and consequently, our experiences of the beautiful contained within creation. Craft draws on the art of Marlene Creates and Peter von Tiesenhausen to illustrate this point. Craft leaves this “arena” with a cry against the complacency of imagination, which has resulted in a distorted understanding of the relationship between humanity and nature.

Chapter 3, “Hospitality and Homemaking: The Arts and the Home,” turns to the relationship between ourselves and our homes, which becomes “expressive of wider values” by our placemaking activities. This value are unique to the perspective of the imagination of those who dwell within each home, and thus, fights against a homogenizing view of our sense of place. Here, the art of Marianne Lettieri and the quilts of Gee’s Bend serve as case studies, displaying the role of “art and craft” in shaping the home into a place of dwelling. Concluding on this relationship, Craft explains that art can offer cohesion, can “cultivate spiritual meaning and practice,” can offer a “storied identity,” can add beauty, and can create a “culture of care and hospitality in the home” (116-20).

The fourth chapter, “Divine Presence and Sense of Place: The Arts and the Church,” applies this idea to the relationship between ourselves and the church, exploring “the ways in which art might help us participate more deeply and meaningfully” in communal worship (124). Craft is clear that she is not arguing that the “church” is reduced to artistic presentations in the place of a community of believers, but also argues “God calls us to make places fitting for divine dwelling and community to occur” (123). The ability of art to ground and shape our perspectives can not only help us through our imaginative faculties in our relationship with God, but also present a sense of invitation to those outside the church, and ultimately points to our eschatological “sense of home” (163).

In chapter 5, “Imaging God’s Kingdom: The Arts and Society”—which is the most intriguing chapter of the book—Craft takes a step back from exploring how to develop already existing relationships between ourselves and the world or home and church, asking what art means in a situation where place has been deteriorated into a condition of placelessness. Craft explores the ways in which social action can utilize art in order to combat the social conditions and political events which displace people from their homes. Craft summarizes these possibilities by arguing that art “gives structure to society,” “invites a cruciform involvement with the world,” “cultivates … beauty in society,” and “therefore becomes a tool for kingdom living and working in the world” (198-9).

Craft’s argument in chapter 6, “A Placed Theology of the Arts: Cultivating Theological Imagination and Sense of Place,” echoes the care expressed in the previous chapter, while weaving together the various threads presented throughout the book in order to “sketch a theological model for the arts” (4). Craft here works through “six key dialectic features of art and place,” such as the physical/spiritual, the particular/universal, and the individual/community, in order “to highlight the ways in which art, place, and a theological imagination are intertwined in practice” (202). The chapter closes with an exploration of how all of the primary points of the book usher in an “eschatological focus and hope” which compels us to take action in the struggles of the world (219).

As a work that confesses not to attempt “a complete vision” of the potentialities of aesthetics (22), Craft’s volume firmly establishes her central thesis on the solid ground of the field of cultural aesthetics. Placemaking and the Arts is thorough enough to engage a specialist, but is, at the same time, inviting to those who seek an introduction to the relationship between theology and the arts. Craft articulates a convincing argument for any theology to include the arts as a point of reflection, and as a partner in dialogue.

About the Reviewer(s): 

C.M. Howell holds a graduate degree in Theology from The University of Oxford. He is currently researching themes of divine agency, ecclesiology, and intercultural theology.

Date of Review: 
November 14, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennifer Allen Craft is Associate Professor of Humanities and Theology at Point University in West Point, Georgia, where she teaches courses in theology, philosophy, and the arts. Her work has been featured on Transpositions and in Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds.

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