Symposium Introduction

Why place? Why art? These are the two central questions that Jennifer Allen Craft explores in her aptly titled book Placemaking and the Arts. In this book Jennifer skillfully draws together insights from theology, philosophy, ecology, and the visual arts to help us recognize that any “theology of the arts” is (or should be) a “placed theology of the arts.”

The central argument of this book is that art is a form of placemaking. Works of the arts—understood here very broadly to include “high art” as well as craft—locate us in time, space, and social relations. The arts call us to pay attention to the world around us so that we can engage our places through ethically responsible practices. This argument is significant because the arts help us live locally and challenge us to reflect on what it means to be embodied, emplaced creatures living in Christian communities called to service, mission, and worship. Arts cultivate the theological imagination, and as such, may contribute to how we practice the presence of Christ and the kingdom of God in our places.

The central chapters of this book offer a broad overview of the “places” in which humans are imbedded. After further defining the concept of place and what it means to have a “sense of place,” Jennifer turns to art that cultivates our attention to the natural world, the arts of homemaking and hospitality in the domestic sphere, arts within the church and Christian worship, and, finally, arts in a society of displacement and detachment.

This book is a welcome addition to the theology and place conversation, as well as the theology and the arts conversation. Few books thus far have thoroughly explored this overlap between human placemaking and human art making, though many have noted the resonances. Jennifer’s focus on contemporary visual art and her inclusion of non-Christian artists strengthen her overall presentation, and introduce a subtle critique of Christian didacticism: visual images do not need to be narrative or moralistic in order to be worthy of Christian reflection or to transform our imaginations.

I am also very pleased to offer five responses to the book, each admiring and critiquing it from distinctive perspectives. First, Lisa Beyeler-Yvarra questions the unintended implications of Craft’s explicitly positive account of the formative nature of placemaking. Concerned to highlight the way racial and spatial discrimination has been perpetuated under the guise of artistic placemaking, she urges Craft to consider how her account of God’s kenotic outpouring of love to and in creation can offer a standard from which to critique various efforts of human placemaking.

In the second essay, Jordan Rowan Fannin probes the relationship between beauty and moral action, specifically in the context of current US immigration policies. Describing examples where aesthetic appreciation did not lead to ethical action, she challenges Craft to be more explicit about how beauty can be understood as both catalyst and context for imaginative formation. How can we be sure, and ensure, that art and beauty lean toward justice?

In the third essay, W. David O. Taylor considers Craft’s claim that art engages worshippers by inviting them to participate more intentionally in the embodied and corporate nature of worship, by helping to creating a sense of place, by enabling hospitable and responsive contexts for mission, and by anticipating the new creation. Additionally, he offers four critiques that would strengthen her thesis: broadening scriptural exegesis on the theme of temple, engaging the work of liturgical theologians, more clearly defining beauty, and focusing on the particular ways in which particular artistic mediums work to form a person in worship.

In our penultimate essay, Katie Kresser approaches Craft’s book from an art historical angle. Drawing on a Trinitarian framework to identify and classify different sorts of arts-focused projects, she understands Craft’s approach as “Paracletial.” If Father-type approaches to art are rooted in aesthetic judgments and Son-type approaches look for ethical models to follow and emulate, Spirit-type approaches highlight art that “wraps and supports” and “affirms and welcomes.” This third type is the sort of art Craft considers; it is art hospitable to the diversity and particularity of people and places.

Finally, Murray Rae concludes our symposium by considering the relationship between divine and human action through the related themes of Spirit and sacrament, extending Craft’s use of the incarnation as the central interpretative category. If art is somehow understood as redemptive or sharing in the redemptive actions of God, art must be pneumatological in both its creation and its reception; it is the Spirit who engenders a theological disclosure through works of art. Additionally, Rae suggests that it is possible to posit an analogy between the materiality of the sacraments and the materiality of art works, particular objects that are transformed and transforming.

Lisa Beyeler-Yvarra


Situating Artistic Placemaking Practices within a Politics of Place

In her 1937 memoir, Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein lamented over the demolition of her childhood home in Oakland, California, writing, “there is no there there.” Although her reflection was deeply personal and contextual, in the wake of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities and William H. Whyte’s The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Stein’s paradoxical expression was displaced from its particular significance and came to represent a wholesale critique of the “placeless” characteristic of American cities in the twentieth century. The humanist response to the crisis of modern life inspired by Jacobs and Whyte—termed “placemaking” in the 1970s—has garnered some interest in contemporary Christian theological discourse, inspired in part by Wendell Berry’s writings on local ecosystems as the foundation stone of healthy communities. Jennifer Allen Craft’s Placemaking and the Arts: Cultivating the Christian Life is the latest Christian theological engagement with placemaking, following Craig G. Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell, Eric O. Jacobsen’s The Space Between and John Inge’s A Christian Theology of Place. In her book, Craft weaves together biblical exegesis, art criticism, environmental and social ethics, and urban and agrarian studies to present a theology of the arts that illuminates the rootedness of artistic practice in place and our contingent ethical responsibilities to the spaces we inhabit. The contributions of Craft’s thoughtfully composed work are many, but, for the purposes of this response, I will focus on the theme that I believe to be the most generative component of her book, the ramifications of God’s kenotic outpouring on placemaking, and suggest ways that Craft’s account of kenosis might serve to interrogate the hazards of the placemaking movement itself.

Drawing on Balthasar’s Trinitarian framework of kenotic love—the “self-emptying of the persons of the Trinity to one another”—and Moltmann’s kenotic theology of creation, Craft contends that the human imitation of divine kenosis points in two directions: inwardly to reimagine and restructure our aspirations and desires, and outwardly to call one into participatory action in the work of creation (36). The dual nature of kenotic love, which balances internal examination with external operation, gestures toward humanity’s unique “identity as placemakers” whose shared vocation is to “give order to and care for the particular places we find ourselves in” (40). This calling, Craft argues, is characterized by a spirit of servanthood modeled after Christ’s kenotic work in the world; that is, the Christian life is centered around a self-emptying love that transforms particular people into better stewards of particular places. As Craft writes, “We are very much placed in this often-disordered world, and by modeling our placemaking actions after Christ’s own, we may help contribute to the reordering of reality through the power of Christ in us” (43). What’s more, drawing on Rowan Williams’s work on Christian resurrection, Craft underscores the reciprocal nature of kenotic placemaking by gesturing toward a third direction of transformation. The human mimicry of divine kenosis does not simply move from inward self-reflection to outward transformative action, Craft notes, but rather, the places we occupy in turn transform its inhabitants. These places “[form] the venue of our own transformation and our pursuit of beauty” (43).

Although Craft does not explicitly use kenotic love as a means to critique placemaking practices, I found her location of divine kenosis within a larger constructive theology of place to be a helpful lens to interrogate the often-conflicting values of placemaking initiatives. At its best, placemaking mirrors the multidirectional nature of kenosis through its collaborative approach to public planning and design processes, which aids in a collective reimagining of everyday spaces. The imaginative formation that placemaking aims to provide, as Craft skillfully articulates, is a readiness to consider particular developments as one component within a larger network of places and to work toward unique and holistic solutions that address the economic, social, environmental, and pragmatic concerns of a given community. Furthermore, Craft’s exposition on the complex relations of kenotic love provide a helpful analogy to begin to grapple with the intricate systems embedded in the politics of a place and to reject top-down programs of land redevelopment in favor of grassroots revitalization. Conversely, though Craft does not make this connection herself, kenotic theology can also illuminate the ways in which placemaking efforts themselves often slip into a kenotic performativity that pays lip service to community-centered collaborative design, while buttressing and, in some cases, advancing social, economic, and racial inequity. To her credit, Craft is careful to posit important caveats against the dangers of a “geographic imagination” of exclusion (174) and questions the veracity of community representation in public art (181), however, I believe what’s missing from Placemaking and the Arts is a critical engagement with the way racial and spatial discrimination is frequently perpetuated under the guise of artistic placemaking. In other words, if, as Craft aptly claims, “our sense of place and placemaking actions share a core relationship with how we have ordered our loves within those places” (14), how might kenotic love reveal the ways in which the aesthetic and social orders of artistic placemaking have been (to use Lauren Winner’s term) characteristically damaged?

Take, for instance, Craft’s own example of mural painting as a constructive placemaking practice in the Venice area of Los Angeles (180). Absent from Craft’s laudatory account of mural art is how neighborhood improvement projects, including mural installations, have and continue to function in tandem with the policing of certain bodies to ostensibly promote public safety and urban livability. In the case of Venice, the imbrication of Los Angeles gang injunctions with urban revitalization efforts served to mutually reinforce the criminalization of alleged gang-related activities, effectively creating a new code of sociality that underscored racial prejudice. The gang injunctions demarcated “safety zones” that forbade gang members from assembling, usually in desirable, up-and-coming areas such as Venice Boulevard and Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and granted executive powers to police, enabling law enforcement to detain people of color without lawful cause (e.g., congregating in the street with their family members) while ignoring the minor legal infringements of white transplants (e.g., walking their dogs off-leash or bicycling without reflectors). In this new spatial reality, particular social and aesthetic practices are penalized, and others are championed—selling loose cigarettes without a tax stamp in front of a beauty supply store versus slinging $10 lattes fortified with CBD oil at the local farmers market, brown-bagging a forty-ounce on the curb versus sipping a pint of artisanal lager at an outdoor café, creating self-governed graffiti art versus bureaucratically-sanctioned mural art—to ensure that so-called undesirable behaviors (and, thereby, undesirable residents) are displaced from their communities to make room for middle-class professionals. Situated within the story of community dispossession in Los Angeles (similarly, Atlanta, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, the list goes on), Craft’s auspicious perspective that “actions of artistic placemaking can serve to energize [places] and make people want to be there, inviting members of the community, along with tourists, into a hospitable and beautiful space” bends toward the ominous (180). When artistic placemaking practices are complicit in the disempowerment and expulsion of racialized and criminalized bodies, it is essential that we interrogate how these artistic interventions actually function within a politics of place and who these practices are really for.

Undergirding Craft’s largely commendatory perspective on artistic placemaking practices is the claim that placemaking enacts a kind of formative communitarianism built upon the daily “liturgies” (the multiplicities of repetitive and reciprocating movements that enliven a space) of the people who inhabit a place. Gesturing toward her exposition on the correlative love of kenotic outpouring, Craft argues that “how we make our place then makes us, or forms us,” not into autonomous individuals within a shared space, but into “community participants [who are formed] into people of a place by being people active in place” (173). Once more, what is not present in Placemaking and the Arts is a critical analysis of communitarianism and who is “in” and who is “out of place” in our notions of community and community flourishing. In other words, what kinds of communities do placemaking practices form and who is included and excluded in community formation? As Iris Marion Young observes in Justice and the Politics of Difference, “The most serious political consequence of the desire for community, or for copresence and mutual identification with others, is that it often operates to exclude or oppress those experienced as different” (234). While Craft is attentive to the problem of community aspirations masquerading as exclusionary tactics borne out of shared racism, sexism, and classism, she locates the problems of marginalization and displacement outside of placemaking practices:

Placemaking can very often be a form of protest against public space and practice that is exclusionary or oppressive, for instance, images of the city that are conceptualized within a masculine framework and tend to produce places that are prohibitive against women in the public realm. These exclusionary spaces very often relate to gender, race, socioeconomic status, or religion, and what the liturgies of the placemaking movement seek to create in response are places that embrace otherness, solidifying our sense of identity in positive ways while reconciling relationships that have had barriers set between them (sometimes metaphorical and sometimes physical). (174)

Here, Craft contends that placemaking is a solution, not an accomplice, to the problem of social identification over and against the “abjected Other” (Justice and the Politics of Difference, 147). However, even the Project for Public Spaces, a central organization of the placemaking movement, put forth a proposed code of ethics in 2016, which includes commitments to community inclusion and against unintended community harm (“At the very least, we will ensure that any physical intervention will not harm the communities affected by the project”).1 Similarly, the American Planning Association offers online educational sessions to planning professionals focused on the complicated connections between placemaking and gentrification. To say that placemaking “works toward the common good” without “collapsing individual or local identity” shrouds the deeply embedded divisions of racism, sexism, and classism in our neighborhoods and cities, and passes over the ways placemaking has been co-opted by developers, municipalities, and closed communities to ostracize and displace people who are deemed illegitimate members. What’s more, it obscures the way nostalgic and, at times, nationalistic appeals to “community” have been used to advance social repression and surveillance.

Rather than simply a case of omission, however, I wonder if Craft’s overwhelmingly positive account of placemaking is rooted in her understanding of divine kenosis and the way beauty operates within kenotic placemaking. For Craft, essential to the kenotic movement from self-reflection to self-giving practice, is the role of the arts as a “formative presence and practice” that fosters a shared understanding of place through communal participation in the beautiful (178). Building off of Trevor Hart’s conception of beauty as an ethical conduit to selfless action, Craft writes, “Beauty, therefore, must draw one out of oneself in an act of love; it ‘renders the self adjacent’ . . . in order to bring about a new perception and ethical or justice-seeking action. . . . The manner in which we perceive beauty is thus key to understanding the ways that ecological and socially conscious action might occur” (44). Indeed, as Craft perceptively notes, the way that one understands the beautiful profoundly influences placemaking practices—from shared notions of the public good and community development to definitions of “highest and best use,” “vacant land,” and “underutilized property”—and, although Craft does not interrogate these terms, she begins to question the means of ethical production associated with our assessment of what is beautiful, warning against a “failure of imagination” that “obstruct[s] compassion and obscure[s] the particularity of creatures and places” (42).

However, Craft’s conflation of beauty (which she does not necessarily define, but is often associated with natural or physical beauty) with goodness, love, and empathy belies the multitude of ways that the beautiful has functioned, not as an ethical means to nurture a “sympathetic imagination” (177), but as an apparatus of social control. In terms of placemaking, however, what concerns me about Craft’s theological account of beauty is that it dangerously flirts with the same misconceptions of the “placeless” architectural styles she critiques. Craft’s contestation that the beautiful—be it a work of art, a natural landscape, or a well-designed building—can provide the context in which “one’s moral capacities [are] heightened and stimulated to encounter ‘the other’ in a different light,” without qualification, rearticulates, in a different register, the same modernist predilection for spatial forms over social processes. Although Craft’s account of “art’s capacity for moral influence” yearns for an artistic placemaking that displaces outmoded and destructive imaginations and actions and “replace[s] them with new contexts that communicate, hopefully, a vision of the kingdom and the beauty of the cross,” without wrestling with the ways beauty, art, and placemaking have been absorbed into unjust practices and used to reify existing spatial and racial hierarchies, Craft’s innovative theological framework is in danger of reproducing the architectural determinism she finds fault with.

As I expressed at the opening of my response, Craft’s Placemaking and the Arts offers a number of important contributions to the recent Christian theological engagements with placemaking as well as the field of theology and the arts in general. To my mind, Craft’s most important theological contribution is her foregrounding of African American and Indigenous Peoples’ art (a long-awaited intervention in IVP Academic’s Studies in Theology and the Arts series), including an extended analysis of the quilts of Gee’s Bend and the work of Kerry James Marshall, in her exhortation to cultivate a constructive theological imagination within the context of artistic placemaking practices. In particular, Craft’s analysis of Marshall’s Garden Projects speaks powerfully to the ways utopic visions of a built environment that serve as the foundation to a new moral and aesthetic framework often disintegrate into oppressive measures of social control and repression. As Craft continues to engage in theological accounts of the built environment, I hope to see more of this kind of critical engagement with underrepresented voices that challenge the logics of discriminatory policies, even within the placemaking movement itself.

  1. See “The Ethics of Building Great Communities,” Project for Public Spaces, March 10, 2016,

  • Jennifer Craft

    Jennifer Craft


    Kenotic Placemaking and Practices of Power

    What I intended to offer in the publication of Placemaking and the Arts was an entry point for thinking about the ways that places are visually instructed and formed, along with an introduction to the ways in which art might call us further into our places. To that end, Beyeler-Yvarra’s description of the book as an “overwhelmingly positive account of placemaking” is sound—my goal was to construct a positive theology of placemaking in relation to the visual arts, and this was in response to what I saw as a lack of theological engagement more broadly on the arts and placemaking as formative Christian practices. In this sense, Placemaking and the Arts does indeed focus on the positive and hopeful aspects of what art might be capable of doing when it comes to our engagement in the world of places. But, as Beyeler-Yvarra suggests, this leaves quite a bit missing. Particularly, as she writes, “what’s missing from Placemaking and the Arts is a critical engagement with the way racial and spatial discrimination is frequently perpetuated under the guise of artistic placemaking.” And later, “what is not present . . . is a critical analysis of communitarianism and who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out of place’ in our notions of community and community flourishing.” She focuses directly on the “deeply embedded divisions of racism, sexism, and classism in our neighborhoods and cities” along with the ways that the notion of “community” has been co-opted in a manner that serves to further displace or nostaligize (can I make that a verb?) certain ways of being in place.

    The simple answer to Beyeler-Yvarra is, perhaps, as all writers know, that there simply wasn’t enough space to do everything. My approach was largely to investigate the theological potential of the discussion on placemaking and the arts, which left little room for its own extensive critiques. But this of course, is the easy way out. Her criticisms, indeed, haunt the discussion of placemaking in any discipline, theological or otherwise, and so to many of her points I must concede my own failure, or at least acknowledge that there is indeed further work to do.

    To that end, however, I’d like to offer some clarifications for my theological rationale for both the arts and placemaking, of which, as Beyeler-Yvarra notes, kenosis is key.

    To explore this further, I will briefly frame what I consider to be four key facets of a theology of place which takes seriously kenotic love, and which, I believe, may help open up some of the underlying assumptions of my theology of placemaking and the arts.

    1. The centrality of hospitality and openness as it relates to our understanding of belonging (who belongs, how places function to welcome, etc.).
    2. The outward-focused and self-offering nature of love for the other (the “abject other” as Beyeler-Yvarra quotes from Iris Marion Young), which fosters one’s practices within place.
    3. The ongoing and iterative development of relationships and self-identity in love over time, which is influenced by and influencing for the other and their place.
    4. The eschatological dimension of kenotic love and desire.

    I will say a brief word on each of these in response to Beyeler-Yvarra before responding to her final point—the manner in which I believe beauty functions within this kenotic theology of placemaking.

    First, one underlying consideration for the suggestion that art cultivates belonging in place is the concept and practice of hospitality. I am assuming the type of hospitable framework that Christine Pohl suggests in her work Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, which demands openness and permeability as markers of a truly Christian hospitality.1 Hospitality, then functions not just to let in those whom we desire, but works on a genuine openness to the other, operating to open out different levels of belonging through time and active community engagement. Wendell Berry is perhaps one of the most well-known voices in this conversation on belonging and place, and I owe much of my thinking to his writing. Certainly, Berry has been accused of a nostalgic vision of community, though I wonder if the problem is not the vision, but what we ourselves are willing to do? What I mean is that when it comes genuine hospitable placemaking, the problem is not in the ability of place or art or whatever else we might determine to be important contributors to such belonging, but rather, our own disoriented hearts.

    It is for this reason that the kenotic reality of hospitable placemaking must take precedence in any theological investigation. For it is in the Spirit’s opening up of our lives for the sake of the other, the Spirit’s guiding in the giving over of our own will so that the will of the Lord may be done, the Spirit’s consistent nudging to lower ourselves beneath the place where we feel we belong in order to make a place for others to belong. This follows, of course, the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who by the power of the Spirit gave up himself for the sake of the world, gave his own will over so that the will of the Father may be accomplished, lowered himself to the place of a servant so that we all may belong in the kingdom of heaven. What kenotic placemaking thus means may in fact be giving up our own place so as to make a place for the other. Hospitality operates on these realities, which serve to strengthen bonds and weaken boundaries through the invitation to placed belonging. And it seems as though art has the unique ability to participate in that, opening up places for the other, even if it also has the power to exclude. Part of my encouragement in the book’s thesis is to recognize the ways that art can function in a much more central way in this regard, whereas we have often relegated art to the margins of our day-to-day practice.

    This leads me to the second and related point: the self-offering nature of kenotic placemaking. The failures that Beyelor cites in the placemaking movement, I believe, result from a desire to maintain self-promoting power, as she notes in regard to racial and gendered realities of placemaking. Of course, this is a difficult reality to sort out. We often participate in social imaginaries without even knowing it (Charles Taylor) and when these imaginaries benefit us (as they do for largely white, privileged communities) we are even less likely to notice them (and if we do notice them, are less inclined to give up that self-benefitting power). It is for this reason, only within a kenotic framework of placemaking that we might enact the sort of hopeful, transformative community-building and belonging that I call for in the book. This must involve, then, the giving over of space and place to those communities who have historically been excluded. Only in the offering up of our power for the sake of the other can we achieve the type of kingdom placemaking that I think Jesus calls us to in the twenty-first century.

    However, a caveat must be made. If we are to avoid the creation of the same types of power-wielding places and practices in the future, placemaking must take on a new approach altogether. The exchange of one group or power for another is simply not enough. We must develop a new vision. What I think the arts offer in this regard is the possibility of a new way of imagining, a new way to see people and places through diverse perspective. Furthermore the process of both making and engaging with art invites us into this kenotic disposition. Certainly the arts can and have been wielded in all sorts of unsavory ways (think of Hitler’s propaganda as one relevant example) but art by its nature seems to me to constantly reassess boundaries, to impress upon its viewers a different manner of movement (both imaginatively and physically) through the world, to diversify our vision of what is beautiful and ugly and profound and meaningful.

    All of this requires certain internal dispositions on the viewer or maker themselves, and also raises the issue of divine providence and inspiration. But so it is with all else. One can sit down to read scripture and feel unmotivated by its beauty. One can read the Brothers Karamazov and be bored by its prose and unmotivated by its religious impulse. One can gaze upon van Gogh’s colorful landscape and only be concerned about the Instagram likes their photograph of it will receive. How powerful, then, is the work in question, or how important, on the other hand, is the Spirit’s guiding to deeper understanding? Must we then place all the power on the place or placemakers themselves, or might we understand those places to be part of the divine work of God in the world—work in which we get to participate, but which we cannot (luckily) ultimately thwart? Under this view, we offer our work and our selves over to God who works through places (however imperfect) to invite his creatures into life in his kingdom.

    Third, I suggested that a central feature of kenotic placemaking is the ongoing and iterative development of relationships and self-identity in love, which is influenced by and influencing for the other and their place. What I mean by this is that any good view of placemaking must take into account the element of time. This suggests the unfolding of identity in place over long stretches and in which we participate by observation, by reflection, and by action in communities that are already there. For instance, this might be of relevant concern for placemaking in neighborhoods that are prone to gentrification, such as the Los Angeles example that Beyelor took some criticism of.

    One problem that the creative placemaking initiatives may have in that area is the failure to take into account the past identity of the place as it seeks to “transform” it. One exciting example of how art works to unfold identity in place is the work of the Harrison Center for the Arts in the Monon 16 neighborhood of Indianapolis, Indiana. Joanna Taft, the director of the center, makes the distinction between cultural gentrification and economic gentrification, the former of which is the more egregious and dissolves existing communities for the sake of “community development” (by which is meant only one specific type of “community”). To avoid cultural gentrification, the Harrison Center’s work focuses on existing long-term communities in the area (most of which are African American) and the keeping and telling of their stories in conjunction with new development. The Greatriarchs program is one relevant example of this where large-scale paintings of older, long-term members of the neighborhood were produced in the style of famous black artists, and they were put on public display in a central neighborhood location. Large community gatherings were held in correspondence to the unveiling of the images, and the program has grown in different stages to tell the various stories of the neighborhood over time. This provides a way for older members of the community to be noticed and remembered, while newer members of the community are invited to participate in the place in ways that are both driven by both memory of the past and vision of the future. It works with the changing community to keep the character of those members who came before, while also allowing new cultural associations to take hold in relation to, rather than in opposition to, the old. This type of work requires that new communities take into account the place and its stories and people (while bending to that character), while it also motivates the old community to make room for new stories to develop in relation to their own. Both sides requires a disposition of openness and self-offering in order to participate in this iterative development of identity and place.2

    Finally, I made note of the eschatological nature of kenotic placemaking. All placemaking work in this world must come to terms with its own limitations. This is not to say that we cannot achieve a vision of place that is just, equitable, diverse, beautiful, or hospitable. But it is to give some space to the idea that all placemaking work will lean toward imperfection even as we strive to make a place that models the kingdom-building work of Christ on earth. But even in this imperfection and absence, we are moved to a longing and hope that rings in a theological key. I believe that placemaking work, in both the positive and negative register in which it is exercised, calls us into this eschatological space. The absence of justice calls out for it. The work of beauty reminds us that there is more yet to come. In this sense places function as Natalie Carnes argues of icons, as both a presence and an absence, as iconoclastic and iconophilic,3 as centering us the “already” and calling our attention to the “not yet.” Creative placemaking work always sits within these tensions, and it is only here at this interstice between the already and the not yet that we can understand the ways that art contributes to community placemaking in an overwhelmingly hopeful way.

    I do believe that beauty is key in all of the preceding points, particularly as we seek to flesh out a Christian theology of placemaking. It seems to me that whatever our fears are surrounding beauty, we cannot throw it out altogether as a lens for constructing a theologically rich, and eschatologically informed, view of place and its communities. Certainly, beauty has been wielded in problematic ways. Willie James Jennings describes the cultural weight of beauty and the aesthetic as it has been guided by the cultural reality of “whiteness.”4 As those who exist in this white space of cultural power, it is important to always be self-reflective about the ways in which our placemaking work reinforces such dynamics or opens up a reevaluation and transformation of them. Beauty, and all its cultural power, can easily be folded into these dynamics.

    But it seems certain to me that whatever else we must say about beauty, it is not absent from New Creation. Revelation makes clear that God’s glory is shown in all the new creation in ways that call us forever into his true Beauty. We must also contend with the brokenness that attaches itself to our understanding of beauty now, and reassess the ways that we wield standards of beauty to create further ugliness. But I wonder if artists are best at navigating this space between beauty and brokenness. I wonder if they can better enable us as placemakers to walk the tense paths of place in our own lives. This is perhaps my central calling of the book: to allow art to complicate our relationship to place in such a way that we navigate it differently than before. How might the arts contribute to a renewed sense of beauty and brokenness of the world around us? How might artists push us to consider other “outsider” voices and invite those voices into places of power, specifically with the intention to disrupt our practices and expectations? And how might our reframed practices begin to habituate us in a new life in the kingdom of God, where kenotic hospitality and love serves as the central key which guides our songs of home.

    1. I’m also highly influenced by Wendell Berry’s understanding of hospitality here, with its permeability of boundaries, as explained in J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide (Brazos, 2008).

    2. I was unfamiliar with this project when the book was published, or else it certainly would have made its way into my examples;

    3. Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford University Press, 2017).

    4. Willie Jennings, “Disrupting Image,” Wheaton College Theology Conference, April 9–10, 2015, YouTube video, 43:25,

    • Katie Kresser

      Katie Kresser


      Katie Kresser, Prof of Art History, Seattle Pacific U.

      I’m speaking as an art historian and critic here, not a theologian.

      …And I find myself thinking about the Venice mural example, and public art in general. First off, it seems like public art almost always gentrifies. In fact, if the commissioners of most public art were honest with themselves, they’d probably admit that gentrification is pretty much core to their whole project. It’s what they hope to achieve – more than anything more abstract like “beautification.”

      Honestly, I think this is why public art is so often just bad. It doesn’t come from an authentic place. It comes from a top-down effort toward social programming, and in art, top-down almost never works. (In fact top-down mental processes, even detached from social programming efforts, are inimical to the artistic process, full stop.) Furthermore, the kind of “top-down” bureaucratic art we’re used to seeing in cities today is so shallow – so purposely and programmatically devoid of anything historically tainted (which includes about every form of rich expression that ever existed) – that its interest is exhausted almost immediately.

      One could argue that a lot of the art canonized in art history books arose from “top-down” diktats, but I don’t think things were so simple back then. One reason it wasn’t so simple: in many places, there was a rich, centuries-old visual lexicon/toolkit that functioned as an independent arbiter of meaning and taste, and patrons who encouraged artists to squelch or transgress that inheritance were rightly mocked. We have no such shared lexicon/toolkit today. (Well, we have access to several, but it seems like no two of us have been enculturated into them in the same way. More on that in a different comment later.)

      So public art is usually shallow and didactic and uninteresting. It comes from top-down diktats, it’s timidly generic, and it doesn’t elicit much sustained interest because it comes from a pretty limited lexicon/toolkit. The graffiti art it replaces, on the other hand, is often much more interesting because it comes from an authentic need to express, and it comes from embryonic local lexicons that have the potential to become rich, interesting and truly communicative if only they’re left alone.

      It’s worth noting that most of the “public art” we celebrate in Renaissance cities (for example) is actually “private art” that can be seen in public. Meanwhile some of the worst art ever, historically speaking, was art commissioned by (and celebrating) dictators and kings.

      What am I saying? I’m saying that I might be against government-commissioned art in general. It’s often racist and discriminatory, it has ulterior motives that are never owned up to, and it’s frequently just bad art. To relate these thoughts more firmly to Dr. Craft’s book, then: Who has the right to “make place” in a specific location? Only the people who live there? Only the people who’ve “paid their dues,” in terms of abiding with the place and understanding it? I think the answers to these questions are usually (always?) “yes.” Dr. Craft’s mention of the Greatriarchs project in Indianapolis, then, feels particularly apt to me. This is a step in the right direction when it comes to public art.

    • Jennifer Craft

      Jennifer Craft


      Reply to Katie

      I do agree, Katie, that the top down approach often yields bad, if not downright harmful, results. When we consider gentrification, we see that it always places very specific values of belonging onto places and communities, including some groups and excluding others. The question often comes down to taste (what is beautiful?) or power (who has the right to be here and who belongs?) or money (tied to power, but in many ways overriding both power and beauty; what is best for the “economy”?). Despite its difficulties, though, I’m not ready to give up on public art. Perhaps it is the more subversive lines of making that need to be further reflected on (graffiti and street art rather than government sponsored murals) which work from the ground up. But in any case, both top down and bottom up approaches seem to me to speak to the power of the image or physical object on a place. However images and objects are wielded (for good or ill), they yield a different way of being in that place. And that is my primary point: first that we acknowledge the power of the arts at all. For many folks, the arts seem peripheral; they seem to lack any power, and therefore, don’t deserve our attention. Growing up in a rural area, I have seen that the arts, traditionally understood, aren’t on most people’s minds. The city, of course, yields a different set of judgments, but they often end in the same place. Both communities wonder, “How do the arts have any practical necessity in the lives of people who are just trying to live well?” I think once we acknowledge their power, as I think we both do, then the question is which method of encountering and engaging with the arts is most fruitful for the flourishing of the whole community, not just some parts of it. Your reference to Renaissance sensibilities on this matter is interesting, and I wonder whether it’s because they had a whole different mode of seeing the world at all. Of course our individualistic ways of seeing stem from this time period, but also Renaissance thinkers seem at once more grounded in tradition and story and in more self-consciously visual modes of encountering the world. The question for us in the 21st century, then, is how do we amend our modes of seeing as a wider society to be the type of placemakers and artmakers who are able to practice a truly hospitable and theologically robust way of being in the world? How do we acknowledge the power in the arts without giving in to it, or wielding it in ways that move us further from one another?

Jordan Rowan Fannin


Hoping for Hospitality in a Theology of the Arts

In her deep and ambitious work, Jennifer Allen Craft invites us into a systematic and interdisciplinary conversation about what it means to think theologically about place, about art, and about how the arts may effect an imaginative participation in and with our own places. Joining conversations in place studies with theology and the arts, Craft offers a vision of art that is capable of cultivating an “imagining of and love for . . . the communities in which we are called,” navigating the practice of placemaking in the natural world, the home, the church, and society (16).

In the service of that goal, Craft undergirds her entire project with a robust theological anthropology, whereby we are not merely some kind of creature made in the image of some God, but are embodied, embedded creatures made in the image of the creative and inviting God—whose work we join by engaging in responsible and imaginative ways of being in our place.

From there, the work sits astride an interdisciplinary divide—ably conversant in the dialect of biblical theology as well as systematics, reaching out to root both art and place in the whole salvation economy, from creation to redemption—looking forward in eschatological hope but mindful of a proleptic inauguration that embeds us in our “homesteading” here, even as we await the final fulfillment of what it means to behold God and to find our “homecoming” in the new creation. Craft also describes her telos as a “practical theology of the arts,” yet she takes great care to illuminate what “practical” means for this investigation (22). For Craft, practical does not solely delineate the sphere of her theological endeavor (while the congregation is a “place,” so is the natural world, the home, and society at large) but rather its focus. She returns us again and again to the practices that form our imaginations, shape our places, and offer us the possibility of meaningful habitation.

All of this reaches its fulfillment in the register of moral theology as she calls for “a deeply considered and habituated religious imagination in the places of this world” (41). This call is not a secondary set of questions to be entertained after we have sorted through the theological dimensions of place. The call, rather, originates from the very heart of Craft’s Christology and plays out in the full soteriological trajectory from creation to incarnation to eschaton. Artistry and placemaking, Craft tells us, aim at nothing short of the kingdom of God, pursued by believers through “the act of discipleship” and (one presumes) by all persons through “social justice in the world” (222). Faithful living in our places cannot be separated from God’s presence there, nor from the artist’s participation in and with God’s redemptive project through her own acts of creative transformation (226).

In leading us to the visual arts, the form of her analysis is pedagogical, offering her readers a master class in theological aesthetics but without ever deigning to be didactic. Rather than constraining the images she holds up to view, seeking to render them into words, Craft moves her reader through the image by her words. Not content merely to teach us about the theological import of these visual images, she instead embodies a deeply incarnational logic in her analysis, refusing to separate word and image, and thusly teaching us the theological significance even as we join her in practicing it.

But neither are word and image collapsed into one. By beginning each chapter with rich doctrinal exploration including a good number of what she calls “detours” and “returns” she opens a space—a distance—wherein we dwell with her, following her deft connections and questions before arriving at the images and image makers she selects (81, 92). In this space, we are forced to tarry awhile as she asks for our attention and demands we employ our own imaginations in order to follow the intersections she navigates. As readers, we are not confronted with commentary on visual images but are confounded by all that we have not considered about images and about their moral, placemaking power over us.

Two question, then, emerge for me as I indwell her arguments so artfully constructed. First, what is it about beauty and art that draws the line between perception and “attentive and ethically minded action in the world” (46)? Her later argument for beauty’s ability to convey divine presence (chapter 4) considers its sacramental nature, sacred form, and Trinitarian context. Here our perception of beauty is shaped by worship and recognition of divine kenosis and, in turn, shapes that worship and our knowledge and embodiment of the Christian life (147).

But as early as chapter 2, she begins to make strong connections between and among art, perception, and moral action in the natural world itself and without this later communal, liturgical scaffolding. What I hope to grasp is whether she is here positing a necessary movement from attention to “reformed action and ethical imagining of our work in [our] places” (47)? Or, to use her final terminology, what is the difference between beauty (art) being the “context for development of theological imagination” and it becoming a “catalyst for theological reflection and mission . . . as members of the kingdom of God” (200)?

Craft often stops short of the threshold of a necessary movement from beauty/attention to moral imagining/action, since many of her claims about the agency of art lie in the register of what it can do or may do. At other times, she makes more direct claims—i.e., “Beauty forms a structure for social imaginaries and indwelling in our places while also functioning as ethical indicator” (199); “beauty [is] . . . a catalyst for renewed thinking on our proper place in relation to one another and the given creation” (228); “art . . . form[s] our loves to better live and act in the world . . . motivating our sense of responsibility and calling in the natural world” (229).1

Her paired claims about context and catalyst, then, place art in the epistemological and ethical register. In the realm of knowing, she tells us, “Art becomes a catalyst for epistemological reflection, knowledge acquired through simply placing us further in the world” (201). As a form of reflection and attention—primarily to our place in the order of things and in our particular places—we then are led to the realm of the moral, toward “ethical imagining” and “ethically minded action.”

But the question remains for the captivated reader: why is this so? If art (in place) can shape our perception (toward action), what is the guarantor that our perception will be shaped rightly? What is it that ensures, or even makes likely, that our attention will lead us to ethical action? Is there a feature of embeddedness that is inherently good or morally edifying? Is it internal and possibly inchoate—a feature of art itself or at least certain kinds of art?2 Is it external and guided—the working of the Spirit (who, in chapter 6, gives inspiration and accomplishes transformation) that serves as a warrant for the posited relationship between beauty and truth, between attention and moral action? Ultimately, the question becomes: apart from the ecclesial context and its pursuit of rightly formed loves, how far may we press the connection between Beauty (perception and attention), Truth (right knowing), and Goodness (moral action)?3

The question looms not because its possibilities tempt me but because its failures haunt me.

Not to put too fine a point on it (one always hesitates to trot out a rejoinder that begins with Nazis), but we know all too well of the aesthetically attuned SS officer and his love of beauty. What, then, shall we do with prisoner choirs at Sachsenhausen? Symphony orchestras at Auschwitz? When confronted with art and beauty in particular places (one of Craft’s wise and crucial criteria), the attention of the SS officer was captured and held but did not lead to ethical action in that place and toward the people there. The great compositions of Wagner were played at Dachau and German concert broadcasts filled the air at Buchenwald. There, too, the German imagination was stirred, but only to conceive of ever more creative and effective strategies of extermination. Clearly, beauty and even attention can fail to evoke the “sympathetic imagination” (Hart) and thereby fail to produce moral and ethical work (177).4

Less dramatic, what of the great capitalist who is drawn precisely by the beautiful, undisturbed landscape to develop it, people it, and employ its resources in destructive ways? Could not an engineer’s “heightened awareness” of the natural world assist her in developing ever more rapacious mining equipment? Or might the scientist’s well-honed attention to nuance and particularity enable her to locate and extract the maximum amount of natural resources from her place? These may be unfair examples, since though the capitalist-engineer-scientist may encounter beauty, they do not travel through the experience of art, which plays a central role in Craft’s thesis. What role, then, could art have in mitigating or—in her words, “transforming”—this form of attention and this relation to the beauty of one’s place? And, as with the camp officer, is something necessary in addition to art in order to produce the moral transformation she posits? In short, does Balthasar’s theological aesthetics need the church?

If not, what is it that makes up the lack? Craft and her interlocutors make a compelling case that art “that engages us in perception of the natural world and its beauty” may indeed “motivat[e] us to a deeper perception and experience of place,” but what ensures, as Craft argues, that this will “produc[e] just and responsible action in the world” (47)? What shall we do with these instances that work against the internal relation of beauty and goodness so ably posited by Craft? I am moved by her interlocutors (Kathryn Alexander, Trevor Hart, et al.), but also live chastened by Wendell Berry’s exhortation to “praise ignorance, for what man/ has not encountered he has not destroyed.”5 Shall it be ignorance or attention that preserves beauty and produces moral acts?

I ask these questions not in skepticism but in hope. For I hope to understand my first set of questions rightly because I sense their importance for my second set of concerns. In these, I attempt what one of my teachers calls “thinking along” Craft’s good work in an effort to appreciate the depth of the art I have encountered in my own research on the loss of place.6 I remain interested in the moral capacity of art to name the placelessness that plagues so many of our global neighbors, and I seek Craft’s assistance in navigating what must follow after—namely, to be transformed from being people who care about place and placemaking to those who care about the place-less.

In this pursuit, I begin with Craft’s argument that placemaking in the “place” of society aims at “justice, diversity, inclusion, health, democracy” (174). She avers that these shape and communicate how we envision and understand place, then take form in our particular practices in our particular places. However, seeking to understand our current impasse on place-making practices (i.e., our immigration policies), I am left to wonder whether we simply possess incommensurate understandings of these aims or if some of us have disavowed them as our aims. Given my own social imaginary, it would seem to me that policies of family separations, the construction of border walls, and the encumbering of asylum seekers are practices that demonstrate we are not, in fact, aiming at justice, diversity, inclusion, health, and democracy. Have the proponents of these policies and practices abandoned these aims, or have the aims themselves failed to “communicate the variable imaginative frameworks for understanding place and placemaking in the arena of society” (174)?

It is here where I place my hope that Craft is right about art’s moral agency. Here I pray she is correct that in our “encounter[s]” with art, “we are opened up to mental reflection and often a change of heart, which shapes or transforms our vision of the world” (90). In my own encounters with the art of displacement, I witness the concrete realization of this trust in art’s ability to re-present the world to us. In these images and performances I see others joining her in the expectation that by imaginatively experiencing how others view the world, we may come to a more capacious vision of that same world and have our vision of our place transformed thereby.

While the moral force of this art is profound, the stakes of its current failure are quite lethal, for both human and nonhuman “others.”7 Between the time of this essay’s submission and its publication, the group No Border Wall will hold a ceremony entitled In Memoriam Rio Grande, where artists, musicians, and poets are invited to create works of art recognizing what may be lost with the planned expansion of border walls in the Rio Grande Valley.8 These losses include loss of “access to the river that gave life to our communities,” as well as community members’ lost homes and farms, the destruction of wildlife habitat, and the loss of lives as “more migrants and asylum seekers could be pushed into crossing through hostile desert areas where so many have died.”9 During In Memoriam community members and artists will process with their art toward its display on a common altar, listening to poetry and “singing songs of rivers and resistance.”10 The altar may be impermanent, and the meal afterward will center around tamales instead of unleavened bread, but surely this is one of the community liturgies held up by Craft (drawing not only on Jamie Smith but also on Nicholas Wolterstorff in later chapters)—one that by its repetition, its making and unmaking and remaking, hopes to produce new vision as well as moral action.

Other border liturgies have worked their power as well. In the fall of 2017, French artist JR hoisted a sixty-five-foot-tall image of a baby, “Kikito,”11 peering over the US/Mexico border fence at Tecate. The baby resides on the Mexico side, towering over the metal bars of the fence as if glancing over his crib railing. The artist documented the art by posting a photo showing two US border patrol guards watching the installation.12 His caption noting the “work in progress” simultaneously points to the art and to the khaki-clad agents who stand beholding the image and (hopefully) contemplating its meaning. The art makes its own multivalent meaning, but it is significant that JR relayed the message the baby’s mother expressed when approving his use of the image: “I hope this will help people see us differently than what they hear in the media, that they will stop taking us [sic] like criminals or rapists. . . . I hope in that image they won’t only see my kid. They will see us all.”13

One month later, JR staged a communal meal at that same wall,14 in the shadow of Kikito, with guests gathered at tables set on either side of the wall, merging at the fence and becoming a common table. Guests shared the same food and drink, with half the band on each country’s soil. The most striking visual of their communion was discernible only from an aerial view, as JR’s two tables bore a single image—the eyes of a “dreamer” peering up at us all.15 The image’s unity, as well as the performance of divided neighbors breaking bread across a barricaded border does the work Craft intends when she writes of art “shaping our vision, allowing us to see imaginatively through the act of literal seeing” (91). In his installation, JR beckons us to stare at the actual wall, but to behold it differently. A crib, not a cage. A curious infant, not a malicious invader. In his banquet and table image, JR undermines the reality of division with the deeper reality of communion, hospitality, and the beauty of neighbor love.16

The liturgy and communion being offered on either side of the border wall at The Border Church / La Iglesia Fronteriza are perhaps an even more profound example of Craft’s description of art as liturgy—an impermanent making and remaking that offers a visionary alternative to the steel bars and metal fences that stand between the worshipping community. Since 2011, a congregation of worshippers has gathered every Sunday from opposite sides of the fence at Friendship Park on the far western edge of the US-Mexico border, joining together in worship and Eucharist across a barricade—passing the Body and Blood through mesh, wire, and fencing.17 The literal form of their art can be seen in the simple cross painted on the fence itself, where the posts and crossbars of the behemoth barrier are transformed into an image of reconciliation on the very structure of separation. But more than this, the congregation’s shared confession, worship, and sacrament are an image that re-presents the world of the border to all of us, calling us to imagine how we might indwell that world differently, summoning us to life as one Body in the very presence of the machinery of fear and exclusion. In their own words, “Somehow, mysteriously the US-Mexico border wall is turned into the table of our Lord, a table at which all are welcome.”18

In the performance or production of art, we find not only an alternative or expression of a future hope, but—through the art itself—a summons to a renewed vision of the present.19 We sometimes discover this in lesser known artists like Sean T. Hawkey, who uses social media platforms to exhibit his portraits of Central American women from the “Migrant Caravan,” holding up their particular visages to our gaze, demanding we see their dignity anew.20 Innovative Sudanese artist Mohamed Marzoug organizes impromptu musical performances amongst protesters at demonstrations in Khartoum.21 Handing out everyday objects, he leads them in making music out of tambourines, stones tapped on light posts, and even their own clapping hands—inviting them to enact the possibility of newness even in the midst of the ordinary. The musical arts become a fitting form for would-be revolutionaries after the fall of a thirty-year dictatorship. For what is revolution but the capacity to look at present reality and imagine new possibilities? Even well-known artists like Yo-Yo Ma have staged public art exhibitions,22 bringing the sonorous beauty of Bach to the stark, unwelcoming border crossing. With performances at the two cities on either side of the international border, Ma created a connection through his music that belied the separations being perpetrated at the boundary in whose shadow he played.

If I have read her well, this hope of transformed vision may be precisely what we need to follow Craft’s summons to “make our spaces into places that will make us . . . more open to the strangers in our midst . . . and more just in our dealings with others in society” (232). Rightly understood, her work on the power of art may spur us to become not only people of placemaking, but those who make places for others. Not only people who nurture “homesteading” and “homecoming” for ourselves, but for those who may never be able to return home. Not only people who are capable of cultivating attention and attending to beauty, but those who are capable of sacrificial hospitality and the practice of neighbor love. Placemaking and the Arts, then, holds out more than a theological aesthetics of place. It offers us an image of redemption. Tolle lege.

  1. At this point, I hope to focus only on the power of beauty to lead us toward moral agency, particularly as she posits them in the natural world. Craft will go on to make even stronger claims about its formative power, including her contention that “beauty thus forms us for relation to the form of Beauty himself” (228).

  2. The discussion of art and the possibility of redemption in chapter 6 is not only helpful but edifying (Gorringe, Dixon, Sherry, et al.); however, it is not clear how this conversation about a “theology of redemption” with specific Trinitarian referents bears on the claims made about beauty and the natural world in chapter 2 (224).

  3. At the very end of the work, Craft reserves the redemptive power of art for God alone, noting, “If art, whether of non-Christian or Christian origins, is to be considered redemptive in any way, however, it must be God’s inspiration and action in the world that make it finally capable of achieving that end” (227). While this reservation is theologically responsible, the same caveat may be offered about any media or conduit for the movement of grace and the power of redemption in the world. The thesis of this book centers around art’s capacity to do this in a particular way; thus, my question is an attempt to get at the functionality of that unique way.

  4. German nationalism certainly had a deep sense of place and gave great attention to it, and yet had a profoundly deformed love of place (“Blut und Boden!”). I am seeking, then, to understand the nature of the failure in this case.

  5. Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” in The Country of Marriage (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013).

  6. See Barry Harvey’s description of “thinking along” the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Taking Hold of the Real: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Profound Worldliness of Christianity (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2015).

  7. At the time of this essay’s submission, the McAllen Monitor is reporting the death of a fifth child in almost as many months while in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection., accessed May 20, 2019.

  8. “Call for Artists/Participants: In Memoriam Rio Grande,”

  9. For more information about the call or the commemoration of the event, visit the No Border Wall Facebook page. There you may also find NBW’s nine additional event partners, from the Sierra Club to the Angry Tias & Abuelas of RGV.

  10. From an announcement by the event planners on the No Border Wall Facebook page, posted May 19, 2019.

  11. Alexandra Schwartz, “The Artist JR Lifts a Mexican Child Over the Border Wall,” New Yorker, September 11, 2017,


  13. Schwartz, “Artist JR.”

  14. Samantha Schmidt, “What It Looks Like When the Border Wall with Mexico Becomes an Art Installation,” Washington Post, October 11, 2017,


  16. Following Hart, Craft describes the payout of such an encounter, whereby “the ‘other’s’ identity as such may be disintegrated into a new identity as neighbor on the stimulation and extension of empathy of some sort” (177).

  17. From 2011 to 2018, the weekly meetings for worship and sacraments were peaceful and without incident. Beginning in August of 2018, the congregation has struggled to maintain regular access, as border guards periodically deny access on the US side of the park.

  18. “Our Story,”, accessed May 1, 2019.

  19. Pace De Gruchy’s images that transform by contradicting inhumanity and oppression.


  21. “Sudan’s Artistic Awakening,” NPR, May 12, 2019,

  22. “Cellist Yo-Yo Ma Plays Bach in Shadow of Border,” NPR, April 13, 2019, Crossing

  • Jennifer Craft

    Jennifer Craft


    The Moral Agency of Art and Beauty

    Rowan Fannin poses two key questions of my work in her grace-filled response. First, what actually is it about art and beauty that “draws the line between” perception and action? That is, how is art both a context for and a catalyst for theological imagination, reflection, and mission in the world? Second, why does art shape our perception and practice, and how is this so? As to the first, I might make a prerequisite statement about art and beauty generally since she frames her questions around the power of both. Certainly, throughout the book, I conflate the two in terms of speaking of their power. So at times I suggest that art has the power to motivate our loves, knowledge, and action in the world and say similar things about the experience of beauty more widely, whether natural or created beauty. I should like to clarify that point before moving forward, and elaborate on why I made that choice in the first place.

    First, I do not take art and beauty to be the same thing. Nor do I believe art is defined by being beautiful. Nor do I believe that all beauty must be “made” or of the humanly “created” sort (in other words, that beauty must be understood from the position of art itself). But I do think that a Christian engagement with the arts, particularly when it comes to their power in places, does draw a closer connection between art and beauty than contemporary philosophy perhaps normally allows. Certainly, art can be powerful and shaping of our places without being traditionally beautiful. And it is important to note, notions of “traditional” beauty can be wielded in all sorts of unsavory and “displacing” ways that move us away from an ethical and just imagination (see for instance Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination, on the aesthetics of whiteness).

    Despite these realities, however, there seems to be a shared connection between art and beauty theologically (particularly eschatologically), which is revealed when we consider my most basic thesis that art is bound up in place—in our living in, actions toward, and longing for a permanent place or home. The eschatological register of our placed reality is key here, for our embodiment and emplacement in the world is not simply localized, even if it is inhabited in local frameworks. What I mean by that is that we are not straightforwardly “of the earth,” not destined to find all our meaning here, not bound to the “city of man.” We are, in fact, people of another kingdom, another place, though that place is not a distant land like some would believe. That place dwells with us here in the ordinary locatedness of our communities and neighborhoods. It is a heaven which, as N. T. Wright famously suggests, “overlaps and interlocks” with earth, revealing God’s presence and kingdom is here, even if what is “here” is not simply all there is. This framework for thinking suggests to me that beauty is much the same, that beauty, though incomplete and longed for, can be experienced here in brief moments of veiled glory.

    To use Natalie Carnes’s framework for thinking about images and their simultaneous presence and negation,1 beauty is both a presence and absence on this side of new creation, an affirmation and a negation that roots us here and compels us to some other home. It also contains within it both absence and presence, or affirmation and negation. If we understand beauty through a properly eschatological framework, we cannot reject it altogether (despite its misuse or downfalls),2 in much the same way that we cannot negate our longing for home, even if the idea is often forged on problematic renderings of what it means to “belong.” Home is, like beauty, both a presence and an absence, an affirmation of what is true and a negation of what it claims to be.

    The relationship I attempt to draw here then is this: that within both—beauty and home (place)—we operate always on the eschatological register of the already but not yet. We are destined for beauty and place and we know this as a central part of the Christian story. But very often those realities are disordered in our lives now, producing in us an altered and ultimately problematic vision of what they have to offer the Christian imagination. (And here I might also cite Rowan Fannin’s examples of the way we have systematically displaced others in our world. Our experience often pushes us to think that there is no true path forward—no hope because we are too disordered, no possibility for goodness because we are motivated by the wrong desire.) But they cannot ultimately be dismissed. And in fact, beauty and place are so important that I think we are called often to contribute to their flourishing and enhancement this side of heaven. Beauty and place are bound up together in that they both call us to come home in future terms and call us to make a home in the here and now. They are present with us even while they are absent. We experience them in affirmation and negation, in satisfaction and in longing, on a daily basis.

    If art is bound up in our locatedness in place, as I have argued throughout the book, then I think there is an interesting and important tie to beauty that is often overlooked. While art and beauty are not the same thing, as art calls us into our places even as it calls us out of our places, this dynamic is mirrored in, and (if I should go so far) best established in, its entanglement and engagement with beauty. That is, if beauty and place are operating on the same eschatological register, then it makes sense to say that art that engages us in placemaking will also, at least much of the time, expand our theological imagination through the experience of beauty, which I wish to suggest, at least as I have identified it here, finds its eschatological partner in place. In other words, the experience of beauty and the experience of home speak to the same ultimate theological longing, both of which I believe art has the unique possibility of cultivating.

    That then leads me to answer the first of Rowan Fannin’s questions: what actually is it about art and beauty that “draws the line between” perception and action? What is art uniquely capable of doing?

    I’m hesitant to say that art has some divine power, some transcendent driver towards goodness by virtue of some “Art-Nature.” Twentieth-century philosophers of art and many modern artists themselves sought to ascribe art this value as religion itself, and we have seen how this has largely failed. Yet it seems as though good art does have some power that is indeed different from other things to motivate and alter our desire, to raise questions, and charge the ordinary world with meaning and value. But what is it? I must concede to fail at the outset as many other theologians have done, but I will offer my best. I wonder if we might experiment with the notion that art can do these things—that art can be a context and catalyst for the development of a theological imagination in place—precisely because it attends to place most closely. That is, it directs our attention to place in ways that other things or practices don’t. In the granting of extended attention we find what is meaningful, what is beautiful, what is good. It is not that art conjures such realities, but that it moves us towards them in its act of attention giving and in its calling us to give our own attention to it.

    One might consider Simone Weil’s small treatise On the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God. There she likens attention to a form of prayer. That is, granting our attention to something (in the context of her essay, school studies, and in our context, the art object or the thing or idea the art object represents), is more like the type of attention we grant to God in prayer. Attention, she says, grants us the virtue of humility. She writes, “That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” Attention, she argues, also involves openness, waiting, not searching something for answers but waiting for it to speak. Indeed, both love of God and love of neighbor begin in attention. So I wonder if one possible answer, then, is that art is somehow better than other things at this granting of attention, and in calling us to grant our own attention. Certainly, we often fail to give our attention to the art object. And this is perhaps why one can walk away from an opera or a painting or a sculpture and return to one’s evil ways of navigating the world. For Weil, it is in the right kind of attention being granted that true conversion and transformation happens. So perhaps Rowan Fannin is right to observe the need for other forms of discipleship alongside the arts. What might be the outcome, then, if the church, which deals in cultivating spiritual disciplines and practices on a different register were to invest their time into the arts as a form of discipleship, or alongside other modes of discipleship?

    I might also note in answer to this question the relationship between context and catalyst for action. I argue that art can be both a context for theological reflection and catalyst for theological practice. But we cannot have one without the other. There is not a simple linear movement from inward to outward, or from contemplation to action, or from right-habit-formation to perfection. Most of us will know all too well the depressions and valleys that the Christian path leads us through, that the path to the kingdom is not indeed straight and narrow, but winding and filled with complex scenery. And throughout this journey we depend on the role of the Holy Spirit to guide our path. The Holy Spirit, in other words, is the ultimate motivator of rightly formed loves, but the arts can indeed, by virtue of what the Spirit is training us to do, be the most fitting and formative space we have to train those loves. A negation of the Spirit may lead us astray. A rejection of the arts may make our path harder. But the working together of both for the development of Christian discipline and practice of love may indeed be the recipe we need for development of a moral vision of our places together in the twenty-first century.

    When it comes to Rowan Fannin’s call to care about the placeless, I must respond that it is here in the Spirit’s guiding attention to the displaced where we develop our own moral agency. The Spirit can call us into places, of course, but I find that more often than not, when I hear the Spirit’s voice the strongest is when I am being displaced, being called out of a place and into another, whether physically or symbolically. We aren’t, of course, yet home. That vision and longing awaits its fulfillment in the eschaton.

    But in the meantime, the arts, in their unique ability to call attention to place—and particularly to the repeated cycle of placement and displacement present within our own minds and in our societies—can provide a microcosm for practicing a moral vision of placemaking. To use a term from Makoto Fujimura, artists exist as maercstapa, as border-stalkers, in society today, tracing the boundaries of place and expanding those boundaries to invite different forms of belonging and inclusion and hospitality and action.3 This may be the answer to Rowan Fannin’s second question: why does art do this and how is it so? I am hesitant to ascribe too much to the artist here, for fear that such a claim would elevate the artist’s role to some divine agent themselves. But just as Bezalel and Oholiab were given a special calling and inspiration in Exodus, I wonder if the artist—the Christian artist at least—works with this special calling to be an attention-caller precisely to the displaced. She is called to help point our desires and imagination in the direction of home for all who wish to enter.

    The artist as placemaker, then, doesn’t just call us home but calls us to make a home for everyone. The artist as placemaker doesn’t just invite us to delight in beauty, but calls us to see how beauty shapes our way of living for good or ill. The artist as placemaker doesn’t just call our attention to the stuff we want to see, but directs and guides us to the failures of our current system. It seems to me that whatever our and art’s potential failures, we must not give up hope for its transformative power through the Spirit’s kneading of our hardened, inattentive hearts. It is with this great hope that this book was written. And it is with this great hope that we must live into the places of this world with love, openness, and attentive care for others around us.

    1. Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford: Stanford University Press: 2018), see introduction for overall framework.

    2. I would cite Jennings here, as he dismisses the idea of the beautiful as being able to be redeemed from the tyranny it has produced over time. I understand his point, that whiteness has wielded “traditional beauty” as a force for the construction of race and the unjust treatment of people of color. Interestingly, he ties this historical movement to the stripping of a sense of place from these groups of people as well, though, to my understanding, considers place something to be fought for and reestablished with a properly Christian theological anthropology and doctrine of creation.

    3. Makoto Fujimura, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2017).

    • Katie Kresser

      Katie Kresser


      Katie Kresser, Prof of Art History, Seattle Pacific U.

      This makes me think about a lot of things. I am particularly struck by Dr. Craft’s invocation of “attention” (Simone Weil). I will probably comment more on that later.

      But for now, I am thinking about art as a spur to ethical action. And this general idea, in turn, makes me want to offer some context from the realm of art-historical discourse. How have art historians and critics typically thought of art vis-a-vis the call to ethical action?

      When it comes to the actual commissioning and display of art – mustering the money and will to get art paid for and seen – the art-as-ethical-spur argument has been used a lot, historically. This is because practical people want results. Civic leaders are practical people. Patrons (who are usually wealthy and businesslike) are practical people. Gallerist-marketers are practical people. So when artists have made their cases, both in the past and in today’s commercial art world, they have often felt a need to stress results.

      But there’s also a longstanding discourse that says art isn’t about results at all. In fact, many artists and art lovers have maintained that a call for “results” presses art into a category into which it does not properly belong.

      Put simply (and without belaboring it too much), this stream of thought maintains that art as a category can be distinguished from advertising and propaganda by its commitment toward witness rather than exhortation.
      In other words, art just says, “this is what is” – it does not condemn or praise. (Maybe this is where a certain definition of “beauty” can come in, where beauty is understood as a kind of “useless” self-evidence.)

      Now by manifesting something praiseworthy art might (sometimes) elicit a desire to praise, but the art itself does not praise. Similarly, by manifesting something dastardly, art might elicit a desire to condemn, but it itself does not condemn. In this way, art renounces the quest for results. It just waits, indifferent, while the viewer makes her own, free choice. (And indeed one choice might be to say, “that is not how it is” and then walk away.)

      Now truly, a very fine line separates the manifestation of something praiseworthy from the exhortation to praise (for example). But there IS a line there, and there was a stream of theorists/philosophers/artists/psychologists around the turn of the twentieth century who I think succeeded in finding that line. Art that exhorts isn’t art, it’s preaching. In order to be its own thing, art must not preach. It must simply show, or simply be.

      So the nature of art militates against the seeking of results.
      But even it when comes to the “free response” part – the heartfelt answer of the audience to an authentic witness – I think we face a big problem. And that problem explains why the power of art is doubted – indeed, simply isn’t felt – in many communities today.

      That problem I speak of is the atomization of modern life – our separation into individualistic thought-worlds. Consumer capitalism exhorts us (through advertising and propaganda) to idiosyncratically self-create – to explore and build our own uniqueness. It also exhorts us to forget humankind’s spiritual past and relentlessly, individualistically reinvent the wheel. By this means it sells many products and experiences in many different combinations with many different, evocative labels. And it makes a lot of money thereby. But the net result is that few of us can boast, together, a shared heritage of myths, reference points, ideals and touchstones.

      This partly explains why contemporary art, in particular, is so inaccessible to so many people. When we come to works of contemporary art (which have almost always been generated out of the depths of selves more painstakingly idiosyncratized than the average), we feel that we are encountering a foreign language, albeit one with a few cognates that stick out. We grasp for the cognates and desperately read into them, but we never have the time or space to learn the whole lexicon and grasp the full depth of the message. This, more than anything, is a barrier to authentic response.

      Thus from a social-action standpoint, certain artworks do become convenient flags for allies to rally around temporarily, but the experience often ends there. Meanwhile the artworks themselves are seldom encountered in their fullness, and are seldom received with a humility and openness that trades narcissistic self-creation for genuine encounter.

      I’m hopeful that our current global crisis (which is sure doing a number on our narcissistic, “self-creating” consumer culture) will set us on healthier footing. I’m hopeful it will foster a greater desire to build lexical bridges (shared myths and values) so that we can gather together in shared witness around the beautiful and true.

    • Jordan Rowan Fannin

      Jordan Rowan Fannin



      Katie, I am grateful for your chastening of our discussion of art and for seating it in our current global crisis, to which I hope I return at the end of my thoughts here. Jennifer, I enjoyed your response as much as I enjoyed your book. I first want to offer encouragement that your paired dyad of “rooting” and “compelling” (mirrored again in your joining of homemaking and longing) is a wise and considered expression of your eschatological convictions about beauty’s present power and teleological possibility. I think one of the strengths of your work (in both the book and in your reply) is this conception of compulsion, and in the best possible sense. When you make claims (as you do in your reply) like “[b]eauty and place are bound up together in that they both call us to come home in future terms and call us to make a home in the here and now,” then as your reader, I am placed in the position of needing to make a response. Just as your work in Placemaking posits not only an epistemological but also an ethical dimension for beauty, you also insist on an intrinsic connection between preparing for our ultimate homecoming and the practices of preparation that our present homesteading requires. The “and”s in your claim (beauty and place, call us home and call us to make a home) hold a deep theological import and a deep moral imperative (look! another and!). Both, I believe, are profoundly needed – never more so than our present moment.

      I have no doubt that I study place myself because I was raised in an Evangelical tradition without the theological means to articulate this connection between where we are headed and what, if any, bearing that future destination had on our current lives in our particular places. We held an anemic understanding of sin, a voluntary and individualistic account of salvation, and (consequently) a fully future-oriented moral life. We knew to lay up our treasures in heaven. We had no way to articulate the theological purpose of placemaking here, now, and with these neighbors.

      I press you on this point because it is crucial for so many communities of faith that I care for deeply. I press because I believe that this connection that you insist upon is a healing and hopeful move that might guide the church I love to practice the “extended attention” to which you call us. This attention, I concur, is part of a complex matrix of place-practices, and if you and Weil (whose essay I treasure) are right that “love of God and love of neighbor begin in attention,” then I am filled with hope.

      I take seriously your claim that art directs our attentions and becomes the means by which our attention is extended and nurtured and focused. And if that attention leads us to the greatest commandment as well as to the second greatest (wherein love of neighbor is “like unto” love of God), then your proposal offers us – indeed, compels us – to tender our attention as a sacrificial offering for our neighbor. Our attention may be to beauty, to art, but it is ultimately toward God and (happily) toward our neighbor. This may, however move us yet further from Katie’s contention that art simply shows (“this is what is”) and move us closer to an account of art as icon, wherein we are moved through the image toward its ultimate referent. I take this to be what you mean when you suggest that art directs our attention to “what is” (Kresser) but offer the caveat “even if what is ‘here’ is not simply all there is” (Allen Craft).

      I am, I confess, still tangling with your claim that you hear the Spirit’s voice strongest when you are being displaced. I find this to be such a good, healing word for our present moment, as we experience our own displacements – from routine, from employment, from loved ones, from security, from certainty. In these days, we are newly reacquainted with our given identities as strangers, sojourners, …and pilgrims. The pilgrim travels light. The pilgrim prizes movement. The pilgrim welcomes uncertainty and change with grace. The pilgrim accepts the necessity of displacement in order to (as William Cavanaugh describes) “joyfully take leave” of our places as we “mov[e] toward the source of order and blessing,” which is nothing less than God.

      And yet, as Cavanaugh also warrants, the pilgrim journey depends upon the stability and hospitality offered by the monk – the one whose abiding makes possible the journeying. The discipline and sacrifice of the monk is what fosters and forms his ability to welcome the stranger as guest and to receive the visitor AS Christ himself. A vow of presence and stability (not pilgrimage) is what shapes his ability not only to see “what is” (one knocking at the door, seeking hospitality) but to recognize that for what it truly is (the person of Christ in our midst).

      Neither “pilgrim” nor “monk” need replace Fujimura’s “maercstapa” – those border-stalkers and boundary tracers you mention. But both augment that image of the artist for me, and in important ways. Further, if the artist stands at these borders and “invites” action, then I continue to wonder about the action to which I am called (or, to follow your argument, compelled). As a professional academic, and not an artist, how can my own work embody both a center-seeking journey and a place-dwelling hospitality? How might my teaching, my classroom, my writing hollow and hallow spaces that are constructing and compelling myself and others toward “the direction of home”? I have no wise answers. I only wish to offer thanks for your work and this conversation as I continue to ask these questions with you and alongside you. The goodness of finding fellow pilgrims is hard to overstate.

W. David O. Taylor


Little Temples, Questionable Temples, Temple-Builders

What is my place in the world? It is a question that small children and teenagers and even the elderly ask themselves. Children ask this of their parents. Teenagers wonder this of their peers. The elderly, with their increasing physical and mental frailties, worry about their place in a world that rewards maximal utility. Without a sense of place in the world, we invariably feel disoriented. Feeling disoriented, we find ourselves becoming strangers to the earth beneath us and estranged from our own selves. As someone who spent his childhood in Guatemala, I have always struggled to find my place in the world. Although I feel deeply rooted in my home in Texas, and I cherish the southern hospitality that marks this part of the world, with its idiosyncratic sounds and tastes, I often feel bored and judgmental of this particular plot of earth. At worst, my neither-here-nor-there identity has caused me to feel displaced, or to borrow from Walker Percy’s “last self-help book,” a bit lost in the cosmos. This is why I am powerfully drawn to artists and to the arts.

For those of us who experience an ambiguous relationship to our place on earth, artists help us to see that, in fact, God is happily at work here, quietly making grace happen in unexpected ways, gently rebuking our stubborn refusal to see that salvation is occurring in this place—this street, this humidity, this church, this grocery store, these people, those people, my people. This is, for example, what the installation artist Craig Goodworth accomplished for the people of Phoenix, Arizona, in 2012. He took “misplaced” things and re-placed them in a sphere of meaning: Arizona corn grain from Casa Grande; leached water from the warehouse itself; Desert Durum wheat grains and the cornmeal from Arizona Grain; a donkey from Maricopa County; asphalt from nearby; steel rails from twenty yards outside the building. Put together, the materials told a story about Phoenix. Inviting his audience to touch the materials, to be near them, to smell them and to know them, was a way to help them to love their city, to become more deeply at home in it.

This, in short, is what Jennifer Craft aims to commend to her readers in Placemaking and the Arts, and it is a book that deserves a wide reading, not just among academics, but also with church leaders, community activists, high school teachers, entrepreneurs, homemakers, philanthropists, and lay believers of all sorts, all of whom would richly benefit from Craft’s book and, more crucially, represent the very people who possess the power to make her vision a concrete reality. There is no human being, no matter their nomadic or settler proclivities, who does not wish to know their place in the world. We have been divinely hard-wired, as Craft argues it, to discover our identity and calling by way of our emplacement. And it is the arts in particular, Craft suggests, that become suitable vehicles for cultivating a theological imagination and a distinctly Christian sense of place, “so that we may become people who better participate with Christ and his church to bring about the kingdom of God in our places” (2).

For reasons of space and personal interest, my review of Craft’s book will focus on chapter four, “Divine Presence and Sense of Place.” In this chapter Craft explores ways in which art “might help us participate more deeply and meaningfully in the corporate life of worship in the church by making fitting and hospitable places through which to deepen our relationships to one another, to the world, and to God” (124). Craft investigates, first, a biblical account of divine presence and community experience as it relates to place, with special emphasis on the garden of Eden, the tabernacle and temple narratives, and the life of the early church. From this biblical-theological account, she draws out several themes for a “contemporary liturgy of place that prioritizes vision, embodied action, and a sense of place in the act of worship as a way to discover God’s presence, cultivate community belonging, and encourage Christian mission through beauty” (124).

Craft offers several gifts to her readers. One gift is careful language and vivid phrases. She writes about the idea of “place as center” and “place as microcosm” (133). This, I find, is a helpful way to see how the individual place of a local church anywhere in the world can function as both a particular place, bearing witness to its singular character in creation and history, and a universal place, bearing witness to the redemptive work of God that all local congregations anywhere might recognize. This way of describing the place of ecclesial worship is generative for Christians today. In her words, “We are called to be both temple and temple builder, dwelling in God’s dwelling presence even as we communicate that presence out into the world, our own lives in community functioning as both center and microcosm of divine presence as witnessed in the work of the Holy Spirit, who enables our participation in the kingdom of God” (139).

Craft uses the language of “homesteading” and “homecoming” to describe our general human calling. She argues that the particular calling of artists, in christological and eschatological terms, is “to navigate the boundaries between homesteading and homecoming, allowing us to dwell in the interstices between contentment and longing, affirmation and challenge, contemplation and action, memory of the past and imagination of the future” (162). Our places of worship, she continues, “will be sites that are both rooted and missional, both grounded in the created world and anticipating the new creation” (151–52). As it relates to the work of artists, she adds, “In this way the arts cultivate a sense of belonging in our particular communities while highlighting the sojourning nature of those communities, creating in us a love of created places, but without necessitating our clinging to them in their current state” (154). This is refreshingly and unabashedly theological language.

Craft puts her cards on the table early on and invites her reader to accept or reject her theological premises—and there is certainly nothing wooly in her use of God talk. There is only a Niceno-Constantinopolitan assumption that to do right by the earth requires that we do right by the Maker of earth, whose name signals the good purposes for the earth. Said negatively, we will not find in Craft’s work any gossamer spirit-language, in search of a landing place that matters; nor will we find a panentheist’s hope for generic goodwill on earth, revolving around the idea of a free-floating divine agent who blows where it wills without any personological responsibility to the God of Israel or any ontological relation to the Second Person of the Trinity. There is only the Spirit of Christ who makes us “little temples” and “temple-builders,” agents of God’s shalom in our respective places in the world.

Here, also, there is no cosmic Christ floating two feet above the proverbial ground, God’s undifferentiated epidermis, or merely Another Name for Everything in its fullness, as Richard Rohr suggests in his recent book. Here there is only the God who has become scandalously incarnate in Christ Jesus, the enfleshed Temple presence of God, whose particular habitation on earth establishes conclusively our human responsibility to the earth and to the earth-reshaping, aesthetically inflected activities of artists. Craft writes, “In the incarnation of Jesus and the establishment of the church as the body of Christ, we see a decidedly theological emphasis on place and particularity, not just as reminders or symbols but also as significant sites of redemption and renewal” (138).

With this theological grounding in place, Craft highlights three general characteristics that, she believes, are central to the practices of worship as told in both creation and temple/church narratives (139–40): (1) delight in and discovery of beauty and God’s presence in the world “at least partially called forth in conjunction with artists’ creation of a beautiful context in which to respond to that presence”; (2) response to “God’s involvement within the world through communion with them and one another in liturgically practiced placemaking”; and (3) a kenotic outpouring of love in service and mission as an imitation of God’s own creational and incarnational involvement with his creatures. In layman’s terms, this is the “up, in, and out” trajectory of the arts in service of placemaking.

A particular strength of Craft’s book is her commitment to showing, and not just telling, how the arts enable particular worshiping communities to find their place in the world. In this fourth chapter, she includes case studies that feature the temporary works of art in the Tabernacle Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia, and in Queen’s Park Govanhill Parish Church on the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland. Crafts shows us how Liverpool Cathedral in the United Kingdom has welcomed artists to express the risk of divine love, and how Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia, has employed local artists and artisans to make work that locates “the community in that particular place for liturgical practice, which microcosmically reflects the worship of the church universal” (160).

Craft concludes the chapter by highlighting four key ideas as they relate to divine presence and a sense of place: art engages us in the physicality of worship through which we know God and one another; art helps us feel a sense of belonging to a particular community; art invites us to active, hospitable response, which enables mission in the world; and art conveys an eschatological sense of home as it participates in both creative homesteading and redemptive homecoming for the church, looking forward to the new creation as practiced from within our own places and communities. She writes, “Art makes a place for us in the environment of worship so as to draw us out of ourselves and back into ourselves in liturgical refrain, enabling and anticipating that ever-steady and ever-new transforming presence of the Spirit in our lives together” (163).

Where Craft may need to do further work in order to strengthen her thesis is in relation to biblical theology, liturgical theology, the language of beauty, and a philosophy of art. A common, and legitimate, criticism of biblical scholars against systematic theologians is that we play fast and loose with the biblical text. We see patterns and principles, but we are reluctant to do the hard work of historical-critical analysis that might force us to reckon with the details that refuse to fit neatly into our grand ideas. Biblical scholars likewise chide us for assuming a degree of continuity between the two testaments that simply does not exist in any facile manner. Invariably, we assert continuity rather than argue for continuity. More precisely, we often fail to propose a theory of continuity that would inform why we carry over certain parts of the Old Testament into a vision of ecclesial life this side of the New Testament. As often as not, we cut and paste our way towards coherence. Craft leans heavily on the work of New Testament scholar Gregory Beale (justly so, I believe) in order to build a case for “temple building,” which she describes as “an ecclesiastical designation reminiscent of the placemaking or building activities identified in relation to the wilderness tabernacle as well as God’s own placemaking in the incarnation” (137). But she might wish to look to other scholarly guides, too.

A close reading of Scripture reveals two distinctive notions of temple: temple as personal locus for God’s presence and temple as cosmological witness to God’s shalom. The means by which God accomplishes shalom includes, for Israel, objects, artworks, buildings, and other physical media. While in Beale’s reading, the Jerusalem temple performs hefty theological work, reordering Israel’s relationship to the world by way of material-symbolical liturgical aids, his tentative remarks about New Testament worship seem to find these aids accidental rather than integral to the church’s formation. This, to my mind, is a defect in his argument. The point for Craft is this. To fully convince the reader, she needs to do more than restate Beale’s arguments; she needs to take his argument further or to amend it. She needs to go beyond assertions of linkages in “place” language between the two testaments. She needs to argue a biblical theology that reckons with both the continuity and discontinuity that obtains in the textual record.

Put otherwise, the Old Testament is full of theological engagement with place in general and with buildings in particular. The New Testament is no less interested in place and buildings, but its interest lies in the figurative, symbolic, or provisional nature of these physical things. This, for many Christians today, results in a positive disinterest in the theological importance of both artful places and ecclesiastical art. This, historically, accounts for divergent and frequently contested visions of faithful culture-making and place-making in the life of the church. On this front, Craft would do well to take advantage of the research of liturgical theologians. In her review of a biblical understanding of place, Craft includes the standard representatives of the literature: Levenson, Walton, Barker, Beale, Lane, Perrin, Bartholomew, Casey, et al. These are necessary interlocutors. But if Craft wishes to solidify her argument and to persuade a wider audience, she will need to engage the work of George Lathrop, Alexander Schmemann, Peter Leithart, and Jean-Jacques von Allmen, among others.

An additional concern relates to beauty. Craft makes no mention of beauty as a primary category in her introduction to the book, and yet it functions in a determinative role in each of her chapters. She asserts rather than argues for beauty as a defining characteristic of faithful placemaking with respect to the arts in worship. In chapter 4 she uses interchangeably the language of “delight” and “desire,” and she contends that the arts in worship become sites for the formation of desire for God by training people in the language of beauty. A quick survey of the Reformation era shows how Protestants generally took beauty in one direction (as an experience of delight), while Catholics generally took it in a different one (as an experience of desire), with substantial implications for how the arts entered into the liturgical context—or were withheld from that context, as the case may be. A review of the literature in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, moreover, reveals spirited debates about the necessary relation between the arts and beauty. If Craft wishes to keep beauty as a primary category, she will likely want to make her argument for beauty more explicit.

Finally, for a book that makes the arts central, it is unfortunate that she chooses to work with what she calls a functionalist sense of the arts. She writes, “The main concern of this book, of course, is not to present a cohesive philosophical art theory, but rather to explore the dialogical dimensions of art and place within a theological worldview. The multidimensional purposes and character of the arts will stand as a testament to the multidimensional character of the places in our life” (22). Naturally, there is only so much room to argue everything. Some things simply need to be assumed and the reader must be trusted to accept, or to reject, the given assumptions. But with a book that focuses on the arts, an answer of some kind must be given to the question, “How precisely do the arts form human beings?” A definition of the arts that is too general is at risk of being swapped out for something else—equally as interesting, or perhaps perceived to be more effective or important, with the result that the arts are relegated to their usual marginal status.

Far too often advocates of art in worship rush headlong into superlatives—Art is spiritual! It ushers the transcendent! It makes the invisible, visible! That may be so, and fine as far as it goes, but it begs the question: How might the “logic” or “singular powers” of visual art, in contrast, say, to music, form a people at worship? A painting, for instance, does not unfold over time like a song does. A linen banner does not expire in the way that a musical note does. And a cast-iron sculpture does not bend to the subjectivity of a particular audience as in the case of an anthem, which is sung one way by a professional choir and in a rather different manner by untrained folk. To convince her readers that the liturgical arts deepen our sense of place, Craft will need to show how specifically and uniquely the arts perform their formative work—neurologically, psychologically, somatically, affectively, imaginatively, socially or otherwise.

In her concluding chapter, Craft proposes six key dialectic features of art and place in light of their theological significance and interpretation (201–19): (1) physical and spiritual; (2) particular and universal; (3) individual and communal; (4) given and made; (5) beauty and usefulness; (6) contemplation and action. This is a tremendously helpful conceptual frame to perceive how the arts function in a liturgical context. It seems to me that Craft’s book could have begun with this framework and then traced the work of the arts in nature, home, church and society through these dialectical lines. It may, for instance, have helped the reader to understand more clearly the nature of the popular reaction to the burning of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris or the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee from the entry to Duke University Chapel in Durham. It may have helped readers to perceive how people in France and in North Carolina find their place in their world through the art of a Gothic roof or a stone sculpture, or the absence of one, in a way that calls “our attention to the physical reality around us, to its nature, its needs, and to its theological significance in the story of creation and redemption” (144).

  • Jennifer Craft

    Jennifer Craft


    Defining Terms and Defining Places

    I am grateful for David Taylor’s complimentary yet critical engagement with my arguments in Placemaking and the Arts, and as always, he as introduced me to a number of good ideas with which to move forward. I shall respond to each of the concerns he lists at the end of his review, while elaborating the ways in which my ideas have been shaped in these areas since the book’s publication. The first critique is pointed at my breadth of sources. I concede the point that certainly much more could be read and engaged with, though my editor would have berated me for adding more words. That said, Taylor’s point about liturgical theologians’ voices I find particularly helpful. When I started this book, I was not using the framework of discipleship and liturgical formation when it comes to Christian practice of and engagement with the arts, though at its later stages, particularly upon the reading of James K. A. Smith, I took that on as a central way to understand what art was doing in regard to place—that it moves us between imagination and practice when it comes to our life in place. Because of this, the foundational research in liturgical practices may have been overlooked to get at the heart of what I saw as a central characteristic of Christian placemaking. I continue to think that this notion of liturgical formation and movement is key to understanding our life in place, and also that further research might be done as to the implications of liturgical theology for the way we move about and see our places more widely—not just in the church, but in society, our homes, etc.

    When I consider now our lives in places, it seems to me that so much is habituated on problematic ways of seeing. I say this as a white theologian in the American South who experiences, and more likely than not contributes to, the problem of race and place on an all too regular basis. How we see others and their belonging within places is more often than not liturgically formed over time in ways that we don’t even realize—that is, we are enculturated by the social imaginaries of our places in ways that frame our intellectual, moral, and spiritual practice, even when we don’t realize it. More work, then, needs to be done to consider the ways we can actually reframe our relationships to places. The arts are not the only answer to this. But they are definitely a key player, particularly as they allow us “to see” better or differently than we previously had. I wonder if more research, then, needs to be accomplished on the liturgies of place more widely before we can accurately frame the arts’ role in places any further. Hopefully my discussion in the book at least sets the stage for such inquiry, even if it opens up more questions than it answers.

    As to the question of biblical scholarship, in my attempt to set about a positive theology of the arts and place, Taylor suggests that I may have failed to argue adequately from the biblical text. Theologians are often, as he describes, guilty of moving too fast from the biblical record as a way of establishing lofty theological ideas and practices. I attempted to give a thorough weight to texts when I could, however—for instance, in chapter 2 on the natural world I focused on the creation account and the way it carried over into our understanding of Christology and New Creation. In chapter 3 on the home, I attempted to establish a biblical framework for hospitality from both Old and New Testament records, particularly in accounts of Abraham and the visitors from Genesis 18 and Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son. But I can see how, especially when it comes to the chapter 4 on which Taylor focuses, I may have moved too quickly to a Christian understanding of the text without giving proper weight to the Old Testament scholarship (Jewish and Christian) on the issues of tabernacle and temple. I did attempt to give some room to considering the liturgical use of the tabernacle and temple in that chapter, though perhaps moved to quickly to its role as symbol rather than its role as place. In short, I did what I criticize others for doing. However, in my consideration of biblical views of place there, I attempted to come back to the significance of physicality through the lens of the incarnation. Perhaps this was a roundabout way to read those Old Testament texts on place. But the decision I made was largely grounded in the christological focus I wanted to keep throughout each chapter as a way of understanding our life in the material world. This focus is, of course, one of the things Taylor praises in the beginning of his review, so in some ways I suppose I succeeded where I failed, and failed where I succeeded. That must, upon reflection, be a metaphor for the Christian life in place.

    The second key set of concerns Taylor raises is on the question of beauty. This is a thread that runs throughout the book and throughout most of the responses thus far. And again, interestingly enough, it was not a question with which I began my inquiry into place. Indeed it would have been much easier to leave out for purposes of critical review, though I could not help but be moved to consider its role, or its place, as it were. In many ways the discussion of beauty can distract from developing a theology of the arts, as the philosophical baggage carried there is often too great to bear. But it was actually the way in which beauty factored into my understanding of place that led me to consider the role that it might have to play on its own or through the arts in our understanding of and action within places. I have elaborated this somewhat already in my response to Fannin.

    There I suggested the eschatological reality on which beauty and home operate are similar—that they both lead us to desire them in their absence, that they often contain an absence within them, and that their presence is recognized as an eschatological glimpse of new creation. We are destined for both a full and true experience of beauty and a place we can fully and finally call home. It was actually only after publication of the book, that this particular connection took root in my mind, and so while I do focus on an eschatological lens for understanding place, I do not necessarily correlate that with the view of beauty that I uphold throughout. Due to this, my line of thinking on beauty may have seemed incomplete, as it, in fact, was.

    So considering the question now, I would not want to begin with the starting place of the relationship between art and beauty, but rather the relationship between beauty and place, working in reverse from the eschatological back to the creational, as it were, and back to the role of the arts in our understanding of each. I think this would accomplish two things: first it would help disentangle the art and beauty connection that remains so sticky in philosophical and theological discussion. And second, it would help mitigate any difficulties in the problem of beauty and place when it comes to their failures, as it opens up from the outset the possibility that they are incomplete, and yet final in eschatological terms. I would be interested to research the relationship further for future publication, as the question of beauty seems pertinent as ever, and yet its difficulties are ever increasing. I do believe, however, that as Christians who are looking toward New Creation, we cannot reject beauty as a reality of the Christian life, and therefore should work to understand and create beauty in the places to which we are called now.

    Third, Taylor raises questions as to my use of a functionalist approach to the arts. Here, I must offer the same caveat I offered in the book—that I am not necessarily concerned to espouse a full-blown functionalist view, but am offering one account of how the arts do function in our places, which is why I adopt the term (21). I do not necessarily believe this is the only way to approach the issue, but given the focus I decided to take on practices of placemaking and the arts, along with the ways they form us intellectually, imaginatively, morally, and actively in our places, it seemed a realistic designation to limit the discussion.

    Earlier versions of the book suffered the same critique as Taylor offers as well, that a view of the arts that is too broad runs the risk that nothing can be said, or that everything can be said and therefore nothing is said. Wendell Berry’s definition of art as “all the ways by which humans make the things we need” is one example here (I quote him on page 19). I love that definition, though it suffers from a broadness that many are uncomfortable with. It perhaps suffers with a functionality that Taylor may be weary of as well. But it gets at the heart of how I want to re-situate the arts in our places. The work of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement rings true to me here, where beauty and utility, or functionality and aesthetics, work together as handmaidens. They offer meaning in their relationship to the other. In the same way, I would not want to say that the arts aren’t functional, but only that the arts are more than functional. An incarnational logic may apply here, as given the nature of Christ’s taking flesh we find that we are fully material even if we are not simply material. We are more, but not less than, the physical bodies and places in which we dwell. And so the arts can be described as functioning in all sorts of ways in their places, even if they have a meaning beyond that which is defined simply in their being there.

    Taylor leaves us—leaves me—with a final question that others have asked. It is a question that, indeed, I continue to ask. How? How is this so? How do the arts change us or transform us? How do the arts move us to ethical action or knowledge of truth? How? In some ways that is the most basic thesis of my book—that art grounds us in our places, and that is the location from which knowledge and moral action and theological imagination grow. These larger questions grow from the soil of place. But how do the arts ground us in place? In chapter 6, I explore a few possibilities—the way they call attention, for instance, to our particularity, our physicality, or our communal nature. And all of these exist in a dialectic relation—to the universal, to the spiritual, to the individual.

    Perhaps Taylor is right that this chapter should have gone first to set the stage, to allow a framework on which to hang the various engagements with place throughout. While I wrote the chapter as summary, it might have properly been a foundation. In any case, I think this is my best answer to the question of “how”—that art exists in these tensions and paradoxes, which call us into our places in ways that speak to the complications of living in place. It doesn’t sidestep difficult questions or bandy about easy answers. Visual art, in particular, asks us to live into the realities of life in the world by showing us that world—in its beauty, in its ugliness, in is mystery, in its goodness, in its injustices, in its conundrums. It asks us to look headlong into our places and invites us, further, to see those places in ways that are new and different and changed. Only we can choose how to respond. We won’t necessarily be moved. We won’t necessarily be better. But the artist’s work as placemaker is to keep trying, keep revealing, keep making worlds in which people can see themselves and others dwelling together. And in doing so, I think our Christian practices in all those places might be slowly shifted, even in ways that are un-thought-through or unacknowledged, to see the world more brightly, more beautifully, more justly, and perhaps more divinely.

    • Katie Kresser

      Katie Kresser


      Reply to Taylor

      I’ll weigh in just a little bit here. I very much appreciate Dr. Taylor’s call for what we art historians call “medium specificity” when it comes to the consideration of visual art. Dr. Taylor says: “How might the ‘logic’ or ‘singular powers’ of visual art, in contrast, say, to music, form a people at worship? A painting, for instance, does not unfold over time like a song does.” This is an excellent question, and it arguably dominated most modern art criticism. But it’s also a question that theologians seldom consider, at least in my experience.

      Consequently I’d like to put a plug in, here, for my recent book, Bezalel’s Body: The Death of God and the Birth of Art, published by Cascade Press (Wipf and Stock) at the very beginning of this year. This book takes hard-won art-critical insights about the medium specificity of visual art and grounds them in a theological substructure. It also suggests that the “singular powers” of the visual medium (to use Dr. Taylor’s term) were first fully exercised by the earliest Christian artists, who essentially invented the thing we now call “fine art.” If any of you folks are particularly interested in visuality as such and how it might impact our understanding of human spiritual experience, I humbly point you toward my book, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Katie Kresser


The (Holy) Spirit of Place

I’ve found myself thinking a lot, lately, about the Trinity. And because I’m a Christian art historian, I’ve been seeing the faces of the Trinity a lot in different vectors of artistic production and interpretation. Of course theologians have long been working to articulate the natures of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, using both Scripture and spiritual experience as a guide. In so doing, they have begun to describe God himself in ways that are illuminating and life-giving. But I think they are also describing something else: by describing God, they describe the basic patterns of the universe that God created. Because more and more, for me, the character-archetypes of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit seem taxonomically explanatory of so many things—so many manifestations echoing down here into our created world. Viewed through this lens—the lens of the Father, Son, and Spirit taxonomy—Dr. Jennifer Craft’s book Placemaking in the Arts feels distinctively “Holy Spirit”-ish. I will explain.

Put briefly, the Father is the One toward whom everything ascends and points; he is the fount of Deep and Awesome Glory. The Son, meanwhile, is the One who was manifest in time and lived a historical life; he perfectly models the tactics necessary for navigating our journeys on the timeline. The Holy Spirit, finally, is the One who surrounds and nurtures and prods from behind, connecting and enveloping and giving us the necessary strength to (a) make it through the timeline, and then (b) dwell with the Godhead in ultimate Glory. As a Christian, I think these Trinitarian archetypes of Personhood are fundamental to the way everyone thinks, whether they know it or not, just as everyone is subject to the laws of physics, whether they know it or not. So I don’t feel it’s illegitimate to see “Father” tendencies, “Son” tendencies, and “Spirit” tendencies in approaches to the arts. (Art is, after all, a manifestation of proxy personhood. Or at least, that’s what I will argue in an upcoming book.)

Most academic art historians have traditionally taken what I will call a “Father” approach to the visual field. This is in large part because art historians—as historians—retrospectively survey centuries or even millennia of visual production and have to make value judgments about what is, or is not, worthy of consideration. The very exercise of “value judgment” is something like a “glory” judgment—it relies on unaccountable attraction to things deserving of canonicity that have stood the test of time due to some ineffable quality. The echo of this “Father” orientation in art-making and viewing is the aesthetic. That is the kind of art historian I am.

Increasingly, though, art historians are taking a more “Sonlike” approach to the visual field. That is, like many past theologians of the arts, they are looking for tactical models of good conduct in the products of artists. These models can be narrative (through figures acting out good behavior), propositional or doctrinal (through the straightforward inclusion of words or symbols), or, in a way, more formative, by means of leading participants through time-bound, morally-charged experiences. Theologians, pastors and arts ministers have always looked for good moral models in art. In today’s politically charged environment, meanwhile, everyone seems to be looking for good moral models (or, on the flip side, prophetic warnings). A new focus on art-activism has meant that secular historians and critics are increasingly seeking exemplary or prophetic content that reflects the political values of their communities.

Far less common is what I will call a “Paracletial” approach to the visual field—one emulating the special character of the Holy Spirit. The Paracletial approach is notably less assertive, less commoditizable (and thus less monetarily valuable), and less majestic or prestigious. It does not spread broad, magnificent shoulders and ask for your admiration. It does not model how to be or think in prophetic, clarion tones (nor, on the obverse, does it marshal empathy or guilt as a spur to better conduct). Instead, it wraps and supports. It affirms and welcomes. I would like to dub Craft’s approach in Placemaking and the Arts “Paracletial,” if the neologism isn’t too awkward. (At least, I think it’s a neologism since I can’t find it on Google.) The evangelist John’s “Paraclete” is an advocate (supporter), intercessor (connector), and all-around helper. That reminds me of the kind of work Craft’s book celebrates.

What is “Paracletial” art, or Holy Spirit art? It has something in common with what some critics have sneeringly called “mere decoration.” Decoration makes you feel good and comfortable and surrounded, but it does not accuse or challenge. Decoration is archetypally “feminine” (“fifties housewife” feminine) in both its nurturing character and its self-effacing willingness to get out of the way and let someone else shine. Decoration is the good woman behind every famous man. I think decoration is something like the “placemaking” Craft describes, but not completely. The “Paracletial” and the decorative overlap, to be sure, but they are not fundamentally the same. For the Paracletial is also a part of God, and is thus jealous for its own glory—a glory of a special kind. The Paracletial surrounds and prods, but it still demands to be looked at and celebrated for an intrinsic goodness that transcends mere usefulness or comfortableness.

So what is this special glory, maybe this more “small g” glory, that makes the Paracletial greater than “mere decoration” but also separate from Glorious Fatherness and Moral Sonship? How can we descry the lovable, dignified “personhood” of the Paracletial—and by extension, the Personhood of the Holy Spirit, the most poorly understood of the faces of God? I think Craft suggests a way. Early in the introduction to her book, Craft decries the “tendencies of the modern world to homogenize our sense of place . . . disconnect[ing] our personal sense of home from a theological model of hospitality” (3–4). The thrust, here, is toward acknowledging the preciousness of the places we’ve been given and to exercise good, generous stewardship. But there is a deeper dynamic. I think the words “homogenize” and “hospitality,” especially, are key. For me, they suggest that diversity (of which rootedness in place is a symbol and determinant) is necessary for true connectedness. We need the clear-eyed self-ownership that comes from rootedness to genuinely give of ourselves and consequently unite. Thus stewardship of place and a reaching out from place is fundamentally reconciling, like the Holy Spirit that calls on our behalf Abba, Father. Art that galvanizes space embodies a diffuse and whispering personhood that strengths each according to her own, and then bids consequent unfurling and connecting.

This makes “Paracletial” art the most paradoxical art, so it is appropriate that Craft culminates her book with dichotomies (e.g., given/made, individuality/community, contemplation/action—chapter 6). The “Paracletial,” as I have said, surrounds and nurtures while remaining somehow an object of contemplation. It is both in front of and behind, both peripheral and central. As a category for art, it aptly embraces new forms of performance, installation and interaction that are gaining prominence in the twenty-first century. It is therefore at once both deeply ancient and refreshingly current. A case in point: in his recent textbook from Prentice Hall, Contemporary Art: World Currents, leading contemporary art historian Terry Smith identifies trends very similar to the ones Craft highlights in her book, albeit from a secular point of view.

A good example of this dichotomous, distinctively contemporary, “Holy Spirit” artwork is the project by Keaton Wynn described in Craft’s chapter “Hospitality and Homemaking.” Wynn’s goal was to help inhabitants of China’s Gansu Province recognize the preciousness of their connection to the land. To that end, he orchestrated a community pottery-making endeavor that included first the harvesting of land (mud) for the making of pottery, then the visceral molding and firing process itself, and then, as a culmination, the experience of communally sharing a food-harvest presented in the handmade vessels. Here, the made objects (Wynn himself is a ceramicist) serve and surround, but they are also held up as foci of contemplation; the latter, in fact, is what makes them categorically “art” and not just kitchenware. And as actions for contemplation, the very practice of making and using the objects counted as “art” as well. Craft also mentions Brian Catling’s processional cross used in the liturgy at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. This object, which is meant to be carried and followed, activating space and facilitating connection and movement, is also meant to be contemplated in its form and substance—in the poignant, wincing harshness of its tortured lines.

“Paracletial” art, I have suggested, is a return to more ancient, unselfconscious forms of artmaking, but with a new awareness that allows celebration. In this, it also embraces more aptly than other kinds of art the traditionally feminine craft forms that have historically shaped the environments of tight-knight communities (thus Craft’s pertinent inclusion of works like Housetop, by Sue Willie Selzer, and 27,000 Breaths, by Marianne Lettieri, both of which evoke venerable textile traditions). Accordingly, as I have hinted, there is something subtly—or actually, not so subtly—feminist about Placemaking in the Arts. Practices and objects redolent of what has often been “women’s work” are granted a theological dignity heretofore less clearly spelled out.


But I have one final thought. As I think about art that humbly surrounds and prods and nurtures, art that is integrated into its environment in such a way that it both makes place and also helps model the eschatological kingdom of God in its texture and diversity, I find myself wishing that I wasn’t thinking of names. What do I mean by that? I mean, I guess, that when I think about a Chinese community intentionally harvesting both land and food to share, in mindfulness of that foundation and that gift, I do not want to think about a man named Keaton Wynn from Americus, Georgia. Or at least, I don’t want that name to be a neon sign above it all. I do not mean to single out Professor Wynn, who does compassionate, conscientious and beautiful work. Rather, I want to question a whole system that puts the artist front and center.

I think art is a beneficial spiritual technology, and I think its inventors and perpetuators are to be commended. But too often, in the art world, one’s inward gaze slips from the what to the who, so that the spiritual benefits of the technology are almost lost in the glare of a competing spotlight. There are many reasons for this: a long-standing romantic view of the artist as prophet or seer, reaching back as far as the Renaissance; a sincere desire to encourage creators whose field is tragically underfunded and unappreciated; and (less nobly) a commercial desire to cultivate “brand names” that will guarantee the value of big-ticket retail products. Whatever the cause, the mystique often accorded to artists is, on a deep level, off-putting—maybe it keeps audiences from taking ownership over the technology and using it according to their private lights. I think this helps account for why the “Paracletial” art Craft describes is not more widely embraced in Christian communities. Christians, as a matter of principle, do not wave their arms and take credit, yet in the art world this is de rigueur (heck, it’s demanded from the artist, even if she’s not so inclined). The clash in etiquettes can feel almost insurmountable.

I wonder: is there a way to cultivate more mystery around our placemaking and artmaking? Is there a kind of veiling we can achieve, a kind of delicacy, a kind of reckless casting of made things into communal space to be communally transformed? Is there a kind of letting go that can define the Christian artist—well, any artist—in this postmodern age? Can we recapture some of the bashful mystery of the medieval artisan who rarely signed his name? Maybe what is most needed is a community infrastructure that understands the uses and sources of art well enough to lift some of the burden from the artist’s shoulders. So much of the artist’s intimidating mystique (intimidating for those unfamiliar with art-world conventions) comes from the responsibility she bears to self-promote, explain and self-justify—to be an everything, an entrepreneur, a clairvoyant interpreter, a solitary sun, burning over-bright and over-short. Maybe the glamor we currently ascribe to “artmakers,” that guru-like glamor of hermetic self-reliance, needs to be prismatically fractured and shared.


And so the foregoing, I suppose, reveals one more paradox—the paradox the Apostle Paul tried to capture in Philippians 2, in his verse about a Jesus who is utterly downcast and who by means of that ignominy is lifted up. This is the paradox of Christian humility—of gaining your crown of glory by praying in closets and keeping your good deeds secret from all. “Paracletial” art diverges from glorious “Father” art and prescriptive “Son” art in its rediscovery of this glory-in-humility. I think at its core it calls for glory and labor shared. It is this kind of work that, as we habituate to it, might restore some balance both to a narcissistic art world and to a digital age cut off from the textures of life.

  • Jennifer Craft

    Jennifer Craft


    Letting the Holy Spirit Make Our Place

    First, I would like to thank Katie Kresser for such a thoughtful review and note that it is not every day that one’s work gets described as “distinctively Holy-Spirit-ish.” I should like to put that on my business card if possible.

    Kresser’s categorization of approaches to the arts in Trinitarian terms is indeed a useful index for understanding the ways in which art writing takes shape as distinctly “Father-like,” “Son-like,” or “Paracletial.” Furthermore, her categorization of Paracletial art as “the most paradoxical art” is helpful as we apply the category to arts engaged in placemaking practice which perform multiplicitous functions at once, often resolving not in precisely marked definitions but in dualities and tensions, inviting more questions than answers when one presses reflection on the arts’ role in our everyday lives in place.

    To Kresser’s questioning of the art system as a whole which puts the artist rather than the work or practice front-and-center, I must say that while I understand the concern, I wonder whether a focus on the particularity of place (both artist and work), as I address in the book, might be a way forward. The theological dimensions of particularity might function as a road to navigate the space in which the work sits on one side and the artist the other. What I mean by that is just such an appeal to the dichotomies that frame the “paracletial” approach that I have taken with regard to placemaking and the arts. Particularity functions at once to narrow the frame of vision on one person, one place, one work, etc., while also panning out to observe the ways that each individual is connected within a wider system of relations, the way each particular calling or work or practice serves a more universal end. I wonder if there is no one answer to the “work versus the artist” debate, but rather, a consistent and self-reflective to-ing and fro-ing back and forth, an acknowledgment always that the whole enterprise stands on two feet. Like the human versus the divine in the Person of Christ, or the threeness of the Persons and the Oneness of the Godhead in Trinitarian terms, we must not let ourselves settle too comfortably on either side, for the moment we land solidly on one foot we must pick up the other, lest we engage ourselves in some theological hopping game that inevitably leads to a nasty fall.

    The complexities and tensions that exist within place itself seem to illustrate this quite well. The manner in which places are at once ontologically prior to our engagement and ontologically dependent on our continued engagement shows the complexes within which our placed existence operates. Places are not simply made by us, but they are necessarily made by us (and this formulation says something about the nature of place itself as well as the anthropology that guides our understanding of placemaking). In other words, we cannot reduce the system of placemaking to one or the other—to the places that exist prior to our own engagement or to the practices that we exercise upon such places. There is the work (the place) and the artist (the placemaker), both of which are necessary for the ongoing relationship to continue.1

    Granted, this only truly works when we understand the manner in which particularity works best rather than falling back on modern formulations of the artist or self, which, in my theological understanding, must be centered on the particularity of the Incarnate Christ. Kresser’s appeal to Philippians 2 at the end of her response is key here, and she recalls the kenotic view of placemaking discussed in both Lisa Beyeler’s essay and my response. Without a kenotic lens to understand particularity, we will most often fall victim to modern individualism devoid of true community spirit, as is evident in the reality of both artists and art world to which Kresser’s call is directed. We need, as Kresser calls for, “a glory-in-humility.”

    I wonder if the simple, daily practices of placemaking might teach us this attitude for the arts in ways that nothing else can. My inclination is often to let art teach us something about life (and certainly there is much to be learned on ways of seeing the world anew from the arts). But I wonder what it might mean to let life teach us something about art. What does it mean to do something over and over again, and yet still find joy in it (like putting your kids to bed)? What does it mean to do a task without thanks or recognition, simply because it needs to be done (doing the dishes, taking out the trash . . .)? What does it mean to rely upon the help of others in our places, recognizing that someone else may be better suited to the work that needs to be done (like when I need my husband to change the oil in my truck)? These activities are part of the mundane trivialities of life, but what happens when we accept these tasks as part of our sacred existence? When we understand that our particular actions participate as a part in a whole? When we recognize that the manner in which we approach such tasks, rather than the tasks themselves, can move us closer to shalom in our places or further from it?

    This change of the way we imagine the significance of such tasks seems to be a requirement for a good Christian engagement with the arts today. I find that when I try to teach my students the value of embracing art and dwelling in it, their imagination fails to grasp the significance of such a seeming insignificant (to them) task or object. They need a change of seeing in order to approach the work at all. But what is paradoxical is that the artwork itself might teach that new form of seeing, performing iteratively on the viewer to change their perspective to see it deeper than they might have before. But because the arts lie so far outside the lives of so many of my students (and I would guess a great many others in our society today), it may very well be in the daily practices of placemaking that we must begin to practice new ways of seeing, which become spaces into which we may then integrate the arts over time. This is hardest in the context of the home because people have individual agency over the way in which they make those places. They decorate their own walls and arrange their own furniture. Because of this, it is in public spaces where we actually live (i.e., not the museum) that I think the relationship between placemaking and the arts might have the most potential to change our cultural ethos. So if our schools and businesses and churches and public streets change the way we see through the integration of the arts in our lives, or by city-planning which is more kind and walkable, or by cultivating and creating public space which is inclusive and diverse rather than divisive, then we can begin to see how those new social ways of seeing might filter into private practices.


    But this brings me back to the key question Kresser challenges us on: “Is there a way to cultivate more mystery around our placemaking and artmaking? Is there a kind of veiling we can achieve, a kind of delicacy, a kind of reckless casting of made things into communal space to be communally transformed?” It seems on such a call we can only appeal to the fully Trinitarian framework with which she begins her response. The Trinitarian creation and involvement with the world seems to model such “reckless casting,” not in the sense that God does not plan or order, but that the gratuitous nature of God’s outpouring love for the other and for the world seems, indeed, reckless. The artist knows this better than most, but the modern world has tainted the original order. I might appeal to the artists in the tabernacle here—Bezalel and Oholiab—in Exodus 31. The artists here are filled with ability, knowledge, talent, intelligence, and inspiration, to work to make a space for God to dwell there in community. The artists are named here—we know them as individuals—and yet, we do not remember their work as individuals. We remember their work as the outflow of divine spirit and love. We remember their work as a calling forth of divine presence into human space. We remember their work as a community gathering in the way God has commanded around beauty to experience his present, dwelling love (as opposed to the outcome of the Golden calf later in the account).

    These artists were facilitators for such presence in community but they were not the centerpieces of attention. The center was always meant to be God. And so to our work in the contemporary world might be modeled. What happens when we see individuals for what they are—as called by and imaged after God—but also as catalysts for this larger work in the world? Elevated only because that is the nature of election—because particularity is the only way we have to live these lives. But the “Holy-Spirit-ish” quality of this work always pushes us back into that communal framework of the Son’s kenotic love. It is the tension we must live in as artists, as Christians, as placemakers—as folks marked by the Trinitarian character of God to dwell together in unity. May we learn to love the tension, the paradox, the question of it all. And what better way than to live fully into our role as makers of beautiful places in the kingdom of God.

    1. This is not to say that the place or the work cannot exist independently of the participant following its being made. However, the logic of such connection suggests that in order to fully understand the nature of either object (place, art) or maker (participant, artist) we cannot reduce the system to one side, either in terms of value or action.

    • Katie Kresser

      Katie Kresser


      Katie Kresser, Prof of Art History, Seattle Pacific U.

      Greetings, Dr. Craft and all! Here are a few thoughts Dr. Craft’s response summoned in me.

      First, I appreciate Dr. Craft’s invocation of Bezalel and Oholiab as model artists, when it comes to the tension between crediting the artist and glorifying God. The names of these artists are remembered, for sure, but not in a way that detracts from God’s plan or majesty. Bezalel and Oholiab created the Tabernacle, and they did so at God’s behest, through the medium of Moses, with God’s creative direction. This could make it sound like they were menial workers being ordered around – except the Bible also says they were given special gifts to accomplish their task. So there’s a nice give-and-take. Bezalel and Oholiab bowed to inspiration from others, acknowledging shared truths, yet they also contributed their own facility to create beauty. Theirs was an artisanal, need-responsive model, not an artist-as-righteous-prophet-model. They participated in a humble and collaborative dynamic that empowered all parties to do what they did best.

      I also love Dr. Craft’s call to engage spaces outside the museum space; it really is in our lived spaces where I think aesthetics and rituals (repetitive practices of the type Craft describes) have the power to transform. I believe very strongly in the importance of that kind of space- (and practice-) transformation, and I think our present health crisis has probably awakened all of us to the affective importance of lived space to a greater degree. We are more alert, now, to our home spaces and how they shape behavior and perception, and we may be more alert, too, to the power of communal spaces – because we feel the lack of them. For these reasons, I think Dr. Craft’s book seems especially well-timed.


      And I have one more thought, which is unrelated to my previous thought-stream. Dr. Craft keeps mentioning “kenosis” (the self-emptying of the divine Christ in his assumption of human form). In response, I find myself wondering about the existence of a specifically artistic kind of “kenosis.” If it did existence, what would it look like? What would it be?

      …Because artists do, I think, engage in a kind of self-emptying. It’s intrinsic to the artistic process. So it’s tempting to draw a comparison there, and to even see the artistic process as an earthly metaphor for divine kenosis. But when we look closer, the question becomes more fraught. That’s because artistic “kenosis” (distinctively artistic self-emptying) is much more ambiguous than Christ’s self-emptying.

      In my experience, there is a kind of artistic “kenosis” that is like an emptying of the mind, an emptying of the whole conceptual apparatus, so that unexpected truths can emerge – or at least, truths expressed in an unexpected way. This is not “blanking out” of the mind, it should be noted. It’s more like a kind of stepping back, to a place where you can see the contingency of everything (including religious structures) instead of proceeding as if everything is settled and fixed. (The planet the artist lives on doesn’t hold still; it circumnavigates, spins and moves and the artist can feel it move.) This means artists always reassess, and see things from sideways, and notice weird overlaps or echoes. This also means artists’ works can sometimes make you feel uncertain and unsafe.

      This is a very interior kind of kenosis. And it’s not unambiguously virtuous, or at least, its fruits aren’t unambiguously positive. For this kind of loosening or “stepping behind” can also be dangerous and lead one to spiral out of control. (Though that begs the question of what “out of control” means, and how that relates to oppressive systems of social expectation.)

      But anyway for me, the idea of kenosis as a facet of the artistic process is intriguing but also problematic. There is a self-emptying there, but it is a self-emptying of a different kind – of pre-conceptions rather than of ambitions. It is a mental disposition that is highly creative, in that it returns to the fertile ground of all signifying and communication, but it is also destabilizing. I find myself puzzling, now, over how this kind of experience can illuminate theological understandings of Christ’s “self-emptying.” (Or perhaps they’re two altogether separate things.)

      And this brings me to think again about Oholiab and Bezalel. It doesn’t seem as if those gentlemen practiced the same kind of conceptual self-emptying that today’s artists do. For one thing, God gave them the conceptual content they were supposed to be working with, and they didn’t dare question it. There was no jettisoning, on their part, of pre-conceptions in favor of something more intuitive and elemental. Thus what they accomplished – the manipulation of materials toward a pre-set end – was much more like the work of craftsmen that the work of the people we today call “artists.”

      Is it possible, then, that the conceptual self-emptying I described above is actually undesirable? (I am just being provocative here.) Does conceptual self-emptying put the artist in the unsupportable position of being too many things at once: theologian, dogmatist, prophet, translator, artisan? Is the artist who empties her mind of preconceptions (in good modern and post-modern fashion) trying to be, all at once, Bezalel, Moses, and God?

    • Jordan Rowan Fannin

      Jordan Rowan Fannin


      Rowan Fannin Reply to Kresser

      I am still digesting and parsing this question of the kenotic and admit to being in the tall grass for the time being – wanting to push back and suggest that kenotic cannot be understood apart from its particular rootedness in the second person of the Trinity, the first century Jew from Nazareth. Along this path, we would be cautious in even looking for “earthly metaphor(s) for divine kenosis.” And yet, Dr. Kresser’s description of what it is that the artist does as she steps back in order to comprehend the fullness of contingency (and then communicate that contingency) seems deeply important to any theology of placemaking.

      My own work focuses on a practitioner of the literary arts, and not the visual or performative arts. And yet, Flannery O’Connor appeals to me as I sit here in the tall grass. For she speaks well to the theological import of these questions, which she occasionally expresses in the paired terms of “mystery and manners.” For O’Connor, place is always concerned at once with concrete, visible reality and with religious truths—two ideas that are always intertwined in that pairing (“mystery and manners”).

      By “manners,” O’Connor means “the texture of existence that surrounds you.” Manners indicate an entire habit of being and way of practicing existence in a certain place, within a certain community, with a certain, shared history. This is why she is so deft in her use of the local idiom, particular habits, certain smells, and distinctive vistas. For her, these impress themselves on those who would observe them, and any kind of truth or meaning must be expressed in the form of one’s local reality.

      And yet, two things emerge as you continue to read O’Connor. First, it is clear to O’Connor that this truth and this meaning are not self-evident but instead reveal a mystery. The very particularity of place and (what Kresser and Craft aptly name as) rituals and practices embodied therein are “those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.” I’ve always been struck by her equating “mystery” with location (“position on earth”). Somehow, what is the most solid and observable around us is what calls forth a deeper mystery.

      But secondly, she names and describes the task of the artist as revealing that central mystery. Place may be always and already theological in O’Connor’s work and in her world; yet, because she is a writer, she sees her task not as describing a problem or an “abstract idea,” but being concerned with “the texture of existence” and with “all those concrete details” that do the work named above.

      Thus, it is not these particularities alone that reveal the mystery, but the particular manners in the hands of the artist that become revelatory. Unless I have read Kresser incompletely (and this is possible), O’Connor’s claims name the theological import of Kresser’s description of the artist who steps back, sees sideways, assesses, notices (especially those “weird overlaps or echoes” – a most delightful phrase!). Because in this very act the import is not on the artist herself but on her illumination of this deeper recognition, this capacity for perception in ways not (yet!) available to the non-artist. This description seems to encapsulate Craft’s call to “new ways of seeing.”

      Okay, why go on and on about all of this? Because I think it is here where we might come to find kenosis useful. I argue that kenosis need not only focus on the act of self-emptying but may also focus on its purpose, and I offer this argument as a helpful way forward in the discussion of kenosis and the artist.

      For it is in his kenotic self-emptying that Christ – fully divine and eternally begotten – enters into both time and place and illuminates the true nature of each. By the kenotic act of entering into flesh – into particular, Jewish flesh – Christ does not simply reveal a new thing but teaches us to understand anew what we took to be the most self-evident. As Bonhoeffer argues, our nature, our identity, even our freedom is unknown to us apart from Christ. The only way to know what it means to exist is through Christ’s kenotic entry into our midst. To exist is “to exist in Christ.” Without Christ, we are a mystery even to ourselves. And because of Christ’s kenotic work in the Incarnation, we know not only God but ourselves – truly, and for the first time.

      Again, what’s the point of all of this? Here’s my point. Divine kenosis points us to the true nature of reality, revealing what was always the case but was beyond our notice or comprehension. This is true especially of that reality that seemed most straightforward and knowable by us (time, place, flesh, existence). To this, O’Connor adds that by drawing our attention to that reality once more, the artist destabilizes our epistemological confidence and precisely through her process of representation of the particular and concrete (though art is certainly more than representation and I defer to Kresser for rebuke here!), the artist reveals the mystery in what lies before us and what is most present to us.

      I take this to be what is at stake in Craft’s claim that particularity at once “narrow[s] the frame of vision . . . while also panning out.” Here, the meeting of placemaking and the arts is the crucible wherein particularity is equipped for just this task. And it is in Kresser’s description of the artist’s work that I find it illuminated.

      So my very humble suggestion for this mighty exchange is that we may find kenosis to be more instructive if we were to focus on its purpose rather than its method. I find this use of kenosis hooks into the discussion in a deeper way, though it may not be the only way. And I thank both Kresser and Craft for enjoining me to think through this in such good company.

Murray Rae


Divine and Human Agency

A Response to Jennifer Allen Craft’s Placemaking and the Arts

To begin with, I wish to thank Jennifer for writing such a marvelous book. Placemaking and the Arts is a theologically rich and stimulating work that has the added virtue of being beautifully written. There is nothing in Placemaking and the Arts that I wish to criticise or challenge. My approach to this forum then will be to explore, briefly, a couple of avenues of thought that Jennifer’s work opens up.

The first is an issue treated in the book that is of particular importance when contemplating the place of art in the creative and redemptive economy of God. It is the relation between divine and human action. It is easy enough to recognise that art may serve as witness to the divine economy, helping us to see what we might not otherwise have seen, and giving clearer access to the true nature of things. To what extent however is that witness made eloquent by the work of the Spirit without which it becomes no more than a material artifact, masterfully crafted perhaps, and admirable because of that, but unable by itself to count as a form of participation in the creative and redemptive work of God? That puts the matter bluntly; I do not mean, thereby, to denigrate the skill and genius of artists, but rather to encourage recognition of the fact that our participation in the work of redemption is always dependent on divine action, graciosuly embracing and enlivening our own.

Jennifer herself offers valuable insight here, raising the question, for instance, whether art itself can be redemptive. She understands the danger of supposing that “the arts do something in this world that has lasting significance for the divine-human relationship or for wider creational transformation” (222) and notes the warning offered by theologians such as Timothy Gorringe who “argues that art cannot by itself give us access to the divine, perform a prophetic role, or directly affect the primary concerns that face society today that are in need of redemption: war, famine, disease, environmental concerns, and displacement of people, among others.” Similar cautions are offered, Jennifer notes, by John Dixon, Patrick Sherry and Jeremy Begbie (see 223–24), the last of whom writes: “To speak of the redemptive possibilities of art is of course hazardous, lest we detract from the supremacy of the redemption wrought in Christ, and lest we suggest that Christ’s redemption is no more than an aesthetic reordering of material reality (when it is clearly much more than that).”1 The caution is surely apposite. We do not take God’s place as redemptive agents in the world. Yet Begbie goes on to suggest that we may nevertheless share in the redemptive activity of God through artistic endeavour. This is the view espoused by Jennifer herself. She writes:

If art, whether of non-Christian or Christian origins, is to be considered redemptive in any way, however, it must be God’s inspiration and action in the world that make it finally capable of of achieving that end. Human work might be said to participate or share in redemption, not achieve it in isolation. (227)

That human work, including the material products of artistic endeavour, “might be said to participate or share in redemption” is an affirmation that is grounded in the incarnation. The incarnation reveals, among other things, that the material world is suitable terrain for the bringing about of God’s redemptive purposes for the world. Matter is not antithetical to the work of the Spirit. Indeed the stuff of creation as a whole was deemed to be good in virtue of its having been called into being by the divine Word and having been given a form suitable for the realisation of the abundant life that God intends for his creatures. Two lines of inquiry are suggested by this affirmation of the goodness of creation that support and possibly extend further the argument set forth in Jennifer’s book. The first is penumatological and the second sacramental. I shall pursue each briefly and in a way, I hope, that will provide opportunity for Jennifer to offer her own further insight on the matter.

When we pursue the narrative of God’s creative activity further we discover the vital role played by the Spirit. It is indeed the Sprit who gives life. The first hint of that comes in Genesis 1:2. A wind [ruach] from God, swept over the face of the waters. The stirring of the divine ruach, the divine wind or spirit, portends the transformation of the formless void and of the darkness that envelops it. The work of creation is about to begin. The life-giving work of the Spirit becomes more explicit in Genesis 2:7: “Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [ruach/spirit] of life, and man became a living being.” That life depends on the presence of God’s Spirit thus becomes a staple of Jewish and Christian theology. The pslamist thus declares:

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;

When you take away their breath,

they die and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit, they are created;

And you renew the face of the ground. (Ps 104:29–30)

Giving life and renewing the face of the ground is creative and redemptive work and is dependent, so the psalmist affirms, on the giving of the [S]pirit. If we are to develop an account of our human work, including the work of artists, as a sharing in the redemptive work of Christ, then that account will, of theological necessity, be thoroughly pneumatological.

Jennifer is certainly aware of this. Linking incarnation with the work of the Spirit, she writes:

Just as the incarnation simultaneoulsy affirms and transforms creation, our artistry, as it finds meaning in the person and work of Christ, participates in this simultaneous affirmation and transformation.

An incarnational theology of art, therefore, is a “making significant” that draws on the possibilities of the physical world that God has already given to us, while seeking to extend them in a Spirit-led way. (214)

And further:

The Spirit occupies our imaginative space, working through that faculty to transform our hearts and minds in the love of God. As an act of love or affection, our imaginative work might be understood in its relationship to the Spirit’s inspiration and movement in the world, and acts such as human artistry and placemaking realized as imaginative extensions. The revelation that might be offered through these events will then be the result of divine action and inspiration, while still being thoroughly bound up with human response and responsibility. (221)

I should wish to make explicit what I think is probably implied here, namely, that if art is, in some cases, to be understood as a sharing in the redemptive work of Christ and as a medium of divine self-disclosure, then the agency of the Spirit will be required not just in the work’s production but also in its reception. Where a work of art becomes an instrument of divine self-disclosure, it will require that the Spirit gives eyes to see and ears to hear, just as is true for the reader of Scripture, that normative instance of inspired human activity.

If I am correct in understanding Jennifer’s intent to speak of the Spirit’s involvement not just in the fashioning but also in the reception of art, then we might also agree that the work of the Spirit in drawing the viewer into a greater awareness of the true, the good, and the beautiful, may sometimes exceed that intended by the artist herself. Meaning and significanace may emerge that was not envisaged by the artist but yet takes place in a way that honours rather than violates the concern an artist may have to shed light on the true nature of things. Every act of theological witness is like that, I suggest. In making our work an instrument of his own purposes, so to draw us more deeply into his truth and beauty and goodness, God gives to our work a vitality and eloquence that exceeds our own. This may be true, as Jennifer wishes to allow, even for those artists who have no Christian or religious sensibility or intention (see 226–27). Their work too may become an instrument in the hands of the God who wishes to draw all things into reconciled relationship with himself.

A second train of thought prompted by Jennifer’s contention that the work of artists, including the material products of their industry, “might be said to participate or share in redemption” involves consideration of the sacramentality of art. Without wishing to diminish at all the unique significance of baptism and eucharist in the life of the church, it may be fruitful nevertheless to consider whether that which gives them their sacramental character may also, on occasion, be found in art. Jennifer hints at the legitimacy of this enquiry, noting, for instance that “while understanding all art and craft as sacramental may lend additional theological difficulties, considering the eucharistic encounter helps us to imagine how Christ’s incarnational presence is experienced through other forms of human making in place” (101). Elsewhere, however, she advises that, “while sacrament is one category for thinking about these dynamics [of divine presence and absence], a theology of presence more generally, or rather a theology of presence more particularly, which lays hold of God’s presence in the world incarnationally, might better serve a placed theology of the arts” (228). She might be right, but I’ll take Jennifer’s acknowledgment here as permission to explore briefly what the category of sacrament might offer to our understanding of art as a medium of God’s presence. I hope too that my raising the issue might prompt further explanation from Jennifer herself of the possibilities and the limitations of sacramental language in reference to art.

The first thing to be noted is that the sacraments of baptism and eucharist take things said and done with material things—water, bread, and wine—to be the medium of God’s self-communicative presence. Explicitly in the eucharist, the Lord takes bread and says, “Take eat; this is my body,” and then over the cup of wine he says, “this is my blood of the covenant” (Matt 26:26, 28). These fruits of the earth and works of human hands, as the eucharistic liturgy of the New Roman missal puts it,2 become means by which God makes himself available to us. This does not give us licence to claim of all fruits of the earth and works of human hands, nor of all human artistry, that they may be sacramental means of God’s communicative presence. It does allow us to confirm the point made above, however, that the things of the world are not in virtue of their materiality antithetical to God’s use of them, should God so choose, as instruments of his presence. It is essential to observe that it is God’s choosing, rather than our own artistry, that is decisive here. Respecting this divine prerogative, however, our recognition that the fruits of the earth and works of human hands may mediate God’s presence ought to encourage heightened attentiveness to the revelatory possibilities of human artistry.

A second feature of the sacraments worthy of note in this context is that they are transformative ordinances. The transformation wrought through participation in the sacraments can take many forms, all of them attributable, of course, to the work of the Spirit. They may bind us more surely to the body of Christ, his people; they can release us once more from the bondage of guilt and sin; they may enable renewed obedience to the Lord’s instruction, “do this . . .” where “this” is the sacrificial giving of our own lives in service of God’s purposes for the world, and so on. Can art be a medium of such transformation? That it can be is a central claim of Jennifer’s book: the work of our hands, and of artists in particular, may be, she claims, a sharing in the redemptive and transformative work of Christ.

Let me conclude with an example of how this might work.3 I take my lead here from Jennifer’s advice that

a redemptive placemaking and adding of value will . . . be a localized placemaking that values the physical landscape and the role of beauty, that responds to the community’s needs, and that notices the particularities of lived experience there. This redemptive work seeks to produce in microcosm the presence of God as it will be in all of creation. (226)

At an exhibition hosted in 2005 by Calvin Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Paul Hebblethwaite presented photos of his installation Cardboard Church: Communion on the Los Angeles River. The church was installed in one of the large concrete drains that run through Los Angeles. It was prompted, Hebblethwaite tells us, by his discovery that the concrete drain was the dwelling place of “a pregnant lady and her AIDS-ridden boyfriend.”4 A stain of red wine soaks the cardboard church and extends over the floor of the concrete drain. The blood of the new covenant flows in this place where the lowly and the afflicted ones dwell.

To what extent might this installation be regarded as an instance of redemptive place-making? The installation derives clearly enough from a profound attentiveness to the needs of the community, here a “pregnant woman and her AIDS-ridden boyfriend,” and to the particularities of their lived experience in this place. The use of cardboard, so often the material with which the homeless attempt to fashion some shelter, reflects the artist’s attentiveness to the particularities of the lived experience in this place. I have no difficulty supposing that this attentiveness was Spirit-led. There is, as well, a sacramental character to the installation, explicitly so in the wine poured out in this place of dereliction. The redemptive work of placemaking, Jennifer advises, “seeks to produce in microcosm the presence of God as it will be in all of creation.” God’s presence “as it will be in all creation” is not realised in its fullness here yet, but the wine-drenched cardboard church bears witness to the form God’s presence takes in the person of Jesus. He is found among the outcast, the afflicted, and the broken. The cardboard church is a declaration that, as Hebblethwaite himself puts it, “God lives here too.”5

I do not know what the pregnant woman and her boyfriend made of it. If however, they recognised through the installation that someone had been attentive to their plight and if, further, they saw a connection between the wine-drenched church and the blood of Christ and were thus alerted to the possibility that God dwells with them, then we may say of this artistry that it is a sharing in the redemptive activity of God.

  1. Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (London: Continuum, 1991), 212–13; cited in Craft, Placemaking and the Arts, 224.

  2. The words are widely used in other Chrstian traditions as well.

  3. I have used the same example elsewhere. See my Architecture and Theology: The Art of Place (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018), 179–80.

  4. The citation is taken from Paul Hebblethwaite’s “Artist Statement” about his work, which was included in the exhibition catalogue. The image is reproduced with the artist’s permission.

  5. Paul Hebblethwaite, “Artist Statement.”

  • Jennifer Craft

    Jennifer Craft


    Spirit and Sacrament in Art and Place

    I am appreciative of Rae’s thoughtful engagement with the theological ideas that lie behind my thesis on placemaking and the arts, and here I wish to affirm his reflections and observe some movements within theology and the arts that he himself tunes into. Rae is correct in noting a central theme of divine and human action throughout. As I attempt to understand the role of places in our lives and worship, it seems clear to me that any good biblical engagement with places or material objects like the arts requires that we understand the types of dynamics taking place when it comes to stating things like “places are sacred,” or “art is revelatory,” or “redemptive” or what have you. It seems to me that much of this discussion within the discipline of theology and the arts can get too “squishy” for my liking, and by that I mean that a great many don’t adequately define or outline the ways in which art can be spiritual, or reveal God’s presence and insight, or perform tranformatively in the world. This is why Rae points out two helpful categories for deeper reflection, which I appreciate from both a theological and a methodological perspective.

    The first is the category of the pneumatological. Rae writes, “The agency of the Spirit will be required not just in the work’s production but also in its reception. Where a work of art becomes an instrument of divine self-disclosure, it will require that the Spirit gives eyes to see and ears to hear, just as is true for the reader of Scripture, that normative instance of inspired human activity.” I wish not only to affirm Rae’s theological point here, but also to present a call to the church for placemaking and the arts in light of the implications of such theological claims. I have argued throughout the book that both places and the arts within them can perform active roles in our intellectural, moral, spiritual, and imaginative spaces, and that this is a significant way of understanding their theological import. God calls the places and creatures he makes “good” and give gives us responsiblity to engage with them in responsible and hopsitable ways. Part of this role is to make these places more condusive to relationship, not only for one another and other creatures, but also for humanity and God. We are called to make our places in ways that are fitting for divine-human interaction to occur rather than rending that relationship through disobediece, selfish action, and wasteful excess.

    In the book, I use the garden of Eden and the temple and tabernacle as key places that exemplify this calling. The point is that places have an ontological significance on their own which we may give our attention into, but also that places are actively made by us, and furthermore that the types of relationships we experience in those places results from the ways in which we engage them on a daily basis. Places, in other words, including sacred spaces, don’t simply exist; they are made. But here’s the catch. They’re not just made by us. One might read my basic thesis here and take to mean that if we do our part, God can be called forth unequivocally. Rather, I believe the whole endeavor of placemaking, as witnessed in scripture, but also as we experience it in the contemporary world, reveals that the practice is always about the dynamic, dialogic relationships that take shape within those places. In this sense, we cannot talk about the theological significacne of place and placemaking without talking about the role of both divine and human action. And if this is the case, then we must learn to hear the Spirit’s voice in the increasingly noisy places of the modern world.

    If placemaking is ultimately a conversation between humanity and God, then we must learn to listen up. This is where my calling for the church comes in. If part of the church’s central mission is Christian discicpleship, shepherding people in the ways of Christ and movements of the Spirit, then I wonder what would happen if they made the practices of placemaking and the arts a central way that this discipleship takes form within the congregation and community? What if the church, to use Rae’s terms, took an active role to help mediate the Spirit’s voice to guide us in our reception of divine message through the arts in our places? If it is the church’s role to open up our ears and eyes to see God’s presence in the world, then what if they took more oportunities to actively engage us in our places in concrete ways? What if part of Chrisitan discipleship, in other words, looked more like the type of creative placemaking practices that I describe in the book? What if our ways of thinking about Christian discipleship was more imaginative in its process, more placed in its approach, more hospitable in its framework?

    The second key area that Rae raises for theological inquiry is the idea of sacrament. Rae quotes me in saying, “While sacrament is one category for thinking about these dynamics [of divine presence and absence], a theology of presence more generally, or rather a theology of presence more particularly, which lays hold of God’s presence in the world incarnationally, might better serve a placed theology of the arts” (228). I am often hesitant to use the category of sacrament in my considerations of artistry and art-making because of the overgeneralization that such claims can bear. The critique becomes similar to that which is made about an overgeneralization of art—if everything is art then nothing is. If everything is sacrament, then nothing is. Certainly, this is the extreme end of such lines of thinking. But it is one worth bearing in mind as we frame the conversation around the ways that theological ideas are applied to the category of the arts.

    I chose to focus on the incarnational for a number of reasons in the book, the main one being the role that particularlity—of divine presnce, of divine engagment, of divine choice—has in such conversations. Incarnational theology focuses on divine endorsement of materiality and the particualrity of divine presence and choice with us, which go hand in hand. And to be certain, the sacramental does not as a category itself commit itself to saying otherwise, and, in fact, tends to embrace these claims wholeheartedly. In fact, in the sacrament, we see clearly the divine prerogative to be present with us in the material in ways that are particular and decidedly embodied. Murray himself notes here that the theological category of sacrmaent does not necessitate divine presence but does confirm the point “that the things of the world are not in virtue of their materiality antithetical to God’s use of them, should God so choose, as instruments of his presence. It is essential to observe that it is God’s choosing, rather than our own artistry, that is decisive here.” Further, Murray adds, that in respect for this dynamic, we should be encouraged to consider the arts in their “relevatory possibilities.”

    I do not disagree with Rae here, and should we construct a theology of the arts grounded in sacramental theology, I should like to make sure the necessary caveats be made so as to not communicate an overly genral sense of God’s self-revelation. For instance, I’m thinking of someone like David Brown who argues that because of the nature of divine generosity, the arts can be revelatory of God’s presence in advance of his own action there (see God and Enchantment of Place, 33). While I apreciate much of the work that Brown is doing, I always seem to come back to the creation and incarnation—that how God chooses to engage with his creatures is always decidedly particular, even if we do leave room for divine mystery and presence and generosity in the world. To put it a different way, I do think the arts can function sacramentally here. But given Rae’s two points about the sacraments—their materiality and their nature as transformative ordinance—we cannot skip out on the proper Christology we need to ground such statements about divine revelation through the arts. This again, is why I have chosen to ground much of my argument in the incarnational, even while the sacramental flows from such theology. But I think to put the sacramental first, without the proper grounding in the incarnational put the proverbial cart before the horse. For my part, I should like to see someone write a distinctly sacramental theology of the arts which takes seriously the incarnation as a grounds and means of such divine-disclosure.