Creativity: Practicality + Purpose + Place {Day 1}

Welcome to Day 1 of the On Being Creative series! You’ll find links to all the posts as they’re added on the series’ homepage here.


Day 1


If you’re a creative, chances are you’ve run into the sticky wicket that is- what is the point of art? Or even worse, what is the point of MY art? Whether wrestling with the question yourself or hearing it postulated by others, it inevitably comes up.

Put another way, what does art do? Is it really necessary for life? After all, you can’t harvest crops from art, art doesn’t cure cancer, you can’t end world hunger by creating more art just in and of itself. Are “starving artists” just creating more problems with all their creating?

Is such indulgent pursuit practical?

I’m going to go ahead and say yes. I’m also going to say, it’s not only practical, it’s an innate part of being human; we can’t help but make art.

Before going further, we may want to stop and ask- what is art? Arguably an even better question is who is an artist? 

I like Emily P. Freeman’s definition of an artist in her book A Million Little Ways: Uncovering the Art You Were Made to Live, so we’re going to use that one. She says,

In coming up with a working definition of an artist for the purposes of this book, perhaps we could say, then, that being an artist has something to do with being brave enough to move toward what makes you come alive. Art means believing that the God who created the world with words alone creates with words still, through us—whether it be on a stage to thousands or in a corner with one.

Emily’s definition resonates deeply within me, and I hazard a guess it resonates with you too. Doesn’t it just feel right? You know from creating your own “art” (put into quotes only for the purpose of hinting that your art might not be a traditional idea of art such as painting, photography, music etc.) the sense of being more fully who you’re meant to be.

Because we will be operating from this definition of who an artist is, we will not for the moment bother with the vast ocean of answers- and likely, the arguments- to the question of what art is.

If only we could live in the freedom of the place of being most fully ourselves. Instead, I often find myself living in a state of discomfort and struggle, especially when I either a) feel like someone is doing something more crucial like solving world hunger and doubt that my art serves any worthy purpose, or b) encounter someone whose art far surpasses my own…and doubt that my art serves any worthy purpose.

Regardless of either scenario, I question the practicality and worth of my art. And that is probably what holds me back in my journey as a creative more than anything else.

Why is my default to question something that is so clearly part of the way I’m hardwired to be? And if I doubt it so much, why do I keep creating? I’ve asked myself this countless times, and I’m certainly not the first to do so.

Arguably, even more troubling is wrestling with this issue within the context of the church. Does creativity have a place in the church? Does all creativity have a place in the church? And what does that look like?

Surely, we serve a creative God, and if we’re made in his image our own creativity should feel at home, natural, and worthy– right?

If this question of practicality and purpose of art is so troublesome, we probably had better find an answer. However, I find myself wholly lacking in the ability to articulate one, most likely because my own struggle with doubt is so fresh (and frequent). So recently, I looked at what people I admire, or whose work I admire, had to say about the reason we make art- specifically, as followers of Christ.

1. We make art so we can see.  

Whether it’s realizing what God is doing in and through us or through each other; art helps us connect the dots of our own story, of our own identity to him whose image we bear. In an interview, Ann Voskamp said the following of how art gives her eyes to see,

Writing for me is seeing the hand of God in my life, and being able to put the parts and pieces together. I see it as a handicap in lots of ways. Lots of people can live their life once and understand what’s happening; I have to go back and live it in writing to understand and to see God moving and weaving.

I really believe that all art is sacrifice; it’s coming to an altar and laying yourself down bare and exposed and saying, ‘This is my sin. This is where God met me and did surgery on me. And maybe it can bless and minister some missionary in Indonesia, some mom who’s up over her eyeballs in Minnesota. It can be our ministry back in some kind of way, but it’s an exposing humbling thing that does make you go lower and not higher.”

Maybe you think it’s easy for Ann to say; she’s a published author, so her work already seems tangibly validated, which is what so many artists wrestle with because if we aren’t known, published, praised, if the impact isn’t visible to us… does our art matter?
However, Ann is also a photographer, and not a professional one. Here are her words in the same interview about the part photography has played in healing some of her broken places, in leading her closer to the Lord:
The year I was diagnosed with agoraphobia and was struggling so desperately with just racing inside all the time, photography was a way to slow me down. Frame the moments, and look for light and glory and the beauty of God. So, photography has been for me since my early 20’s just a way of really- Philippians- whatever is good, whatever is pure, whatever is holy, look for those things. Concentrate and focus on those things. And even the ugly, look at the ugly and see- can you frame that up, can you subtract that up outside of the frame and get the right angle to see beauty even in the midst of the ugly? So, for me it’s been another way of slowing down and looking for the hand of God in little things… Photography really is the art of looking for light, and for me that’s spiritual.”

Looking for light. Seeing the hand of God through what we create. Along with seeing comes hearing what he’s saying to us. In light of this, doesn’t it at least begin to answer the question of art’s practicality in the context of the church? In an article entitled “How to Discourage Artists within the Church” was this quote.

“Artist Makoto Fujimura answers the following question in an interview at The High Calling: “How then do you see art as evangelism?” He says:

There are many attempts to use the arts as a tool for evangelism. I understand the need to do that; but, again, it’s going back to commoditizing things. When we are so consumer-driven, we want to put price tags on everything; and we want to add value to art, as if that was necessary. We say if it’s useful for evangelism, then it has value.

And, there are two problems with that. One, it makes art so much less than what it can be potentially. But also, you’re communicating to the world that the gospel is not art. The gospel is this information that needs to be used by something to carry it.

Only, that’s not the gospel at all. The gospel is life. The gospel is about the Creator God, who is an artist, who is trying to communicate. And his art is the church. We are the artwork created in Christ Jesus to do good works. If we don’t realize that fully, then the gospel itself is truncated and art itself suffers.”
Reading his words about our need to put price tags on everything and call it a commodity, I feel a sense of relief. Anxiety loosens its white-knuckled grip, because maybe we’ve been approaching this all wrong? Maybe we’re not even  asking the right question? After all, what we do know of art is that it’s a vast, fluid, subjective thing to a large degree; why would we expect it to fit into a nice bin with a lid and a label, something we can safely categorize? It’s kind of like expecting a wild beast to behave like a house cat.
This means it’s normal for us (and here I’m referring to people who like things in a safe little category) to struggle with creativity’s place in the church. Often, we misunderstand and mishandle it as well as we misunderstand and mishandle God.
In that same article, I love these words by N.T. Wright:

In my experience the Christian painter or poet, sculptor or dancer, is regularly regarded as something of a curiosity, to be tolerated, humoured even, maybe even allowed to put on a show once in a while. But the idea that they are, or could be, anything more than that—that they have a vocation to re-imagine and re-express the beauty of God, to lift our sights and change our vision of reality—is often not even considered.

That’s the other thing: much of art consists of soul-work. That kind of work is largely unseen, and therefore often doesn’t compute when we discuss the practicality of art. Yet, how can we ignore such important work?

In our church, a man recently passed away from a number of debilitating health issues. We felt both sorrow in the loss and victory in the gain- the gain being who he became in his last year of life, how he came to Christ and was transformed. Who can say how many seeds were planted over time before something broke through the soil of his heart?

But we were told of a moment, a spark, a shift that happened when he attended a youth event and heard our worship leader’s band sing a song. Somehow, it reached all the way into his soul, and he began to see. Though his body was dying, his being was coming more fully alive. God used art as a crucial part of his journey.

This seeing, this unveiling? That’s what art does. And we realize that maybe art isn’t merely practical, it’s indispensable.

2. We make art because we ARE art.

Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Other translations say, “masterpiece” or “handiwork.”

In her book Million Little Ways: Uncovering the Art You Were Made to Live, Emily P. Freeman expounds on this verse- specifically, this word “workmanship.”

“These English words used in the text- masterpiece, sometimes translated workmanship– these are translations of the original word used in the letter to the church at Ephesus, the Greek word poiema. Our English word poem comes from this same Greek word. Workmanship, masterpiece, poem—all these words in Scripture are used to describe God’s work—you and me.

God calls you his workmanship, his poiema. What happens when God writes poetry? We do. We happen. We are walking poetry, the kind that moves, the kind who has hands and feet, the kind with mind and will and emotion. We are what happens when God expresses himself. If we are made the poem of God, then what is the job he gave us to do? What is the job of a poem?

…This word for “work” is the type that assumes the completion of an inner desire. When a poet writes a poem, he isn’t writing a technical manual or a how-to booklet. A poet writes to express an inner desire. We see that same idea here in Ephesians 2:10, where it essentially says, You are a poem written inside the person of Jesus Christ. You exist to carry out his inner desire. This is your good work. So this is our job, to carry out the inner desire of Christ. And the inner desire of Christ is to bring glory to the Father.” (emphasis mine)

I know it’s a long quote, but it’s integral to this conversation. This concept of being written inside the person of Jesus Christ clarified both the meaning of Christ dwelling in me as well as the knowledge that I am his masterpiece more fully than I’ve ever understood before.

You and I are walking glories, made to live like arrows pointing heavenward. We often do this by simply being, just by image-bearing. Like many paradoxes in our faith, we also do this by cultivating those gifts which God has instilled in us- by accepting the Spirit’s invitation to be a creative and active part in his great Story.

3. We make art because God makes art.

This is closely connected with point number 2, because as you know, we’re made in God’s image, and he is a creative God. He’s THE creative God. Ann wrote a post awhile back, called “Why Everybody Needs to Make Art Every Day” and had this to say about creating:

Creativity, it’s good theology; it’s what God did in the beginning.

The essence of creativity is essentially risk, believing enough to leap into the yet unseen. The theological term for this is faith.”

That soul-work we discussed reveals that art requires faith in order to create it or benefit from it.
We make art not because we know we are capable, but because we are made in God’s image- the image of the First and Ultimate Creator. As believers, this thought should empower us to boldly create, shouldn’t it? We create because we’re meant to. Because we must.
So maybe it’s ok- or even necessary- to just tell the questions and the doubts to hush for a little while. Doubts demand results. They demand statistics. And that is neither promised nor productive when it comes to creating well.
What happens when we don’t live from this powerful place of being walking poems and image-bearers of God? We’ll talk more about that in future posts.
4. We make art to make sacred space.
Why is music such a huge part of our worship services? Why is lighting important? Why do we put so much effort into creating excellent visuals?
Why do we sing songs with our children and rejoice over their macaroni necklaces and finger-paintings?
Why do beautiful cathedrals and stained glass windows take our breath away? Why was the Renaissance so important? Why do we get excited about pretty accent pillows?
Making room for art, for beauty, for something that seems impractical, is an opportunity to make room for the sacred. What is a better example of childlike faith than to enter into a space with wonder?
This wonder is worship, and that glorifies God.
At Christmas, we sing, “Let every heart prepare him room.” Making room is not just for Christmas time, but a lifelong posture- making room with arms and hearts wide open. Art helps us make sacred the space in our lives over and over again, whether we’re in the slums or the suburbs.
Have you made it this far? Hey, you deserve a medal or something! This first post is a long one, but they won’t all be. Just to recap, here’s where we’ve been:
1. We make art so we can see.
2. We make art because we ARE art.
3. We make art because God makes art.
4. We make art to make sacred space.
Four broad reasons why we make art, why we create. As we’ve realized, they’re not comprehensive answers, but knowing them can quiet our questions and remind us that regardless of the reason, we must create. We must wonder. We must worship. And becoming more fully alive, fully ourselves fulfills that worship.
Let’s ask God to help us live in that place- satisfied being walking glories- poems written inside the person of Christ.
Next up: The Impossible Ache of the Creative Soul {Day 2}

One thought on “Creativity: Practicality + Purpose + Place {Day 1}

  1. Those were good ideas about creating art. I especially liked that we create a sacred space with art. I hadn’t thought of that aspect before. I heard a good comment from a book Gary read that followers of Christ are called to be generous people, and that generosity should be in our creativity as well. Sometimes I’m stingy or lazy with the creativity that is inside !

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