Solving Problems or Making Things New
Wisdom from Dorothy Sayers' 'The Mind of the Maker'
Wisdom from Dorothy Sayers' 'The Mind of the Maker'
I’ve just finished Dorothy Sayers’ classic ‘The Mind Of The Maker’ and she’s got my mind buzzing with so many ideas I felt that I needed to process at least some of them before they filtered out into the aether. I’ll be honest, my Facebook addled mind found some of her more complex and dated passages hard going, but towards the end it all started coming together. I was particularly struck by the chapter about artists and problem solving.
This initially caught my attention as it followed on neatly from some of the posts on this blog recently (most notably Huw’s piece on crosswords) but it also articulated yet another reason why us artists are not just quirky distractions in our churches, but we have something significant to offer in shaping them, as well as our wider culture.
Dorothy Sayers was a contemporary of Lewis and Tolkien and an associate of their gang of Inklings and ‘Mind of The Maker’ is a fascinating study of the relationship between creativity and the doctrine of the Trinity. In the penultimate chapter, she outlines the artist’s role in striking against the unhelpful and simplistic view of the world that boils everything down to a problem needing solving.
‘It has become abundantly clear of late years that something has gone seriously wrong with our conception of humanity and of humanity’s proper attitude to the universe. We have begun to suspect that the purely analytical approach to phenomena is leading us further and further into the abyss of disintegration and randomness, and that it is becoming urgently necessary to construct a synthesis of life.’ (p 181)
The synthesis she recommends is the kind of thing an artist does when approached with a situation. A creative mind doesn’t immediately see a problem that needs solving, but it looks for ways to make something new out of it.
‘From our brief study of the human maker’s way of creation, it should be fairly clear that the creator does not set out from a set of data, and proceed, like a crossword solver or a student of elementary algebra, to deduce from them a result which shall be final, predictable, complete and the only one possible. The concept of “problem and solution” is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation.’ (p 186-7)
Firstly then she puts this idea forward as a reminder to artists not to get sucked into the ‘detective novel’ type of art, in which everything must all be neatly wrapped up and all questions answered by the time you finish the book. However, she also applies it more broadly as an approach to life. An approach along these lines responds to suffering and pain not just by seeking to survive it in the short term, or alleviate it in the longterm, but by creating something new from it. Similarly, when we confront the joys and delights of life, we shouldn’t seek to simply understand them, we can enjoy them and create new manifestations of them to communicate them to others. She uses the example of a rose, which can be described and analysed into sterility or used creatively by a perfumer, a gardener, a flower arranger or a painter.
Her warning against looking at life in terms of ‘problem and solution’ is highly applicable to us as Christians. Even for Christian artists it is very easy for us to view the world in this very black and white way. I’ve often presented the gospel just like this in fact (point 1: the problem, point 2: the solution, point 3: response) and as people for whom God has switched on the lights, we are those who can most clearly see the problems that still lurk in the shadows all around us. Therefore, it is very tempting for this simplistic way of thinking to overspill into all areas of our lives.
Of course, there are significant problems that need to be solved in the world, in our own lives and in our churches. And, yes, Jesus did a great job at solving, among others, those two whopping problems of sin and death. However, it is worth noting that the incarnation was more than just a problem solving exercise. In Jesus, God was making all things new.
He’s in the habit of this you may have noticed. At the start, he came upon a formless and empty planet and created something new from it. Then he took hold of some dust and did the same. In similar fashion, he came down into the mess that we’d made of his world and our lives and even from that unpromising soil, he created something new and beautiful: legions of new creations. At the end, we’ll see how our fabulously creative God does an even more magnificent job with the entirety of human history, not throwing it away and starting again (which would certainly solve the manifold problem’s we’ve caused), but working with it to form a new heavens and new earth.
Sayers comments of the artist:
The artist does not see life as a problem to be solved, but as a medium for creation. (p 188)
If that approach resonates with you, be encouraged, that’s how God works too!
I find this very helpful. Firstly, it reminds me again to steer clear of the pressure to produce work that is essentially an evangelistic tract or a marketing tool for Christianity. I am not called to create solutions to problems. More broadly though this helps me to see that my work is not simply validated by its content but by my very practice. Content is important and we have beautiful, powerful things to communicate through our work, however, simply by applying the creative synthesis that Sayers talks of in our work and treating life as fuel for creation we are doing something important. Such work is itself a prophetic statement about the nature of God and our future hope and a kick in the teeth to the reductionist approach to life that is leading us ‘further and further into the abyss of disintegration and randomness’.
In short, we really do have something powerful to give to society as a whole and also to our churches. As we look to push forward with our artistic gifting while also wrestling with the challenges of being part of a local expression of the body of Christ, we help shake our brothers and sisters out of a simplistic, lifeless approach that sees everything as a problem to be solved or a number to be crunched. As Sayers puts it so well:
‘If the common man asks the artist for help in producing moral judgements or practical solutions, the only answer he can get is something like this: You must learn to handle practical situations as I handle the material of my book: you must take them and use them to make a new thing.’ (p 192)
All quotes are taken from ‘The Mind of the Maker’ (Harper San Francisco, 1987)
This is an edited form of an article published on ThinkTheology’s blog, which you can read here.