Archive for February, 2010

// towards a theology of creativity

I’ve written a few times on this blog about my recently rediscovered love of cooking, but the sheer joy that it brings still surprises me on a fairly regular basis. Partly, I think, it’s the experience of experimenting with flavours and tweaking recipes; partly it’s down to the process of chopping, peeling etc. that is completely unlike just about everything else that I do during the week; and partly it’s down to the fact that it serves as a powerful reminder of what has been given, and the fact that what God has given us is truly good.

But what is consistently the most startling is the way in which something that seems fundamentally mundane and everyday – just another household task – ends up being a testimony to life with God. That wasn’t my aim when I started, and it’s not even like I set out to cook for the glory of God; and yet, in spite of itself, the act of creation tells of Him regardless…

Eugene Peterson has recently written brilliantly on how “we need friends who are capable of hearing the Holy Spirit’s whispers in what we are saying – and sometimes between the lines in what we’re not saying”, and he’s got a point. Maybe when we’re wrapped up in our day-to-day life we don’t notice the way in which that life testifies to God at work, but it pays to be around the people who do notice it. Not to mention to try to turn ourselves into people who do.
Peterson also wrote of his interest

in cultivating the fundamentally holy nature of all language, including most definitely the casual, spontaneous, unselfconscious, conversational language that occurs when we’re sitting in a rocking-chair before a fireplace on a wintry day, strolling on a beach, or having coffee in a diner – conversations while we’re walking through Samaria…

In discerning the voice of God in the conversations that we engage in when we are not intentionally thinking “God”.

Our conversations, our personalities and interests, directly reflect the fact that we are made in the image of God. Our use of language, our ways of making sense of the world, those are a testimony to a God who created us and gave us the capacity for comprehension…

The God who spoke creation into existence with a word is a creative God; and as a people made in His image, we too have that creativity hard-wired into us. We are called to be a people who, even in our daily lives, are constantly examining the world and restating the truths that are continually evident about God in ways that are accessible and communicable – whatever that is, whether that be songwriting, painting, poetry, journaling, cooking, writing fiction or any number of other things.

If we are seeking God’s glory then, even if we are not writing directly about Him, then there is something holy both about the process – and the creation.

That process of creativity is something very different to over-analysis, though, and that’s a distinction worth making. C.S. Lewis once claimed that “as thinkers, we are cut off from what we think about; as tasting, touching, willing, loving, hating, we do not clearly understand. The more lucidly we think, the more we are cut off… You cannot study pleasure in the moment of the nuptial embrace, nor repentance while repenting, not analyse the nature of humour while roaring with laughter.”

We talk about engaging with the world and, although that may eventually include an analysis that points back to God, it starts with awe at what has been given – and the giver Himself. Analysis, most often, can come later, in our times of meditation and reflection; revelation, experience and engagement must come first.

But this is a revelation that is fantastically liberating, too. So, in my last post I was talking about Christianity as a state of being – a total change of nature, what Paul talked about when he claimed that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

And if, in our very being, we are already made holy by Christ’s death on the cross, and if we are coming to believe and act in accordance with that more each day, then how incredible will both that act of creation (not to mention the thing created) be?

So why not join me in pursuing that God-given creativity – in seeking to create and express and converse with eyes open, in order to see what God is saying both in our conversations and through the lives of all His people.

I’m excited already…

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// my name is…

Last night a friend of mine returned from a service attended by a large number of Oxford students, fellows and choristers and commented on how “out of place” he felt. He’d thought he could blend in, pass as one of them, but on being there he found himself being instinctively deferential, feeling like he didn’t belong. He’s an educated, passionate, extremely literate guy, and yet something in him cried out that he wasn’t right for this place. How does that happen? Where does that perspective come from?

I kind of understand, though. I feel like for quite a while I’ve been trying to shift the label “Oxford student” that has been attached to me, and I feel like I might be trying for a while yet, too. See, when people find out, they automatically have some kind of reaction – some set of preconceptions about who you are or what an “Oxford student” looks like, some of which are more accurate than others. For a while, I suppose I sort of embraced it, too – it’s a simple enough identity to have, and it’s not a bad one, sometimes…

But the truth is, I’m not sure I want this to be the thing that defines me anymore. Our teaching this week, one session of which was directly addressed to the subject of “identity”, brought us back to an old and well-known story in the gospel of Luke – that is, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. If you’re looking for it, by the way, it’s in Luke 16:19-31 – and reading it again at this point might be useful.

Did you ever notice that the rich man doesn’t even have a name?

Look again.

There’s Lazarus, and there’s Abraham, and then there’s “the rich man”.

Lazarus, by contrast, is unique in that he is the only character in any of Jesus’s parables to be given an actual name.

The rich man, for eternity – even after death – is just “the rich man”. And why? Because that’s who he is: that’s his ‘thing’. He’s the rich guy, and that’s his defining characteristic.

If we’re honest, a lot of us have a ‘thing’. We’re the funny one, or the cool one, or the literate one, or the one who plays in a band, or the indie one, or the one who cares about justice, or the one who contends for truth, or whatever. But it all has to beg a question – is there enough of you left for God to call by name?

Not your stuff, not your issues, but you?

See, a lot of that stuff is good stuff; it’s productive, and it’s what makes society and community so exciting, provided it’s not all there is to who we are. Yet the question that I ask a lot – ask myself, as well as others – is this: what is it that we’re building?

As if we’re building a faith, a culture, where all we have are labels, then somewhere down the line we’ve got our perspective wrong – not massively wrong, maybe, but subtly wrong, at least.

As evidence for this, I could quote you Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he reminded them that “as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28) Could remind you that Christ is our identity first and foremost – but then I suspect you know that already.

Yes, Christ is our identity first, and that’s a vital truth – but before we can embrace that, we need to start by breaking down the old ways of defining ourselves. That’s why Paul talks about us dying to ourselves when he writes to the Galatians, and why he spends much of his letter to the Ephesians telling them what not to do and then offering something proactive in its place.

We can’t have it both ways. Christ is not an add-on.

Sooner or later we have to decide – who are we?

So the next time you deferentially step out of the way for an Oxford student dressed in a black robe, ask yourself why you did so.

Because God knows what He thinks of you.

Question is, do you?

[Suggested further reading: check out http://player.flannel.org/map, click “get a free ticket” and watch the short film “name” – it’s about 12 minutes long and it’s well worth a look on this same topic]

// on Don Miller on Salinger

I’ve got great respect for Don Miller, both as an author and as a Christian, and his eulogy for J.D. Salinger (which appeared on his blog the other day, and can be found here) only increases that respect. It’s pretty easy to pretend that we’re not really affected by anyone, that our foundations are totally unique – but especially for those of us who write, attempting that always leaves you with the slightly uneasy feeling that one day someone will find you out.

Don’s observations on his own style ring true with me, too; when I do re-read what I’ve written in the past I fairly often feel some measure of frustration about my attempt to sound like someone I’ve read, or to come up with some punchy or distinctive phrase that sticks in people’s minds. That’s not always a bad thing, sure, but acknowledging it has some positive consequences…

The first is to remember that the people who we imitate are people who we want to be like, and that in itself is pretty revealing when it comes to how we think of ourselves. The people who we imitate, are they people who rest upon good foundations? The things that we admire about them, are they good things? So for me, some of the things that I respect about the authors and pastors and musicians who I love are their honesty and frankness, their profound and concise ways of expressing things – aspects that I’ve tried to incorporate in my own life and writing. But it’s just as worth saying that some of the things I copy are just my attempt to fit into a particular tradition, trying to emulate my heroes so that people will see me in the same way.

Which is a cynical ploy, admittedly, but it’s also one that we all fall prey to now and again.

The second is that we can’t pretend objectivity in any circumstance. We’re all shaped by our backgrounds and by the things that we love and hate, and that directly affects the way that we see the world. That’s not a bad thing, either, but it does mean that some people will have a harder job accepting facts, that some methods of expression simply won’t resonate with some people – that there isn’t simply a ‘one-size fits all’ way of seeing things, even though it would be easier if there were.

The same goes with any of us when we come to the Bible, of course. Would I find it easier to believe some of it if I hadn’t read so many introspective, or deconstructive, books? Possibly, but I did read them, and I can’t un-read them, and so I have to live and read in the light of that fact – and maybe advise others to do differently in future.

And the third consequence is the remembrance of the fact that we’re all works in progress. We’re all learning as we go, and so I can point you to a number of places even on this blog where I have apparently contradicted myself, simply because my view has changed with time. That’s okay, though. It will happen again, and when it does, I will apologise and then i’ll attempt to explain why…

Humility means accepting that I am not God, and that my views are simply commentary. The same is true when it comes to any conversations with non-Christians, too; I am not infallible, and so if I’m wrong, my ability to admit that has value in and of itself. My views will continue to change and be reshaped over time, and different things will continue to impact me differently over time. And if anything, that makes me happier, rather than sadder. If this was my peak of intellectual brilliance, then where would there be to go except downhill?

So all credit to Don Miller for his honesty about the craft of writing and the self-presentation that all of us subscribe to on some level. Maybe it is dangerous to be putting your thoughts out on the internet, but perhaps only if you put them out to a hostile audience. For the moment, I’m sticking with the conclusion that honesty is best policy.