Critical Book Review: A Creative Church Connor Price

A Creative Church by Todd Smith details the progression that the modern evangelical Christian church has made in its acceptance and integration of the arts throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. He begins with the late 19th century, detailing the origins of how the modern church had come to acknowledge the need for creative expression within the church and the first efforts to implement camps, courses, and other various programs designed to promote artistic development in young believers. From here, Smith goes through each art form, theatre, music, visual arts, and dance, and discusses the progression that the church went through in adopting and developing each form within the context of the Christian community. His main method of explaining such progression is by providing specific examples of prominent figures, movements, or events related to each art and the milestones these examples provided and how they furthered the cause of integration for that art. Occasionally, the author will provide examples of Christian art being integrated into secular culture and how the church has reached out into the world with a particular form. He then concludes the book with a discussion on Christian arts programs today and how they manifest themselves in various settings (Smith).

The author delivers this information in a factual, non-opinionated manner, preferring to present facts and events rather than opinions. Whenever movements, ideas, or methods are mentioned, Smith chooses not to comment on whether or not he agrees or would endorse such an approach, nor does he try to argue for or against any beliefs with logical arguments or by pointing out possible fallacies.

The Good

The author does an excellent job of giving specific examples of prominent figures, movements, institutions, and events that contributed towards the church’s integration of a given art form. Rather than trying to explain the progression through explaining the different ideas, cultural shifts, and changes in philosophy that occurred, Smith instead chose to show the “who” and “what” before explaining the “why”. He spends more time elaborating on what brought about the changes in ideals rather than the ideals themselves, and this helps to provide a greater sense of tangibility when looking at a cultural change over a century in the making. By explaining how certain artists and institutions made landmarks that others would further build off of, Smith effectively connects one small event to another in order to help the reader map out the progression that the church underwent. With each art form, the church goes from a place of hesitation or resistance in the later 19th/ early 20th century to a place of acceptance and integration in the late 20th/ early 21st century and, when reading, it is easy to piece together how this change was brought about by specific people and instances.

Additionally, each chapter ends with personal testimonies from several figures who specialize in the given art form that the chapter is about, which aids the author’s purpose in a number of ways.

First, it shows specific examples of how God can work in the lives of people through their art. One of the major messages the book attempts to convey is that art is God’s gift, and is one of many tools that God can use to further His Will. This idea sounds promising conceptually, but the point would not have been as strong without these testimonies, as they provide specific, tangible examples of ways God has used various people through their art.

Second, these testimonies give humanity to the integration movement. Rather than talking about the progression abstractly, Smith allows these figures to speak to the readers directly, giving firsthand accounts for the kind of landmarks one can set when he or she allows God to work through their art. The entire book is based around the idea this cultural shift within the Christian community occurred in steps, with each artist building off of the precedent set by the previous one, and this message is also strongly conveyed through these accounts. Dr. Colin Harbinson put it best when, in his section, he explained, “To the extent that we are faithful, the next generation of emerging artist will stand on our shoulders (Smith 41).” For the most part, these testimonies were a smart inclusion on the author’s part, as they help to serve the book’s two main messages in a unique way, as well as break up the rhythm of the work in order to avoid monotony.

The Bad

While the testimonies usually do a decent job of complimenting the rest of the book and furthering its two main messages, not all of them succeed in this purpose. Some of the accounts provided in the text honestly feel like filler material, especially ones that are not written by the person themselves. Occasionally, a brief biography of a person will be provided without any sort of clear message or connection to either the chapter or the main messages that Smith is trying to convey with this book. Such dry, brief accounts show little personality or humanity and their inclusion seemed more like a way to artificially extend the book’s length than a way to build upon the messages conveyed through the rest of the text.

Additionally, each art form and any subcategories under that art form is given its own time progression for integration, which causes a lot of back-and-forth time skips when reading, often confusing the reader. Smith frequently jumps back and forth between 70’s, 20’s, 60’s, 80’s, 00’s, etc. when discussing different forms and variations within those forms. While he does give clear, easy-to-follow accounts of the integration process for each individual form, this particular writing style muddles the overall sequence of events and makes it more difficult to follow the progression of the church’s integration of the arts as a whole.

The most serious flaw with the book, however, is not with what is in the book but, rather, with what is not in the book. Successes and statements from those agreeing with integration are provided, but few if any examples of failed attempts or opposition are provided. It presents this picture of a consistent, unopposed progressiveness in the art integration process that is not entirely accurate, and makes the whole process seem easier than it actually was. There have been plenty of examples of the church being hesitant or outright resisting art. Baptists still mostly condemn dancing, and Christian rap and hip-hop remains controversial amongst older generations, but such instances are not elaborated on in the book.

For instance, Smith’s chapter on dance depicts the art as being accepted with relative ease within the Pentecostal denomination, then eventually spreading throughout multiple denominations through the Charismatic and Jesus movements, with both planned and spontaneous dancing quickly being integrated into the Christian worship experience (Smith). However, even today, dance proves to be a highly controversial form of artistic expression that is condemned in several denominations. One article details a specific controversy in Kinshasa Pentecostals, where certain forms of dance have emerged that resemble pagan traditions. While these dances were eventually allowed, only certain moves and permitted in certain contexts, and it still remains controversial (Pype).

Additionally, the author presents Christian art’s integration into secular culture as mostly successful, when the reality is that Christian art still has quite a long, uphill battle to climb with regards to being accepted in the eyes of secular culture. In their article, two authors discuss the difficulty that Christianity has faced in getting its art accepted and approved of in the secular world. They assert that the predominant problem is that seculars have issue appreciating art that exemplifies or glorifies God because such art requires some sort of experience with God to begin with before it can be enjoyed. Thus, Christian artists, especially musicians, are facing a dilemma where they either have to retain their original message and risk alienating the secular community they are trying to reach, or diluting their message to gain a wider audience (Efird and Gustafsson). The book makes the integration of Christian art into a secular society seem much easier and more successful than reality would tell.

Conclusion

Overall, Smith does a pretty good job in doing what he set out to do with this book. The two main messages seem to be that the cultural change in the Church concerning the arts has come about through artists built upon one another, and that art is God’s gift that He uses to glorify Himself, and both of these messages are conveyed adequately throughout. However, while he tries to avoid bias by way of presenting the information factually and abstaining from expressing his personal opinion, bias still shows through in the exemption of critique, negative examples, and opposing views. A Creative Church is a good starting point for getting a general picture of the Church’s success in integrating the arts into its worship and the spreading of the Gospel, but it should be paired with other works to get a fuller, more honest picture.

Works Cited

Efird, David and Daniel Gustafsson. "Experiencing Christian Art." Religious Studies 51 (2015): 431-439. Document.

Pype, Katrien. "Dancing for God or The Devil: Pentecostal Discourse on Popular Dance in Kinshasa." Journal of Religion in Africa 36 (2006): 296-318. Document.

Smith, Todd. A Creative Church. Dubuque: Kendall Hunt, 2014. Print.

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