Review: Art for Mission’s Sake

Keir Shreeves. Art for Mission’s Sake: Announcing the Gospel Through the Creative Arts. Cambridge: Grove Books Limited, 2017, 1-28pp., £3.95.

Keir Shreeves’ concise booklet Art for Mission’s Sakeis a theologically-minded invitation to Protestant evangelical churchgoers and church leaders to reconsider the significance of art and beauty for evangelism and mission. Shreeves recognizes an underlying evangelical suspicion of the arts, where an emphasis on images and subjective experiences outside of propositional word-based truth appears dangerous. He addresses such fears by turning to Christian theological history, as well as examples from both the Bible and local churches, to build a case for incorporating and valuing the arts in the life of the local congregation for the sake of the world.

The booklet is an excellent, practical introduction to a missional theology of the arts. Chapter 2, ‘Theological Foundations’, serves as a very brief primer on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and his emphasis on God’s beauty, offering ten ‘pointers’ towards appreciating the arts through a theological framework. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the role of the artist within the church and the world. Shreeves grounds each chapter with concrete illustrations and pastoral exhortations, as well as concluding questions for further discussion and inquiry. He offers examples from his role as part of the clergy team of St Peter’s Brighton – a church plant from Holy Trinity Brompton – such as the church’s attempts to create a welcoming culture for artists, as well as a restructuring of leadership roles in order to disciple artists and create a culture of aesthetic excellence for their worship services.

More than just a theological framework, Shreeves connects the arts with practical Christian mission:“The wonder of the arts for mission is that they can take people beyond conventional or established patterns of reason, drawing with a subversive quality. When words might bounce off, image, music or drama can impact in a different way” [p.4]. Citing the commissioning of Bezalel in Exodus 31 as the first biblical character recorded as being inspired by the Spirit, Shreeves suggests that God calls people to be artists just as much as God calls people to be priests, equipping people for the vocation of expressing beauty and creativity for God’s good purposes. Still, the historical examples of artists uniting their artwork with evangelistic motives are few, and Shreeves wholly avoids the shadows of colonialist history within Western mission movements. There is an underlying optimism in this booklet about Christian mission without really wrestling with the complexities and paradoxes of evangelistic efforts, especially those movements which incorporated (or condemned) artistic mediums. Perhaps this is due to the brevity of the pamphlet, which is more of an essay than a full-blown scholarly tome about the uniting of evangelism and art (in the acknowledgements, Shreeves states that this booklet emerged from his master’s dissertation at Kings College London, which explains both its brevity and its generalities).

While celebrating the non-utilitarian beauty of art itself, some of Shreeves’ statements and illustrations at times betray a didactic or illustrative purpose for art in mission. Shreeves affirms artist Makoto Fujimura’s quote: ‘The arts are a cup that will carry the water of life to the thirsty. It’s not the water itself; it’s the vessel’ [p. 16]. But does this water-vessel dichotomy hold water? Cannot art do theology itself, not merely depict it or be a vessel for propositional truths?

The distinct separation of form and content, giving emphasis to the latter, may elicit aesthetic heresies similar to those which emerged in attempts to separate the incarnate Christ’s humanity and divinity, a sort of artistic Docetism.

Even when Shreeves claims that ‘the arts are gloriously useless’ [p. 10], he focuses on practical examples for ways artists can utilize their creative gifts for the purpose of influencing the surrounding culture. In suggesting that the church must ‘create an alternative Spirit-infused culture’ and highlighting the ‘need for those artists intentionally seeking to communicate deep Christian truth,’ [p. 19] Shreeves seems to suggest a Kuyperian engagement with culture, one where Christians are purposefully creating cultural projects in order to transform or renew the larger culture for the sake of kingdom purposes. The church-culture dichotomy is historically notoriously difficult to navigate, especially in a publication as brief as this one, and I would like to see a non-Kuyperian theological appreciation of arts and culture. Still, for such a brief and practical approach, Art for Mission’s Sakeis theologically astute while remaining accessible for both clergy and laity alike. Personally, as a pastor-theologian who also aims to build bridges between the oft-disparate realms of the church and the arts, Shreeves’ resource is laudable and beneficial.

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