art

Goods vs. Gifts

Tonight I'm having a bit of a crisis of confidence. I don't think this is an uncommon thing. I don't think it's an uncommon thing in humanity in general. I know it's not an uncommon thing in the life of a creative person. And it is certainly not a new thing for me, personally.

Let me lay it out.

A couple nights from now I have the opportunity to sit in a room of friends (and some would-be friends) and share a bit of what I do and a bit about what I do. It's an opportunity to tell stories and to hear some stories too. The thing is, there will be some in attendance who have heard my stories before. Maybe even a couple times before.

And so the crisis of confidence comes down to the question: Do these people really want to hear my stories again?

I'm sitting here wondering if I should write some new material. (Full disclosure: I'm sitting here trying to write some new material.) But new will not necessarily mean good. In fact, based on what I've been working on for the last couple hours it will be far from good. Instead it will be rushed, haphazard and meandering. It will be first drafts, and first drafts are rubbish. First drafts are simply foundations for beautiful structures. And no one ever digs holes to stare at the foundations of beautiful structures.

Ultimately, the question comes down to the criteria I use to evaluate my work. Do I want my work to amuse or do I want it to revive? Should it surprise or should it provoke? Is it a good or is it a gift? You see, goods have a shelf-life, and their obsolescence is a foregone conclusion. Goods are meant to be consumed, whereas gifts are meant to be treasured. Gifts grow more precious with familiarity and time.

I think art should be a gift, a gift of beauty because rather than a good that should be discarded after it has been consumed or deemed irrelevant, beauty grows in richness and complexity with each encounter, revealing new truth as we engage it anew with the ideas, questions and experiences we gain along the journey.

Beauty stands in stark contrast to the planned obsolescence of the marketplace, aspiring instead toward that which is true, and lasting and transcendent.

Process

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I got a package in the mail today. From Amazon. And while that's always exciting, it is particularly so this time around. This fresh stack of paper and ink represents the wisdom I'm about to mine for the next big project on my mind. This is my Christmas research. I may be further ahead than I've ever been before.

If I'm being perfectly honest, I usually have to skip this phase altogether. The time to soak in an idea, to absorb it and see how it eventually flows out of me is a luxury I'm just not used to. Usually I have a moment (many moments) of panic in mid-fall, and when the feeble light of an idea suddenly peeks over the horizon I simply run—and I do mean run—toward it fast as I can.

No time to think. Just act.

But finding this idea was like tripping over something on a path in that same feeble morning light. And you look back and see a gnarled root snaking it's way across the dirt. Your eyes follow the root to the base of a trunk. Follow the trunk as it leans its way into the air. And as the light grows you see the immensity of the tree with it's canopy now glowing green above you, silent, powerful and beautiful. Bit by bit you get the full picture.

I first tripped over the root a week before Christmas last year when a friend mentioned the word...

Wonder.

And like a match lighting—a familiar scrape and hiss, a tiny crackle and the smell of sulfur—I felt the first sparks of inspiration. Wonder. The word alone lifts our eyes from our shuffling feet and causes us to scan the skies for something bigger.

But in the midst of planning and rehearsals for the story we were already telling, I didn't have the time to think about wonder.

But then it came up again just before Easter. I tried this research thing back then. I got all of a chapter and a half into one book. Not great. But that chapter and a half was a good seed.

I was reading Living the Resurrection by Eugene Peterson; in it he makes the case that without wonder we cannot truly comprehend Christ's death and resurrection. He says that without wonder we cannot be enough in awe of Jesus to compel us to become like Jesus saying that, "Without wonder, we approach spiritual formation as a self-help project."

How true. How very, very true.

He goes on to say:

Wonder is natural and spontaneous to all of us. When we were children, we were in a constant state of wonder. The world was new, tumbling in on us in profusion. We staggered through each day fondling, looking, tasting. Words were wondrous. Running was wondrous. Touch, taste, sound were all wonders. We lived in a world of wonders.

But gradually the sense of wonder gets squeezed out of us.

I'm sure this feels familiar. I know it does to me. Peterson actually begins the passage with this:

We do not live in a world that promotes and encourages wonder.

This is where the Church comes in. No matter how wise, or learned, or versed we become, we cannot help but be filled with wonder every time we truly engage with the God we serve. We serve a wonder-ful God. We should, nay, must promote and encourage wonder.

And there is no better vehicle for this, in my mind, than the arts.

And there is no better time. Christmas—when men and women are already inclined to reverse into boys and girls—is the perfect time for the Church to aspire to inspiring wonder.

But first, I know that I need to be filled with wonder. I must experience the slack-jawed, wide-eyed sense of awe. I need to expand my mind and my heart and find myself in wonder of God. That's where this stack of books comes in.

Conjurers of Spells

Art—or at least, good art, or at least, inspired art—makes the mundane things of life fascinating. And more than anything in life, I think it’s that particular ability of art that fills me with wonderment and merriment. Because suddenly, all around us the world swells to enormous proportions as each ignoble thing becomes ripe with profundity and beauty and every disregarded “it” becomes a subject worthy of meditation and contemplation and delectation. That’s magic.

And artists are the magicians because all artists can use their art to turn the mundane into magic.

But it’s not really magic. No, not really.

I think that what I call “magic” is really an opening up of one’s ability to see things as God sees them. And that feels like magic, because it is so…other…than us. So contrary to us.

Threads, part 2

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When I’m tasked at coming up with a creative concept for, say, Easter, I begin by looking for threads. Threads are those things that hold seemingly disjointed things together. It’s the work of God helping us see the continual work of his grace through the moments, conversations, circumstances, dreams, and prayers of our lives.

Usually I start looking frantically. But I’m learning that the frantic search is never a fruitful one. Threads are found by being both proactive and perceptive, but you must fall silent and speak. You must focus your mind and also give it time to wander.

I always start with myself. Most of my best creativity comes from what’s happening inside me—the things I’m learning, the things I’m opening up to and the things I’m fighting. The work that comes from inside is usually the most honest and raw work I can do. I start looking for the threads of what God is doing in me.

But I don’t stop there. I start having conversations with friends and family, trying to perceive what God is doing in them and what they see happening in the world around them.

I also look for threads in the creative team at church and among the leadership, trying to see the lines and colors of God’s grace that is drawing things together in our personal lives and our church.

In all these places I’m looking for threads. I’m looking for patterns to align, for colors to emerge, for textures to suddenly “feel right” together. Oftentimes, there’s a single word or verse that seems to come up again and again.

I’ve found that the threads I most often end up working with are those that are being sewn so deep that they haven’t yet been processed. In conversation they’re rarely the first thing mentioned, they’re the last. And they’re almost always preceded by a pause—there’s an intake of air, a narrowing of eyebrows, and a far-off look. And then threads come out of our mouths in fits and spurts, with retraced steps and bad vocabulary. Because the best threads aren’t obvious, and they aren’t practiced, so we have to beat around the bush a little before we can get at them. 

Hunting for threads is one of the many things I’ve learned through my exploration of creativity, and it’s one of the greatest because it means that I’m learning a new way to listen to God.

Threads may not be how God speaks to everyone, but I’ve found it’s how he most frequently speaks to me. What I’m beginning to realize is that I should be looking for threads all the time, in every aspect of life. Looking for the voice and the wisdom and the presence of God seaming everything together. And then I should be faithful with the gifts he’s given me, and bring those threads to light, draw them out into the open, turn the fabric inside out and upside down so that all can see the intricate work happening underneath.