A Creative Manifesto
July 19, 2019 • Tokyo, Japan
I was recently asked about the differences between artists who are Christians and those who are not (yet). As you can imagine, it is frequently hard to tell who-believes-what from our artworks! My answer comes from the notion that the artist-Christian is a theologian working to apply God’s word to all of life. Every artist takes little pieces of God’s creation and breaks down, rearranges, and crafts them into little pieces of something new—what we and Tolkien might call sub-creation. But only the artist-Christian is doing this knowingly, self-consciously, resting on what God’s Word says about creation so that our creative work harmonizes with his.
Everything in creation pours forth an inescapable stream of wordless speech in praise of its Creator God (Psalm 19:1-6). Like creation itself, art communicates in this language of beholding—speaking directly through the human experience of seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, and tasting the world around us. Further, Romans 8:19-23 tells us that creation knows its own brokenness and longs for the total redemption of the universe to be finally completed. Art similarly speaks out of its own broken histories and contexts.
The Ninth Commandment tells us something crucial to art, and not in the way we might expect. It says, “You shall not give false witness.” The idea is that we should not lead others to believe something that is untrue. For the Christian who acts sub-creatively, that means that what our artworks communicate should be in alignment with the both the hopes and the groanings of God’s creation. The things we make out of creation’s various parts must align with the reality and expressions of creation itself. “We cannot perjure the plants,” says philosopher Calvin Seerveld. We as artists violate the Ninth Commandment if we make pieces of creation that speak against its true self and story, something truly false.
Accordingly, the manifesto of the artist-Christian is to make things for fallen ears, eyes, noses, fingers, and tongues to behold which amplify the speech of God’s creation. We will make artworks from the pieces of Old Creation that beckon humans further up, further in to New Creation. We will honestly express the hope, fear, longing, glory, brokenness, and redemption that is woven throughout the true story of this created universe, for Jesus’s glory. We will make—in our own sub-creative ways—New Covenant rainbows. When people ask about the hope that is in us, our answer lies in the redemptive beauty of God.
It can be difficult, long work to produce art that is true both to our story and to His Story. We must resonate with both creation’s curse and its glory. It’s easy take an off-ramp and express ourselves outside of our creational context: to make things that will simply sell, things that impart a cheap thrill, things that emptily reverberate the prevailing cultural noise or come off like a discounted tract. It takes skill and care and time, and often sweat and tears, to take parts of this old earth and bring forth things that echo, reflect, taste, feel, and smell of the good tilled earth of New Eden. Redemptive art is not easy art.
Nor does it need to be serious, weighty, high-brow or stuffy art! As opposed to the brooding artist-stereotype, we artist-Christians are to be overflowing with the joy of the Lord. Nothing is off limits—no art form, medium, topic, or venue is inherently wrong or outside our purview. It all belongs to Christ (Colossians 1:17) and continually speaks of him. As God’s adopted children, it’s all ours to play with and make something of.
I am going to sing to the Lord God Yahweh as long as I live!
I am going to serenade my God with music as long as I am there!
May my poetry make him happy—
I, at least, am going to be happy, enjoy it with him, the Covenanting One!
Praise! Let all of me praise the Lord! Hallelujah!
(Psalm 104, partial quote, translated by Calvin Seerveld)