Should Christians Be The Most Creative People On The Planet? (Remix)
Lessons from Pope John Paul II's Letter to Artists
Lessons from Pope John Paul II's Letter to Artists
Years ago I saw a blog post entitled ‘Should Christians be the Most Creative People On The Planet?’ Unfortunately, as far as I recall, the post itself was pretty forgettable, but the question remained enticing to me. I’ve always found it interesting that Christians’ artistic output, in my lifetime anyway, has been on the whole somewhat impoverished, while at the same time Christianity itself is a worldview that seems to be packed full of fuel for creative energy.
As I read John Paul II’s excellent 1999 Letter to Artists (which I blogged on the other day) I finally found the kind of content that I was hoping to find in the original article, and while the Pope would doubtless shy away from such sweeping superlatives as used here, I wanted to throw his reflections into the pot in response to this question.
So, should Christians be the most creative people on the planet? Well, the least we can say is that the Christian faith should certainly provide a springboard to launch its advocates to far higher levels of artistic excellence than we’ve become known for in recent years.
Pope John Paul refers to three different strands of Christian teaching that should provide us with creative inspiration, motivation and even power: Creation, the Incarnation and the work of the Holy Spirit.
‘Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God’
From that observation, the Pope asserts that in our creator God, we see an ‘exemplar of everyone who produces a work: the human craftsman mirrors the image of God as Creator.’
He is quick to point out that there is an essential difference between creator and created, but the relationship is still highly motivational towards creative endeavours on our part:
What is the difference between “creator” and “craftsman”? The one who creates bestows being itself, he brings something out of nothing… and this, in the strict sense, is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The craftsman, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God… (God) created the human being, the noblest fruit of his design, to whom he subjected the visible world as a vast field in which human inventiveness might assert itself.
But it’s not just motivational, there’s a sense of creative summons here, and a power to carry out that call:
With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of his own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in his creative power.
The letter moves on from there to consider how the incarnation (God coming down to earth in the person of Jesus) affects human creativity.
Firstly, he uses the Incarnation to build a bridge between the rather tricky second commandment and artistic practice.
The Law of the Old Testament explicitly forbids representation of the invisible and ineffable God by means of “graven or molten image” (Dt 27:15), because God transcends every material representation: “I am who I am” (Ex 3:14). Yet in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God becomes visible in person… This prime epiphany of “God who is Mystery” is both an encouragement and a challenge to Christians, also at the level of artistic creativity. From it has come a flowering of beauty which has drawn its sap precisely from the mystery of the Incarnation. In becoming man, the Son of God has introduced into human history all the evangelical wealth of the true and the good, and with this he has also unveiled a new dimension of beauty, of which the Gospel message is filled to the brim.’
And he pinponts the exact moment in church history that this bridge was put in place:
The Council held at Nicaea in 787, which decreed the legitimacy of images and their veneration, was a historic event not just for the faith but for culture itself. The decisive argument to which the Bishops appealed in order to settle the controversy was the mystery of the Incarnation: if the Son of God had come into the world of visible realities—his humanity building a bridge between the visible and the invisible— then, by analogy, a representation of the mystery could be used, within the logic of signs, as a sensory evocation of the mystery.
So then, the incarnation of Jesus doesn’t just solve a theological problem for artists (how do we make representations of God when the Law of Moses tells us not to?) but it solves a deep philosophical problem too: how do we go about representing realities that are beyond our senses? I think that what Pope John Paul was getting at was that the coming of Jesus gives us permission to try to do so, but also that it provides us with a model of how to go about representing, or at the very least reaching towards, things that are beyond the material world. Interesting!
Finally, towards the end of the letter, he returns to creation, to highlight the vital role of the Holy Spirit in all of this:
‘The Holy Spirit, “the Breath” (ruah), is the One referred to already in the Book of Genesis: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters” (1:2). What affinity between the words “breath – breathing” and “inspiration”! The Spirit is the mysterious Artist of the universe.’
And from that thought follows an absolutely magnificent paragraph:
‘Looking to the Third Millennium, I would hope that all artists might receive in abundance the gift of that creative inspiration which is the starting-point of every true work of art. Dear artists, you well know that there are many impulses which, either from within or from without, can inspire your talent. Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning. Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power. He touches it with a kind of inner illumination which brings together the sense of the good and the beautiful, and he awakens energies of mind and heart which enable it to conceive an idea and give it form in a work of art. It is right then to speak, even if only analogically, of “moments of grace”, because the human being is able to experience in some way the Absolute who is utterly beyond.’
My last post reflecting on Pope John Paul’s letter was a continuation of our ‘Beauty and Art’ series, and that series had itself arisen out of a feeling of uncertainty about how I should pray for artists. Prayers for better work, more influence, or simply a proliferation of beauty seemed unsatisfactory to me.
Well, for the time being at least, I think that paragraph gives me some much needed vocabulary and content for my prayers. I hope it stirs you similarly.
So where does this all leave us? Well, whether Christians should be the most creative people on the planet is debatable, but I think it would be fair to conclude two things:
Firstly, becoming a Christian should provide someone with an increased level of creative motivation and energy.
And secondly, for those who are already Christians, but feeling a bit dry and uninspired creatively, investing time in your relationship with God should not be at the expense of your artistic output, it should greatly enhance it.