The tensions of creativity

Here’s another reason why the church is like art and should be approached by people willing to think of themselves like artists:

Form vs. Flow

There is a struggle at the heart of every person to both live within a form and break out of it–to burst over the banks and crash through the walls into something new.  This is vividly portrayed in art.  An artist will spend years developing the ability to speak through a certain medium, develop a style, hone their craft. It’s appropriate. They realize that flitting from form to form is disastrous–it ends with an inability to actually communicate what they feel and what they wish to portray.  Eventually they come to realize that they need form.  However, there are those moments when all the paints get thrown out. All the old colors are cast aside. The canvas is exchanged for the brick wall, etc…  In other words their own creativity, the desire to birth something new can no longer live within the old and well developed form.  So they strike out. They discover diversity and a meaningful difference.  Some would be tempted to say that they no longer need form or use it. But the truth is, they’ve just changed forms.  Even abstract painters or modern instillation creators are still inhabiting a particular place.

This is true of church.  We invest ourselves in a place. We throw ourselves into a particular aspect of God or each other and experience it fully.  Eventually though this changes. We struggle with what had previously been functional and now just feels like formula.  Then we “blow it up”. We go back to the drawing board. it’s tempting, in that deconstructive and reconstructive phase, to think that we are tossing aside all form. The reality is that we are simply exchanging.  We’re adapting. We’re being provoked. We’re investing in a different medium. 

I believe there has to be a tension and a truce struck between inconoclasts/puritans who would shatter every idol (save the idol of shattering every idol), and those who cling to their distinct channels of worship.  The truth is that we need both. There are two giftings at work here–prophet and priest.  One calls out authentic truth and the other ministers through symbol and sacrifice.  This leads to another similarity:

Discipline vs. Spontenaity

Most artists I know have both a rebel and a dictator vying for control of their soul ;)  And that’s a positive thing.  On one hand there is the side of them that can be in the middle of conversation, then suddenly inspired runs to a wall and starts painting in a frenzy, mad vibrant colors.  That’s pure spontenaity.  You can’t restrain that kind of lightening strike, nor can you replicate it.  But then there are the dry spaces…the times when you just don’t want to get out of bed.  In those moments the dictator comes out and in spite of lack of inspiration you go and do what you have always done. You paint. You draw. You write. You sculpt. You create even when you’re uncreative. And then lightening strikes again.

The church is like this. My experience with church life is that it can be a constant war between those who long for spontenaity and those who want order or organization. But this needn’t be a war. We need both. One gives life to other in an infinte circle. We need to room to feel like its ok to dash away from what we were planning on doing. But we also need to plan on doing something so that we’re in the right spot at the right time.  Faith practice gives birth to faith experience.  There is a healthy balance.

At the end of the day creativity/art and church share the same dynamic tensions. Rather than casting one side out and only holding on to the part that makes sense to this moment, we embrace both and live in that tension. That itself is an act of creative empowerment.

Unleashing Creativity

Creativity, artistry, imagination, experiment have been powerful metaphors in my life lately.  While I’ve always been one of those people who have been encouraged to pursue my passions by my family or others around me, I’ve also gone through phases in my life where my environment squelched all practical expression of creativity.  I think of the 6 years I worked at UPS, crunching numbers, sifting through the mindless mundane, hearing corporate mantra’s–not so surprising that they are the least experimental and most fundamentalist of my life.  Currently, working at a college primarily, being surrounded by people who are encouraging expanding horizons and exploring new opportunities, I am hardly surprised that a more generative period has set in. 

Still, as one reader recently commented on my “Art” post, there are always those rare folks who can weather incredibly repressive external situations that SHOULD squelch creativity, but end up simply unleashing it.  Those are the people who at the end of the day, I admire.

Recently I had the chance to interview one such person for my side gig over at theOOZE.com.  Her name is Teel Cook.  She’s an image creator (painter/drawer), musician, designer and inventor.  She’s also–I believe–in her forties (I’m SO SORRY if that’s inaccurate).  As she described, she’s gone through a divorce of a long term marriage that last from her teens on. She’s a business owner, trying to ride out a crumby economy…etc…needless to say she’s facing some incredibly stifling circumstances.  But somehow…somehow…it’s producing a deep sense of creativity and renewal.  She’d never recorded an album before, but felt it was time. She took a collection of songs that had been rumbling around for decades, added some new ones that had emerged in the recent turmoil, and opened up her heart.  She invinted a sleek skin for ipod’s called the “eyeghost“…frieking amazing…she designed it, created some crazy space age material for it, and put it on the market.  This is incredible to me!

I guess what I realized as I heard her talk was that it’s never too late to allow spirit to channel something new in you.  The only we have is now.  So…kudo’s to Teel. Thanks for living in the moment!

Art.

Sorry for the proliferation of quotes…but I think each of them is inspiring and gives great insight.

Why indeed must ‘God’ be a noun? Why not a verb…the most active and dynamic of all? …It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God…” –Mary Daly (theologian)

“We must accept that this creative impulse within us is God’s creative pulse itself.” Joseph Chilton Pearce

“God must become an activity in our consciousness” Joel Goldsmith

“Why should we all use our creative power….? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.” Brenda Ueland

“The purpose of art is not a rarified, intellectual distillate–it is Life, intensified brilliant Life.” Alain Arias-Misson

“It is the task of art to undo the work of our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits…making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us…” Marcel Proust

I find myself in a reconstructive phase where I am re-imaging, along with others, what a collective of people engaged with God, each other, and the world around them could look like.  In many ways this is, as my friend Ryan observed, a very personal activity of “leaving behind an artifact”–a commemoration of the journey I’m on. 

Church is a hard word for me. Mainly because I’ve been actively engaged in comparing the Worst of what it has been and has become with the Best of other faith traditions or my own idealism. Still, it becomes easier for me to use this word when I talk about it using metaphores.  Church as…well, for one, (and owing a stiff tip of the hat to Troy Bronsink for the specific articulation of this metaphor)…art. 

That’s right…you heard me…Church as Art.

I believe that this is actually the most important and basic foundational piece of moving forward with people trying to live in the way of Jesus.

First…allow me to define Art.

Anthropologists define art as “the creative use of imagination to interpret, express, and engage life, modifying experienced reality in the process.”

To put it in my words, art is approaching life with a degree of authenticity, imagination, and experiment.  In this process, one often births artifacts–visible and tangible reminders of the places we have been and the beliefs we have held. 

Art isn’t limited to paintings, sculpture, drawing, music, etc… (though it certainly does include those). Actually art is simply creativity expressed. 

Why is this important?

Believe it or not we do not see the world as it is, but actually as we believe it to be. We are constantly engaged in interpret ting our environment through a complicated series of images and the framing stories that we tell ourselves.  When our ability to engage those with imagination is damaged we begin to interpret the world in harmful and unproductive ways. 

Culturally, few of us are immune to the lack of creativity that dominates Western culture for the last 250 years.  Left brain logistics are taught, reinforced, and invisibly upheld as the dominant way of viewing the world. Newtonian science has instructed us to see the universe as a great clock-like machine–Enlightenment inspired creatonism has maintained a view of God, actually not as creator, but as machinist or cosmic tinker. The professions that were most desirable in the last two centuries have been ones that processed accounts, calculated numbers, memorized tombs of law, and treated patients with cold impersonalities.  This sort of rigid thinking has led to the most atrocious wars known to man, the most destructive weapons capable of being used, and a general lack of wonder, mystery, and awe towards the universe.  Without imagination, fear NOT hope takes over. We become territorial, isolated, and repressed.

The solutions we are often offered for our world problems are as calculating and cold as the last, failed, set. In fact, some have commented that the central aspect of Western culture today is the failure to create anything new–caught in a holding pattern where regurgitation is the only option. For something to change…well…something’s gotta change.

And something IS changing:

Until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by SATs and deployed by CPAs. Today, those capabilities are still necessary. But they’re no longer sufficient. In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right hemisphere – artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent”

Imaginers NOT Managers

“The spiritual life of the West, which is impoverished and depressed could be seen as a failure to engage with imagination”. The Bible is approached boringly, with absolute literalism.  Church boards or elder councils are filled, not with artists and imaginers but with managers and pragmatists.  On and on it goes…while the spiritual life of the West starves; not for lack of truth but for lack imagination on how to engage and express it.

Simply put, if religion (in the best sense) hopes to address the needs of the world today, hopes to relate to God in anything but rote isolation, hopes to experience lasting renewal it must reactivate it’s view of God as Artist(literally Creator), of spiritual community as Art (literally the product of imagination, experiment and authenticity), and individuals as artists (those who labor to conceive and birth visible expressions of hope and love.)

Was Jesus Creative?

Some people will challenge spiritual community, or church, as Art purely on the basis that they fail to see Jesus as a cultural creative.  I think this may be short sighted. It may also stem from a literalist and unimaginative reading of the ancient texts.  Consider that in the earliest communities of Christians thought it was important to remember 34 miracles and not one of them was a repeat of the one before. Consider that Jesus’ profession might accurately be called “story teller” because of his preferred mode of communication. Consider that a number of times he compelled his students to think creatively about how they would approach his world.  Consider that one of his apprentices would later remember Jesus’ ministry not as miraculous but instead filled with artwork…pictures…symbols…literally SIGNS. 

I would suggest that viewing Jesus as an artist and provocateur may be one of the most important shifts in transitioning from a shame based reading of Christianity to one of hope and joy.

Unblocking

This will require some unblocking.  Most of us mistrust our creative sensibilities.  Imagination is culturally another word for “fake” or “not real”.  And so many have been conditioned to think critically not creatively that their inner critic is a giant compared to the grasshopper of their imagination.  In order to approach the deep issues facing the world currently, in order to live and participate in community and indeed perhaps even in order to approach God in a journey of transformation, we may need to simply learn how to approach a blank page or a canvas or a lump of clay.  The liberation of one faculty of creativity allows for release in other areas also. 

So…let’s be creative…let’s explore and discover and then express those monumental and mundane artifacts that are generated.  Let’s celebrate. And most of all, let’s learn to re-engage the God, each other, and our selves with experiment, authenticity, and imagination…as art.

This Morning’s Creativity

Sola Luna

Sola Luna

Entering Mystery

Songs for me, and particularly the personal writing of songs, are a prophetic thing.  I rarely know why I write what I do–they more or less flow out in built in rivers of word and melody.  To be honest, I’ve never felt like I had much control over them; they are their own creatures and I get the opportunity to give birth to something I did not create and then watch it flower into fullness as a spectator and wonderer.  Maybe that sounds strange, it probably does, however it has left me feeling addicted to the process of creation.  I love writing music, mostly because the songs end up helping me understand something of myself.  Lately I’ve come to imagine that I am never so in touch with existing as a created being as when I myself am creating. It is in those moments that I feel fully present, not running off in this direction or that, not distracted by future worries or past grievances. And, I said, there is something prophetic about them. Sometimes, months later I’ll find myself saying, “Aha! That’s what this song was about.”  Interestingly, it will be an event that wasn’t even developed at the time of write, but fits fully and completely.

That having all been said, a song I wrote in the not too distant past has begun to give definition to this blip of my life.  I thought I’d share it with you:

“Entering Mystery, Your Truth and Your Beauty
To have found You and look for You is the paradox of Love
There must be more than this. There must be more than this.

How can you run the race without running? How can you press on without pressing in?
How can my soul be still until I have exhausted myself on You?

There must be more than this.”

God…Evolve…

Jack Miles, a noted ex-Jesuit author, in his extraordinary Pulitzer prize winning book “God: A Biography” presents the God of the Old Testament.  He examines YHWH from an entirely literary context, as if the Lord described were a character in a novel.  Miles applies the logic that every great character must adapt and change, and if this is true, he wonders if we see this in the central character of the Bible.  Yes, is his answer.

In a 500 page scholarly romp through the Old Testament Miles dances through the evolution of God, from childlike loneliness and need for self understanding which prompts creating a self portrait (imagine a painter who can only under themselves as they create on a canvas), to a fierce adolescent warrior God filled with unexplainable nationalistic fervor and favoritism, angrily crushing this nation and that people all so his special friends can secure a place for themselves.  He highlights boisterous God. Burly and vindictive God. Regretting and fretful God. Love sick God. Finally he concludes with Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Day’s, exhausted, weary from war and tired from testing his relationships…and then God is silent.

It’s a great book…one that will truly provoke thought and wrestling with the cultural icons we’ve erected regarding the knowledge of the Holy (I’m not saying I agree with any of it…still it will provoke thought)…but that’s not my point…

I want to reverse Miles’ picture.  What if it’s not man who has to endure God’s shifting maturation process…but God who endures ours?  As Lewis said, “We heard God but as though in a stutter” or through muffled ears.  God is forced to negotiate and even accept the catastrophic understanding that those who assumed to know Him held.  He is grieved as the tribes of Joshua’s account misinterpret His intentions and then annihilate their neighbors.  He is saddened as Israel develops imagery of a god of fire, mountain, wind, and war that resembles the baals more than it does his kind heart. He stares on as they learn to become professional worshipers of Him while completely neglecting the tenderness of His heart. And He waits…He speaks into the chaos…sometimes with clarity (Isaiah 53, 58, Amos, Micah, Hoseah)…and altogether too often is relegated to the sidelines while those who see Him most fail to show Him at all.

Viewed through those lenses the Old Testament becomes the saga of people who are coming to grips with a God who is remarkably “other”.  And they come to grips rather poorly.  Their story can be seen as anything but prescriptive…except perhaps how NOT to go about knowing God.  But really they were simply evolving…their ability to see God was developing.

As humans we cannot perceive things as they are but only as we see them to be, as we have context for them. It’s interesting that we actually fail to see certain objects because we have no “context” to understand them through. So it is throughout the history of God’s people.  In fact, they can hardly see Him except through their own biases.  Abraham cannot understand Him as the only God, his polytheistic mind cannot shore up the tension, so he calls him “God Most High” or “the high god”…one among many…highest, certainly, but only? Hardly.  Moses, and his biographers, whose understanding of Egyptian, Caananite, and Sumerian gods was greater than that of YHWH, find Him in mountain (Baal), in the fiery offering (Molek), and in the sacrifices of harvest (Isis).  Later, one prophet, Elijah, experiences a transcendent moment and understands more of God than any who have gone before him…not in the wind…not in the fire…not in the thunder…not on the mountain…but in the still small (and ever present) voice of spirit.  And what is actually happening in that moment is our vision of God is expanding…our context is growing…our sight and our hearing is improving.  By the end of the Old Testament the disastrous views of God have come crashing to a standstill.  They are spent.  Powerless and tired…And ready to be corrected…ready to be reinterpreted altogether with a characteristic turn of the phrase, “You have heard it said…but I tell you…”

Alright…so all that has me thinking…

What context am I putting onto God?  And though you don’t know what you don’t know…here’s one that I’ve been chewing on: I think that I know Him as the angry God who is perpetually against.

Surely this must be my view of God, because it is certainly how I have approached each successive spiritual movement in my own life.  Angry at secularism and science I cling to rationalism and the retreatist sacred (5 years spent in that tomb).  Angry at the institution and organized way of relating to God I devolve into primitive church, I deconstruct Him, His people, and His words (8 years spent in that tomb). What am I now angry at?  All that I have done before? Materialism? Consumerism? The world system? The Empire of the West? Recently a friend said something to me in the passion of a spiritual moment we were sharing concerning greater revelation about God’s Kingdom, “it’s so exciting that rather than being against the institution (organized church) we now have something to really be against…the world system“…and yes…that’s true…I believed it when he said it and I still do…but why, oh why is my god always against something? Why is he always demanding the holocaust of burnt offering and the devastation of other tribes and cities?  Is that the only context I have for Him?

Recently I posted about not wanting to be critical in my blog posts…I wanted to forge ahead and create fresh and new without reference to the distasteful (which I feel seems to be in vogue).  Someone told me that they imagined it’s just easier to be critical on a blog…it requires less energy and less creativity…just log on to what someone else is doing and start picking it apart…tadah! You’ve created a successful and popular blog entry.  But that’s just life…it’s easier to deconstruct, easier to devalue, easier to criticize, easier to be against than for.

And in the end…maybe my perception of God isn’t as highly evolved as it should be…maybe I’m back there with these other folks drawing my sword and looking for a better battle ax to use against the “heathens” (whoever happens to be on the other side of me at that moment).

I don’t know…I’m just so weary of dreams whose only reference points are failed realities…it requires so little…

Perhaps YHWH here and now will close this section of my life as he did the Old Testament, with silence…with waiting…with painful and agonizing emptiness…

Perhaps only then will I be ready to hear Him and see Him as He is…God with us…Immanuel…”The kingdom of God has come!”

Dreaming Into Being

One thing that it’s hard to avoid in the world of web word is criticism…

Self introspection and critique…corporate picking and pulling apart…genuine crankiness….

And it sort of reminds me of bad 8th grade poetry. When the only way to express oneself creatively was to be dark or ominous.

Pop psychology says that middle school angst is caused by redefinition.  Adolescent’s are longing to grow and emerge as fully developed beings…but they don’t know what to be, only what not to be. Their negative energy is an attempt to become something…but they have no positive momentum.  this is why many sociologists call American teen-20’s the least productive years in the world…we’re spending the whole time learning what we AREN’T.

I’ve been reading a strategic foresight book recently (all about how to participate in the present with an eye towards the future).  I was interested to note the 1st step in foresight…  “Set aside the fears, the drawbacks, the pitfalls, the could-be’s, the things you want to avoid…those will come later…instead IMAGINE!” Isn’t that interesting?  Professionals consider the way to move forward creativity NOT reactivity.

So, in this small world of words and vocal sparing…where we are constantly writing the bad poetry born out trying to birth something…anything…God knows what…maybe what is needed is not more cranky posts or crotchety comments.

Maybe what is needed is to dream a new world into being.  Maybe we need more Imaginers NOT managers.  Maybe we need people praising actions yet unseen and generosity yet ungiven.  Maybe we need the sweet melody and good poetry of YHWH singing His New Creation to reality.

Can we join Him?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.