Bruce Ellis Benson. Liturgy As a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. 160 pp. $19.99.
Liturgy as a Way of Life is part of “The Church and Postmodern Culture” series from Baker Academic under the editorship of James K. A. Smith. The aim of this series is to “bring together high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology to write for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church” (from series preface). I was drawn to this particular title because the arts have always been a huge part of my life – from playing classical piano and participating in choirs, plays, and musicals throughout my youth (all prior to my Christian conversion) to leading musical worship and participating in a performing arts ministry as a Christian. However, this book is not specifically aimed at people like me; it was written for everyone, not just artists in the usual/technical sense.
In Liturgy as a Way of Life, Wheaton philosophy professor Bruce Ellis Benson contends that we are God’s works of art and that God calls us all to be artists (though not necessarily in the technical sense). Using the concept of improvisation with jazz music as the model, Benson demonstrates that our very lives ought to be seen as art and that we ought to live liturgically.
Ultimately, my goal here is to explore the deep and interpenetrating relationship of life, art, and worship, though not with the intent of merely sketching some theory about their relationship. Instead, it is about working out a way of life that can be properly termed “liturgical.”
In Chapter 1, Benson explores the call and response structure that is found throughout Scripture (e.g. Gen. 1:3, Gen. 22:1) and is basic to human existence. Following Jean-Louis Chrétien’s The Call and the Response, Benson considers beauty by way of the call; “the call is what constitutes the beautiful, rather than the other way around. Things are beautiful precisely because they call out to us” (36). Benson then further develops Chrétien’s analysis of the call by turning to Hans Urs von Balthasar, uses black spirituals and jazz music to illustrate the call and response, and finally links beauty, the call, and improvisation to describe liturgy as our way of life.
In Chapter 2 Benson provides a valuable look at how our notion of art has been influenced by Immanuel Kant (such as his idea of the genius and his insistence that art have no purpose other than to be admired aesthetically) as he deconstructs the modern/romantic conception of art. One problematic result of the Kantian perspective on art is the tension between the church and the arts. After a deconstruction, Chapter 3 reconstructs a paradigm for the arts by examining the creation narrative in the opening chapters of Genesis and using improvisation in jazz music as a model for how we “do” art (“improvisation” as opposed to “creation” to emphasize that we do not create ex nihilo). God is an improviser (in the sense that He did not leave everything alone after creating the heavens and the earth ex nihilo), and we are improvisers in His image in all that we do. Benson ends Chapter 3 by highlighting a few churches that are promoting the arts, supporting artists, and integrating the arts into the fabric of their church life.
Chapter 4 turns to the potential dangers faced by artists who are Christian; tension is inevitable, so the question is how we live and thrive in that tension. This chapter examines the relationship between art and Christianity and provocatively challenges Christian artists to not be “artistic whores,” whether by telling lies to make the world pretty or by selling out to the artistic community. Benson calls us to tell the truth – “to speak of both brokenness and of hope….point to that which is true now and that which will be true one day” (126). The final chapter considers how artists speak that truth by highlighting how extensive (everyday life) and intensive (when Christians assemble to worship God) liturgy are connected, as well as how both senses of liturgy are strongly connected to the arts. Our art and our very lives become icons that point to God. Finally, using The Book of Common Prayer, Benson illustrates how the call and response structure delineated in this book is central to corporate intensive liturgy.
Living out the liturgy is the way we become living pieces of art. Our ultimate goal is for our lives to become such beautiful pieces of art that we shine before God and the world. Thus, each of us is an artwork in the making. Art flows from us precisely because we ourselves are works of art. Our souls and bodies are artworks that are far more fundamentally art than anything sketched on a page or painted on a canvas. We are God’s sculptures and we are called to join him in that task.
(Benson 156, formatting removed)
Liturgy as a Way of Life is a phenomenal book on art, worship, and life from a theological and philosophical perspective. Through a deconstruction of modernist conceptions of art and a reconstruction drawing on the work of continental philosophers such as Chrétien, Gadamer, Marion, and Derrida, Benson presents a paradigm for the arts in which we are all artists, improvisers in God’s image in all that we do, as His living works of art. This is a great book for anyone interested in philosophy who also has an interest in the arts in general and/or the relationship between the arts and the church.
Thanks to Baker Academic for sending a copy in exchange for an honest review!