Making Room for Others: Creative Genius and Theology

This post is long overdue, but I wanted to write it anyway.

In a 2009 TED Talk titled “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame spoke about the need for a way of thinking about artistic creativity that is not damaging and hurtful to artists. Gilbert is inspiring. That much should be expected from a TED Talk. What piqued my interest was the way her talk repeatedly bumps into theology while it simultaneously avoids taking theology seriously.

Gilbert begins her talk on creative genius by drawing our attention to a problem. The problem with creative genius, says Gilbert, is that we expect too much of our artists. We set them up for failure because we expect the impossible, and artists, themselves, have internalized the narrative that, if they only harness the mysterious energy within, they can produce the next best seller, the next box office hit, or the next great masterpiece.

I have little doubt that Gilbert strikes a chord with artists. Her solution to the problem is what really deserves our attention.

Gilbert suggests that what artists need is some “distance” between their sense of self and their creativity. The artist needs to be able to look at his/her creative work and say, “This is not me, and its success as a creative work does not depend entirely on me.” She often calls this distance a “psychological construct” that imagines a mysterious “other” involved in the artist’s creative work.

Gilbert points out that, in its ancient context, the word ‘genius’ (Gr. daemon) referred to a Muse-like spirit that accompanied each individual. When a poet wrote a wildly successful poem, everyone could believe that the genius inspired the poet and was the source of the poem’s success.

Along with many other features of the enchanted ancient and medieval world, the genius fell prey to more “modern” modes of thought. Intriguingly, the word “genius” lived on, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries played a significant role in philosophical aesthetics as the faculty of mind that produced truly creative work. As Gilbert describes it, the genius was internalized and so the artist found herself alone in, and wholly responsible for, her creative work.

Gilbert wants to recover a way of thinking about artistic creativity that makes room for an “other.” As tempting as it is, she finds the ancient concept of genius too silly or too quaint to take seriously.

I was surprised that Gilbert did not discuss the various “others” that may be present in our work. For example, words have a dimension of “otherness” because we cannot fully control them and determine their meaning, and we might also speak of certain people as “others” in a collaborative process. Depending on the medium in which one is working, the list of “others” could be expanded considerably.

Instead, Gilbert hones in on that element of divinity in the ancient meaning of genius, and she suggests that this sense of divinity, mysteriousness and unimaginability is what artists need to maintain in the creative process in order to avoid the emotional turmoil of the stereotypical modern artist. She is not compelled to say anything theological about this “other” (perhaps there is nothing to say?), but she is convinced that she needs it, and that all other artists need it too.

For someone interested in theology, Gilbert’s talk is a little disappointing. One wonders how long she can continue to believe in this “pyschological construct” if she does not believe that it is really there. And if this “other” is really there, then why does Gilbert not say more about it?

At the end of the day, I find Gilbert’s suggestion that artists can benefit by making room for “others” in their creative practices helpful, but if one wants to take this “otherness” all the way to God, then I find Christian thought to be a much more convincing place to start. Because the God who comes to us in Christ makes room for our creativity, we can make room in our creativity for God.  God is the Creator of everything, and each of us are “sub-creators” who can creatively receive the gracious gifts of the Creator.

Jim Watkins is Featured Artist Editor of Transpositions. He has recently completed his PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and his forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.


  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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  1. says: Christopher R. Brewer

    Jim, thanks for this. I, like you, find Gilbert’s construct (as you’ve described it) wanting, and couldn’t help but think of William Desmond’s discussion of genius in his Art, Origins, Otherness: Between Philosophy and Art (SUNY Press, 2003). And as it has to do with “the other” and “otherness” I thought I might quote several sections at length. He notes:

    “Here’s the rub. We are visited with disturbance, just in connection with the otherness of the origin that great art seems to reveal. Our powers of self-mediation, or self-determination, claiming originality, seem haunted by an elusive, often overwhelming power of origination that does not seem to belong to us univocally. In the very heart of self-determination a strange immanent otherness seems to arise again and again. We univocalize nature, and something more equivocally other still haunts us. We determine ourselves, and seem to be at one with ourselves, and yet something other, in the most radical intimacy of being creative, disturbs our being at one with ourselves. Our self-mastery seems to emerge from a deeper origin we do not master but that itself make (sic.) self possible, possible as this original self. This, I believe, is the issue touched on in Kant’s treatment of genius, touched on, but also run from. And yet there is no place to where we can flee. If we flee to nature as other, we encounter the sublime; if we flee to ourselves, we bring with us the immanent otherness we try to flee.”[p. 57]

    He continues:

    “For the genius to be genius it must reveal a sense of original being-other to the human. For the genius to be the manifestation of transcendence, he must be given the power of transcendence by something other than himself. Nature in the latter sense breaks free of complete determination by the self. There is something in excess, in excess even of the excess of the creative genius.”[p. 63]

    And finally:

    “Aesthetic modernity is caught and twisted in something like the following dilemma: It wants to affirm the freedom of creative origination; it wants to do this to an extreme which rejects any interference from anything other to creative freedom itself; but in affirming this freedom, it inevitably comes to see that the very power of creative origination has something about it that is not in the complete self-mastery of the creative self; something other and over and above appears, and yet at the same times escapes beyond control. We begin by asserting our creative superiority, and end by wondering if we are the plaything of powers outside our control. We stand above nature, and end up as enigmatic productions thrown into being by a nature, now more enigmatic than ever before, and even filling us with a darker unease about something more sinister underground.”[pp. 65-66]

    Certainly, Christian belief is a much more convincing place to start, or, if I might tweak that just a bit, Christian belief is an essential dialogue partner together with philosophy, science, art, etc. I would quote Desmond again to this effect, but I’ve already done so in my last post, the book review from last Friday.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Chris, thank you for this comment, and for quoting Desmond’s book. I think you just moved that book to the top of my reading list!

      Yes, I think you are right that theology is an essential dialogue partner, along with other disciplines, to study and talk about creativity. It is unfortunate that some regard theology as a kind of “add-on,” but as Desmond’s quotes suggest, and Gilbert’s talk, the experience of creativity pushes us to ask theological questions.

  2. says: bruce herman

    Jim – good to see this and to encounter more voices which can underscore the essential humility of the creative act. Nearly every genuine artist I know personally, as well as a host of others I’ve read about, report the same phenomenon about “creativity” — namely that it comes as a “gift”. Jesus’ story of the three men entrusted with a measure of “talents” of gold is to the point: the gold neither belonged to these men, nor was it given to them for their own stockpile or silo. It was entrusted to them for development and expansion. The one man in the story who is punished is the one who neither respected/trusted the master nor was willing to risk anything in his stewarding of the gift entrusted to him. (And his punishment is awe inspiring if you re-read the tale.) The other two men are promoted to higher levels of responsibility precisely because they were willing to invest and shepherd the resources to ten-fold and five-fold development. Their reward is not personal wealth, but exponentially greater responsibility. (From stewardship of measures of gold to responsibility for whole cities!) The tale is reminiscent of the Joseph and Daniel narratives in the OT. “To whom much is given shall much be requiried.”

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Bruce, thank your for this comment, and, especially, thank you for bringing up risk and the parable of the talents. I absolutely agree with your reading of this parable. I have actually been reading through the parables with a group at my church, and I have been surprised by how often discussions about the risk involved in serving others comes up.

      The book I am publishing with Fortress Press (titled: “Creativity as Sacrifice”) tackles this issue head on. The basic substance of the book is my PhD thesis, and I am about 99% sure that I will be revising it to include a section on the parables, risk and what it means to live in the kingdom of God. Thank you!

  3. says: Jennifer Agee

    I haven’t watched many TED talks, but I happened to see this one several years ago and it really stayed with me, too. It’s tantalizing how close she comes to something theological without quite stepping over. But what I took from the message was the idea of “showing up.” Writing and study don’t come easily to me, but I have found that the important thing is showing up in my study every morning with the Psalms and my computer and giving that time to the God who inspires us. And whatever comes of that time, the creator of the universe is a much better refuge from artistic anxiety than a psychological construct.

    1. says: jfutral

      This comes closer to what Gilbert is talking about and, quite frankly, from a Christian perspective is more on target than referring to art as a gift.

      What I mean is that the bible never references art or some art form as a gift. It is referred to more often as a skill. The Levites were chosen because they were skillful. We should sing skillfully, etc., etc. So we are disciplined, we “show up” for our part of the job and expect the “other” to do its part.

      The “other” does not have to be theological, per se. Except in this. Those moments of “genius”, those moments that transcend skill, come from life and Christ came that we would have life more abundantly.

      This is why I despise the Genius grants. Not that I hate rewarding artists. But the notion that underlies the grant so that artists can create free from the burdens of everyday life, to me, sidesteps the whole creative spark.

      Where this can go theologically, I think, is the idea that, biblically, theology starts with creativity. Not just, “in the beginning, God”, but “in the beginning, God created.” And what did God create? A relational universe that was borne from his own life, his own “other”, one of eternal relationship.

      That’s what I think.
      but I could be wrong,

  4. says: Jim Watkins

    Jennifer, thanks for this comment. You bring up some valuable advice that Gilbert offers to her audience. I completely agree that “showing up”, or establishing a reliable routine for one’s artistic practice, nurtures creativity. She actually offers a lot of good advice to writers, and I don’t want my critique to overshadow that. All the best in your own writing!

  5. says: Jen Logan

    Hi Jim, thanks for your article. I am writing a dissertation for a MA in Christianity and the Arts and wondered when your book on creativity and sacrifice will be available? The title appears to bear relevance to my studies, and sounds very interesting too! If its some way off, I wondered if you have a blog where some of your thoughts on the subject are available?
    Many thanks again.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Hi Jen, thanks for your interest in my book. It will be available sometime in 2014 (hopefully). I’m guessing that will be too late for your dissertation. The book is very similar to my PhD thesis, and I could probably get you a copy of that. I will send an email to the address attached to this comment, and we can go from there.

  6. says: Claire

    Hi Jim, Many thanks for the article – I picked this TED talk up a few years ago and had a similar sense that it was both a brilliant and inspiring talk, but frustrating at the same time- she dances around the idea that is staring her in the face that God could be a reality and THE great Creator from which all creativity comes.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Hi Claire, thanks for this comment! It is nice to know that others had a similar response to Gilbert’s talk.

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