Thomas Terry and Ryan Lister will be leading a workshop on “Redesigned Cathedrals: Creativity for the Church and the Church for Creativity” at TGC West this October in Fullerton, California. Register at TGC.org/west18. You can also join Terry and Lister at the upcoming Canvas Conference on theology and creativity, happening November 2 and 3 in Santa Ana, California. This article is an adapted excerpt from Terry and Lister’s forthcoming book, Images and Idols: Creativity for the Christian Life (Moody).
Our creativity needs Jesus. When we answer the “why” of creativity selfishly, we get into trouble. But when we let God answer it, our creativity is put in its right place. Christ reframes all of our existence—including our creativity—when he states with elegant simplicity: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).
Christ’s greatest commandment unites our creativity to the source of transcendence that we’re seeking in every piece of art. In short, it makes our creativity a chorus of God’s glory and a song sung for the world.
Creativity and God’s Glory
Christ does not stand against your creativity, but he does stand over it. Your creativity was and will always be an instrument of worship. The gospel re-creates all of you so that every part of you—including your creativity—is from Christ, through Christ, and to Christ. The gospel retunes your creativity to sing his grace. It re-creates your creativity so that it can finally do what he made it to do—bring him glory, forever.
Christ does not stand against your creativity, but he does stand over it. Your creativity was and will always be an instrument of worship.
In this light, creativity is like kintsugi, the Japanese art that transforms broken ceramics into beautiful works of re-creativity. The key to this process is a special lacquer derived from gold, silver, or platinum powder that the artist uses to adhere the pieces together. Running through the pottery is the glittering evidence of the pottery’s past and the promise of its future. The gold and silver lines stand out against the muted tones of the earthenware like the scars tell the tales of our lives.
All creativity from a Christian perspective then is like kintsugi in form. This art isn’t really about the pottery, or the piece’s remade utility; it is about restoration. It’s about the fractures. All you see when you look at one of these pieces are the gold and silver threads joining the once-shattered pottery together. Its beauty is in the lacquer’s ability to transform what was broken into something more beautiful than the original.
The gospel does the same to our lives and creativity. The sparkling lacquer holding the ceramics together mirrors the glorious providence of God that holds our own lives together. Where we’re fractured, the Lord pieces us back together through Christ and seals us with his Spirit. And where we’ve broken our creativity into millions of little idols, God pulls it all back together for those who love him.
For the creative, this means you find beauty in the places where God has healed you and transformed your creativity. It means you allow God to weave his beautiful restoration into every one of your creative acts. Let the One who has healed your fractures get the glory of your life and your life’s work. Put the golden and silver threads of God’s providence on display. Show how he weaves your fractured life and art back together and holds it in place. When you do, the world will see his glory, but you shouldn’t mind. Your eyes will be captured by it, too.
Creativity and the Good of the World
Creativity, like love, is not a selfish act. It has both a vertical and horizontal orientation, for God and for neighbor. Our creativity is at its best when it lifts our eyes to transcendence and forces the world to wrestle with its Creator. “The trumpet of imagination,” as G. K. Chesterton says, “is like the trumpet of the resurrection. It calls the dead out of their graves.”
Your creativity is bigger than you. It exists for God and for others.
Our creativity is at its best when it lifts our eyes to transcendence and forces the world to wrestle with their Creator.
For creatives, this means we love our neighbor practically in creative ways. Our lives and creative work are the colored glass that the Lord shapes and patterns for the world to see through the other end. All we have to do is hand the kaleidoscope to our neighbor. But we have to remind them that—just like the kaleidoscope—the full spectrum of their creativity is only seen only when held up to the Light.
Loving the world also means we let our creativity encourage obedience to Christ. “Creativity for obedience” sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. Obedience isn’t the opposite of freedom. Captivity is. Obedience is a choice. Captivity isn’t. The problem with submission is not the act itself, but the person to whom you must submit. Does this one hold the keys to your prison or the keys to a kingdom? This is one of the greatest deceptions of our generation: that freedom is doing whatever you want whenever you want, and that it is free of discipline, obedience, and submission. Yet everything we cherish and build our hopes on demands these things. You don’t find love in marriage without deferring to the other’s good. You don’t find joy in your creativity without being disciplined in your craft. And you can’t find wisdom in this world outside of obedience. Your life depends on it, literally. That is why you stop at red lights.
Every time you run from obedience, you run back into captivity. But if the gospel informs your creativity, then your creativity will assault this worldview, too. This is real freedom—and the way your creativity serves the world at large. Your life and creative work become keys to the prison doors of the world’s lies and idolatry.
Creative freedom, enlivened by the gospel, is not about doing whatever you want, but about wanting to do what God made you to do. Which means you have options, but you also need the wisdom, discernment, and counsel from God-fearers—not only creatives—to help you assess your gifts and your direction.
Creative freedom, enlivened by the gospel, is not about doing whatever you want, but about wanting to do what God made you to do.
Maybe you have the gift set to fill a high-end Manhattan gallery with your painting. Or it may mean you design book covers, even Christian book covers. But it could also mean you create and design gospel tracts that beautifully and clearly present the good news of Jesus Christ. Each of these examples articulates God’s love for our neighbor.
Model for Your Creativity
If you are truly the Lord’s, then your creativity cannot help but speak his name. Sometimes it will speak between the lines, and other times on the title page.
In the end, follow the Lord’s example. He presents his glory in general and special creative acts. They both declare his glory and demonstrate aspects of his nature—but he doesn’t limit himself to one genre or mode. Everything he does in his world is for his glory and our good. This is the model for your creativity, and it should free you. Not every creative project has to be a specific testimony to God’s glory. Some can be general, others specific. The rule that should guide your creativity, then, is this: Let everything you create be for God’s glory and the world’s good.
The rule that should guide your creativity is this: Let everything you create be for God’s glory and for the world’s good.
So sing hymns. Speak propositions. Write stories. Sing the Psalms. Score new songs. Explore human complexities. But do so in a way that you cannot run fast enough to lay your art at the foot of God’s throne.