A Creative Church A critical review

Throughout his book, Smith systematically chronicles the general emergence of art into the American religious world. Encouraged by secular art education, the church saw the opportunity to incorporate art into its own curriculum as a way of appreciating beauty. This led to the exploration of the many forms of expression that we see represented in the church today. It is difficult to imagine a church without art, but a little over a hundred years ago, that is exactly what Christians were experiencing. Beginning in the late-19th century, the church underwent the reserved acceptance of various art forms, first with music, then increasing to theater and dance. As Christian art schools emerged throughout the next century, the church blossomed into an institution that was accepting of communication through art.

Right from the first chapters, Smith excellently highlights each period of growth that the church experienced and accompanies them with brief expositional writings of how each art form was integrated into the church. At the end of each section, Smith concludes with biographies of what he termed “Creatives”—major proponents of art as related to the church and Christianity. Many of these Creatives differentiated themselves from secular art and formed schools designed to educate and train artists with practical skills as well as Christian values. It is these Creatives who are given much credit for the liberation of creativity that allowed art to enter the church and serve as a means of worship. Living in an age where art is generally accepted in the church, I found it intriguing and satisfying to delve deeper into the process by which art imbued the church and exposed the way through which God could be glorified through artistic expression.

In each chapter, Smith breaks down the who, when, where, why, and how of art as it grew and embodied the Christian world. It is important to note that Smith’s work is by no means exhaustive, as he leaves out important art forms as well as important artists who were very influential. This books essentially serves to give a brief and broad overview of how the church accepted art and made it something that Christians could use to communicate their love for creation and our God who created it. Concerning the effectiveness of this book, Smith successfully answered questions about how and why the church got to where it is today. At times, Smith’s writing felt somewhat promotional rather than informational, as it semi-advertised and praised many formal institutions and groups that are furthering art for the church, rather than the impact they had or are having on the church. I found the length of the book to be appropriate for its purposes as it felt thorough but left a bit of hunger for more knowledge about the subject. It could be related to a backstage view of what is transpiring onstage as it allows readers to get a glimpse, but not experience the full show.

Of particular interest to me is the way in which theater permeated the Christian culture. The perception of theater by the church was much the same as other art forms; that is, it should be used solely for the purpose of spiritual enrichment. The introduction of theater into the religious setting was rather abrupt, as it was inspired by the use of drama in the secular world. The church as a whole considered the idea that the use of actors and scripts could be used much in the same way as singers and lyrics. Martha Candler wrote in her book, Drama in Religious Service, “Not long ago, the linking of the words “Christianity” and “the stage” would have offended Christian ears.” This speaks to the fact that Christians are reserved about allowing secular institutions to have influence on their practices, however, there is room for adaptation in order to further the Christian message. The beginning of theater in the church was for the sole purpose of reenacting historic events (Smith, 46). This limited spectrum of opportunity conveys the idea that imagination had little influence or effect on what was performed, instead, what had already happened was recreated for the benefit of the current generation.

Overall, I found Smith’s book fascinating and enjoyable to read. I appreciated his attention to crediting the pioneers who brought art into the church and made art education available to Christians eager to pursue it. In the final section of the book, titled “What’s Ahead”, Smith asserts that there is so much more change that is to happen in the coming years and it is more important now than ever to keep God as the center of our hearts and minds. As art takes on new meanings and explores new avenues, we should not let the art itself overtake us. It is important to keep the Creator of art as the one who is to be praised, for it is Him who gave the talent and creativity to produce art. This verse serves as a wonderful reminder of just that: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (New International Version Col. 3:23-24)

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Kaity Newbern
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