Christians and Artists

Posted on August 9, 2011


I think there there are both similarities and parallels between the creative process and searching for Jesus Christ. Sometimes I think that people who think about writing (or other creative endeavors) often have a better grasp on the mystery of the divine presence than many pastors or theologians. I’m thinking here of people like Madeline L’Engle, Anne Lamott, Joyce Carol Oats, Flannery O’Conner, Chiam Potok, Michael Chabon, to name just a few of my favorites.

Maybe it’s because creative people don’t worry too much about the means as they do the ends. The artist answers the question, where did the idea come from? with, “I don’t know. Some place…other than me. I was inspired.”

Many Christians feel the need to question the means as much as the ends. They answer the question, where did the idea come from? with, “It was based on St. Augustine, who wrote a treatise explaining it. Which is why I think it might have broader applications, maybe, I suppose, if it isn’t too much trouble…” If it doesn’t fit within a historical tradition (orthodoxy) an idea about God is often rejected out of hand (as heresy). And If it isn’t dismissed from the start, even the smallest flaw in the idea (person, book, church, etc.) is highlighted and criticized to the point of strangulation.

I have been reading through The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity and found two paragraphs that explain this process well. I have changed the word “artist,” whenever it occurred, to “Christian” and the result is, I believe, quite illuminating.

Christians and intellectuals are not the same animal. As a younger Christian this was very confusing to me. I myself have considerable critical gifts, and have in fact won national awards for practicing them. It was to my own rue that I discovered that these same skills were misapplied when focused on embryonic Christian endeavors-mine or others. Younger Christians are seedlings. Their early work resembles thicket and underbrush, even weeds. The halls of academia, with their preference for lofty intellectual theorems, do little to support the life of the forest floor. As a teacher, it has been my sad experience that many talented Christians were daunted early and unfairly by their inability to conform to a norm that was not their own. It would be my hope that the academics who read this book and apply it would do so with an altered appreciation for the authenticity of growth for the sake of growth. In other words, as taller trees, let us not allow our darker critical powers unfettered play upon the seedling Christians in our midst.

Without specific tools and sufficient ego strengths, many gifted Christians languish for years in the wake of such blows. Shamed at their supposed lack of talent, shamed by their “grandiose” dreams, the young Christian may channel their gifts into commercial endeavors and then forget their dreams of doing more groundbreaking (and risky) work. They may work as editors instead of writers, film editors instead of film directors, commercial artists instead of fine artists, and get stuck within shouting distance of their dreams. Often audacity, not authentic talent, confers fame on an Christian. The lack of audacity-pinched out by critical abuse or malnourished through neglect-may cripple many Christians far superior to those we publicly acclaim. In order to recover our sense of hope and the courage to create, we must acknowledge and mourn the scars that are blocking us. This process may seem both painstaking and petty, but it is a necessary rite of passage. Just as a teenager must gain autonomy from an overbearing parent, so too a Christian must gain autonomy from malignant Christian mentors.

My favorite line from this passage is, “many talented Christians were daunted early and unfairly by their inability to conform to a norm that was not their own.” How many times we require people to conform to our own understanding of what it means to follow God. How many times do we silently require this of ourselves, when what we should do is say, with firm conviction, “That is not my experience of God. I experience God through…”

Often we stay silent because, while we may believe something with all the conviction in our hearts (say, that God doesn’t care if gay people get married, because marriage is a social construct instituted by people and has changed over time and with geography) but if we aren’t able to defend our position intellectually, like the academic, it must be that we are wrong, misguided, or at best, silly.

But every time we ask young Christians to articulate an experience of God that is either unarticulatable or expands our understanding of God; every time we stay silent about our own experience, we loose a unique voice that would add to our knowledge of God’s revelation to the world.

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