Benson, Bruce Ellis, and James Smith. Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship. Baker Academic, 2013.
Bruce Ellis Benson has not improvised this book, which may or may not be an ironic way to introduce a volume dedicated to improvising our liturgical response to the divine. Instead, he is meticulously designed a pattern to plead the soul of the reader with his message of a freeing-type of liturgical responses.
The chapters are rich in modern concepts of art, philosophy, and deconstruction but presented to the reader who needs the barest of introductions to these issues. His introit covers the Call and Response hermeneutic of life, wherein the author envisions all of life (and thus worship) set to a familiar pattern, giving us a foundation for later exploration. Chapter two discusses the deconstruction of the philosophies of art (or discourse) pushing us away from understanding, appreciating, and participating in liturgy. Kant plays a role here. But, so does the effort of society at large to feel better about it self more than it should. His discussion on the elevation of Shakespeare, Opera, and even Bob Dylan from popular culture to a perceived refinement only for use, properly, by the elite is perhaps one of the more important aspects of the book, taking up only two pages of it (66-7). Here, we learn about the hostile takeover of art, and thus improvisation, as if art is something only enjoyed as it is presented, rather than enjoyed by participation. And of course, who can really enjoy art anyway? These chapters lay the groundwork for the author’s premise, that “art is central to who we are as human beings (69).” Once he has deconstructed the viewpoints hiding this from us, the author is now ready to move to reconstructing a proper paradigm.
Chapter three opens with one of the most richly rewarding, ornately worded, discourses on Creation and the various Creation theologies I’ve seen in recent books. Creation theology is not unrelated to our views on art; do not read this section too hastily. While Benson only seeks to use this as a theological foundation for the argument of improvisation, these five pages (71-6) are the philosophical premise of the entire book. What is creation? What does it mean to create? The answers given later began to become clear here. This chapter is followed by two more, moving the reader through the courses of understanding our proper responses in moving past theories of art, and the usefulness of art, and seeing liturgy as something more than just for itself, and indeed, some more than just for God or others, but to a theology of becoming, wherein we become the liturgical art.
Coming from a fundamentalist background, where liturgy was discarded, where the hint of a high church was derided, and then moving to a church that included liturgical dancing, I had some transition issues. Even now, I do not always fully value such maneuvers — maybe because I(‘m) Kant(ian). Sorry for the pun. Benson provides value for the liturgical dances, the stances, and the lances of words, prayers, and incense. He takes post-modern culture, values, and philosophy, and sets forth easily enough something new, but not from nothing — because something cannot come from nothing. Indeed, he bases liturgy on Jazz, something he is intimately familiar with, and moves it into an artful discourse, or perhaps a discourse on art. Regardless, this book tackles the (lack of) philosophy of liturgy with issues of appreciation and copyrights and argues convincingly for a more complete view, and view moving us past simply utilitarian uses to a more holistic approach.