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Choosing Creativity

Lynne and Steve Taylor

On Sunday I [Lynne] got out our chalk-and-oil-pastels and my children, my sister and I 'played'. Seeking inspiration from artists, from our experiences, from each other, we drew and smudged and enjoyed.

It is something I have been making the time to do more of lately. Something I enjoy enormously. I don't just use pastels but a variety of media to respond to the experiences that are part of my every-day life. In doing this, I have begun to realise that expressing my creativity -- using it -- is for me an essential part of my Christian spirituality.

The artwork I produced that afternoon (I called it "Colours of Life") was not an 'original artwork' but shamelessly based on a picture I had recently seen in a magazine. As I put on the finishing touches -- silver over a black central band -- I realised I was praying for those who are surviving black as the colour of their lives. I was praying that they will know glimpses of light, glimpses of hope: glimpses of silver; and I was reminded to name those I know for whom life is bleak and to bless them into God's care.

And so as I expressed my creativity, prayer too became a part of that expression, the whole exercise drawing me into a deeper place with God.

Creativity and worship

I remember being at Spring Harvest in the UK in 2001 and watching two artists painting their response to the sung worship that was welling up around them. My hands itched to get involved. I longed to smear my love for God on that huge canvas.

Back home, less messily, I gave people an opportunity to respond in a similar way in worship at our local church. While those who chose to sang, others took t-shirt shaped paper and painted in poster paints, expressing what it meant for them to be children of God, to be clothed in Christ. And my spirit sang as I had permission to sing, and move, and use colour and creativity to express that which is so important to me.

Has it always been like this? Have I always been like this? In a design sense I believe the answer to be, "Yes". Created in the image of God, I am designed to be both creative and spiritual. All of us are. In a practical sense, however, we often leave our crayons at kindy, our paints at primary school.

Creativity and God-talk

A theology of creativity starts in the beginning. Creator God creates. And it is good: sea and sky, light and larks. Creator God creates. And it is very good: human beings.1

For us to be made in the image of God means we are made to be like Creator God. Which means to be human is to be creative; to be fully human is to be fully creative. A church committed to seeing people formed in the image of God must explore the implications of encouraging people's creativity.

When preaching Genesis 1, for example, throw away your careful exegesis. Give everyone a five centimetre square tile and some pottery paint. Turn on "God moving over the face of the waters" by Moby.2 Invite people to 'create' as you read them the creation story in The Magician's Nephew by C S Lewis. Mount the finished tiles as your "Creation Psalm".

A theology of creativity starts with the Spirit. We read in Genesis that in the beginning "the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."3 And the result? Creativity. Creativity is the domain of the Spirit.

The second mention of the Spirit is also in relation to creativity. In Exodus we read how Bezalel son of Uri is "filled with the Spirit of God, with skill and ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts -- to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze."4 Bezalel is to work on the tabernacle. The work is creative. And so too, creative work in the church is powered by the Spirit. This opens up new terrain for the 'spirit filled' church: to be spirit filled is to make artistic designs.

A theology of creativity continues with Jesus: Jesus is the image of God.5 An ancient Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, hummed a musical Christology:

The Word sings according to a new harmony, a musical mode that bears the name of God; he has submitted the dissonance of the elements to the discipline of musical harmony to make a symphony of the whole world. Like the Word, Christ is song, music. No true music ever existed before him. As for us, we were already music before any other music; for we were in Christ before time began.6

We who claim we are made in the image of God must take a Creative God far more seriously. To see creativity as being only for certain people is to distort the image of God, deny the work of the Spirit, and ignore the images of God. Creativity is for all, and it is the task of the community of God to help people discover and release their creativity.

Creativity and God-images

A theology of creativity is nourished by biblical images of God.7 God is a musician, composer, potter, metalworker, garment maker, dresser, architect and a builder.

God: musician and composer

God is very musical. We hear it in God's creation; the dawn chorus, the cry of gull, the roar of sea, the chirp of cicada and cricket. God celebrates and sings in Zephaniah 3:17, gives a song in Psalm 42:8 and composes the words to a new song in Deuteronomy 31:19.

The Creator God's creation is a musical composition; the angels rejoiced as the morning stars sang in Job 38:7. This is superbly captured by CS Lewis in his Narnia story The Magician's Nephew, as Digby watches creation being sung to life.

In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing . . . . There were no words. There was hardly a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful.8

The call of Creator and the response of Creation harmonise, producing a haunting textual melody in which God the Creative Composer sings creation into existence.

One of my favourite spiritual spots is a monastery in the middle of the city of Auckland. In its garden old, old trees and lush green grass run downhill to meet acres of urban house and garden. I hug those trees and sit on those hills. As I hear God sing that "meadows are filled with sheep and goats, that valleys overflow with grain and echo with joyful songs", I align myself with the creative musical energy of God.9

That's the start. Then there's the conclusion. The Creator God's ending will be a musical composition. When the people of God are finally free, living fully as God intended, then creation will harmonise and trees will clap the beat.10 Music is woven into the book of Revelation: there is melody,11 silence,12 trumpet,13 thunder clap,14 harps.15

Next time you explore Revelation, find a musical friend. Together study a few biblical passages. Then try to express them, not in words, but in music. Find the textual rhythm. Build in the emotion. Let God's music regain its rightful place.

God: designer and dresser

In an early glimpse of God we see the clothing of humanity. God sews, making clothes out of animal skins.16 What a creatively nurturing image of God. God acts as both designer and dresser, mixing creativity and the practical equipping of Adam and Eve to face their changed world. What a parent.

A number of other biblical passages describe God the designer. God weaves us together at our conception.17 Similarly, in Job we read that God wove our bones together with muscles and covered them with flesh and skin.18 Why not pause at a city intersection one day, survey people, and honour God's design genius.

God walks the catwalk of the Old Testament. Acting with designer flair God clothes, perfumes and accessorises the nation of Israel with jewellery and piercings:

"I covered your naked body with my own robe . . . I rubbed your skin with olive oil. I gave you the finest clothes and the most expensive robes, as well as sandals made from the best leather. I gave you bracelets, a necklace, a ring for your nose, some earrings, and a beautiful crown. Your jewellery was gold and silver, and your clothes were made of only the finest material and embroidered linen."19

Similar themes appear in Isaiah 61:10, where God's saving power and justice are the very clothes Israel wears. Robert Banks expresses it eloquently.

Clothes directly cover our skin. They are the most intimate extensions of ourselves. It is not surprising that they should become the focus of so many hopes and desires. This explains why clothing so easily becomes a metaphor for a whole range of processes, but none so significant as its Old Testament usage -- becoming a new person.20

This is the creative work of God, designer, dresser -- a process charged with fashion and flair.

God: architect and builder

God lays the earth's foundations21 and builds the earth like a home.22 God is the architect who pores over the detail of the Temple, crafting sacred building and furniture, then giving the plans to David.23

Jesus is a carpenter, who is the cornerstone. In 1 Corinthians 3:9 the church is God's building. It is also God's garden, lest we get too functional. The image of God the builder and God the gardener is an entrée for the organic and relational images of 1 Corinthians 12, in which God is the community builder and body crafter. This is a tantalising mix of builder and organics.

The mix culminates in the pictures of the end in Revelation 21 and 22. The heavenly city is architecturally stunning. It is cubic in design, crafted from rich stones and floodlit by God. It is crafted to incorporate a central water feature, which streams past treelined streets.

No architect, no planner, no builder ever conceived a construction on this scale or of this quality. This is the city, the buildings, the streets, the parks, the homes, whose design every architect, planner and builder who has had any degree of imagination or care has in some small measure reflected in their best work.24

Take a bow, God the creative architect.

God: craftsperson

A stroll through one of Christchurch's most popular tourist attractions, Christchurch Art Centre, reminds me of the crafts of pottery and jewellery making. God is such a craftsperson. God the metalworker crafts people and nations, "just as silver is refined in heated furnace."25 God crafts words as a jeweller shapes silver in Psalm 12:6.26

In other places in biblical literature we find similar images of God as the crafter not only of metal, but also of clay. God crafts creation as a potter crafts clay. The earth is fashioned into shape.27 Elements of play are intrinsic here: an intuitive shaping and reshaping. Also elements of artistry: creation is displayed like stitches on clothing or sketches on clay.28 God goes beyond a merely functional creation to design and decorate. This extends to the sheer diversity of animal life described in Genesis 1. God takes clay in Genesis 2 -- lovingly he kneads and moulds, shaping humans. The potter has made us in the image of God.

So the Celtic poet, David Adam, exhorts us:

Come to the Lord and Giver of Life. Come to the Spirit, who transforms you from a 'lump of clay' to a living being, a person. Come to the Spirit to be refreshed, renewed, restored.29

Often the sheer torrent of words in contemporary Christianity can dull our appreciation of the creativity of God. A theology of creativity is nourished by these images of God as musician, composer, potter, metalworker, garment maker, dresser, architect and builder. How sad when our worship becomes dull and our sermons dry. Sad not only because we are boring, but also because we are offering an inadequate and thin picture of who God really is.

Creativity in practice

So practically, how has it worked for me? I am not artistic. I have not had an art lesson since the fourth form. I have no technical skills. But I will give myself a big tick for creativity. I am good at selecting elements (often those that hold meaning for me) and shaping them into objects of deeper meaning.

It is one thing to play with pastels in my own dining room and quite another to allow my humble work to be viewed. In learning to use my creativity, I have had to learn to move away from my natural perfectionist tendencies: from perfectionism to acceptance of my limitations, from perfectionism to vulnerability, from perfectionism to symbolic significance.

In moving from perfectionism to an acceptance of my limitations, I shrug my shoulders and acknowledge I shall never be discovered as a van Gogh or a Seurat. Then I pick up my materials and enjoy.

Moving from perfectionism to vulnerability I allow my humble creative efforts to be seen. Shedding my perfectionism for a sense of symbolic significance, I take familiar items as well as pastels, paint, wire, beads and glue and shape them into gifts that express something of my love, my prayers, my concern for others -- into objects that speak of my relationship with God, my spiritual journey.

My first time 'out' was an art exhibition my church was running. Linked with the local Santa Parade, it encouraged artists, creatives and wannabes in the church, community and beyond to reflect on the spirituality of Christmas. Coached by a Fine Arts student, a group of us presented our ideas and were shown ways we could make our concepts become realities.

In my piece I wanted to capture the sense that Jesus came so that I might have life, and have it to the full.30 Over a collage of photos that spoke to me of the fullness of life -- photos of my family, my friends, my wedding, my baptism, significant times and places -- I placed a piece of plastic transparency that I had painted black. Scratched into the film were those words from John. As people looked closely through the words they could see the pictures of my life.

Technically unsophisticated, it held deep meaning for me, created a visual representation of a spiritual truth and invited people to think about the fullness of Jesus in their own lives.

I felt hugely vulnerable showing it to others. In fact I still do! The kindly affirmation I received, and also the encouragement of seeing others expressing themselves creatively, meant that it was safe for me to contribute another piece the following year.

While I was prepared to make myself vulnerable by sharing my creative efforts, the support and encouragement of others was essential to ensure that my creativity was not snuffed out.

Creativity and mission

Last Pentecost I was involved with a day of workshops that aimed to celebrate the Holy Spirit's activity beyond the walls of the church: in our everyday lives, in our neighbourhoods and in our workplaces.31 Seminars provided input, coffee allowed time to think and talk, and art projects gave space and materials for creative expression.

Each participant was given a square of corrugated iron and invited to depict on it how the Holy Spirit 'enlivens' them. Paint and metal work tools were available, and an artist was present for advice and support. The project was done at a communal table -- allowing people to see what others were doing, share sparks of ideas and benefit from the encouragement of other participants.

Tony is an IT consultant, a keen sports follower, and a dad. The tile he created was based on Colin McCahon's paintings of waterfalls. "Colin saw a waterfall as the earth bleeding -- a sacrament of light issuing from the land recalling the blood shed by Christ in his passion."32 Tony was keen to capture that, saying of his piece, "For me it is a rending of the earth in the same way Christ's death rended something physical and spiritual which allows rivers of water and life to flow out to us. The last thing I did was cut the holes in the metal using the grinder. It was great to cut with sparks flowing everywhere. The brutal act of the grinder cutting the metal was in keeping with the act it was attempting to represent. Above all, it is good to create."33

Creativity and you

So what would I say to you?

To those who are itching to have a go, "Play!" Get out your wax crayons, your pastels, your paints, your angle grinder and enjoy. Go cook a meal, dig your garden, sing, dance. Weld metal, glue stones, take photos, weave grasses, quilt, cross-stitch, make cards. Design websites, write stories, tell stories, arrange flowers. And as you do, be aware of Creator God, who created you. Allow your spiritual journey to come through in what you do, let your work be a prayer, a blessing to others. Enjoy!

And to all who have the privilege of seeing someone else's vulnerable, humble efforts at creativity -- treat those efforts as gift, as treasure. Be careful not to inadvertently snuff out the creative confidence of those who would express themselves in this way. Encourage, support, and affirm.