The interplay between religion and art has long been a matter of serious scholarly interest among those who study both religion and artistic achievements in their various forms. Robert Wuthnow approaches the religion/art connection from an original perspective by focusing on the role of the arts in cultivating spirituality among both laity and clergy. (Indeed, a previous book, Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist [2001, University of California Press], was based on one hundred in-depth interviews with professional artists to ascertain the influence the arts exerted on their spiritual growth and development.) The research project whose findings are reported in All in Sync examines another related succession of issues, namely, how the arts affect spirituality for those who are not professional artists. And the ultimate conclusion drawn from this body of research is aptly expressed by the author in the subtitle of the book: How Music and Art are Revitalizing American Religion.
A significant body of empirical data undergirds this claim relative to the role of the arts in revitalizing American religious communities. Wuthnow designed an Arts and Religion Survey administered by the Gallup Organization to over 1500 persons in a random national survey. This was supplemented by some two hundred spiritual journey interviews which sought to ascertain the influence of the arts on spiritual development across the life-cycle, leadership interviews with over one hundred fifty lay and clerical personnel who make extensive use of music and the arts in their ministries, one hundred interviews with elite members of religious organizations and artistic communities, ten focus groups of eight to twelve volunteers who reacted collectively to various examples of music, art, poetry and prose, and finally interviews with clergy in some sixty churches in the Lehigh Valley. These varieties of data not only provide a solid statistical base for drawing broad conclusions, but they also allow for the inclusion of personal "stories" and individualized insights by respondents throughout the manuscript.
The central thesis of this study is that, while the arts are not the only influence on developing spirituality, they are a very significant factor. An ancillary theme is that religious organizations are beginning to recognize this fact and they are integrating various artistic forms into their ministries with considerable effectiveness. The description of some of the more successful incorporations of artistic forms into worship environments figures prominently in the narrative as illustrative materials. The result is compelling argument for the significance of music and the arts for enriching personal spirituality in American religion.
Alongside these basic themes, Wuthnow also scatters nuggets of insight throughout the book as he deals with particularistic issues deriving from his data. A few examples are in order: "For artistic interests to benefit the nation's churches and synagogues, then, religious organizations must channel these interests in ways that encourage serious commitment to spiritual growth and, in turn, involvement in congregations" (p.77); "The relationship between artistic interests and spiritual direction is not coincidental. Spiritual direction is usually understood as a matter of the heart, rather than one strictly of the mind" (p. 96); "...statistics show that women are more inclined to say they were helped by the arts during times of crisis than men are" (p.111); "...evangelical Protestants are more likely than mainline Protestants or Catholics to say they have been helped by music. Being helped by art, in contrast, is most common among mainline Protestants. Being helped by handicrafts appears to be more common among Protestants in general than among Catholics" (p.111); "...church leaders have recognized that small groups are a key source of religious revitalization" (p.114); "Interest in the arts also appears to be positively associated with being involved in serving others" (p.124); "...the fact that young people are more supportive of congregational arts programs than older people suggests that these programs may be a way of generating greater commitment among young people" (p.149); and "...the Arts and Religion Survey show that congregants' satisfaction with the music program at their church is a key predictor of other aspects of personal and corporate spirituality....the data do suggest that churches may be able to increase their members' satisfaction and involvement by devoting resources to their music programs" (p.181).
Two critical comments are in order. The first is that Wuthnow mentions but does not enter into a major debate in the sociology of religion, namely, the issue raised by Dean Kelley and subsequently reinforced by Stark, Bainbridge, and Finke that conservative churches are growing because they demand a lot and foster a clear religious identity, while liberal churches are declining because they demand little and, hence, get little in the way of involvement and support. Wuthnow has the data to suggest that the conservative/liberal framing of the matter may well be too narrow and that revitalization through music and the arts affords an alternative means achieving development within religious organizations.
A second critical issue is somewhat more complex. This pertains to assessing the arts in qualitative terms. Is a Bach fugue more conducive to spiritual development than, say, Christian rock? Wuthnow explicitly refuses to enter into this contested terrain, but the argument can be made that such matters are intimately bound up in the larger role of art in religious revitalization. Daniel Bell and Herbert Gans have staked out the most well known antithetical positions in regard the whole issue of artistic quality, but Wuthnow's data may well have been useful in extending that debate.
On balance, then, this study comes highly recommended: it is based on an impressive data set, it is well written, the author not only articulates a bold thesis, but he also provides numerous insightful observations, and the findings address a broad range of interests among artists, religious leaders, lay congregants, and scholars from the social scientific, religious, and artistic disciplines.