Creativity: a Dead Metaphor? (Part I)

We are living in a time when many clergy and lay professionals are calling upon Christians to be creative. This quote from Andy Crouch’s blog is an excellent example:

Christians are becoming dissatisfied with the postures they adopted toward culture in the twentieth century: condemning it, critiquing it, copying it, or just consuming it. More and more, we want to be people who cultivate: people who tend and keep what is good. And we want to be people who create: adding new cultural goods that move the horizons of the possible in places as wide as the world and as small as a home.

There are also many organizations and institutions that have recently been formed on the premise that Christians need to take a more active role in those fields we typically describe as creative. Personally, I agree with the sentiments expressed by Crouch, but I want to know what it means for a Christian to be creative. How can we move the conversation forward from claims that Christians should be creative to a consideration of how Christians should create?

To some extent, I think the answer lies in the nature of language itself. Words like ‘create,’ ‘creativity’ and ‘creator’ are dead metaphors. There was a time when such language would have conjured up ideas about a divine creator.

Today, however, the language of creativity refers in a more straightforward manner to a human activity. The word ‘creativity’ is not a dead metaphor because it has fallen out of conventional usage. Indeed, the exact opposite is the case. The language of creativity is overused and democratised. It is not reserved for great achievements, and so can apply equally well to the construction of a LEGO set.

We use words metaphorically when we take them from one context and use them in another. For example, we speak metaphorically if we refer to God as ‘father.’ In doing so, we take a word normally used in a human context, and, conjuring up all sorts of human experiences, apply the word to God. Metaphors refer to their objects indirectly by passing through some related form of knowledge or experience.

When a metaphor dies, it may have simply run it historical course. What was once a novel and surprising association is worn out through use. The death of creativity as a metaphor, however, is also a theological death. In a post-Christendom society, a robust theology of creation is no longer ‘mapped onto’ the human activities commonly referred to as ‘creative’. The seeming impossibility of belief in a Creator, coupled with new ways of envisioning the cosmos, has stripped the language of creativity of its divine context.

What if we could resurrect a dead metaphor?  Some have argued that modelling human creativity after divine creativity is dangerous for the human person, for society and for the environment.  Perhaps it is best not to disturb the dead.  What do you think?  Can we bring this dead metaphor back to life?

To be continued on Monday, April 16th…

[1] The Actuality of Atonement: a Study of Metaphor, Rationality and the Christian Tradition (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 177.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.



  • 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: jfutral

    I kind of think, “This, too, shall pass”. All sorts of “creative” ways to use “creative”. On the one hand I do appreciate the awakening of the nature of creativity within each of us as being created by a Creator and find that as more people practice creating, the more the divine nature of a Creator is revealed. This trend does bother me that people use the words “creative” and “creativity” in place of probably more appropriate words like “innovate” or “imagination”. Maybe “creativity” sounds more accessible and approachable while still potentially raising aspirations in everyone.

    But this seems to be our nature as well. Once we get the marketing/pr ideas of a “Creative Economy” or “Creative Class” behind us, maybe “creativity” will be able to be appropriately used again. Nothing encourages a return to the norm more than over use.


  2. says: jfutral

    “I want to know what it means for a Christian to be creative. How can we move the conversation forward from claims that Christians should be creative to a consideration of how Christians should create?”

    Ultimately this gets to the core of all the conversations I’ve been a part of for over two decades. There is also another related question that is just as important “What should Christians create?”

    In one respect, the how is kind of obvious, but we Christians love to make things more difficult than they need to be. But I think this unavoidable if we are to be thoughtful and deliberate.

    How Christians should create is pretty much the same as how Christians should do anything—thoughtfully, prayerfully, with thanksgiving, in Spirit and in truth. Pragmatically, we should consider that the Levites were chosen because they were skillful. Throughout scripture, musicians were always exhorted to play and sing skillfully.

    In terms of “what”, out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and by extension the dancer dances, the poet writes poetry, the painter paints, the sculptor sculpts, the artist creates.

    I’ve heard it said that by default, the artist is the prophet of today. If true (and I believe so) that is a great deal of responsibility.

    But the artist is not the only one with responsibility. The audience has a responsibility, how the viewer views and examines the work. All that I just said about the artist and how they create applies equally (if not more so) to the viewer and how they experience the work of the artist. The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy your whole body will be full of light. Examine all things, hold onto the good. And if we examine all things with light, even the darkest, most shameful of art will become light (Ephesians 5:8-13).

    Art is a relationship. And just as with any relationship, all parties are responsible.


    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Joe, thank you for your thoughts on my post. In response to your second comment, I agree that questions about how Christian artists should create need to be seen in light of the larger context of how Christians should live. Artistic creativity is not an ethics free zone, and it also does not have its own special rules. Nevertheless, artistic creativity, like all other spheres of human action brings up its own distinctive questions and issues. Living well as an artist will be similar, but not exactly the same as, living well as a used car salesman.

      In part II, I will suggest that comparisons between divine and artistic creativity can help us to consider how to be creative. I agree that the language of responsibility is important, but it also seems to merely beg the question of how one is supposed to be responsible to others. I think that comparisons between divine and artistic creativity, on the other hand, provide paradigms for the artist to live and work according to. From a Christian perspective, these paradigms are like invitations to work creatively in a way that is appropriate to, and in keeping with, the Creator’s work in the cosmos.

      1. says: jfutral

        Looking forward to part II. I have yet to be disappointed in anyone’s posts or thoughts here. From my perspective, everyone is asking the right questions and exploring the right areas for the answers (although I am not a big on theology, in the academic sense, but appreciate those who are). I wish you guys had been around back when I was just starting out!

        As always, good stuff.


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