This is my contribution to the February SynchroBlog. This month’s theme is “Creativity and Christianity.” You can see links to the other bloggers’ contributions below the post.
As a teenager I worked at a downtown Seattle cinema, in the old days when our corporate chain was obliged to employ union projectionists. Our projectionist would arrive a half-hour before the first show in our single screen, 900-seat theater, and would leave minutes after the last reel had rolled out. Without him the show did not go on. We, the ticket-takers and concession clerks, did not know how to operate the projector, and even if we did, we were not allowed to.
He loaded and unloaded the reels, focused the lens, and switched from one projector to the next just as one reel finished and the other began. He had to time it; it wasn’t automated. Most importantly, he was there should the machine jam, or the celluloid melt or break. We could count on his skill to quickly splice the print back together and get the movie up and running again.
I see art as a kind of projection, a projection of the human soul. But it comes from the broader human urge to create, to fashion, to shape, to invent, to solve. Therefore to limit this impulse to the arts would be to miss the full scope of human creativity. An engineer, a relief worker, a car mechanic, a librarian, a counselor, business owner, is each projecting their soul, communicating that part of themselves that comes out of a deep human need to create what was not there before – machines, enterprises, order, solutions, plans, tools, survival.
Where does the urge to create come from? The Creator. We have this because in making us He stamped us with Himself:
So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. -Gen. 1:27
What we see when we observe the creative endeavors is the work of the soul, the projection of the image of God expressing itself through work and personality in the visible and audible world. Creating may come from a desire, as in childbearing, to leave something behind, a posterity, something reaching into the future beyond our own lifespan. It may come from a dim apprehension of the eternal. It may be a kind of mirror-making: “I see myself in what I have made.” It may be a way of opening our inner selves to others: “See who I am by what I have made.” There is an element of mystery to this; we don’t completely understand it. And there is something that holds us in awe when we see it produce really marvelous and beautiful things. But there is without any doubt a reflection of the Creator God in it all, the One who calls something out of nothing, and it is good.
Since every human being bears God’s image, this creative urge I suppose is present in everyone. But it is sometimes suppressed. It is sometimes perverted and becomes twisted into various desires to destroy. (In Graham Greene’s short story, The Destructors, some boys in post-war bombed-out London discover a creative outlet in demolishing a building.) It can also be hindered through our physical, mental and emotional limitations. But as a Christian, the question arises: How is creativity, especially in the artistic arena, different – if at all – for the Christian? Does it make a difference that we acknowledge God, that the Holy Spirit lives within us? Would the Spirit be like a divine Projectionist, making sure that everything is as should be in the projection booth?
I have wrestled with this question for many years. I cannot cite any authority or scripture, just my thoughts and observations. But across the board, it seems the answer is: not necessarily. I’m sure it can, and probably should. What that difference should be, though, I’m not at all sure of. Should it make a difference whether or not an artist is a Christian? Yes, but it clearly does not, much of time.
This is for the same reason that a person’s character, their lifestyle, their worldview, does not necessarily reflect the influence of God’s Holy Spirit on their inner selves. They have some responsibility in letting the Spirit take hold of them and work that influence. But what would such influence be on their creative expression? Leaving the question of skill or talent aside, how would one paint differently, or sing differently or write differently? You see the problem: for every outstanding artist you might point to who believes, I can offer one (or five) who does not believe in God or even the soul. But they are masters of their medium. Believing does not equal better.
Two answers are usually offered. One is that the Christian artist possesses a worldview that colors everything that the artist concerns herself with, and always takes God and His revelation into account. The other is that a distinctly Christian ethic oversees everything she does in her work. To put this in plastic-wristband terms, “How would Jesus see this?” and “How would Jesus do this?” I think for some people, these questions do not lead them into deep waters, but very shallow ones. Instead of experiencing freedom in such inquiry, they suffer the imposition of very tight constraints on their creative vision and sensibility. Often they end up seeing themselves as conscripted into a Ministry of Propaganda for God, in which every effort must be baptized with Godly Messaging or worse yet, Christian Retail. The saccharine and the trite, the manipulative and the tacky often win out.
The other way in which they might go astray is to not ask these questions at all, and concern themselves only with the mundane — without the least penetration of truth and grace into their creative work.
A person who abides in Christ, who walks in intimate friendship with God’s Spirit, is a person who is being changed. A changed person is a changed artist. But does a changed artist mean changed art? This I do not have an answer to. I have a vague idea that the art the new person makes maybe better than what the old person made, but in what identifiable way? I keep coming to the fact that the Spirit is in the business of changing what we do by the more important work of changing us. But what does He want the Christian artist to do? As with most questions of the Christian life, we begin on the inside. Do I create what I do because of who I am, or do my creative efforts go to making me a different person? It seems that these two things work together , much the like the Spirit and the person who seeks to be ever more yielded to Him. So why should I want to create? What do I want to do?
Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. -1 Cor. 10:31
I ought to seek God’s glory. Our creative work can do that, whether it’s poetry, prose or photographing a duck. I ought to love my neighbor. I can do that through my creative work. But I have learned that one of the things that marks a spiritually mature person is their desire for Jesus. More than what He gives, they want Him, to simply be present with Him and grow to see and know Him more. If I have turned my creativity over to Him, I believe He will use it to reveal Himself more deeply to me. Just as love and generosity on my part bring me closer to Him in his love and generosity, my creativity brings me into a more intimate knowledge of Him as creator. Now I am beginning to sense that how and why I create may cause what I create to recede in importance. Perhaps now I am finding my way into the freedom that the Spirit brings. I find freedom in a simple truth I learn in the first chapter of Genesis: the Creator is always above what He creates, and that is true for us as well.
• • •
I have contended that there is no qualitative difference in the Christian artist’s work. They may or may not photograph the duck differently, or choose different subject matter, but it won’t be better simply by virtue of their faith or spirituality. This may not seem to comport very well with what I have said God wants to do and may be doing on the inside of the faith-filled artist. But how can one deny that many traditionally minded Christians live in an impoverished subculture, where art seems to be just another tool, or a distraction from truly spiritual realms of life. And much of the schlock we sell as art is derivative at best, “christianized” versions what we admire in the “secular” world. The truth is, for whatever reason (and it may be what I alluded to above), we lack the freedom to fully express ourselves in the arts the way we do in other vocations and avocations. We produce engineers, nurses and counselors (which, again, can be creative work) but few artists. Consequently, there are few Christians found among today’s prominent painters, sculptors, choreographers, playwrights or filmmakers. And where we produce the most, in music, few have mastered their art or exercised the same degree of freedom as their secular counterparts.
Consider one of my favorite movies of all time: The Elephant Man. No Christian producer or director has ever made as beautiful and moving a statement of the sanctity of human life as this. The creator? David Lynch, a follower of the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and a practitioner of his Transcendental Meditation®. And one weird dude. I know people who would decorate their homes with Thomas Kincaid® prints but would never consider Lynch to even be an artist. Yet, I would contend that he has better represented a Christian perspective in this film than Kincaid’s® country cottage pastorals ever will. (Until very recently we have been offered the Left Behind movies as the best evangelicals could produce. Thankfully that is changing.)
This leaves me loosely holding the conclusion that it is the soul as the image of God (or having the image) that projects – produces – the creative objects that the souls of others respond to in such profound ways. And if this is true we should expect the work of any great artist to be worthy of our attention. They may be running their booth without the Projectionist, and without Him, things could spin out into chaos or the abyss at any time. But remarkably they manage to occasionally give us the extraordinary and the profound.
The fact that people with no regard for God often project the true and the beautiful is testimony to God’s patent on the human soul, the infinite worth of the image of God and the one who bears it.
This is what all of us, regardless of what our chosen medium is, should aspire to: a real soul-to-soul communion with our neighbors that leaves them different, encouraged, enlightened, thinking, opened to the unseen, reaching for something better and higher. And my hope would be that we fix our dependency on the Projectionist, the Spirit of Jesus, to accomplish that.
. . .
Here are the link lists so far for February’s SynchroBlog.
- Bethany Stedman – How God Creates
- EmmaNadine – Creativity and Christianity
- Bill Sahlman – Created, Continued Creativity
- Heidi Renee – Synchroblog Creativity and Christianity
- Annie Bullock – Old Things are New
- John O’Keefe – What is Half of 11
- Kathy Escobar – open.
- Tim Nichols – Artist-Priests in God’s Poetic World
- Maurice Broaddus – The Artist and the Church
- Jeremy Meyers – Creativity First Christian Act
- Ellen Haroutunian – Creativity and Christianity: It Matters
- Tammy Carter – His Instrument His Song
- Steve Hayes – Creativity and Worship
- Marta’s Mathoms – Mythos and Create-ivity as a Spiritual Act
- Peter Walker – Creativity and Christianity?
- William Lecorchick – Heaven and Hell
- Jacob Boelman – God’s Magicians
- Liz Dyer – Divine Seeing
- Minnowspeaks – DNA
- Christine Sine – God Created the World by Imagination