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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

"Liturgy as a Way of Life" (Bruce Ellis Benson)

TITLE: Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship (The Church and Postmodern Culture)
AUTHOR: Bruce Ellis Benson
PUBLISHER:  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (160 pages).

What has philosophy got to do with art? How does postmodern theory affect the way we do Church? What are the connections between theology, art, and postmodernity? How do we better appreciate the ecclesiological and theological differences among various branches of the wider Christian community?  Perhaps, instead of being a light to the world, the Church at large has become a world where postmodernity has directed their formation instead of the reverse. Not necessarily, says Bruce Ellis Benson. What theological knowledge does for the head, the liturgy and the arts do for the whole body. True liturgy is not institutionalized religious acts, but a way of life. The author is a professor of philosophy at Wheaton College as well as a jazz musician himself.  In this book, he manages to weave together his expert knowledge as a theologian, his love for the Church, as well as his deep fondness for the arts. For Benson, life is about constant improvisation, and improvisation is by itself a work of art. Such a philosophy changes the way we do liturgy and the way we do art and life. The key idea in this book is that "we are all artists, that our very lives should be seen as art, and that we should live liturgically in service to God and neighbour." Thus, the most basic call for us is to present ourselves as living sacrifices, to let God mold us into his work of art. By this, Benson is arguing that this molding is in being transformed more and more into the image of Christ. That is why we "improvise." Our improvisional vocation means a life of creative activity rather than monotonous strain. We are called to be artists, and our artistic vocation is about responding to the call of God. He acknowledges that seeing life as a work of art is nothing new. Great theologians from the 2nd-5th centuries, like Clement of Alexandria and John Chrysostom have mentioned it. More modern philosophers like Frederick Nietzsche and Michael Foucault have resurrected it. Now, Benson has published it by infusing art with liturgy. For art is not simply for genuises or add-ons. It is essentially a way of thinking and a way of living. That said, the author is mindful that any work or works of art can themselves become an idol. That is why he makes a distinction between icon and idol. Our works of art can be iconic, to point people toward God instead of idolatry which points people, including ourselves away from God. How we can cultivate an iconic lifestyle of art is essentially the thrust of the entire book.

First, Benson links the call with the need to respond. Every call needs to be met with a response, making it a liturgy of life that interacts both ways. The alternative is a non-response where there is no connections, and no work of beauty. For every work of beauty stems from a response to a call. Such connections allow the meeting of transcendence and the existential. It ties in the beauty of nature with theological truth.  It streamlines the relationship between man and God, and God with man. This in turn leads to much improvisation that has positive implications not just for oneself, but also for the community.

Second, before one can start liturgy and arts as a way of life, certain misconceptions have to be debunked. One major one is the separation of art from theology, like how some people separate sciences from the arts, and call them mutually exclusive. That is not so. Another challenge is how to innovate amid a system of rules, rituals, and regulations. Benson uses the example of Bach as a way to show readers that genuises of innovative abilities are also craftsmen in their own rules and rituals. He makes a case that there are primary as well as secondary artists. While the former creates something, and the latter makes a derivative out of the works of others, artists are participants of a wider community, even when they have been perceived as lone creators. Interestingly, Benson observes that artists do not usually remember the how-to after creating their masterpiece.

Third, after the deconstruction of art in the previous chapter, it is time for reconstruction. From the many example of classical composers and artists, Benson brings in more familiar cultural icons like movies, blues music, and of course, the author's favourite: jazz. The important point to note is that there are no lone stars, for all great works of art are indebted to tradition, history, and derivatives of the works of other artists. Alas, there is a whole legal matter of copyright issues that can derail any creative attempts to innovate. Society walks a tricky balance between protecting the rights of artists and their works, and the need for others to innovate and improve. If the law is too rigid, then copyright matters can strictly inhibit creativity.

Four, Benson brings readers face to face with the dichotomy between art and sacred living. Based on the Chaim Potok's work, "My Name is Asher Lev," we are reminded of the warning to Asher Lev not to become a whore. Essentially, people who deceive themselves are whores. Artists live in a tension between creativity and conformity. My reflection is that we need to be creative when we are able to, and to conform when we need to. At all times, affirm both, with truth as the guiding light. This is tough, considering that often, we are forced to conform to what our audience want, even when we see that what people want is not necessarily what the truth is. This is a practical problem. Do artists paint the real world as is, or should they draw up something pretty because everybody expects it?

The last part of the book brings everything together, that we all grow and live, to become living works of art for the glory of God. We become living works of art when our "intensive liturgy" meshes with our "extensive liturgy" on a daily basis. The former is what happens when the people of God come together in worship. The latter is when believers leave the assembly to live out in the world. What is helpful is Benson's dissection of the word "liturgy" comes from the Greek word "leitourgia" which itself is a combination of two other words, "leitos" (people) and "ergon" (work). It can be translated as public worship or service to God. This one word can nuanced both the intensive and extensive liturgies that Benson has been talking about all along. Originally, liturgy is about how people lived. Unfortunately, over the years, it has become too specialized into a series of acts or rituals, to the point that the original meaning has been forgotten. It is time to bring back both the public and the private, the community and the works of service, all of which are to be done to the glory of God, Creator of heaven and earth.

My Thoughts

Considering the fact that words like "liturgy" are increasingly out of vogue, even despised in this postmodern climate, it is heartening to read a book that personifies a work of art. More often, liturgical practices fall out with many modern folks for sheer ignorance of the richness of history and tradition. Benson says it well, that liturgy is not just for Sundays, but ought to be a way of life that presents our live as living sacrifices all days of our lives. Our call is to simply listen and respond. We are already called. 

This book has challenged me about how art can powerfully teach us theology, and how theology can influence art. In order to improvise and innovate any work of art, we need to remember that we ourselves are in the first place, works of art. It is like the biblical notion of love, where we love because God first loved us. Likewise, we create because God first created us. God has empowered us to do great things, and our living on this earth is a direct outworking of this calling.   This may be a small book but it surely packs a big punch. As I read the book, I am left with a sense of awe at how my own life can be a work of art. Under the guidance of the Spirit of God, and the instructions of the Word of God, my life need not be simply a single note on a piano keyboard. I can be creative not just to use all the black and white keys, but to creatively improvise from the simplest to the most profound musical scores, utilizing both major and minor keys, pedals on or off, echoes in and out, and endless combinations of keys.

What really makes this book stands out is the author's humility to acknowledge the contributions of many others, even suggesting that there is truth in birthing the reader even if it means "death of the author." The path to the realm of arts is about improvising one's giftedness, that all of life can be a beautiful piece of art, with ourselves as paintbrushes, our fellow people as contributors of ideas, the world's resources as our tools, with the Spirit as our guide, and our creative work as a glory to God. Let me close with this brilliant reminder.

"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 canvas. We are God’s sculptures and we are called to join him in that task." (Bruce Ellis Benson)

Great book!

Rating: 5 stars of 5


This book is provided to me free by Baker Academic and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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