Have you ever felt like conversations on faith and creativity get easily sidetracked? Does it often feel like the subject gets changed as soon as possible? Do you ever wonder why creativity tends to be such a theological hot potato? In this episode we’ll take a look at 3 common conversational obstacles to discussing Faith & Creativity.
So, our focus on the Faithful Creative Show is on providing practical help for artists who are trying to integrate their faith and creativity. In that process one of the big questions that keeps coming up again and again is this question:
“What can I do, as an artist to make sure my work has a positive, long-term moral or spiritual impact on the audience or the culture as opposed to a negative moral or spiritual impact instead?”
Now this type of question comes up even in secular contexts. Recently I was at a Comic-book convention where some friends and I got to see a panel of very popular fiction authors discussing how they avoid propagating certain damaging ideas in culture through their work. Now their concerns were all of a secular nature, such as wanting to avoid making the women appear helpless or avoid contributing to negative ethnic or racial stereotypes. They took it seriously however, with one of them even abandoning work on a projects when they realized the negative impact it could have on the audience.
On one hand, it was refreshing to hear this discussion because it demonstrated how creative people can take responsibility for the influence their work has on their audience. On the other hand it was also a little disturbing, because, it highlighted for me just how rare these types of conversations seem to be in Christian circles.
Among Christians these conversations instead seem to get treated like a game of theological hot potato, where the topic is introduced, but only entertained for the briefest period of time before quickly being diverted into a different conversation altogether. And though there’s a variety in what kind of new conversations they might shift to, they all seem to share one thing in common, that none of them provide any actual answers to the question of how better to make the impact of the creative work positive instead of negative.
And that’s perfectly fine if the question isn’t something that you personally need an answer to. Many people in these conversations are apparently fine with no answer. This could be because they may interact with creativity in a more peripheral way, perhaps using it as a hobby instead of a career.
However, for those of us who are more full-time creatives, this question keeps coming back up because it sits at the connecting point between our faith and our creativity. We could use either our faith or our creativity individually without any additional answers, but to make them work together requires a more robust understanding. And when we’re dealing with constant diversions, they can be an obstacle that keeps many more full-time creatives from gaining greater effectiveness in the use of their gifts.
Some Might Disagree
Now, I want to recognize that any artist who feels called to, and fulfilled in, using their gifts for evangelism or in congregational ministry likely won’t experience a problem here. The church traditionally does a much better job at giving practical advice for those endeavors.
However, for artists with a desire to do creative work which doesn’t fit neatly inside either of those contexts, there seems to be a distinct lack of practical help for them.
And any conversations that do get started seem to be spun off to other topics, leaving the original subject virtually unexplored.
So, what could be driving this Theological Hot Potato phenomenon?
All Creativity is Good!
So, One of the most common responses when someone asks about how to better use their creative gifts, is for someone to say:
“God is creative, therefore we should all be creative!”
Now, they might not intend it, but this approach tends to position creativity as something which is always good.
However, most of us have examples that we can think of off the top of our head where the effect of a piece of creativity on the public or on ourselves might have been more negative than positive.
We often encounter media in our culture like movies, television or music that glorify and promote lifestyles choices and values that are in direct conflict with the teaching of scripture.
I don’t think we can deny that there is creativity happening there, some of these are surprisingly creative, yet they produce an effect of moving people farther away from the truth rather than closer to it.
Prov 15:4 says
“A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: But perversion in it crushes the spirit.”
And then in Eph 4:29 it says
“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.”
I think that it’s important to keep in mind that our words and possibly other forms of creative expression have the capacity to have an effect, either to help or to even potentially hinder those around us.
Also, Stating ‘Creativity is Good!” is only addressing the conversational tip of the iceberg. It might provide a solution for someone who is wrestling with the genuine belief that creativity is 100% bad. However, that’s not the difficulty that most people seem to struggle with. Most creative people readily accept that creativity can be good. The questions arise when we consider what else it can be..
If creativity is powerful, in the sense that it has potential to be both beneficial but also harmful, then it’s important for those of us who use it to find out how to direct that power to make it constructive rather than destructive.
So, though it is fairly common, if a conversation shifts into the ‘all creativity is good’ territory, it’s sadly often a dead end in terms of it’s helpfulness.
Now that we’ve seen how creativity has potential power in both directions, let’s take a look at how our relationship with our hearts can also impact our conversations about creativity.
Our Heart’s Desire:
Another component which seems to derail conversations about faith and art is the way our hearts appear to be intrinsically linked to our ability to use our creative gifts.
One of the blessings I think we rarely consider is that when God gives us a creative gifting, along with that creative capacity He also gives us a desire to use that gift.
So most of us recognize that the desires in our hearts play a role in our creativity.
And not surprisingly, we find scripture describes this as well.
In Exodus 31, when God appoints the master craftsman Bezaleel to oversee the construction of his Tabernacle He fills Bezaleel with His spirit but also “[puts] wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans” so that they can also help ‘make all that He commanded.
In Exo 36:2 we read that
“ …Moses called Bezaleel and Aholiab, and every wise hearted man, in whose heart the LORD had put wisdom, even every one whose heart stirred him up to come unto the work to do it:”
This term of ‘wise-hearted’ is repeated when discussing creativity in scripture elsewhere.
I think it is important to notice that the capacity and the desire to be creative here are both clearly good and both come from the heart.
But Proverbs 4:23 warns us to:
“Guard your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life.”
It seems clear then, that our hearts are a crucial component for our healthy functioning, whether creatively and otherwise.
However, while we may recognize the important role that our hearts and its desires play in our creativity, most of us also recognize that not all of our desires are good.
One of the most well-known verses in scripture, Jeremiah 17:9 says,
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
Now does this mean our hearts are all 100% evil ? Based, on the verses we looked at earlier, I think we would have to say no, however, the warning is clear. Our hearts are not dependable by themselves. They are flawed and corrupt, and will mislead us when not corrected by God’s word.
In Psa 81:12 God describes his punishment for those who were rebellious saying:
“So I gave them up unto their own hearts’ lust: and they walked in their own counsels.”
If we look around it is all too easy to find examples of Adultery, Greed, and Corruption that demonstrate for us where following our desires without God’s counsel can lead us.
As – Jen Pollock Michel, observes in her book Teach Us to Want: “
“We all know a contemptible truth about ourselves…We each have great capacity for evil and terrific incapacity for good…”
So, should we just write off our hearts then? Should we avoid them at all costs?
Thankfully, Phil 2:13 offers some good news “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”.
So, because of God’s work, not only can we have the capacity to do creative work, but through His work our desires can also be redeemed so they will produce results that please Him.
Yet, the passage seems to indicate this is an ongoing, as yet incomplete process, meaning, that while some of our desires can be good, some will still be misleading and harmful.
In Luke 6:45 Jesus indicates that
“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”
So in our heart lies the very best and the very worst of who we are.
To operate as artists, we are forced to take an honest, unflinching look at this powerful and problematic part of ourselves.
As Jen Pollock Michel points out:
“Reflecting on our desires asks us to address the more naked parts of who we are and why we do what we do.”
Discussing our hearts connects us with topics that often people prefer to keep private, such as our deepest desires or greatest fears.
Or we may face the parts of our lives that do not look the way we want. Where our desires and actions sometimes conflict. Where we confront what the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:19 describes as
“…the good that I desire, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not desire”
The answers on this path can be hard to predict and often require real discernment to handle correctly.
Because of this it can become quite attractive for us and our counselors to divert past such uncertain territory in favor of a more predictable and theologically clearer conversation about something like the future eternal destination of our souls, or another suitably dependable topic.
However, if we have a theology that dismisses the heart, or discounts it or avoids it, it will be a theology that won’t work for the artists. Because the artists need their hearts to do their work. And we need spiritual answers that work practically with our hearts if we hope to connect our faith and our creativity.
Another reason our conversations can divert from faith and creativity to other topics, is that morally evaluating the impact of our creativity can invite accusations of legalism from various directions.
Many might say that our responsibility is to focus on our faith alone and to focus on the moral quality of our own efforts is legalistic. The dilemma comes from the fact that a lot of Christian theology is very internal. It talks about your internal morals, the state of your heart etc. And a lot of the time, this is appropriate. That is as it should be. We should be concerned about the state of our hearts, as scripture points out:
”Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart.
But one of the unique aspects of creativity, is that it virtually always involves directly expressing the contents of that internal heart dimension in some external way.
It’s when you realize you are translating that internal state of your heart out into something outside yourself that these questions become crucial and very practical.
Then the question becomes how to express those desires in a way that is honoring to God. We begin to ask: “If I’m choosing a course of action, are there good choices as well as bad?
- Are there ways that are more helpful or harmful?
- Are there wise choices and foolish choices?
- If so, how can we make a distinction between them.
Are we just flying blind and hoping that God will miraculously make everything we create into something beneficial?
Is this how God wants us to make choices in other areas of our lives?
Unfortunately, many leaders in the church are unwilling to talk about the practical application questions in anything but a very limited capacity before they start to get really uncomfortable.
This may be because they feel unequipped to provide practical answers for these questions, and if that is the case I sincerely sympathize.
I imagine the typical clergy training program includes little information on the nuances of creativity.
However, It also may be because to them, the conversation begins to sound very similar to how they currently define legalism.
Legalism is a rather unfortunate word for us to use as it is not used in Scripture.
Since it’s not used in scripture, we do not have the ability to demonstrate in scripture whether someone is defining or using it incorrectly. So, many different definitions for Legalism exist.
Common definitions run the range from “keeping the Law in order to be saved” to “any activity or endeavour which focuses on man’s choices and responsibilities”,
Some of you might be thinking that legalism is actually quite simple to define but it may not be quite that simple.
Some might suggest legalism is “anything that has to do with keeping the Law”, yet most of us believe it is not legalistic to keep God’s Laws regarding not lying, stealing, committing adultery or murdering.
Some might say that legalism is focusing on man’s actions and responsibilities and not God’s, however, Jesus himself tells people
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and yet do not the things that I say!”
Here Jesus focuses on the listener’s actions. It is hard to argue that this focus means he is being legalistic.
Unclear or incomplete definitions of legalism like these have apparently grown quite popular.
Because the definition of legalism seems to change from person to person and place to place, it is very hard to defend oneself against the charge of ‘legalism’.
Some might take this lack of effective response as evidence that legalism is present and in hiding.
However, just choose any equally undefined term and you’ll find that verifying its presence or absence is equally futile.
Finding anything is very hard to do unless you can define what you’re looking for.
Because of this it seems many pastors and teachers try very hard to avoid any teaching which might match any of the popular definitions of legalism.
And like I said, it’s pretty broad and that can get pretty restrictive.
For this reason, I believe, we have accepted the idea in a lot of church culture that asking for practical advice about how to walk out our faith is a mistake that must be avoided.
So unfortunately, in terms of creativity, the answers we’re getting are very internally focused, where we focus on the state of our hearts, while ignoring the outward impact the way we express our hearts will have on others
We mentioned the scripture earlier that says man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart. But we should notice that even though God can observe our unique internal state He still gives us common directions on what to do externally.
Sadly, seeking such practical directions regarding art in some circles has become virtually off-limits to discussion.
Being a creative person, seems to require answers on this practical level. So, while others may not care, I think we may have to dig a little deeper, and look at things a little more carefully, and not allow ourselves to just leave a topic when it starts to get theologically uncomfortable. But be ready to be called legalistic if you do.
I think it’s an unfortunate side effect from the lack of clarity we’ve allowed to grow prevalent around this topic in our popular theology.
So, while the fear of being accused of legalism can divert our conversations about faith and art, I believe allowing ourselves to keep taking that path of least resistance, where we don’t get answers, in the long run, is not serving those of us in the creative community of faith.
So when we look at our conversations about faith and creativity we may start noticing how often they shift away into unrelated topics. Perhaps we may find that some of the underlying causes are:
- The Idea that All Creativity is Good!
- How We Try to Avoid Our Hearts
- Fear that Creative Works Are Legalistic!
Often, it seems, these obstacles effectively prevent these conversations from continuing long enough to yield any practical answers. I hope that by noticing these conversation diverters when they show up, perhaps we can avoid them and begin to engage in more fruitful discussions on faith and creativity in the future.
Also, in the future I hope to cover some of these in greater depth, so if any of these topics struck a chord with you, or if you have questions or would just like to hear more about them, please let me know.
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org OR using the contact form on the website at www.faithfulcreative.com/contact.