Saturday, May 24, 2014
Acts 17:22-31 and John 14:15-21.
It turns out that there's a country song called God's Refrigerator; I only discovered that, and the magnet, after I wrote the first draft of this. Hey, GMTA.
Given the horrific Isla Vista shooting, maybe I should have talked about that. But I feel like I keep having to preach about shootings. I wanted to talk about something else. And I suspect that the kind of creativity I'm talking about here may be one small part of the answer to our violence epidemic, anyway.
Create, don't destroy.
Many of you know that I write fantasy and science fiction. Most of you know, because I’ve talked about it before, that I’m a child of non-believers. You won’t be surprised, then, to learn that many years ago, when I told my father that I’d started taking preaching classes, he threw his hands in the air and said, “Well, of course! You already write science fiction!”
My father’s reaction, while very funny, isn’t uncommon. The people I know who don’t go to church often maintain that those of us who do are engaged in a fantastical, time-consuming game of make-believe. We’ve invented God. Our faith is just a story, a fairy tale. We worship, not the being who created us, but a being we have created.
Based on Paul’s message to the Athenians in today’s lesson from Acts, this idea was current in his day, too. “Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals,” Paul says. No, we do not worship a being we have created. We worship the being who created us.
I suspect that this confusion between who is the creator and who is the created accounts for some of the suspicion of imagination in certain Christian circles -- more conservative than ours -- whose members are, for instance, forbidden to watch movies, or encouraged to burn Harry Potter books. Islam, properly wary of creating idols that reduce God to human size, forbids realism in sacred art; Judaism has a long history of uneasiness with artistic depictions of God. After all, the Second Commandment forbids “graven images.” If you interpret that commandment strictly, the sculpture of Jesus above our altar here at St. Paul’s puts us in very dangerous territory, as do the Stations of the Cross around our sanctuary.
And yet there’s another school of Christian thought that not only allows human art and imagination, but celebrates them. We are God’s offspring, created in God’s image. If we are created in the image of a creator, then art and imagination are our birthright, our family inheritance. Creativity is our legacy.
This idea was championed by J.R.R. Tolkien, the devoutly Catholic creator of Middle Earth, who described human artistry -- music, literature, the visual arts -- as “sub-creation.” He meant not that what people make is sub-par or sub-standard, but that human creations are a sub-set of God’s created world. We are co-creators with God, dreaming new things into existence. According to Tolkien, representational art -- “realistic” art -- is, if anything, inferior to fantasy. Realism merely copies what already exists, rather than using imagination to create what has never been seen before. God imagined the world into existence. Made in God’s image, we are called to imagine, too.
This is harder than it sounds. For one thing, children with artistic relatives are often so intimidated by the family legacy that they deliberately take another path. My grandfather and his twin brother were famous commercial artists who painted covers for The Shadow magazine and Boys’ Life. As a child, I took painting lessons and was pronounced talented. In high school, an art teacher urged me to apply to art school. But I knew I’d never be as good as my grandfather and his brother, so I focused on my writing instead. In college, I took a fiction workshop with Matt Salinger, son of the famous writer J.D. Salinger. Matt was a good writer, but he was so intimidated by his father’s literary legacy that he went into acting.
Obviously, when the artistic person in the family is God, the intimidation factor gets ramped up several-million-fold. As poet Joyce Kilmer laments in his poem "Trees", “Poems are made by fools like me,/But only God can make a tree.” The fact that English teachers everywhere use “Trees” as an example of really bad poetry hardly helps. Nor does the fact that our society values only the skilled and professional. If your painting or poetry or pottery isn’t good enough to sell, well, you’d better just stop trying and buy the work of “real” artists, the ones who get paid for it. Children absorb this attitude very early. In the words of a friend of mine, “All six year olds know they’re artists. All sixteen year olds know they aren’t.”
Trying to become an artist is hard enough when you feel like you have to live up to J.D. Salinger, or even Joyce Kilmer -- but God? In the face of these famous forbears, it’s a wonder that any of us overcome our artistic shyness to create anything at all. And yet we do, and when we do, we discover the joys and the rewards of creativity.
When we create, we participate in incarnation. I’m not the world’s best knitter, but look! I can use sticks and string to create a pair of socks, to make solid objects that not only didn’t exist before but keep my feet warm. How cool is that? I feel so good after making a pair of socks that I can only imagine how good God feels after making a tree.
When we create, we also resist the consumer messages that saturate our culture. These messages tell us that we aren’t enough without those Levi’s, that we’re inferior without that fancy car, that our yearnings for meaning can only be met by owning an iPad. Any creative project, whether it’s knitting socks or playing the drums, reveals these statements as lies. The surest joy comes from making stuff, not from buying it, even if the stuff we make is imperfect.
And that’s because when we create pottery or pot-holders or music, we also create community. Our artworks are saturated with meaning. They’re expressions of love. My first knitting project, eight years ago, was a prayer shawl for a friend whose husband was dying of cancer. The shawl was a lumpy mess. Half the stitches were backwards, and there were holes where none belonged. But my friend cherishes the shawl and still uses it, even though it’s unraveled so much that now it looks more like a giant knot than a garment.
Creativity also has proven health benefits, which is why hospitals and nursing homes almost always have art therapists on staff. Making stuff makes us feel better, both mentally and physically. It reduces anxiety and boosts our immune systems. It heals us.
“But I’m not creative!” many people say. “Where do artists get their ideas?”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that although he will no longer be with them in the flesh, God will send “another Advocate, to be with you forever.” He’s talking about Pentecost. The Advocate is the Holy Spirit, who created the church and also bestows artistic inspiration, those ecstatic rushing winds. If Pentecost is coming, so is creativity. Our ideas, like everything else, come from God.
Even with all its benefits, creation is hard. It takes practice. No one’s good at it right away. But just as human parents delight in the pasta collages and lumpy clay dinosaurs of their children, so God, surely, delights in our efforts. You may have seen the magnet that says, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.” Imagine that very large fridge, with its infinite supply of magnets. Look, there’s rock art from the Great Basin! Look, there’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets! Look, there’s the score of Beethoven’s Ninth! But my childhood paintings are there, too, and the story of Matt Salinger’s he thought wasn’t as good as his father’s work, and your co-worker’s doodle from that boring meeting last week, and your own first-grade stick-figure drawing, the one that was on your parents’ fridge for years and got lost when they moved. Somewhere up there, there’s probably even a copy of Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees.”