Thinking Out Loud

April 10, 2012

Fine Tuning Creativity and Relevance

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:12 am

Okay, so now we’re into day six of my being without my own PC, and I have a deeper understanding of why they call them personal computers.  I miss my bookmarks.  I miss my files.  I miss the annoying noise the fan makes.  Hopefully today it returns from sick bay, virus free.  So today we steal feature the writing of Australian Mark Sayers, author of The Trouble with Paris, and The Vertical Self who blogged this a few weeks back under the title The Art of Irrelevance

There are very few people who would disagree with the notion that the Church needs to embrace creativity. One of the great moves over the last ten to fifteen years in Christian culture has been an attempt to close the creativity gap between the Church and the wider culture. Thus a great deal of Church websites are now more pleasing on the eye, our brochures look slicker, Christian bands look cooler, our worship is more experiential, and there are conferences aplenty to serve those wishing to learn more about creative ministries.

Yet are these moves really about creativity? I am not so sure. So much of this movement to make Christians more creative is wrapped up in the quest to make Church more relevant. Which is a kind of short hand way of trying to say that we need to close the cultural gap between the Church and the wider society. That for the Christian faith in the West to remain relevant (note that word) we must be running at the same pace as secular culture when it comes trends and fashion. If we can achieve this, if our music, our images, our worship services look and sound like the wider culture, the doors of the Church will be broken down by the spiritually hungry.

This view assumes that secularism is not the main reason that the Church is marginalised in the West, rather we have gotten our aesthetic wrong. A problem easily remedied by simply mimicking the style and fashions of the wider culture. So our services begin to look like Australian Idol, our Christian indie bands look like secular indie bands, youth ministry websites look like secular websites trying to reach the youth market. In the midst of all of this Christians do get a chance exercise their creativity, through their musical or design based gifting, but is this the kind of creative endeavor that we as believers are really called to? Is this genuine creativity or mimicry?

When we see creativity as simply a tool to aid us in our quest to become relevant, we hungrily seek out those who have crossed over the cultural divide and who straddle the mysterious line between Christian and secular artists. For the last twenty-five years Christians have inquired about the faith status of Bono, now young believes ask similar ‘are they or aren’t they’ questions about The Temper Trap, Mumford and Sons, and Sufjan Stevens. These questions are rooted in the belief that by association with the social currency of celebrity the cultural gap can be further closed.

When we simply mimic the art of wider culture, we become something like gift shops at the art gallery, the real works are inside, and all we offer are mass produced prints and imitations.

I believe that we have to start again. I believe that the mission of the Church to the West will not be achieved by simply becoming cooler, or by mimicking the styles and tastes of the wider culture. Instead the church must understand what it truly means to create rather than to mimic. We only have to look to the past to see that this is possible, there is a whole cavalcade of creatives whose faith inspired them to be at the forefront of cultural creativity. We only have to listen to Handel, to look at a painting by Carrivagio, to walk through a building by Gaudi, or read Dostoyevsky to understand that for these great artists creativity was not about bridging a gap between the wider culture and the Church. Rather faith for these people was the foundation that enabled them to create sublime, incredible works of creativity which speak to us still today.

I believe that we need to return to a biblical understanding of our God given mandate as humans to create. We are created in God’s image, God is the creator of the world, the architect of the Himalayas, the Bird of Paradise and the Andromeda system. God speaks the world into being. We are called to be his ambassadors on earth, to act as he acts; so the ability to create, to imagine things and then to bring them into being is an essential part of our humanity. We are not called to simply mimic, God gives us the ability to create.

When God created humans in the garden he gave us the role of guardians or stewards of creation. When I hear steward I think of someone in a fluorescent vest ensuring that people do not run onto the pitch at sporting events. The Hebrew word used is Shomer, the english translation struggles to capture the true breadth of this word. A Shomer in Jewish thinking is someone who is chosen to look after and guard something of worth, and who is held accountable for their stewardship by a Rabbinical court. The role of the Shomer is not simply to be a passive guard but to cultivate the item in their care.

Thus as stewards we are called to partner with God in his great creative project, the redemption of a broken cosmos. God calls us to be a part of the creative process. Creativity is not a choice it is part of our mandate.

On the Cross we discover a vital element of God’s creative nature. One of the struggles of the artist is to hold together the awe inspiring and the transcendent elements of life, those moments which remind us of God’s glory, with the painful and broken elements of life. Christians tend to do okay at the first part, Christian bookstores are filled with prints of glorious mountain ranges, we love the transcendent apex of the worship song. But we tend to struggle with the broken elements of life, with integrating suffering, lament and loss into our creativity. On the Cross, God intervenes in history with such staggering alacrity and originality we can only marvel at his creativity. In one moment, God’s glory is revealed, Jesus takes sin upon his shoulders and defeats death and evil, yet at the same time, we are confronted with the image of a dying God, a man whose painful screams speak of his isolation from God. The crucifixion is one of those rare moments, where the transcendent and the immanent, the glorious and the earthly, the human and the divine are held together. It is the ultimate template for Christian creatives. Hold those extremes together and you will produce work that no longer is mimicry but which is truly creative.

~Mark Sayers

This article was originally published in Youth Vision Quarterly Magazine

Photo: Woodman Valley Chapel, Colorado Springs

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