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Wonder Is Not Just for an Artistic Elite

For the Life of the World: The Economy of Wonder

John Stott, the great British preacher and teacher, once said that his American friends were addicted to hyperbole, to overstatement and larger-than-life words. He advised us to trim the rhetoric and find the fitting word, a humbler means of expressing ourselves.

Indeed, there is humility in the well-chosen word. Words have power, but when they are overused or misused, they fail to describe our experience, what truly has meaning for us.

‘In the beginning, God created . . . 

These are the first words of the Bible—and just a few verses later, we are told that humans were created in God’s image, male and female. As image-bearers, therefore, we are imprinted with both the capacity and the desire to create. This creativity is not particular to a special subset of the human family (artists, poets, composers). All humans, male and female, are designed for creative work.

Yet this word, creativity, may have fallen prey to overuse and a loss of energy. Is there a substitute word or concept that can refresh our vision and help us re-capture a robust sense of our deepest nature, the image of God within us?

Perhaps the word is wonder. Childlike wonder.

Our ability to remain childlike is crucial for human flourishing. Recall the words of our Lord: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). We know that Jesus did not mean that we were to act like children—indulging childish desires and attitudes.

What, then, did he mean? He wanted to remind us that the capacity to see—adding insight to eyesight—is contingent upon our capacity for wonder. And wonder is the instinctive awe we feel in the presence of great beauty, great complexity, great wisdom, or great truth. When we are in a state of wonder, we are open; we are in the posture of receptivity. And since wonder and humility go hand-in-hand, the willingness to welcome the not-yet-known requires a kind of intellectual hospitality.

Creativity is hospitality to the genuinely new.

When poets or painters create a new piece, they stand before their creation just as we do—in awe before the authentically new creation. Why? Because the genuine work of art refreshes our humanity and reminds us of the image of God that remains in us despite our fallen-ness, weakness, and sinfulness. When a genuinely new thing comes into being, we sense that its uniqueness and value go far beyond the economics of the marketplace. The new thing participates in the economy of wonder—in God’s ekonomia.

Does this mean that newness is the only or the most exalted artistic value among us? Perhaps not—but as T. S. Eliot writes:

[W]hat happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered.

In other words, the authentically new thing is set among the existing “monuments” that preceded it. If it is truly new, it propels the tradition forward, reorienting the entire preceding tradition while simultaneously honoring that tradition.

This forward movement, this refreshment of tradition, is of the essence of wonder and creativity.

We all know that our language, our art, and our shared meanings require continual refreshment, and we value those willing to do the hard work to keep our cultural traditions alive and moving forward in a meaningful way. 

Yet real forward movement cannot take place in a vacuum—and trashing tradition is not authentic creativity, but an addiction to novelty. Newness and novelty are not the same thing in art­­, nor is newness—for its own sake—truly creative. The merely novel thing cannot sustain or contain real meaning. Genuine creativity always involves humility and a willingness to let go of both false certainties and hollow novelties in favor of a real encounter with truth, goodness, and beauty.

Genuine encounter carries with it both freedom and responsibility.

Those who have glimpsed a “better country”—that city whose architect and builder is God (Heb. 11:10)—will indeed speak truth, create works of beauty, demonstrate righteousness and justice in our midst, and employ true creativity in the process. And truly creative works in all walks of life, all professions, and all relationships will always engender wonder. Wonder is the hallmark of that encounter with the Source of all art, all justice, and all truth.

Again I ask, is the capacity for wonder and refreshment of our cultural meanings the province of a special group among us—an artistic elite? I say no—and, in fact, I believe that this is what Jesus was demanding of us all—that we be willing to risk boldly, yet with childlike trust, the encounter with wonder, newness, and God.

The Psalmist says, “Sing unto the Lord a new song!” (Ps. 96:1; 98:1), and we know in our bones that without the new song we are doomed to dryness and infertility. What remains is for us to find the fitting word, the fresh insight, or the new song. And I believe that all of us can do this in our respective lines of work.

But there is a risk: we must be open, humble, and receptive. We must become as little children.