Magazines 2023 Nov - Dec The Arts and the Christian Life

The Arts and the Christian Life

30 October 2023 By John Franklin

An extended review of this 2022 book by Earl Davey

Wipf and Stock, 2022. 162 pages. $24 (e-book $21)

Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.

The relationship of art and faith has gained attention in the past three decades. I recall in the late 1990s looking for works on Christianity and the arts and discovering they were few in number, but they are now published at a rate that makes it impossible for the average reader to keep up. This fresh interest is a good thing, and indicates a significant shift in bringing together the world of faith and the world of the arts.  

Earl Davey’s book The Arts and the Christian Life is a valuable addition to this growing literature. The author’s background is in the academy (including Tyndale, Canadian Mennonite, and Brandon universities) and specifically in music and aesthetics, and so draws on years of experience and thoughtful reflection on both art and faith. The context for the exploration of the place of the arts in the life of faith is our fundamental desire to flourish as human beings and to discern ways for us to move toward the fullness of our humanity and spiritual maturity.

The first chapters consider the “spiritual significance of art and beauty.” And it’s clear from the outset that beauty will have a prominent place in the argument of the book. The author contends that beauty is a path to the Divine. Reflected in the beauty of nature and of human making is the beauty of God – in this he follows the thought of Pope Benedict who has suggested that all great works are a luminous sign of God. Thus the arts are a source of spiritual value for all who have “eyes to see and ears to hear.” Beauty is not just a subjective judgement but speaks of a reality beyond personal preferences and is deeply connected with goodness and truth.

The author’s discussion of emotion and the arts challenges the idea that art is simply self-expression while preserving the connection between art and emotion. The arts open us to an array of emotions we would not otherwise experience. Engagement with art serves to enrich life and move us toward the fullness God intends. Davey resists a formalist account of the arts, which would affirm that the value of art lies in its form or structure, in what it is, not in what it does. The cost of such a formalist approach is that it separates the art from life and ignores its connections with the historical and cultural context in which it was created. For Davey the relevance of context is an essential element for aiding us to understand a work of art. And when informed by biblical and theological values, art is able to nurture spiritual life.

Like metaphor, artworks cannot be confined to a single meaning. They are instead characteristically ambiguous, rich in possibilities, and open to imaginative engagement. Davey argues, that just as metaphor invites an interplay of ideas, so art allows us to do the same. We are called to make connections, explore associations and find meaning in our experiences of the arts. 

Davey affirms that imagination as a vital element in the experience of art. Music on a page is incomplete as a work of art. The notation must transformed into presentation. Performance calls up the imagination of both performer and listener. He cites a distinction made by C.S. Lewis between receiving a work and using a work. To receive it means we have a sense of its inherent value, and are open to enter the world of the story, the music or the painting. To use a work is to see it only for its outcome for ourselves, its use as entertainment, or to complete an assignment and so diminish the deeper meaning it carries. A quote from Richard Palmer makes the point succinctly: “it is helpful to see a work not as an it that is at my disposal but as a thou that addresses me.”

Most chapters have a section called “Notes for the Church” in which the author draws out the implications of the themes considered for both the individual and communal life of faith. For example, he sees art is one of the ways we foster shalom in our troubled world.

The case that Davey makes is substantial. Though not a book for beginners it articulates well how human craft and artistry are to be woven into the fabric of life, not least, Christian life. The arts are not a decorative add-on but an integral component of what it means to be human, essential for human flourishing and profoundly important to spiritual growth.

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