Redeeming the Identity of the Creative Person

Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a two-part series.  The first, titled “The Invention of the Creative Person,” suggested that the identity of the creative person is, to some extent, a cultural construct.  As with all of the identities we construct for ourselves, the creative person also has the potential to become an idol that we serve and a destructive force in our lives.  Can Christian theology help us to avoid turning the identity of the creative person into an idol, and, instead, transform it into an arena for God’s grace in our lives?

Though all the crannies of the world we filled

with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build

Gods and their houses out of dark and light,

and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right

(used or misused). That right has not decayed:

we make still by the law in which we’re made.

When modern Christians attempt to situate human creativity in light of the Biblical narrative, they are often drawn, like a moth to the flame, to the first chapters of Genesis and the idea of the image of God.  The above quote from J. R. R. Tolkien’s excellent and masterful On Fairy Stories is but one example of many.

It is a right and good thing to under-gird our understanding of human creativity with the doctrine of the imago Dei. If, however, we only circle around the glow of the imago Dei as we try to understand what it means to be truly creative, then we may find ourselves crashing and burning upon the idolatry of our own creative identities.

The imago Dei is, for many Christians, a nebulous theological category that seems to simply affirm the way we are as natural, good and God-given. Insisting upon human creativity as a natural capacity can trick us into thinking that our own creative efforts operate outside of divine grace.[1] We may come feel that our God-given creative talents make us who we are, and that, without them, we are nothing.  Or, we may find ourselves thinking that our creative work has its primary source in our selves, our individuality, and in the talents that God has given to us.

Responding to these sorts of dangers, there are some who argue that the identity of a creative person is so unhelpful that it should be done away with completely.  For example, Calvin Seerveld writes:

There are no biblical grounds…for the usual talk about artistic ‘creation.’  Comparisons between God as capital A Creator Artist and man as small, image-of-God creator artist are only speculative and misleading … it is so much healthier to realize that art is work, hard, bodily work that can legitimately be a man or woman’s vocation.[2]

According to Seerveld, inserting creativity into the doctrine of the imago Dei is simply a mistake.  Moreover, it is “healthier,” he says, to think of the work of an artist as ordinary work rather than uniquely connected to the work that God is doing in creation.

Christians are not the only ones who worry about the potential dangers of the identity of the creative person.  Atheist philosopher Paul Feyerabend, for example, argues that the unholy mixture of modern individualism with “the divine gift of creativity” is the source of many problems we face today.[3] He believes that the identity of the creative person distances us from the world, and leads us to forget our essential ties to the environment and one another.  In response, he thinks we need “an attitude, a religion, a philosophy, or whatever you want to call such an agency with corresponding sciences and political institutions that views humans as inseparable parts of nature and society, not as their independent architects.”[4]

While I appreciate the criticisms of Seerveld and Feyerabend, I am not convinced that completely undoing the identity of the creative person is something our society can or should achieve.  A more realistic approach, from a Christian perspective, would be to redeem the identity of the creative person so that this potential idol can become, instead, a source of God’s grace in our lives.

An alternative way of thinking about the identity of the creative person begins by recognizing that the imago Dei has its goal in the imago Christi, and that without bringing our creative identities to the cross we may find ourselves being crucified upon our own creative identities.  Jeremy Begbie argues that the humanity of Christ is an essential foundation for human creativity:

We can begin by recognizing that in the humanity of Christ, our humanity has been incorporated into the divine life by the Son of God, set free by the Spirit from its debilitating self-obsession, from its self-will and its evasions of the truth, liberated to respond to the Father’s love and his will, and freed to respond appropriately to the created world. Therein lies the very foundation and source of authentic freedom and authentic creativity.[5]

As part of a larger, ongoing Trinitarian conversation, human creativity cannot be rooted in our own achievements, individuality, or talents.  Instead of seeing one’s self as the source of creativity, the humanity of Christ draws one’s attention to the way that one’s self is fundamentally responsive and responsible to God, others and the world.

In addition to shifting the source of our creative achievements away from our selves, the person of Jesus also gives us a pattern for the creative life.  This is a life that responds to his call to take up one’s cross and follow.  In response to this call, human creativity will be a way that we empty ourselves and love others. Rather than simply being a way for my voice to be heard, creativity can be a way that I give a voice to the voiceless.  Rather than then simply being a way for me to do something new, creativity can be a way to add value to the world.  Rather than simply being a way to achieve my own greatness, creativity can be a risky and vulnerable way to serve others.

Let us remember that God has invited us to join with him in the creative project of making and re-making the world, and let us also remember that the love of Jesus shows us how we are to be creative people.

Jim Watkins is a regular contributor to Transpositions. In 2012, he completed a PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and he currently teaches humanities and bible at Veritas School in Richmond, VA.  His  forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.


[1] As David Harned writes, “And never content with a relative autonomy, the natural covertly advances the pretension to have no judge at all.” See Theology and the Arts (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 146.

[2] Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for a Fallen World (Toronto: Tuppence Press, 1980), 26-27.

[3] Paul Feyerabend, “Creativity—A Dangerous Myth,” Critical Inquiry 13 (1987): 710.

[4] Ibid., 711.

[5] Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991) 178-9.

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