Book Review: Liturgy as a Way of Life by Bruce Ellis Benson

What is your greatest artistic achievement? A painting? A design? A  performance piece? Bruce Ellis Benson proposes that instead, our greatest work of art should be our lives. Ephesians 2:10 says “We are God’s handiwork [poiēma], created in Christ Jesus to do good works.” He translates the Greek poiēma as ‘work of art’. Our whole lives are acts of being what God has made us and becoming what he has made us to be. 

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How do we grow and mature as living works of art? Benson’s proposal is that it takes place through liturgy - hence the title of his book Liturgy as a Way of Life.[1] Such a claim may surprise, even repel us. But liturgy, according to Benson, is not just what we do on Sundays. Liturgy is our everyday habit-forming practices.[2] The original word refers to a way of living our lives in offering to God. It is about cultivating lives of worship. Romans 12 tells us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God. But what does this mean for artists? And what difference does this make in how art can exist for the church? 

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Reconsider the Artist 

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Benson spends a considerable portion of the book deconstructing[3] the prevailing conception of the artist. What we often think of as ‘an artist’ is a narrative largely appropriated from modern, in particular romantic, conceptions of art, and we’ve come to blindly accept this as true. Two particular aspects he focusses on are the artist as genius, and the artist as creator

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The artist as genius 

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We probably wouldn’t use the phrase ‘genius’ when referring to an artist, yet this is often how we conceive them. Immanuel Kant’s description of the genius is someone original, who does what no one has done before; exceptional, possessing a gift unreachable for any normal person; and innovative, unshackled in their creativity by the constraints of history and tradition.[4] Benson describes this account of the artist as a shift from ‘craftsperson’ to ‘godlike’.[5] Our art functions as an idol, through which we become the object of worship. Instead, Benson suggests that our art should function as an icon: work through which God is glorified. He isn’t (necessarily) calling for ‘Christian art’, in the sense of explicitly representing the Gospel in our work, but rather work which ultimately orientates love and worship towards God. This idea of rightly ordered love is an ancient idea, and takes a central place in the thought of Saint Augustine. Listen to this hymn Augustine quotes in City of God: 

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These are thy gifts; they are good, for thou in thy 

goodness has made them.

Nothing in them is from us, save for sin when, 

neglectful of order, 

We fix our love on the creature, instead of on thee, 

the Creator. [6] 

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As artists we must flee from making either our art or ourselves the object of worship. We must be wise in how we make art which isn’t an end in itself, but whose end is ultimately love of the one true God. 

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The artist as creator 

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The second element Benson deconstructs is the artist as creator. The problem with calling an artist a ‘creator’ is that it presumes creatio ex nihilo - creation out of nothing. In particular, this posits a creation myth where we are the ultimate source of our ideas. It denies the influence of culture, history, and tradition, and even more fundamentally refuses to acknowledge that we work out of what God has given us, according to his grace.[7] Instead, Benson suggests that we think of ourselves as improvisers. In the same way as a jazz musician appropriates decades of jazz vocabulary in fresh ways, we creatively work from the materials available to us, the influences which surround us, and the history that precedes us.[8] 

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Whilst it may sound pernickety to critique a word like creator, it has an important relationship to the question of worship. The title of creator is a denial of our necessary dependence on others, and ultimately our dependence on our Creator. If we claim to be the creator, who ends up being worshipped? Of course we can make exciting and original art, but to deny our dependence on others and on God becomes an idolatrous claim. To be ‘original’ is not synonymous with an atomistic independence. Great art is always dependent on a reality outside itself. 

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Unanswered Questions 

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Although Benson’s book does a lot of things well, I think it suffers from trying to achieve two quite different aims. The application of the arts for living liturgically is the primary focus, and it achieves it very well. But the content for practising artists feels like it could form a separate book, and leaves several questions unanswered (as I’m sure you feel from this review). In particular, I would love to explore further the idea of art as icon, especially when the content is not explicitly ‘Christian’. Similarly, I think more could have been said of contemporary and conceptual art, which is largely absent from his account - although his ideas are no less applicable to it. This shortcoming is probably due to the shortness of the book, but you may find yourself sometimes frustrated by difficult questions are brushed past without due consideration. 

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Nonetheless, this is a valuable contribution to a growing pool of resources on the interface between art and faith. If we are serious about living for Christ in the world of the arts, books like this are crucial for helping us grapple with questions around the purpose of our work, teaching us to live distinctively in our secular sphere. Benson’s encouragement is a welcome one: that we would be living artworks, dedicated to the one who made us. 

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  1. Bruce Ellis Benson, Liturgy as a Way of Life: Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship, The Church and Postmodern Culture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013). 
  2. For more on this topic, see James K. A. Smith, Desiring The Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, vol. 1, Cultural Liturgies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009); or his popular work James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016). 
  3. Referring to Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ - a postmodern technique which calls foundational beliefs into question. 
  4. Benson, Liturgy as a Way of Life, 54. 
  5. Benson, 57. 
  6. Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson, Kindle (Penguin Books Ltd., 2003). 
  7. Benson, Liturgy as a Way of Life, 71–76. 
  8. I pick up on some of these themes in my essay Charlie Watkins, ‘Discover and Develop: Experimental Music, Creation, and the Cultural Mandate’, UCCF Music Network (blog), July 2020, https://www.uccfleadershipnetwork.org/posts/discover-and-develop- experimental-music-creation-and-the-cultural-mandate

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