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Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully – A Review

January 26, 2011

A review of Inclusive Yet Discerning: Navigating Worship Artfully by Frank Burch Brown (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).

In this book, Frank Burch Brown tackles an important issue in the conversation of theology and the arts, namely what art is ‘appropriate’ within a church context, specifically in relation to its worship. Burch Brown considers the ways in which worship is understood and the current application of art to worship, through which he provide helpful and thoughtful critique to this relationship. This book is part of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship Liturgical Studies Series and builds upon his previous work, especially Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press.  This book is an accessible read for church pastors and worship leaders as well as scholars and individuals interested in the intersection of theology, art and worship.  While there is a lot of helpful thoughts one could mine from Burch Brown’s offering, I want to highlight a few of the more helpful suggestions as well as consider how his work could be taken further.

Burch Brown starts the book by tackling what I think is one of the trickier issues one comes across when considering the interplay between art and worship – the setting of criteria that allows one to discern what style of art is most appropriate for a church worship setting. Rather than offering cut-and-dried rules that are applicable to every situation, Burch Brown suggests a ‘compass for navigating worship artfully’, one that is based on four vices he discerns in current artistic engagement and four corresponding virtues that can then be applied in place of the vices. The vices apply more readily to the state of the perceiver and their perception of the arts (rather than the subject matter of the art itself). The vices are: valuing art entirely for its own sake and beauty, (12) viewing art as nothing more than a ‘low-level aid’ to the worship and without capacity to be a carrier of truth, (15) being intolerant of everything that is outside of one’s own aesthetic standard or understanding, (16) and being indiscriminate in one’s import of art into the worship sphere. (21)

The corresponding virtues aim to find the positive potential in each of these vices — for the aesthetes, he suggests an aesthetic spirituality that allows one to express their devotion and ‘glorify God and commune with others’. For the philistine, he suggests a greater generosity that allows art to be ‘useless’ and its beauty to be a delight.  For the intolerant, he suggests cultivating a hospitality towards the arts, especially an attitude that considers the otherness in unfamiliar art forms and styles.  Finally, for the indiscriminate, he calls for discernment. Burch Brown suggests that a lack of discrimination has been theologically justified by the belief that all the world is God’s and that God can use anything that comes ‘from the heart’. ‘This reasoning is flawed. Earth is not yet heaven, the heart is not always pure and undefiled, and not all earthly arts and activities are equally edifying or equally glorifying of God, even when enjoyable. Discernment is necessary.’ (24)

In the rest of his book, Burch Brown expands his compass and its implications.  Chapter two considers music in worship, addressing concerns about music reduced to performance, the reasons behind the import of popular and less-challenging styles of music, the impact of tradition on our aesthetic judgements, and how a church develops its capacity for aesthetic discernment.  What I thought was most helpful in this chapter is that Burch Brown situates discernment in the context of the community rather than limiting it to an individual activity.  Members of the community (including the artist and theologian) each bring a different perspective, context, and understanding that is especially important when employing new kinds of art in worship.  Throughout the chapter and into the next, Burch Brown continues to emphasise the necessity of discernment and resisting the uncritical import of art into the church’s worship.  Chapter three explores the role of context and the difficulty in finding a universal set of rules for ‘good church music’.  Chapter four changes tack and considers the art work itself, specifically whether the quality impacts its efficacy in worship.  Burch Brown admits that it cannot be denied that poorly crafted and ill-conceived art can be efficacious in worship. One of the reasons for this is that art is not considered in isolation but is experienced in the context of the rest of the worship service, the experience of which can redeem low-quality art. (67)  While this might be the case and while there are theologians who view good art as being too distracting to serve religious ends, Burch Brown offers a qualified defense of the use of good art for worship, an area where his inclusive yet discerning model must be practically worked out.  Chapter five considers how both the music and words should pull in the same direction in Christian worship.  Chapters six, seven and eight consider the perspectives of Calvin, Pope Benedict XVI, and Plotinus in light of the model Burch Brown proposes.

What I appreciate about Burch Brown’s approach is that he does not leave the reader with easy answers where none can be found.  He does not aim to provide universal standards for art application; instead, he provides a model that needs consideration and application within specific church contexts, equipping the church body for inclusive and discerning art engagement.  It is here where I wonder if his generosity is potentially problematic.  While I understand why he is reticent to suggest any universal applications, his criteria is nuanced to the point of being almost nebulous, especially for a reader who might not have considered these issues previously.  What I think would have helped to flesh out his discussion more fully are examples of how his model is seen worked out within a church context, especially how tertiary issues were dealt with by using his model (for example, how does one discern appropriate subject matter within a worship service?  Does the content of a work of art have a role to play separate from its quality or the posture of the receiver?).  Finally, Burch Brown mostly limits his discussion to the role of music and mentions possible application can be made across other art forms.  I think that a foray into visual art would have been a helpful contribution to the discussion, especially considering that visual art has had a different relationship with the church historically and the fact that the visual is orientated around a physical and tangible image (in most cases) rather than the temporality of the aural (and the creation of an image in one’s own mind).  Several of these issues were out of the remit of Burch Brown’s argument but deserve discussion in light of the model he suggests.

As seen in Monday’s post by Wes, discernment is vital as theology and the arts dialogue with each other.  What Burch Brown has offered is a starting point for navigation through the gray areas that are guaranteed to emerge as engagement with the arts continues.  While he does not offer easy answers, he does offer a way by which we can make sense of our own responses and critically assess the art that surrounds us in our worship environment.

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