by Stephen Martin
“There is a definite sense that the work that flows from our hands, the music that pours from our instruments or voices, the dance that moves through our bodies, the words that are composed through our pens, are not our own.
They are from Another who still longs to speak to his creation through his creation.”1
— Jody Thomae, God’s Creative Gift
Throughout history, human creatures have designed, crafted, written, painted, sculpted, danced. There is a kind of creative force that drives us to build, to narrate, to write, to conceptualize new theories.
Whether sculpting a sand castle or sketching with a pencil, our imaginations provide the impetus for our creativity. This ability to imagine is part of what makes us fully human. Imagination is the spark by which ideas come to life and the engine that propels us into new territory. Without it, we cannot envision the future. With it, we are given the ability to dream and to hope.
But does our imagination truly come from within?
Various cultures have answered this question in distinctly different ways throughout the centuries. The Greeks understood creativity to come from a daemon, an inner force or attendant spirit that enabled the creativity of human beings.2 In a well-known Ted Talk, Elizabeth Gilbert points out that the Romans later dubbed this attendant spirit a genius, and believed it followed its subject until he or she died.3
The term genius is of particular interest, in part because it referred to something distinctly separate from the individual. Rather than the individual being a genius, the artist had a genius. Any artistic achievement or merit of the individual was assigned to this friendly (or not-so-friendly) companion. Only later in the Romantic era, were the two coupled together. The concept of the genius became integrated with the individual, resulting in our modern conception of someone who is ‘a true genius.’4
Out of Chaos, Into Order
The Judeo-Christian worldview proposes a different understanding of creativity and the role of humans in this process. “In the beginning, God created…” (Genesis 1:1) Abraham Kuyper describes it this way: “God is the Creator of everything; the power of really producing new things is his alone, and therefore he always continues to be the creative artist.”5 God is the Creative Being, described as the One who fashions order-from-disorder, definition-out-of-chaos.6
God is the Originator. Any subsequent human creative endeavor is derivative, made possible only as a result of the original creative act. The Genesis account serves as the original model, the archetype, for creativity itself. From Genesis, we learn that any productive effort in the world begins by taking the chaotic, the disordered, and beginning to define it, to make sense out of it, to organize the disordered.
And so, the creative process begins by ordering the world around us. Just as the first humans in the Garden of Eden were tasked with identifying and naming, so too, we are given a similar task. (Gen. 2:19, 20) We name, we identify, and we join in with God’s work of bringing order to the world around us. The very process of ‘ordering’ allows us to understand the world in new ways. And when this process is coupled with the imagination, we are given freedom to work with these structures, materials, and ideas.
The Role of The Artist
For artists, the relationship between God and his created beings can raise a number of questions. Do we as artists have a specific role to play in this endeavor? Are specific individuals ever called by God to a particular artistic task? If so, what should our priorities be?
Exodus 31 provides the account of an individual, called by God to oversee a large-scale, artistic project:
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills – to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver, and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.’” (Ex. 31:1-5)
This story is fascinating on a number of levels. It conveys a particular, creative calling for a particular individual. Bezalel is assigned an artistic role within a specific time and place in Israel’s history. This is not just any moment. The nation of Israel had just witnessed a grand movement of God; a dramatic release from captivity under Egyptian rule and a narrow escape across the Red Sea. As the young nation began to establish its first worship practices, God outlined specific details regarding how these worship practices would play out. These instructions included details regarding the ways in which the Tabernacle itself was to be constructed, furnished, and maintained. The story makes it clear that Bezalel and his colleagues were to play an integral role in creating the furnishings for the Tabernacle.
The ‘attending spirit’ mentioned in this story is not the work of a daemon or genius, but the Spirit of God himself. God did not assign an ‘angel-of-all-things-artistic’ to Bezalel and his work. Rather, he filled Bezalel with his own Spirit. Here we find the link between God’s original creative act and our ongoing creative work. God formed us with the ability to imagine. And He continues to fuel our imagination, through the work of the Spirit in us. Makoto Fujimura describes it like this: “Part of experiencing the presence of God in our lives is appreciating the importance of our creative intuition and trusting that the Spirit is already at work there, often working in between established zones of culture.”7
In addition to artistic skill, ‘wisdom, knowledge, and understanding’ are outlined as high priorities. For Bezalel, this was not going to be some uninformed, unguided shot in the dark. Rather, knowledge regarding the craft, wisdom, and artistic discernment, were to be utilized as key ingredients in Bezalel’s work.
The story goes on to describe Bezalel and his team of artisans, charged with (among other things) crafting furnishings for the tabernacle: “Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, to help him. Also, I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law with the atonement cover on it, and all the other furnishings of the tent…” Bezalel was to oversee a set of artistic tasks with the help and support of a group of supporting cast members. These tasks were to be completed by a community of artistic worshipers for their community of fellow worshipers.
The story also clarifies that God was the one who gave ‘ability to all the skilled workers.’ And these were no small tasks. In fact, the Ark of the Covenant was intended to house the tablets containing the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Ark itself was intended to symbolize the dwelling of God among his people. Exodus 25 describes God’s desire to meet with his people, specifically through the symbolism found in the Ark: “Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you…” (Exodus 25:21, 22)
God chooses to dwell with the individual, as well as the collective.
The biblical narrative is bursting with examples of individuals – stories of individual women and men in whom God places his Spirit for a specific time and purpose. Bezalel is simply one such example, exemplifying that the creative, the artist, can indeed be called by God to a particular creative task.
In similar ways, God also chooses to dwell with the gathered, those who come together for a common purpose in worship. One beautiful example of this can be found in the dedication of the Temple of Israel.
“… and when they lifted up their voice accompanied by trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and when they praised the Lord saying, ‘He indeed is good for His lovingkindness is everlasting,’ then the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” (II Chronicles 5:13b-14, I Kings 8:10-11)
When God dwells with us, he chooses to continue His creative process, in and through us.
Makoto Fujimura describes the relationship between the creative work of human beings, when this creative work is infused with the Spirit of God: “Our creative intuition, fused with the work of the Spirit of God, can become the deepest seat of knowledge, from which our making can flow.”8
It is this fusion of human and Divine, this collaborative effort between God and his people, that we have been invited into. And yet, lest our egos get the better of us, it is a profound moment when we realize that God has invited us into imaginative practices and spaces that are solely derived from Him.
In this way, God is not only the originating source of creativity, but continues to remain a part of the creative endeavor itself. When God’s Spirit dwells within us, the task itself is fueled by the ‘Originator of origins.’9 Jeremy Begbie describes it this way: “In humankind, creation finds a voice…. Through the human creature, the inarticulate (though never silent) creation becomes articulate.”10
We are drawing on an unending wealth of possibility; this is the Eternal-Source-of-Imagination. And when our work is infused with this Source, the very Spirit of God, we enter into the ongoing creativity of God.
Biography of Author
Stephen Martin, D.C.M., is Director of the Angeles Worship Initiative. In addition, he serves as Director for Worship Studies and Assistant Professor in the School of Music at Azusa Pacific University.