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Liturgy as a Way of Life

Embodying the Arts in Christian Worship

series: Church and Postmodern Culture, The

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"This book signals a new 'turn' in worship studies: a concern for a theologically rich and culturally alert engagement with the arts in congregational worship. It deserves a wide readership and will doubtless provoke a whole series of fruitful improvisations."--Jeremy Begbie, Duke University

Philosopher Bruce Ellis Benson explores how the arts inform and cultivate service to God, helping the church to not only think differently about the arts but also act differently. He contends that we are all artists, that our very lives should be seen as art, and that we should live liturgically in service to God and neighbor.

Working from the biblical structure of call and response, Benson rethinks what it means to be artistic and recovers the ancient Christian idea of presenting oneself to God as a work of art. Rather than viewing art as practiced only by the few, Benson argues that we are all called by God to be artists. He reenvisions art as the very core of our being: we are God's own art, and God calls us to improvise as living and growing works of art. Benson also examines the nature of liturgy and connects art and liturgy in a new way.

This book will appeal to philosophy, worship/liturgy, art, music, and theology students as well as those who are interested in engaging issues of worship and aesthetics in a postmodern context.

Introduction: The Art of Living
1. The Call and the Response
2. Deconstructing the Discourse of Art
3. Improvising Like Jazz
4. On Not Being an Artistic Whore
5. Becoming Living Works of Art

About the Series
The Church and Postmodern Culture series features high-profile theorists in continental philosophy and contemporary theology writing for a broad, nonspecialist audience interested in the impact of postmodern theory on the faith and practice of the church.


"This packs a lot of punch for a short book. Yet the tone is gracious, cautious, and often conversational. It signals a new 'turn' in worship studies: a concern for a theologically rich and culturally alert engagement with the arts in congregational worship. It deserves a wide readership and will doubtless provoke a whole series of fruitful improvisations."

Jeremy Begbie, Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology, Duke University

"Jazz music--so creative and free, so grounded and disciplined--provides a vivid and illuminating metaphor for reflecting on the internal dynamics of faithful and fruitful Christian lives and worship practices. This book pushes readers beyond any initial superficial appeal of this analogy to explore how it might radically convert our perceptions about the shape, tone, and sheer beauty of Christian discipleship."

John D. Witvliet, director, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary

"Drawing upon the rich resources of Gadamer, Marion, and others, Bruce Ellis Benson forges a distinctly improvisational vision of how the arts can be newly embedded in the fabric of our lives, our worship, and our communities. He also calls for the church to acknowledge the crucial nature of the arts for envisioning an incarnate spirituality that celebrates beauty."

Bruce Herman, Lothórien Distinguished Chair in Fine Arts, Gordon College

"'Call and response' and 'improvisation' are only two of the many ideas Benson fleshes out in this book. I appreciate these two especially because our culture has so misunderstood the terms 'liturgy' and 'creativity' (which is God's alone). We need a philosopher to set us right."

Marva J. Dawn, author of Reaching Out without Dumbing Down, A Royal "Waste" of Time, and How Shall We Worship?

"Bruce Ellis Benson's refreshing book critiques common ideas about art and liturgy that often limit our access to them. Drawing on a wide range of philosophy and theology as well as his own experiences as a musician, Benson engagingly argues that our lives are inescapably artistic and liturgical. He proposes that all art and worship are characterized by improvisation, which responds to what has come before but changes and adds to it. Liturgy as a Way of Life embodies such improvisation as Benson builds on and weaves together ideas from the past and present to create a dynamic, helpful way to see, to know, and to be."

Ted Prescott, emeritus professor of art, Messiah College

"Bruce Benson has performed an important work for the church by demonstrating that the arts can neither be ignored nor merely confined to worship styles or outreach ministries. Benson's theological and philosophical study of call and response opens up space for pastors and worship and arts ministry leaders to explore the implications of the aesthetic in the Christian life and in the life of the church."

Daniel A. Siedell, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida; author of God in the Gallery

The Author

  1. Bruce Ellis Benson

    Bruce Ellis Benson

    Bruce Ellis Benson (PhD, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) is distinguished visiting scholar in philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and executive director of the Society for Continental Philosophy and Theology. He previously taught at Wheaton College for...

    Continue reading about Bruce Ellis Benson


"[Benson] brings to his subject not only his expertise in Continental philosophy and aesthetics but also his interest in jazz music and improvisation. . . . Benson builds eclectically on Hans-Georg Gadamer by way of Bourdieu and Derrida, taking in Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington, Chrysostom and Justin Martyr and many, many more. If I make the book sound busy and complex, it is: more riff than argument, this is jazz-like philosophical improvisation, very skillfully played. Benson is trying to spur the reader, and the church, to get up and dance, reclaim the arts, and embody them in the church. Well, my feet are tapping."

Geoffrey Stevenson,

Expository Times

"We all know some churches that honor liturgical practices that are aesthetically pleasing, and perhaps specifically cater to those with the cultured authority to evaluate it. For those who see it in such terms, broadening the idea of liturgy to a way of life will be perplexing--if not altogether threatening. The same may be said for those who view liturgy in terms of dead ritual. For both groups, however, revisiting the meaning of liturgy in the sense that Benson has suggested may be a fresh resource, both for rethinking how and why we do what we do in worship, and for learning to live as communities who respond to God's call by improvising on our own lives, allowing the Word to become flesh."

Michael Anthony Howard,


"Benson's book will be especially helpful for facilitating a discussion of the role of the arts in the life of faith communities. An audience less familiar with formal liturgical understandings would especially benefit from his argument. His critique of contemporary trends in the art world is illuminating and persuasive. The role of artists, the importance of artworks in the lives of the faithful, and the recognition of all of life as liturgical activity could inspire a constructive vision of God's intentions for beauty in our world."

Mark A. Torgerson,


"One of the wonderful byproducts of the worship renewal experience movement of the past 20 years or so is a greater appreciation of the arts and their potential for use in Christian worship. Bruce Benson's text, then, comes at a good time for us, as any renaissance . . . begs analysis, some kind of overarching handles by which to explain the experience. . . . Most practical for contemporary worship leaders will be Benson's final chapter, 'Becoming Living Works of Art.'"

Warren Anderson,

Worship Leader

"A professor of philosophy with expertise in continental philosophy and theology, Bruce Benson is well-equipped for the task of making accessible key ideas of postmodern thinkers and bringing them to bear on the liturgical life of today's church. . . . Although the author is speaking self-consciously to evangelical Protestants, others overhearing the conversation will also be edified by his insights. . . . Those who are interested in a critique of conventional Protestant worship will find food for thought in this book. One does not need to be an expert in philosophy to glean wisdom from Benson's work, although those who are familiar with the work of postmodern thinkers will be able to appreciate this book at a deeper level."

Kimberly Bracken Long,


"Benson's ability to communicate the issues of a philosophical aesthetics in conversation with modern culture is worth noting, especially for those who have been largely shaped by the deconstruction of the whole in postmodern perspectives. . . . Benson wades into the artistic world with grace, employing the popular novel My Name Is Asher Lev, classical and contemporary music that readers can appreciate, and the visual arts of painting and film media-making. He rightly and gently chides both the art world and religious institutions that have maintained a stubborn divide. Finally, Benson situates the conversation between the art world and religious institutions and their mutual concerns with concrete examples of a number of Christian congregations . . . as models of fruitful interchange that can take place and yield something new in the midst of an ancient rhythm. For students who wrestle with postmodernism's cultural and ecclesiological discomfort, this volume is an accessible doorway into the iconic character of artistic fashioning and its use in church communities."

Paul A. Janowiak, SJ,

Theological Studies

"Benson is able to open the reader's mind to the deep connections that exist between a variety of liturgies through Scripture, preaching, Creed, and, most deeply, the Eucharist. . . . Benson is an academic, but his appreciation for the variety of worship settings builds bridges to the church."

Aaron Perry,

Asbury Journal

"A valuable addition to the small but growing corpus of literature on faith and the arts. . . . In this relatively slim volume, [Benson] says a lot, but in a highly accessible way, drawing on sources from across the breadth of church history and including a wide range of artistic expressions. . . . Throughout the book there are many encouragements and examples of a diverse range of churches employing the arts imaginatively in worship and into the whole of life. . . . Liturgy as a Way of Life is an insightful, creative, absorbing treatment of important issues which would be of interest to anyone who has some interest in the arts in any of its many genres and wants to explore how these and the life of faith might be more integrated."

Geoffrey Colmer,

Regent's Reviews

"The pendulum among evangelicals is now swinging toward serious engagement with art, and Bruce Ellis Benson has provided a philosophical, theological argument about why this is a good thing. Benson also has his cautions about the wrong turns a Christian approach might take, but in essence he argues Christians must embrace art as a vocation because this is the form of the Christian life: God is the master artist; human beings are God's art. . . . Moreover, authentic human response to God (and the Christian life and worship) is improvisation. . . . To Benson's project I give my hearty 'Amen.' This book is full of . . . provocative ideas."

Ed Phillips,

The Church & Postmodern Culture blog

"Benson . . . offer[s] insights into humans created imago dei--responding, creating, living as outpourers toward God and others--living works of art. [He is] thought-provoking and encourage[s] a holistic understanding of worship."

Linda Borecki,

The Church & Postmodern Culture blog

"Benson provides a deft critique of the modern discourse of art. . . . He distinguishes 'improvisation' from 'creation' in a way that offers a helpful vocabulary for acknowledging and celebrating the traditional and communal character of artistic creation, of liturgical prayer, and of the Christian life as a whole. . . . Since Benson's book is finally about formation--'the way we become living pieces of art'--I would not want to conclude my appreciation of it without amplifying this point about the 'intensive liturgy' that we celebrate each Sunday. The 'challenge of intensive liturgy' is 'to keep the repetition fresh so that it almost seems to be the first performance' each time we come together. But freshness is no more our creature than tradition is. It too is a gift, one that we receive by returning--repeatedly--to the wellspring of tradition and above all to 'Jesus himself who imbues these simple things with such significance.'"

Nathaniel Marx,

The Church & Postmodern blog

"[Benson] manages to weave together his expert knowledge as a theologian, his love for the Church, as well as his deep fondness for the arts. . . . It is heartening to read a book that personifies a work of art. . . . This book has challenged me about how art can powerfully teach us theology, and how theology can influence art. . . . This may be a small book but it surely packs a big punch. As I read the book, I am left with a sense of awe at how my own life can be a work of art. . . . [A] great book!"

Conrade Yap,

Panorama of a Book Saint blog