Friday, July 26, 2013

Why Create?

Speak to me until I understand
Why our thinking and creating
And why our efforts of narrating
About the beauty, of the beauty
Why it matters.
            ~Sara Groves

It was hard for me to figure out how to write this post, and it’s still inadequate; I am woefully unqualified.  I have a BA, but I am not an academic.  I do not have any credentials as an artist, much less a theologian.  All I have is an odd sort of insistent tugging to create this blog.  As its creator, it falls to me to justify its existence and suggest its direction.  The question I feel is most important to answer in so doing, is this:  Why create?

I will hazard a guess that every artist finds himself returning again and again to his work, no matter how much he may try to go in other directions.  I read an article recently that tried to define what a poet is.  It was a pretty good article, but it missed the mark.  It’s an interesting question for me in particular, because I have never considered myself a poet…yet I am continually writing poems.  I have therefore come to believe that the truest definition of a poet is ‘one who writes poems’[1]; any attempt at a more complex explanation inevitably leads to an effort to define how or why a poet is.  Such an endeavor is hopeless, like trying to explain ‘what is a C. S. Lewis?’  We cannot know ourselves, let alone another person – you may as well try to define God.  A poet is someone who writes poems.  Does he know where the poems come from?  I certainly don’t.  God, obviously, but beyond that?  All I know is that poetry exists within me, much like my spine, or bacteria.  So why do we create?  Because we are creators.

An interrelated question presents itself:  Why does it matter?  The ‘so-what’ question.  You can find many intelligent defenses of art.  They don’t seem to have made much of an impact on a societal level, which is not surprising if you consider the nature of art.  Art is abstract, and its benefits are intangible.  Science may benefit the body; art benefits the soul.  Art is necessary because we have souls, souls that are starving, and so we consume art.  Why, then, do we not value it?  Because we humans have a tendency to avoid our own souls – this is where we see things clearly and feel things truly.  It is a frightening place that we are ill prepared to approach, whether Christian or not.

We also tend to undervalue the soul, or else the old Christmas anthem, O Holy Night, would not have that powerful and mystical phrase, “and the soul felt its worth.”  We are generally more preoccupied with life; we fail to consider the needs of our souls amidst the clamoring needs of our bodies.  We need food, water, sleep, exercise, leisure, work, money, etc.  All true, and all earthly.  All physical.  All mortal.  The soul, which is infinitely more important in the long-run, needs only God.  This one thing is easily drowned out by the rest, especially since it is the one thing we are usually most eager to avoid.

But how is a need for God connected to a need for art?  I believe that art is an expression of God.  It is our poor attempt to represent his glory, beauty, power, mercy, wrath, compassion, and on and on.  We can never quite get it right, of course, but we can capture glimpses, suggestions, in a sublimated, abstract form[2] that somehow is able to speak to the soul not only of the artist, but of others as well.  Art is the best kept secret in the annals of miracles.

I have tried to explain, at a very basic level, why artists create art, and I have tried, at a spiritual and human level, to explain why we all need art in our lives.  Very well.  But what place does art hold in the Church?  It’s easy to see art in a church building on Sunday morning; there is architecture; flowers; music; maybe a video.  But what about the Universal Church; the Body of Christ?  In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul, speaking of spiritual gifts, says:  “[T]he manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit all.”  We tend to refer to ‘spiritual gifts’ as something separate from ‘God-given talents,’ such as art.  This makes a good deal of sense, though I think there is room to consider the possibility that art can be an expression of spiritual gifts.  Can not art, for example, reveal something of the mysteries of God and the human heart in its imperfect, abstract way?  Can it not, in that sense, prophesy?  But that is another discussion entirely.

It is of more direct benefit for our purposes here to look at art simply in terms of the verse in question.  We say art is God-given talent; is it not, therefore, a “manifestation of the Spirit?”  After all, we worship a creative, artistic God.  And I have already spoken of the benefits of art; does it not, therefore, “profit all?”  Matthew Henry says that “[w]hatever gifts God confers on any man, he confers them that he may do good with them, whether they be common or spiritual.[3]  I don’t know that artists have some abstract version of spiritual gifts, or are instead blessed with “common” ones, but their work fits the verse regardless.

This brings us to the real answer to the question, why create?  We create because God has given us a gift, and this is exactly why we ought to create.  It is, in some sense, a “manifestation of the Spirit.”  It is therefore not our gift to hoard.  We have a responsibility to use it and to put it out in the world, like the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).  The gift is given to the artist that all may profit from it.  That is why we must use it, and that is why it matters.


[1] And an artist in general, ‘one who creates art’.
[2] These are also the reasons we do not stop creating art – because we are unsuccessful, we must try again, and because we are partially successful, we are wild with desire to capture another glimpse.
[3] Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1991, pg 2266.