Arts Ministry: Nurturing the Creative Life of God’s People
Reviewed by Todd E. Johnson, Theological Director, Brehm Center for Worship Theology and the Arts, Fuller Theological Seminary
Michael Bauer identifies the target at which this volume is aimed in the Introduction. Bauer writes, “This book is an attempt to lay a foundation for that vital work (arts ministry) by grounding it in the insights derived from the rich history of writing in the field of Christianity and the arts” (xvii). However, his subtitle may be more revealing as it aims to promote the arts as a means of “nurturing the creative life of God’s people.” These goals are not at cross-purposes, but do indicate that Bauer has a broader rather than narrower approach to this task.
Bauer’s book is organized into nine chapters, each one with a sense of autonomy, rather than the building of a theological argument (see xx). Bauer has read widely in the areas of theology, art, aesthetics, and Christian ministry and offers a rich bibliography and meaty footnotes. Two appendices provide a survey of resources in the “sacred arts” as well as a survey to use in canvassing a congregation’s views on, and gifts in, the arts. The text is sprinkled with the sum of eighteen case studies illustrative of the broad horizon of arts ministries covered in this book. It is written in an accessible, conversational style that makes it appropriate for the professor’s office, the pastor’s study, the artist’s studio, or the church library.
Bauer finds the foothold for his ascent of this mountainous endeavor in Robert Wuthnow’s All in Sync, where Wuthnow concludes that music and the arts are revitalizing American religion. He amplifies Wuthnow’s conclusions, arguing that a groundswell of arts ministries has entered North America. He then proceeds to define terms, such as “art,” “creativity,” and “ministry,” and weaves these into a preliminary definition of arts ministry. His first definition states,
Arts ministry happens when we integrate the arts, human creativity, and ministry in the context of our own individual and corporate lives, both within our own churches and in the various institutions and organizations that are dedicated to fostering the sacred arts. (16)
After exploring the practical and the theoretical/theological implications of this definition, Bauer returns to a more expansive (those self-declared ”provisional”) definition of arts ministry.
Arts ministry is an attempt to help human beings incorporate beauty into their individual and corporate lives in an appropriate fashion. It fosters the creative and artistic dimension of the life of God’s people, who are empowered by the Holy Spirit to manifest the full meaning of their creation in the image of God (imago Dei). (26)
Bauer then refracts this definition into a number of spheres of application, illustrating the breadth and diversity both of arts ministry and of the scope of this work.
Bauer’s volume unfolds following the template developed in the first chapter. Define the topic, define the terms, explore various paradigms, and then synthesize and/or apply these paradigms to the practical aspects of ministry. It is not unexpected that such a rhythm would be found repeated in the volume, in particular as each chapter has a “standalone” quality to it. What is surprising is that in the second chapter he turns to a fairly extensive apologetic for arts ministry in the church. Where the first chapter is built upon the evidence that arts ministry is as pervasive as it is transformative in today’s religious landscape, the second chapter seems to ignore the case just made. It is uncertain at this point who the audience is. How many interested in this book would take seriously the challenge that art could lead to idolatry? Though possibly more than I know, it is still a very abrupt change of perspective. I wonder if this chapter would not work better as an appendix, so as not to break the tone of this work? Further, in the section on art becoming a religion unto itself, it is surprising that there is no example given (in a volume filled with examples), such as Felix Wurman’s “Church of Beethoven.”
The chapters that follow seem to follow much more naturally from the first chapter and build upon it. The discussion on arts and the Divine in chapter 3 again offers a survey of paradigms from authors like Olivier Messiaen, Paul Tillich, and Frank Burch-Brown. Though it is not explicit in the text, Burch-Brown’s approach seems to fit best in this volume, especially given the place of beauty in Bauer’s working definition of arts ministry. This chapter concludes with a helpful, albeit brief, discussion of transcendence and immanence as they relate to art in Christian theological paradigms.
The fourth chapter is a revealing one. It explores the formative nature of art in human development. Although familiar voices return in this chapter, like Burch-Brown and Nicholas Wolterstorff, the footnotes are rife with people writing about liturgy or liturgists writing about art or formation. It seems clear that Bauer sees the liturgical arts as paradigmatic for arts ministry in general. This is entirely appropriate, as this is a volume in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship’s Liturgical Studies series. But I wonder if the formative nature of liturgical ritual, rehearsed and practiced over a lifetime, is analogous to the formative quality of all arts? This would have been a fascinating discussion and would have been quite an entré into the relationship of arts and culture and formation, but it was not developed.
The chapter that follows equally has the potential to explore in more detail the arts, culture, and formation discussion. It explores the relationship between arts ministry and the world. In this case, arts ministry is presented in a variety of modes, such as evangelism and social justice. These are quite insightful and helpful paradigms to consider, but they are all explored in an introductory fashion.
Bauer next addresses the place of arts ministry and the quality of human creativity. After a helpful survey of the place of creativity in the Scriptures and the Christian imagination, Bauer turns to a two-stage model of the creative process. First one has an openness to the world, and second one creates an expression of their impression of the world (170-172). This chapter concludes with a vision of creativity enabling humans to recover or expand a diminished sense of play and delight in our lives. This chapter in many ways ties together themes developed in earlier chapters, though there is no explicit argument holding them together.
The last three chapters are some of Bauer’s strongest work. As a music professor and church musician, he seems most at home in the church and especially the church at worship. So the seventh chapter on “Arts Ministry and Worship,” not surprisingly, sings. Now making explicit the liturgical underpinnings of Bauer’s views on art, and his argument for the artistic foundations of Christian worship, he argues for poetry over prose in worship, metaphor over the literal. This entire chapter seems to echo Cardinal Newman’s thought that one cannot speak of an eternal God in propositional terms. Then closing the loop on his explicit liturgical core to his work in formation he concludes, “Liturgical arts are all about transformation” (222).
The next chapter finally addresses the arts, culture, formation conversation that was hinted at in the chapter on a theology of arts ministry. Unlike the earlier chapter on theology of arts ministry which was more descriptive, this chapter tends to be more constructive and prescriptive. It seems that Bauer here is pulling together more loose ends from earlier in this book into a more cohesive whole. In the end he returns to the theme of his definition to “(foster) the creative and artistic dimension of the life of God’s people” leading to his conclusion that the best paradigm of arts ministry is “developmentalism,” that is, to foster growth and development in individuals and communities (26).
The final chapter is the closest to accomplishing what he set out to do: laying a foundation for arts ministry. This chapter is a very practical one, outlining the steps one ought to follow in establishing and developing such a ministry. This chapter is literally a checklist for planting and growing an arts ministry. It is as pragmatic as the previous chapter is theoretical. But it is a most appropriate end to this very wide swath of material.
Two themes I have already mentioned are worth mentioning again. First it is not certain who the audience is for this volume. Second, it relies heavily on liturgical scholarship and liturgical paradigms to establish broader theological paradigms about art ministries. To these I would add that Bauer is broadly ecumenical in his approach, but at times does not seem to be aware of the distinct theological approaches of the sources he is bringing together, often blending Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic thought together as if they were compatible without nuance. But in the end, Bauer ends up arguing implicitly for Greely’s “Catholic Imagination,” as evidenced in his claim that creativity results in “sanctifying the ordinary” (173). This was reinforced by his consistent use of Catholic voices to make his case (Thomas Merton, Karl Rahner, and even Matthew Fox). This gives even more reason to wonder both who the audience is, given both numerous Catholic sources promoting a sacramental view of the world, together with a chapter on apologetics.
Last, at times Bauer is loose on where his sources’ thoughts stop and his thought begins. For example, in his use of Lawrence Hoffman’s concept of “ritual moment,” Bauer describes ritual moments as elements (offered to us ultimately by God, though often through art) which enliven our rituals and even our everyday lives (188-191). Yet Hoffman is much more precise and narrow by what he means of the term, as a ritual moment is the “crescendo” of ritual, the point to which and from which a ritual moves. Although he does relate this concept to Abraham Maslow’s “Peak Moments,” ritual moments are intentional ritual events within a prescribed ritual.1
In the end, Bauer has not offered a programschrift for starting an arts ministry. Nor has he offered a theological treatise defining or defending the ministry of arts within Christian ministry. Yet he has introduced and developed both. This is an expansive volume, encyclopedic in scope and a great resource for exploring, expanding, resourcing and networking an arts ministry. It is especially well suited for those exploring this area of ministry and its attending literature for the first time.