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Faith column: Church and the arts and David Taylor’s new book

June 26, 2010

David Taylor is one of my favorite folks in Austin. Wait, I can’t say that anymore because he left Austin. Blast him. And Austin is certainly the poorer for it.

As arts pastor of Hope Chapel, a funky, evangelical congregation in Central Austin (it really is central now — just off 2222 in the Brentwood ‘hood, tho the Statesman still considers this North Austin because they’re still using the river as the cutoff, but I digress) … Where was I? Oh yes, as the arts pastor, Taylor organized film and arts festivals, a massive symposium and really provocative installations in church. By provocative I mean the art challenged people spiritually and culturally. The first time I met Taylor, he was preparing a Stations of the Cross installation with pieces by local artists. It turned out to be incredibly powerful.

Taylor’s new book For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts brings several voices to this important topic.

OK, I need to let you read the column now.

Where should the arts and the church intersect? David Taylor explores that in new book

In the dim coolness of Hope Chapel, a musical trio — flute, cello and classical guitar — played a stirring piece by a Brazilian composer. Hand-painted kites attached to colorful ribbons hung from the ceiling, and contemporary art pieces dotted the walls.

It was in this space, a modest church building in North Austin’s Brentwood neighborhood, that David Taylor, the arts pastor at Hope for 12 years, pushed the boundaries of art in church, nourished Christian artists and challenged the deeply ingrained Protestant mind-set about the arts. Now pursuing a theology doctorate at Duke Divinity School, Taylor returned to Hope Chapel this month to talk about “For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts,” a new book of essays he edited and contributed to.

The book, with essays by Christian leaders and artists on topics such as how art can serve worship and how the church should shepherd artists, is an extension of Taylor’s work in Austin. As an arts pastor, Taylor organized art and film festivals, established an artist-in-residence program at Hope Chapel and in 2008 spearheaded a three-day conference on church and the arts that drew more than 800 people from around the world.

Why all this effort to promote arts in the church? Taylor believes art is essential to the Christian experience. He sees artistic expression in God’s creation. He believes artists tell us what it means to be human. And for too long, he says, pastors and artists haven’t communicated.

I can’t imagine church without art. Growing up Catholic, the aesthetic experience seemed inextricably linked to the spiritual experience. The vivid hues of the stained glass windows depicting the triumph of the Resurrection, the etched sorrow of Mary’s face in the pieta, the intricate designs of the gleaming marble altar — all these artistic expressions seemed to enhance the Mass.

For centuries, some Protestant churches eschewed art and today still regard the arts with some suspicion. But Taylor says that many Protestants are now trying to rediscover the church’s rich artistic history and develop a vision for what will work going forward.

These can be difficult and sensitive conversations.

For one thing, art is subjective. Most of us can look at da Vinci’s “The Annunciation” and say, well, of course, this makes sense. Here is the angel Gabriel telling the Virgin Mary she will bear the son of God. The painting reflects the Christian narrative and serves the church.

But some of the art works Taylor included in “For the Beauty of the Church” (which he posted in a March 17 blog entry on artspastor. aren’t so obvious. A piece by Austin artist Laura Jennings shows partial human forms and abstract designs — not something you would expect to see in a church. But Jennings’ work was on display at Hope Chapel, and Taylor wrote on his blog that the pieces sought to capture people on the fringes, the “least of these” and that their abstract style “forced our congregation to slow down and look, and look again, and look yet again. This kind of careful looking became not simply an artistic experience, it became a spiritual discipline.”

There’s no guarantee that the same art will provide spiritual inspiration at another church. Even the terms used in discussing art and the church can prove challenging. In the book’s introduction, Taylor defines the arts as “at least, music, dance, drama, poetry and other literary arts, visual art, film, and architecture.” But how people define art — or church for that matter — can vary dramatically, Taylor said.

He is also realistic about the limitations. You can’t force visual art and music into the austere silence of a Quaker service. You can’t ask Orthodox Christians to allow new expressions into their ancient liturgy. You must recognize that conversations about art will be starkly different at a Bible church and an arts-driven emerging church. And that even with the best intentions, artistic expression can go awry — something Taylor learned firsthand years ago when he staged an original play during a worship service at Hope. It didn’t work in the context of the church.

In this pursuit of embracing the arts, the church is sure to encounter some bad art along the way. But church leaders and artists, he stressed, need to keep the “long view” in mind.

“To do this work well requires that we think clearly about our terms, that we handle the historical data carefully, that we read the Bible more deeply than we may be used to, and that we get our heads straight with regard to our ideas about creation, vocation and culture,” Taylor told me. “I’d say we also need uncommonly large doses of patience. I figure if it took the church several centuries to get clarity on the doctrine of the Trinity and of Christ, then we conservative Protestants get 10 good decades to make decent progress. My book is one attempt among many to serve the cause. “

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