Leaving the Cathedral of Descartes: Or, Why We Need to Recover the Arts in Worship

LiturgyFrom James K. A. Smith’s foreword to Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship, by Bruce Ellis Benson, a friend and former professor of mine at Wheaton College:

When philosophers and theologians engage postmodernism, they tend to spend their time debating arcane matters of epistemology, hermeneutics, and metanarratives. Meanwhile, a kind of “practical” postmodernism has emerged in the contemporary church in other, more tangible ways. One can read the renewal of the arts in the church – including new concerns about the arts in worship – as evidence that Christianity’s complicity with modernity might be waning, at least in some respects.

Over the past couple of centuries, the church’s worship – perhaps especially in Protestant evangelicalism – unwittingly mimicked the rationalism (and dualism) of modernity. Assuming with Descartes that humans are primarily “thinking things,” worship has been centered on didactic teaching. A few songs merely function as a preface to a long sermon, the goal of which is the dissemination of information to brains-on-a-stick, sitting on their hands. The body has no role in such worship; it is worship for the proverbial brains-in-a-vat of philosophical fame. And because the body has no essential role in such worship, there is also no place for the arts, which are inherently sensible, even sensual. One can sense this in the pragmatism of church architecture, or the stark minimalism of interior design in Protestant churches, where the only adornment was often scriptural texts emblazoned on the walls. In rationalist worship spaces, even the wallpaper is didactic.

Such “rationalist” worship also tends to not have any real place for the Eucharist. Indeed, I think one can generally note a correlation between the centrality of the Eucharist in worship and an appreciation for the materiality that underwrites the arts. So what’s lost in modernity and our unwitting adoption of rationalism is just the sort of sacramentality that undergirds Christian affirmation of the body – the same sensibility that values the arts. The metaphysics of modernity flattens the world, reducing human persons to information processors. And if we buy into this, we will “worship” accordingly. The didactic will trump the affective; the intellect will crowd out the imagination; the body will be present as only a vehicle to get the mind in the pew. Welcome to the cathedral of Descartes.

But just as evangelicals are rediscovering the sacramental imagination that is carried in the liturgical tradition, they are also beginning to appreciate the importance of the arts – in culture and in worship. Both of these trends, I would suggest, are the fruit of our discomfort with the rationalist model and testify to its implosion and refusal. As such, both developments are also a kind of postmodern critique in practice. To appreciate the arts is to appreciate that we are more than thinking things. To recover the arts is to remember that we have bodies – which is to remember what Christians knew well before modernity. So we are now seeing an explosion of centers, institutes, conferences, and books devoted to “arts and worship.” More and more congregations are intentionally incorporating the arts into worship – including a range of forms, from visual art to liturgical dance, on top of an explosion of new music. Granted, much of this might simply function as ornamentation of a model that is still largely didactic and rationalist. But there is an intuition at work here that unsettles our modern habits.

So there is good reason to celebrate and affirm this newfound interest in the arts, particularly for those of us who have seen postmodernism as a kind of demodernizing disciple to help the church awake from its modern slumbers, thereby opened to recover the ancient treasury of the church’s formative practices. This is what Robert Webber described as an “ancient-future” sensibility: resources for a postmodern future found in the buried treasures of an ancient heritage.


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