According to Richard Rohr, the prophets in a social structure stand off-center in a place of observation. Their position on “the edge of inside” affords them a view that is informed and yet independent. From this vantage point, the Apostle John was given the divine direction: “Write what you see.” And he saw plenty.
Artists are those who are given the gift of vision. A poet renders nature as a network of words; a watercolor artist spreads light and dark with a damp brush. In four places in Scripture, God is identified metaphorically as a potter, and, made in his image, we also delight in the creation of useful and beautiful things. This response to beauty should not surprise us, for it is a mark of the Maker. The glory of this is that as seers, we become partners in revelation; we bring beauty into view.
Beholding the Beauty
Having passed age 90, poet Luci Shaw is still standing on “the edge of inside,” and she’s still enjoying the view. Her exuberance for life bubbles forth in words that stun and inspire, and her poetry takes on topics as diverse as weather, prayer, aging and the writing process—all with seasoned wisdom. An active outdoor life feeds Luci’s love of planet Earth, and her 2018 poetry collection Eye of the Beholder invites readers to join her as she beholds the splendor. The frozen edge of a shallow bay becomes “a collar of intricate lace.” (52) The movement of water under a buffet of wind is “like silk breathing.” (54) In early spring, “tulip bulbs dream their own vegetable praise,” (66) while beloved birds, “music with feathers,” join in singing their own unique psalms. (22)
Generativity is a theme that ripples through Shaw’s words with integrity, for she is busy living her way into and through the aging process with its arthritis and its indignities by continuing to hone her craft and by daring to “dream optimism.” (87) When the eye of the beholder is connected to a poetic gift, the view is fresh and challenging, but everyone with an incarnational view of the universe is invited to behold the splendor in her own way. “Ordinary things may reveal the extraordinary for those willing to take time to investigate and ponder.” For Luci Shaw, 90 years of seeing has not taken the edge off wonder.
Adorning the Dark
Often that sense of wonder is mixed with longing. C. S. Lewis called it “sehnsucht,” and in his fiction, his characters vividly enfleshed that longing in their pursuit of mystery and their yearning for adventure. Unless we have fully anesthetized ourselves with Netflix and Amazon Prime, we all experience that sense of pining for something “other,” and in Adorning the Dark: Thoughts on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making, Andrew Peterson shouts a heartfelt admonition to pay attention to that longing.
The glorious creation narrative found in Scripture begins in Genesis, but it keeps cycling round: a world, a nation, a church, and the pattern continues into present-day living whenever believers take the risk and explore the mystery of making. Creativity comes in a multitude of forms comprising anything from artistic design to the creation of the perfect sandwich for a toddler’s lunch.
Since we were made to glorify God, worship happens when someone is doing exactly what he or she was made to do.” (11) Peterson asserts that “intention trumps execution,” and this is good news, for just as it has been true in the gradual development of his own musical and writing career, we too will find that stepping out in faith unleashes an opportunity to “join with all nature in manifold witness to God’s great faithfulness.” Peterson understands what it is to live by words, and with this in mind, three big picture principles emerge for those who long to add their own melody and lyrics to God’s great love song of life:
1. Resist Resistance
Perfectionism and fear, comparison and the powers of darkness all war against beauty. They are the enemies of the creative process for the glory of God. “Die to self. Live to God. Let your words and music be more beautiful by their death in the soil of worship, that the husk of your own imperfection might fall away and germinate into some bright eternal song only God could have written.” (45)
2. Boil It Down
Just as one gallon of maple syrup is the product of 40 gallons of boiled-down sap, usually the creative process is more sap than syrup at first. We write 1,000 words but only 550 survive the cut. Peterson calls this “selectivity” which means choosing what not to say. “It means aiming at the bull’s-eye. It means making sure the song is about one specific thing so that when folks are driving home from the show, they can say, ‘Remember the one he wrote for his son?’” (113)
3. Trust for the Next
Whether I am preparing to teach or pulling together a manuscript for consideration by an editorial team, it feels monumental and risky. I wonder if I can really pull it off, and waves of self-doubt threaten to come trickling under the door and into the room. Then I remember that God has led me over this ground before—maybe not the exact same process, but his faithful fingerprints are all over my story. Peterson’s testimony is vivid on this point:
“Every song is an Ebenezer stone, evidence of God’s faithfulness. I just need to remember. Trust is crucial.” (128) Adorning the Dark is a memoir of one artist’s journey as well as a handbook, written along the way and then handed off to others who long to be good servants of our work, attentive hosts to our readers or listeners, and diligent explorers and trail blazers in the mystery of making.
Carving Out a Space for Beauty
Our common lives become far too common when we fail to carve out a space for a creative response to beauty. In Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life, Makoto Fujimura argues effectively that when we starve our souls in pursuit of our “living,” we lose sight of our own nature as creative beings, made in the image of a Creator God who calls us to lives of fruitfulness and beauty. Working from insights gained in his calling as an artist, the author invites his readers into the generative life, which is “fruitful, originat[es] new life, [and] . . . draws on creativity to bring into being something fresh and life giving.”
Throughout the book, he lays out numerous principles that define the generative approach to life on this planet:
- First, a genesis moment grabs the attention and renews a conviction, challenging us to make decisions in keeping with creativity and growth. Just as failure and disappointment entered the narrative arc of the biblical Genesis, it may also play a key role in our own personal genesis moments.
- Generosity is the fuel that drives generative thinking. A mindset of scarcity squelches creativity and leads to small, cramped living.
- The knowledge that all believers are stewards of culture leads us to create a welcoming climate for creativity and to care for the contributions of others so that future generations can thrive.
- Art is a gift, not a commodity. In his work with the International Arts Movement, Fujimura works to contribute to this type of reimagining, inviting others into the new paradigm that culture is “not a territory to win, but a garden to tend to, an ecosystem to steward.”
- There is value to work that is done in secret for the pleasure and development of the artist—even if no one else ever sees or appreciates it.
Artists fulfill the crucial role of “border-stalkers,” living on the edges of various groups—sometimes in the space between—and carrying news back to the tribe. Like bees pollinating far and wide, those who assume cultural leadership ensure flourishing. Christ, of course, was the ultimate Border-Stalker, creating in love, sidling up against all the borders with a light that would not be extinguished. When we narrow our categories (and our eyes) at artists who are Christian but who refuse to reduce Christ to a mere adjective, we diminish the mystery of Christ in our attempts to keep the Spirit inside our boundaries and away from the margins where border-stalkers are most needed.
As a mum who has spent that past decade or more schlepping children to piano lessons, play practices, and band rehearsals, I nearly stood on my chair as I read Makoto’s thoughts on the deeply necessary role that art education plays in the development of people who are “fully human.”
“Dana Gioia has rightly said that we ‘do not provide arts education to create more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.’ We provide arts education so that we can have better teachers, doctors, engineers, mothers, and fathers. Arts are not a luxury but a path to educate the whole individual toward thriving. They are needed simply because a civilization cannot be a civilization without the arts.”
Culture Care employs multiple metaphors to convey the connection between generative practice in everyday life and the enhancement and preservation of culture. Is a cultural greenhouse what we should strive for, or is that too sheltered? Would a garden concept with wise planning and limited scope be more likely to foster work that is both sustainable and generative? An estuary with its diverse and abundant ecosystems conjures images of some artists functioning as the “oysters,” rooted and filtering their surroundings, improving the environment for all; others are more like salmon, following a pattern of life-giving migration and, perhaps, leaving the estuary for good at some point.
Makoto veers from principles to practicality by sharing his own story of inviting his supporters to invest in his career rather than merely purchasing his art. He does not use his considerable skills with a brush to paint an unrealistically positive view of the calling to serve one’s gift, but, instead, introduces a gritty path to success that he calls “rehumanized capitalism.” In order to start a movement or survive as an artist, three types of capital are necessary:
- Creative capital — The artist with talent and skill
- Social capital — An influencer such as a church leader or community organizer
- Material capital — An individual with means or access to supportive business contacts
Wouldn’t it be lovely if, once again, the church could become an environment in which partnerships such as this could thrive? Tim Keller, former pastor from New York City, laments the tragedy that “the church is no longer where the masses come to know the Creator of beauty.” We are called to a life of nurturing and rejuvenating creativity, a work of cultivation which requires new eyes enlightened by a new heart.
What life-giving practices enable you to honor God and embody the gospel while, at the same time, cultivating the creativity that is at the heart of what it means to be fully human?
Are you living in awareness of the rich evidence of purpose, the fingerprints of God upon his world, and then inviting others into the creative process?
Can we listen and respond to the voice of God as he speaks truth to the world (and directly to our searching hearts) through beauty, order, and grace?
Do we view the circumstances of our lives (whatever they may be) as the continual reshaping and remaking of our Potter God?