Archives For Creativity

Malcolm Gladwell

My favorite podcast—since the day it launched—is Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. I’m always excited when a new episode auto-downloads on my phone, and I rarely let an episode sit an entire day.

This week’s episode is entitled “The King of Tears,” and Gladwell’s premise is that country music is the best genre for connecting with people and eliciting emotional responses. It’s another fantastic episode, but about halfway through, I realized: “Uh oh. He’s wrong on this one.” Here’s why.

It’s the kind of mistake you’d have to be steeped in a certain tradition to recognize, and I happen to fit that demographic. I was raised on CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), a genre which shares the same fatal flaw as country music. And this flaw is tricky. It makes you think the music is powerful and moving, but it’s actually a shortcut. It short-circuits the creative process, and robs the listener of something vital.

What Gladwell loves about country is what people tend to love about CCM: it tells powerful stories. It gets into the details and draws you into a specific situation:

“The thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity. And specificity is not something every genre does well.”

Ok. I’ll follow him most of the way on this point. Details matter for good art. To create in God’s world, we have to dig into the real STUFF of creation. Get our hands dirty. Work with the raw materials. That requires making abstractions concrete. It’s taking an idea and incarnating it—wrapping it in flesh. This is what it takes to make art live.

Travis Tritt

But I refuse to concede that the kind of specificity that country music traffics in is better—or more emotionally attuned—than what rock music (or other genres, for that matter)—offer.

For Gladwell, rock music is subordinate because it tends to be vague and repetitive in subject matter. (That’s an unbelievably broad generalization and far from true in many cases, but let’s let him run for a moment.) So he contrasts the intricate details of country ballads with the “vagueness” of the song “Wild Horses”:

“That’s how you get tears. You make the story so real and the details so sharp and you add in so many emotional triggers that the listener cannot escape…[It’s] far easier just to fall back on the bland cliche that ‘wild horses couldn’t drag you away.’ Country music makes people cry because it’s not afraid to be specific.”

But no.

Country music suffers the same flaw as Contemporary Christian Music, and this is what Steve Turner calls the fatal tendency to SPELL. IT. OUT. Art works by indirection. Art shows more than it tells. A sermon works because a preacher explains a passage or concept in detail. Understanding is a primary goal. But art leads you into contemplation. It’s a journey, an experience, a question, a “what if?”

Many country songs tell stories (sometimes good stories!), and you get to enjoy hearing the story unfold. You can be moved by the story, but you don’t find yourself reflecting, wondering, or soul searching. You’re moved emotionally in the same way that a story out of Chicken Soup for the Soul moves you. It’s all spelled out for you, and you get to respond in a sappy way.

This is the same impulse that has defined CCM. It has to be clear, it has to be positive, and it usually has to invoke God at least 2.5 times per song. There’s nothing wrong with clear communication, but as I’ve written elsewhere, co-opting an art form and making it a vehicle for a sermon diminishes the power of that art form (though it might remain interesting a sermon substitute).

We could also dismantle Gladwell’s argument this way: some of the most emotional music ever written is classical. Can Gladwell (or anyone human) listen to Mozart’s “Lacrimosa” or Bach’s Mass in B Minor or Smetana’s “Moldau” and not well up in tears? Please. It’s incredibly rich emotionally, but the words are not English. There is specificity, but it’s not specificity in the characters or references that create the emotion, it’s the specific relationships between the notes and tones that does the emotional heavy lifting. I’m sorry, but Gladwell’s premise is so demonstrably false.

So what’s the takeaway? I’ve written at length about this over the years, but: Christians ought to be among the most creative people on earth because of our connection to the Creator and because he has called us to continue his work of creation (when God placed the first humans in the garden, their task was to “work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15)). Yet tragically, we have in some senses come to be categorized by a genre of music that shies away from creativity, that values lyrical formulas over artistic craft. I lose interest with country music for this very reason. I love sweet little stories, but if there’s nothing to ponder, if everything has been spelled out and I’ve been told how to think and feel, if there is no mystery to capture my imagination, then I can listen to the song once and move on. And that’s a great definition for bad music.

I’m glad that Malcolm Gladwell tears up when he listens to Garth Brooks, and I thank God that many Christians are inspired when they listen to CCM. But we can do better. And thankfully, we often do.

[While this should go without saying, I’m obviously just sharing my opinion here. Please feel free to happily disagree. And if you want to learn more, I’ve written a ton about these concepts here.]

Strange TrailsI get excited about music, but I have waited for few albums with as much anticipation as I waited for Lord Huron’s second full-length release. When I wrote Resonate, I included a section on Lord Huron’s first album, Lonesome Dreams. At the time, I had listened to that album over 100 times (according to my iTunes play count), and I wrote about the depth and complexity of the album. The album flows gracefully from one song to the next, themes recur and develop, the last song even mirrors the first both lyrically and instrumentally. I included Lonesome Dreams in the book because I see it as a powerful example of music’s potential to draw us in, to make us think, to stir our imaginations, to make us wonder and think and feel—even if we are not receiving propositional statements that tell us what to think and feel. I have now listened to Lonesome Dreams over 200 times, and my thoughts are the same.

So when Lord Huron’s follow up album, Strange Trails, released, I was excited, though a bit apprehensive that Lord Huron wouldn’t be able to create another album at that caliber. Thankfully, they delivered. Strange Trails sounds like a cousin to Lonesome Dreams: some definite similarities in style and themes, but not simply more-of-the-same.

One of the most surprising features of Strange Trails is the process that Lord Huron’s Ben Schneider used in creating the album. Strange Trails has an underlying cast of characters. Essentially, Schneider envisioned a greaser gang, and each song comes from the perspective of one of the characters in Schneider’s fictitious world. The album doesn’t offer a strict plotline, as in an opera, but one does sense an underlying story and movement throughout the album. In an 8-minute radio interview with NPR, Schneider describes several of the characters—including their names, physical appearance, and some back story—and explains how these characters contribute to the album.

Lord Huron

This is similar to Schneider’s method in crafting his first album, for which he created a fictional fiction writer (sort that out), who fictitiously wrote the Lonesome Dreams series of adventure novels, each of which shares a title with a song on Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams album. (“Naturally,” Schneider, who is a talented graphic artist as well, created a website for his fictitious fiction writer, George Ranger Johnson, where each novel in his series is featured.) Schneider also created a series of “episodes” as music videos for the songs on Lonesome Dreams. (He is doing something similar for the Strange Trails album.)

Admittedly, this is a quirky approach to songwriting. The listener certainly doesn’t need to know about the characters and their back stories to enjoy the album, but I will say that his approach gives his albums a depth that is often missing in music. The lyrics aren’t bald statements or shallow rhymes, they are as complex and intriguing as the characters “speaking” them. Musically, the album is multi-layered and varied. The songs flow well together (intentionally so), yet there is a range of emotion that highlights the variety of perspectives through which the album “speaks.”

The combined effect is enjoyable and inspiring music with unusual depth. I haven’t figured the album out yet; it continues to draw me in. There are lines that immediately speak to me (“I had all and then most of you / some and now none of you…I don’t know what I’m supposed to do / haunted by the ghost of you”), but lines like these are more suggestive than clearly defined, and they set my imagination to work. In my opinion, this is how an artist taps into the power of music. So much of music’s power is its ability to suggest, to stir, to move. Music is deeply mysterious, so songs that leave no space for mystery or subtlety or reflection betray their art form; they are more sermons lying atop instrumentation than actual songs.

Lord Huron 2

So what can Christian artists learn from Lord Huron? I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should adopt Ben Schneider’s approach to creating art. But I do think every Christian artist, regardless of their particular medium, would do well to learn from the depth of Schneider’s work. Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins recently criticized Christian musicians for simply imitating U2 for the last few decades. Corgan is obviously exaggerating, and he seems to be unaware of some recent trends in “Christian music,” but he is surely right to call Christians to greater originality in their art.

Many Christian artists are extraordinarily creative, and the world has benefited from the creativity of Christians throughout history. But we need to continually be inspired by the beautiful, reflective, mysteriously complex art of people like Ben Schneider. Christians, after all, believe that ultimate reality is the Creator—infinitely complex, deeply mysterious, worthy of never ending reflection and contemplation. And we believe that this Creator formed a world that is itself complex, mysterious, and full of meaning, along with a mini-creator capable of exploring the mystery and meaning that resides in all things. So in my opinion, Christians would do well to listen to the music of Lord Huron and be edified and inspired—not to imitate Schneider’s style or approach, but to create with the same pursuit of depth and meaning.

 

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Nothing like this had ever happened before. In the beginning, there was God. And nothing else. Not an empty space and an endlessly ticking clock. Just nothing. No space. No time. Space and time are included under the heading of “the heavens and the earth.” In the beginning, God. And that’s it.

Let It BeAnd then the Maker began to make. One powerful word at a time. For six days, God continued to say this tiny word: “yehi,” “let there be.” The word is tiny, but powerful. This little word was not earth-shattering, it was earth-generating. Every single thing you’ve ever seen, or heard of, or even dreamt of was spoken into existence in those six days.[1]

This rhythm of verbal creation is punctuated by the repeated refrain, “It was good! It was good! It was very good!”

Creation is an act of the Creator. And it’s incredibly good. Thus far God has created through words: a poem written in stone and wood and soil and skies and living beings.

Orion Nebula

But in Genesis 2, God goes beyond speaking. Now he begins to “form” (v. 7). God is now digging his fingers into the dust that he spoke and forming it into a statue. This statue will become the inspiration for every statue of a human being every created, and it far exceeds them all—even Michelangelo’s David. But God is not done creating. After he “forms” he “breathes” (v. 7), and the breath that shaped the word-creation of all the stuff we’ve ever known now breathe-creates human life. God exhales into the nostrils of his statue and humanity takes its first breath.

God now takes one more creative step; this time he “plants” (v. 8). He plants a garden—not a raw wilderness or an unorganized jungle, but a specifically shaped garden. Speaking, forming, breathing, and planting God brings into existence the world we know. From absolutely nothing, the Creator creates his creation.

Given this creative context, we probably shouldn’t be surprised at the first job God gave to Adam. God created, then decided to make something like him, something “in his image and likeness” (1:26–27). So what did the Creator create this image-bearing creation to do?

Create!

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” (Genesis 2:15)

Once he finished making the world, the Maker made a maker. Adam and Eve were specifically placed within the garden to “work it” (which means exactly what you’d think) and “keep it” (which means to preserve it and take care of it).

It wasn’t enough for God to make paradise, he wanted paradise to continue to be made. To be further developed. God’s creation wasn’t bad (“It was good!”), but it wasn’t finished. The Creator finished his creative activities in the beginning by creating a creator to act according to the example of the Creator.

So now, thousands of years and millions of creators later, we find ourselves standing here, on this same spoken earth, in this planted garden, as these formed and breathed human beings. And the job description remains. Created to create. Look at the world around you and see what the Creator’s creators have done. Some of it is magnificent. Some of it is horrifying. Some of it reflects the Creator. Some of it defies him. But we stand as creators, bearing the likeness of the Creator, creating in the not yet finished creation.

The Artist in His Studio (Rembrandt)

“The Artist in His Studio” by Rembrandt

 

So what will we make? Too many Christians—who bear the image of the Creator to an unimaginable extent—have hidden away from the task of creating. It’s too hard, too dangerous, too dark, too embarrassing, too defiling, too degrading, too physical, too artsy. Too many Christians have hidden in pews or buried themselves in doctrine, as if those things are somehow antithetical to creativity. Too few of the Creator’s Christian creators have created.

Christianity actually has a rich history in this area. We have created works of staggering beauty. We have shaped our world to a profound extent. Yet who would argue that the Creator’s creators are creating as they should, all they should, where they should?

In the beginning, the Maker made a maker, and he placed us here to make this world the kind of place he wants it to be. Wherever we stand on God’s good earth, may we dirty our hands in the stuff God made and make something good and true and beautiful.

 

 


 

[1] Of course, there are many things that human beings would make out of the original things that God made; I’ll make that point next.

In a sense, only God creates. Only God can “stand” in the “middle” of complete nothingness and call as-yet-non-existent things into being. We call this creation ex nihilo: “out of nothing.”

So we can truly look at every aspect of our world and say, “God made this.” But as every parent knows, it gets more complicated when your children start asking, “Did God make cars?” “Did he make your computer?” My fumbling answers to these questions have gone something like, “Well, yes. He created the metal that the car is made out of, and he created the minds of the people who put the car together.”

Only this week have I begun to realize the true genius of God in this respect. It was John Frame who helped me think this through as he wrote about human choices: How is that we go through life making decisions based on our desires, and yet the Bible is still able to insist that God ordains all that comes to pass? It’s an old question, and I wasn’t expecting any fresh insight.

But Frame began talking about “our participation in God’s creativity.” He says,

“Our choices among possible alternatives image the choices that God himself has made in eternity, and they serve as the means by which God actualizes and rejects possibilities in history.”[1]

When we go about creating in God’s world, we are making choices, and in doing so we are acting like God, following his image, which he placed within us. But it’s bigger than us simply making choices. It’s that as we create in this world, God is creating. He is working through us to create. Our acts of creation are both ours and his—we are making the creative decisions, and in doing so we are playing out God’s perfect eternal plan.

The Creation of Adam

All of this is guaranteed to hurt your brain if you try to comprehend it entirely, and the mere raising of this topic sends people scurrying for their copies of Attacking Arminians or Countering Calvinists. (If those aren’t books yet, they should be.)

But this is why Paul is able to thank God for the Philippians’ partnership in ministry. The Philippians chose to work together with Paul; Paul saw their involvement as the working out of God’s plan. This is why Joseph was able to point to the same event (being sold into slavery) as both the evil intention of his brothers and the good plan of God (Gen. 50:20).

Now let me cut the urge to argue short: I’m not interested here in settling the fee will vs. predestination debate. What I find fascinating here are the implications for human creativity. Ultimately, we create because God made us in his image.

“Much about the divine image is mysterious, because God himself is mysterious. But among other things, there does seem to be something in us analogous to God’s creativity…”[2]

Dorothy Sayers looked at the context of the “image of God” passage in Genesis 1:26 and says that the only thing we know about God leading up to this is that he is the Creator. All he’s done in Genesis 1:1–25 is create. So when God sets out to make a being “like himself,” he seems to be creating another creator. Sayers identifies this as at least a part of what the image of God means.

Here’s why it matters. God has a plan for history. God formed this world with his words and his fingers, and he has not stopped speaking, he has not stopped shaping. Everything—everything!—from the largest imperial expansion to the slightest shifting of the smallest grain of dust is seen by God, known by God, captured in the interest and attention of God.

And as we step out into this world to create, to shape, to dream, God is stepping out to shape the world through us. When Steve Jobs created the iPhone, God was shaping his world through Jobs. (The same goes for whoever invented the Android, everyone calm down.) When I hug my daughters, God is wrapping his arms around them. When I work, play, sing, sleep, and eat, God is working out his plan for this world. My choices (at least, so my experience tells me), his plan.

(As an aside, let me just acknowledge that this gets much darker when we ask where God is in the evil moments. For example, where is God when an innocent man is wrongly accused, beaten, and murdered? But according to the Bible, God is still working out his plan in those types of events: Acts 2:23, 4:27–28.)

So be assured, God is still working in this world. And he is all of the time working through us. We are his image-bearers, his mini-creators, his world-shapers. Let’s be careful to shape his world in ways that fit his mission and highlight his glory. And let’s be confident that in all of it, God’s plan is being worked out, drawing ever closer to its good and glorious culmination. God has never taken his hands off of his world. He continues to work in it in deeply mysterious and incomprehensible ways. And he also continues to work in our creative decisions, shaping his world through our hands and feet and mouths.

 

 

[1] John Frame, Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2013) 837.

[2] Ibid., 836.

I actually hate grading papers. There, I said it. I love to read and I love to learn. But there’s just something tedious about slugging my way through a stack of papers that makes my eyes bleed—even if the papers are gradingwell-written. This is why I’ve tried to mix it up a bit by assigning papers that demand creativity rather than just analytical content. Sure, students need to be able to gather information, synthesize it, and present it in a clear way. But analytical, content-driven research is only one way to learn. In our quest for truth, sometimes we ignore creativity. So over the last few years I’ve tried to mix in fiction writing as a way to harness my students’ imagination as they process information.

I tried this a while back when I gave my students the option of writing a 10 page research paper or a 20 page historical fiction short story for my New Testament Backgrounds class. Most of them opted for the predictable research paper, but one student (Bobby Hansen) took up the challenge to write a historical fiction. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I received was nothing short of brilliant. Bobby decided to put himself in the dress of the woman who had a flood of blood for 12 years in Matthew 9:20-22. I darn near came close to crying—and I never cry—as I experienced the shame that hovered over this poor little woman. I followed her around her village, I felt the cold stares of judgmental men, and my heart broke when my husband left me because I could bear him no children. 12 years with a flow of blood. It’s not just a story. It’s was the unbearable pain of a Jewish girl living in an honor/shame culture 2,000 years ago. Imagine the day that Jesus healed her!

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Now, for this assignment I required Bobby to dig into the first century world and integrate nitty gritty facts into his story. It’s a historical fiction, not just some myth. And Bobby did just that. He drew upon the Jewish culture, imagined what life would have been like for this girl, and presented a story that was aligned with truth and piercing to the heart. He made me read—and re-read—that familiar story with dirt under my nails. And I will never read it the same.

So I’ve made this type of assignment mandatory for more of my classes. I’m currently reading through papers for my Old Testament Backgrounds course (I love backgrounds!), where students are required to research an ancient city and a near eastern religion and then write a short fictional story about someone living in that city or worshiping at that pagan alter. I hope this has been effective, and I would love for any of my students to drop in comments below to describe their experience. But one thing is clear: I’m learning a ton about the ancient world as my students are clothing me with tunics and shoving sandals on my feet and forcing me to walk the sands of the Mediterranean world. Not only has this made grading much more enjoyable, but it’s forcing me to use that other side of my brain (is it the right or left? I can’t remember…) as I process the history of the ancient world—the world where two thirds of the Bible took place.

It’s a shame that we measure intelligence by how well we use the non-imaginative side of our brains. The smart people are those who know lots of facts and construct well-reasoned arguments, while those who exploit their God-given creativity are just artsy fartsy. I disagree with this. skinny jeanSince we are created in God’s image, and since imagination and creativity are a vital—not a subsidiary—part of our information-processing humanity, then robust, imaginative art (e.g. fictional writing, music, poetry) isn’t just a byproduct of too many years crammed inside a pair of skinny jeans. It’s divine. Imagination is a necessary tool—though often neglected—that we should wield in order to better understand, process, and synthesize truth.

God does not prioritize the left part of the brain. (I just Googled it. Left-brain is cognitive.) He wants us to honor Him with both sides. And truth is not limited to facts, information, or logic. Truth—and beauty—is tucked away in pockets of creation that are discovered by waking up that right side of your brain and taking hold of it. Grab it! Twist it! Imagine it! And you will not just learn truth, but feel and experience truth like never before.

My hat goes off to all you right brain, tatted and pierced, fair-trade coffee drinking, Radiohead listening, emotional, sometimes over emotional, multicolor haired people who wrestle with God’s world through art, music, film—and creative writing. Do it for the glory of Christ, and Christ, who was perfectly right and left brained, will be magnified.