There is, it seems to me, a constantly reciprocal relationship between faith in Jesus Christ and creativity (of whatever sort, though here I have mostly in mind the arts in their various expressions).
Creativity informs faith because our faith is confidence in a true story – Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – and our faith is also participation in, and faithful re-telling of, that story. The gospel story is the deepest and most true story because it situates all other stories one way or another. Creativity compels us to tell this story well and sensitively, and truly, and in ways that honor the story’s complexity and the ongoing tension that inevitably results from living in a time during which other stories compete with the Gospel story, and sometimes it seems like those other stories are more true or compelling. Creativity also prompts us to handle the biblical materials sensitively and with an eye towards their artistic merits, and it reminds us that biblical exegesis can’t lose sight of the irreducible truths conveyed by narrative and the impact narrative retelling has on its audience.
On the other hand, faith informs creativity because faith in Jesus Christ contains within itself a telos that orders other pursuits and desires towards certain ends. Our art must be created under the lordship of Christ. This is less something you figure out once and more something that has to constantly be tested and practiced. But faith reminds us that art is never made for its own sake because not even people are made for their own sakes. We have purpose and the destinies of our lives have overall direction, and that is for Christ and his Kingdom.
A bit more ought to be said about this. I grew up in a context in which faith’s influence on art was essentially a stunting and limiting one. When I explain this to people, I suggest that the two words that characterize the average American conservative Christian’s interaction with art are “censorship” and “avoidance.” Faithful New Testament exegesis leads me to believe, however, that two much better words for faithful artistic participation are engagement and filtration. Engagement: truly and even charitably seeing and encountering art. Looking, reading, listening, discussing it on its own merits as charitably as possible. Filtration: putting biblical wisdom and discernment into practice and recognizing that you are not a passive consumer but an active cultural participant.
Through the Spirit who is alive and well within you, you are able to retain your grasp on the good, and let fall from your grasp the less good, that you find in any given instance of art. An especially gritty movie, such as The Master, might be worth taking in for Joaquin Phoenix’s astonishingly compelling lead performance, as well as the cinematography and script-writing and the performances of Amy Adams and Philip Seymour Hoffman; but there is much that might be worth letting go, such as the negative psychological impact that Phoenix’s struggles with sex addiction – often graphically portrayed – might have on your own journey in that area.
That process – engagement and filtration – is concisely summed up by the apostle Paul in the latter half of 1 Thess. 5:20-22: “Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.” Engagement: test the prophecies. Filtration: hold onto the good and reject the evil. Another witness to this is found in Hebrews 5:113-14: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” This ‘constant use’ is very similar to what I have in mind by the process of engagement and filtration. Those who only avoid and censor are not truly putting their powers of discernment to constant use.
In my next post I will suggest practical guidelines for how this process of engagement and filtration might play itself out in the lives of an artist (on the one hand) or a creative participant (on the other hand).