Last week, I argued that creativity is a universal human trait. But much that is universally human (like digestion) isn’t necessarily a priority for conversation in the church. Why does creativity matter?
To tackle the question, I want to reflect briefly on the Bible, creativity, and idolatry.
Creation is again an obvious starting place. Genesis 1 and 2 show God at work, echoing each of his creative acts with the same refrain: “It was good.” The scriptures join in the refrain, celebrating God’s handiwork in creation and his supremacy as creator at almost every turn.
As image bearers, we echo his creative impulse, working with what he’s done, and coming up with something else. But this impulse is corruptible. Sin has reduced our creativity and imagination, and has run amok with our affections. Isaiah 44 shows the creative instinct turned into something soul-destroying: using it to make a sad and pathetic object of worship. It’s absurd, Isaiah shows us, and yet our idols have utterly captured our imagination.
Romans 1 paints the same picture, showing us as people who have rejected God—who in turn gives us over to our desires. In the absence of community with God, we create substitutes and reap the sad benefits of their lordship.
Creativity doesn’t just make our idols; it sustains them. Our idols prey upon the power of creativity, particularly the power of imagination. Idols are absurd, and without the power of imagination to carry their vision of salvation along, they wouldn’t have nearly the power of seduction. The log in Isaiah remains a log without the power of imagination to make it something to which the carpenter can say, “Save me!” For idols to work, we have to be able to imagine a world where power, sex, money, and status can actually provide what our souls desperately need.
And they get a lot of help. Consider the world of advertising, where everything from a sports drink to a Lexus seems to promise soul satisfaction. Some of the best and brightest minds in the creative marketplace are at work trying to figure out how to help you see their product as the solution to your deepest problems. All they need to do is get a hook in your imagination. Then we find ourselves fantasizing and daydreaming about our idols.
‘Expulsive Power of a New Affection’
It’s easy to recognize our idols. Removing them is another story altogether. As Thomas Chalmers points out in his classic sermon, what we need is a vision of truth that displaces our obsession and affection for these hollow daydreams. He called it the “expulsive power of a new affection.”
Chalmers argued that we can’t simply destroy our idols, or to put it another way, we can’t simply erase our daydreams. Instead, we must replace them. Chalmers says, “What cannot be thus destroyed, may be dispossessed—and one taste may be made to give way to another, and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind.”
This is why creativity matters. Creatives all around the world are already working to capture people’s imaginations. But their goal is to win them over to a political worldview, a clothing brand, or a sports drink. Our God knows creativity well. As important as doctrine is, as important as legal language and clear facts are, God knows we need our imaginations to be captured by truth. We need to be won over by the surpassing beauty of Christ, the utterly compelling glory of God. We must see them as a greater good and a better hope than all the promises of our idols and daydreams.
So God doesn’t merely present the gospel to us in a contract. He gives us a wonderfully creative book in the Bible, and invites us to engage with our imagination. Israel’s rescue from slavery is both history and allegory. So see yourself in slavery, in the wilderness, and in the promised land.
The prophets speak to a context that is both particular and universal, so imagine yourself in their audience. Notice how Jesus responds to theological questions. He often says, “Let me tell you a story. There were once two brothers… “ or “Two men worked in a field…” or “Some young women were waiting on a bridegroom…” He knows his hearers need more than a black-and-white answer. They need something that ignites their imaginations.
Full Range of Human Emotion
Throughout the Bible, we’re confronted with creativity, artistry, and imagination. Psalms—often referred to as the “prayer book” of the Bible—is a song book that exposes the full range of human emotion. The book of Esther is a literary masterpiece, full of irony and wit, telling a story in which God is the hero though his name is never mentioned.
God sets his sights directly on our imagination, and we would be wise to follow suit. My friend Kevin Twit regularly talks about how the work of preaching and worship is to present Jesus as more beautiful and more believable than he was before. This is one of the ways that creative people can be a profound blessing to the church—disrupting and disturbing, targeting our imaginations. Replacing hollow daydreams about status and fame for dreams of a kingdom that turns status on its head, for dreams of a rock cut out without human hands that smashes all of our kingdoms and becomes the center of the world (Dan. 2:34).
There are examples aplenty. C.S. Lewis gives us a new vision of Jesus as Aslan, a lion who is good but not safe. Isaac Watts confronts us with the wondrous cross, a contradiction in terms that leads to worship. In more contemporary terms, Mark Driscoll presents Jesus to young men as someone worthy of respect, good in a fight, and worth aspiring to know and follow.
Christian music, at its best, ignites the imagination, too. Whether it’s the ragamuffin Jesus of Rich Mullins, the New/Old hymns of Sandra McCracken, or the works of J. S. Bach, music breaks through our defenses and haunts us with a fresh word of truth. Thad Cockrell’s “Oh to Be Loved” says absolutely nothing new about Jesus, and yet the song has reduced me to tears more times than I care to admit.
Artists and creatives can help to turn the imagination away from the promises of our idols towards promises and hopes that will never fade. They can confront and disturb, disrupting the comfortable apathy in which many of our religious thoughts reside, and haunting us like Jesus’ parables. A song, a story, a painting, or even a fresh illustration in a sermon can be tossed alongside us like an innocent gift, an unnoticed package. But inside is a pipe-bomb of truth, a mustard seed that can explode in our minds as it takes root, transforming our daydreams from hollow fantasy to faith-invigorated hope.