Review: The Ecumenism of Beauty

Editor: Timothy Verdon

Publisher: Mount Tabor Books

I picked up this book for a couple of reasons. First, I love religious art. Second, I’ve been working on a project about the use of art in service to the liturgy. Third, the title looked interesting. And while I wasn’t fully satisfied with this book, and I don’t think it lived up to the title’s expectations, I did glean some useful information.

The Ecumenism of Beauty is a collection of essays by a handful of authors seemingly of different denominational backgrounds. A number of them had connections to a group called the Community of Jesus on the east coast, at least one was of a Reformed tradition, and I believe one was of an orthodox background. While the book tried to stress the ecumenism of art, it largely focused on the art found in the chapel of the Community of Jesus and modern art, strangely enough. And honestly, I might be struggling with this book so much because of this focus. One such author speaks mainly of her work. Frankly, her description of her art is much more interesting than the art itself. There was, however, a brief history of Christian art in the book, and it was decent in describing how the spaces we are in direct the focus of our hearts and minds and how art can be in service to the liturgy.

The goal of The Ecumenism of Beauty seemed to be a defense of the true, the good, and the beautiful. My favorite chapter was probably the introduction. Here the editor explained how this book was aimed at being a way to undo the “polarization of aesthetics” and to show how art can be used as a vehicle to serve the divine service and to connect denominations. Unfortunately, I don’t think this book made its point well with these essays, although I think the thesis is true. I like the message of hope and unity through this type of ecumenism, but I worry about watering down doctrine. Not that art does this necessarily, but with this book focusing so much attention on this particular sect, that concerns me. Many of the quotes from the Community’s Rule of Life sound quite mystical.

There needed to be more depth without the highly academic language and more variety of authors to show ecumenism. The art needed to come from across cultures and not focus so strongly on the weakest styles from largely one location. We should study the history of the Church so that we might rediscover our artistic heritage across denominations. This I wholeheartedly agree with. 

Our sacred spaces should be for visual engagement and contemplation. Our churches should be beautiful places of listening, learning, and reflection. The visual should bring us into adoration of God, as one author notes. This is a great mission. But instead of achieving that, The Ecumenism of Beauty came across more like an argument for modern ecclesiastical art, the Community, and artists’ own work. There was so much room to show the rich history and variety of ecclesial art and its place in the Church. I think more can be written on this subject that can both bring Christians back to our artistic roots and serve as a means of ecumenism.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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