Reason Enough: Art and Creating

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I am a theatre-maker by training. As I write this essay I am planning costumes and scheduling rehearsals for a production of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Anabaptist communities, as I understand, are generally averse to the theatre, so I may be setting myself at odds with my audience by admitting this. But you ought to know that I have a lot on the line when I attempt to justify the arts. I believe that the arts are a worthy pursuit for those who follow Jesus – I believe this not just with my head but with my hands and feet. 

As I do not come from an Anabaptist background, I must admit that I do not have a good sense of the Anabaptist aesthetic – that is, the value judgements that people of Anabaptist persuasion make about the beautiful, and the beliefs they hold about who should make beautiful things, and how, and when, and for what purposes. Nevertheless, I want to try to articulate two premises about the arts, why they are important – even vitally necessary – and how we should think about the works of art.

My first premise is about why we create. I would contend that the call to create is inherent, not just within the “artistically gifted” – the good painters or the natural singers or the sharp-eyed craftsmen – but in us all. I would go as far as to contend that our creative capacity is an essential part of what makes us a bearer of God’s image. God’s decision to make man His image-bearer occurs quite early in the scriptures, when God has revealed only a few facets of his character: that He creates, and that He delights in creating and in His creation. Likewise, the first thing we see about man is that he names and cultivates, creates a relationship between himself and God’s creation, and delights in his co-creation (or sub-creation – creation within the parameters of God’s creativity – as J. R. R. Tolkien would put it) of the world with God. 

This desire to create and to create well travels all the way down the biblical narrative, past Noah and Bezalel and David, to Jesus. Jesus taught using stories – the parables – all the time. But Jesus also wrote in the sand without saying a word. He turned over tables. He publicly performed his beliefs in a way that his audience would see and understand, but that required interpretation. He worked in the world as an artist does, finding the right form for each situation and truth he wanted to communicate. That Jesus’ communication was at times oblique makes it no less valuable to us; rather, it calls us into deeper consideration and relationship. That is precisely what art does and should be doing.

Here I should come to what you have all probably been waiting for: a definition of “art.” To put it simply, I would define “art” as an effort to make a thing that translates the artist’s understanding of reality into something outside of the artist. A beautiful thought is not art until it finds its manifestation in a form, which in turn requires processes, tools, and materials that the artist brings together to make their internal understanding external. For me, that form is theatre; the process: rehearsal; the tools: acting techniques, blocking plans and design principles; and the materials: the script, costumes, props, set, and above all the actors. Whatever form you are creating in, the move from the internal to the external is the miracle of art. Artists often fail at it; in truth, they spend their whole life trying not to fail at it. And we judge a work of art not so much by which form the artist chose to use, but by how well the work communicates its message, and whether that message speaks the truth. That is the real meaning of creation; using reality to make something real that speaks to real people. That is why someone can be creative in coding an app, or making dinner, or drafting a poem, or building a boat. We intuitively know that, when the thing is made well, it feels true to us. 

What then, is the difference between creation as an act and art as a product? Does all creation lead to art? One could make this case theoretically, but in practice we would not think of a boat as a work of art in the same way we would a poem. The way we tend to define an artistic creation, unfortunately, is by how far it departs from our definition of what is “useful.” The more wieldable the item, the less of a piece of art it is; the less use we can make out of a created thing, the more we relegate it to the world of art. So I will posit another definition of “art”: those things that are created to cause us to live according to the fullness of our humanity. A work of art is what gives two people a common ground that is outside them and that asks them to reconsider what they believe. Rainer Maria Rilke put it simply when, while commenting on a Greek sculpture, he named the essence of any artistic work’s message: “you must change your life.” A good work of art, when examined, will show us what we had not considered, or considered deeply, or what we had forgotten. By telling the truth, it tells us that we must change ourselves.

To restate my premise: God made us creative creatures. That creativity can play out in a million ways, and I believe that every kind of work is creative work. But the creation of art is a certain kind of work – which I don’t believe every person is called to – that compels us to look beyond our present physical doings to greater realities. Art is meant to remind us that we are beings and not doings, human and not machine, and members of a community and a kingdom. Art gives us eyes to see and ears to hear; God meant it to be so. 

The other important premise of art and aesthetics, which I would like to see revitalized in Christian art, has to do with beauty. I did not mention beauty in my definition of art because I do not think that art necessitates beauty, although it often intersects with it. On the contrary, I would assert the premise that the representation of the true, good, and beautiful in art invites the presentation of what is bad, evil, and grotesque. It is one thing for me to say that painting a peaceful landscape, or singing a hymn, or sewing a quilt is a worthy exercise of our creative energy. But what about the presentation of what is not good? What about telling a story that includes violence or sexual perversion? Why should we endure art in which evil people succeed in accomplishing evil, or where ugly things are said or shown, or even where the grotesque is depicted alongside the beautiful? This premise, more so than the first, complicates many a Christian’s relationship with the arts. It is a barrier I want to attempt to deconstruct.

For evidence that supports my premise, we do not need to look farther than the scriptures themselves. The revelation of God is at times sublime and at times grotesque; full of incredible beauty and hope, and also gross, violent, and sexually explicit (by “sexually explicit” I do not mean pornographic – meant to incite lust – but do mean that the bible talks about human sexuality as it actually is: involving deep, tender emotions and real, physical acts, both of which can be perverted into atrocities). The images invoked throughout the scripture all serve the same purpose – to point us to God and to the incarnate savior. But those images do not work on us in the same way. The scene of a humble birth in a manger and the gruesome, bizarre vision of the valley of dry bones could not be more different, but they bear witness to the same reality. The scenes of violence and rape depicted in the Torah, the desperate railings of Job, the grotesque description of the crucifixion, and the terror of apocalypse in Revelation: I could go on and on about how the Bible talks about things that are not beautiful according to our categories of beauty. Nevertheless, these texts are as important to us as we try to grasp the reality of this world as the pastoral images of the psalms or the images of the heavenly feast.

Beauty cannot be our guiding light when considering what art we create or view. Or rather, our definition of beauty must be desanitized to include the grotesque. We need to give space in art for what is sorrowful, terrible, and upsetting so that we can love our neighbors and our God well. Art that contains joy and art that contains suffering both help us to understand and care for our fellow image-bearers. But do not hear me as saying that our art must be about suffering. I do not think that suffering should be the only theme Christians explore any more than I think joy and peace should be. Christian art should be about redemption. To make redemption our primary goal is a clear continuation of the gospel message into the arts. It also helps us do away with, on the one hand cheap sentimentality that does not deal honestly with suffering, and on the other hand a perverse delight in sorrow and suffering that does not point to great realities. So neither beauty nor grotesqueness are the ends of art – both are means by which we bring the kingdom into focus.

I will add one caveat to this point. I have known artists whose work has been overwhelmingly light and joyful; I have also known artists for whom suffering is their primary motif. I do not count any of them to be bad artists, only artists whose work fits into the greater field of art, each saying their own piece. Furthermore, I do not think that every piece of art must depict redemption. The great tragedies of the Greeks and Shakespeare end in an almost absolute suffering – but that is their point, and they teach us valuable things. On the other hand, great comedies have little serious business in them, and no real suffering – but that is their point, and they likewise teach us valuable things. No one artist or piece of art can teach us everything. A robust engagement with the arts, rather than a timid curation of a few safe works, is the best way to grow in our understanding of how our fellow image-bearers see reality and to see the narrative of redemption playing out for ourselves. 

If the contention of this site is that people do not think enough, then my contention is that we also do not see enough. We cannot ask God to give us eyes to see and ears to hear if we are unwilling to look. The arts are the creative expressions that allow us to see, through the eyes of our fellow creatures both within and outside of the church, what reality looks like from outside our own perspective. That reality may restore our joy; it may cause us sorrow; it may frighten or even confuse us. What it will certainly do is change us. 

A few days ago I jokingly asked my mentor, an artist herself who holds a Ph.D. in Aesthetics, “why art?” 

“Why not?” she replied.

That is, I think, what every artist wants to say when asked this or a similar question. I was tempted to submit this two-word response when Paul asked me to write this article. I think that an apologetic for the arts is important and worth writing; I hope that my attempt has been persuasive. But I also think that the onus for the question of the arts does not lie with the advocates, but on those who doubt them. The evidence for the need to create, story-tell, image, and worship through the arts is ubiquitous. So why not? Why not paint that painting? Why not tell that beautiful and painful story? Why not sing or play or whistle that tune, or dance along to it? God is not planning on giving us new bodies just so that we can decline the use of them to praise him, I daresay. The arts might look different in heaven – I really do not know. But I believe that we will keep on creating. There will always be truth and beauty enough for the work ahead of us. And that is reason enough.

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About the Author:

Harrison Miller is a teacher, theatre-maker, and archivist who, above all things, wants to encourage the creation and preservation of human community through culture care. He currently works and studies in the city of Boston, MA.

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2 thoughts on “Reason Enough: Art and Creating”

  1. Thank you so much for this brilliant and thoughtful article. I love the balanced perspective of neither beauty nor sorrow being the ultimate in art, but redemption and the way all the angles of art can fit together to stimulate growth in the kingdom.


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