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Is Church Life Stifling Your Creativity? A Response

January 10, 2011

On 5 January 2011, Donald Miller (of Blue Like Jazz fame) wrote a blog post titled ‘Is Church Life Stifling Your Creativity?‘.  In the post, he suggests that Solomon’s Song of Songs, if written in today’s church context (evangelical context to be precise), would be subject to several criticisms and presumably rejected by the church.  The reasons given for the rejection include its omission of a reference to God, its eroticism, its lack of simplistic structure, its lack of overt moral teaching, and a general lack of ‘message’ to the art form.  Presumably, because it was included in the Biblical canon, it was deemed at the time to be worthy of the status of revelation.  Donald Miller’s point: ‘There is a difference between what “the church” wants you to do and what God wants you to do. Do what God wants you to do. Go and create, even as you were made to create.’

A quick read through the 150+ comments reveals the resonance that Miller’s post has with many who are artists and seemingly struggle to find their place within the church.  Many speak of being ‘set free’ by Miller’s words, encouraged with a renewed vigor to pursue their creative desires.

What is helpful about Miller’s post is his challenge to consider the art forms of the Biblical narrative and what they reveal to us about who God is rather than toning them down to make them more palatable for the masses.  However, there are a couple of areas that I want to highlight as problematic, both for the artist and the church and more specifically for the relationship between the two.

Miller challenges his readers to ‘do what God wants you to do’ and therefore create in the way that God wants one to create.  While this is a nice sentiment in theory, the problem lies in the assumption it makes, primarily that this process of discerning is done in isolation, separate from one’s involvement in the church community. In addition to emphasising the individual over the communal, what concerns me is this particular challenge allows the artist’s creativity to trump what might be an appropriate challenge to the artist.  William Dyrness in Visual Faith believes the church community is a necessary part of discerning art and creativity because by engaging with those who hold differing opinions, one is challenged to consider and discern whether their own view point needs adjustment. [1]  Miller’s suggestion leads one away from an opportunity for discipleship and towards a justification of whatever the artist deems appropriate.

Additionally, this sentiment further widens the divide between the artist and the church rather than suggesting ways in which the two can work together to create. The church might be stifling the creativity of its artists.  In fact, it probably is considering the comments on Miller’s blog.  However, what is not reflected in this post are all the churches that are starting to re-engage with the arts and the artist, finding significant ways in which to mend the relationship between the two.  And while movement might be slow in this area, it starts with small steps forward, supported by reflective and honest conversation.  Artists should create in the way that God desires for them to create.  However, in that process of pursuing one’s creativity, artists have the opportunity to influence their churches, an influence that should be marked by humility and love rather than reaction and entitlement.

Image Credit

[1] William Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 147-9.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink*
    January 10, 2011 1:43 pm

    Sara, thanks for this post. After reading Miller’s post, I am surprised by how confrontational it is. As you point out, It doesn’t leave much room for the Church and the artist working together. It is also rather disappointing that he uses Song of Songs as his example. Undoubtedly part of the reason Song of Songs wouldn’t fly today is that it was written in Hebrew thousands of years ago. It isn’t just the conventions of the Christian church that make it difficult to imagine Salomon writing today, it is also the conventions of society. In fact, one of the reasons why he thinks it wouldn’t be accepted is that it is confusing (probably to everyone).

    I wonder what Don Miller would say if he discovered (and perhaps he already knows!) that Song of Songs was popular devotional material in the medieval church. Describing the relationship between God and humanity in terms of erotic love is a popular theme in great Christian writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Julian of Norwich. Perhaps Miller should consider expanding what he thinks “the church” (why did he put this in scare quotes?) wants you to do.

    • January 10, 2011 6:47 pm

      Thanks, Jim, for adding your thoughts. I’d also like Miller to define what he means by “the church” as that would seem to bring a level of nuance to the discussion.

  2. Brendan permalink
    January 10, 2011 4:10 pm

    Wonderful post! Love and engagement are absolutely essential.

  3. January 10, 2011 6:48 pm

    Sara, your critique is spot-on. While I appreciate many of Miller’s sentiments and share many of his frustrations with the institutionalized evangelical church, his portrayal of the artist/church relationship as basically antagonistic is disappointing. Yes, the Song of Songs comes as a surprise to the unprepared reader who has been reared on evangelical platitudes, especially if the Hebrew is translated very literally (I’m told the poem is laden with double-entendres). But Miller’s defense of the poem is simplistic, based as it is on a lot of tenuous (and silent) premises.

  4. January 10, 2011 10:08 pm

    I’ve written a significant amount of plays specifically for performances in faith communities that I’ve attended. When I was younger and more naive, I wrote a play that was pushed back by the rest of the pastoral staff because they disagreed with the theological statement made in the dialogue I had written in one scene. They didn’t understand (despite my best attempts) that this was the character’s thought process, not an attempt at theological argument. They wouldn’t let the play go up unless I re-wrote those lines. I did as they requested. I’ve always regretted that I caved to their ignorance. Yet, the play appeared to have a positive effect in performance.

    At another community of faith (and much more recently), I wrote a 15-minute sketch specifically for use in a service and at the pastoral staff’s request. They requested that I re-write the ending of the sketch, for excellent reasons of plot coherence and in order to make it a better fit for the service in question. I re-wrote the lines. The performance had a Divinely inspired impact on those present, and I was thrilled to have been part of excellent team-work.

    Two experiences in which I was asked to re-write and did so, two similar results for the audience, two extremely different experiences for me. In one, I felt violated and used. In the other, I felt euphoric. While my emotions as a writer cannot be the litmus test for the usefulness of those performances to the Kingdom, I understand the anger, frustration, and desire to give up that comes from experiencing the utilitarian use of art in the Western Evangelical Church, and the view that the end result is more important than those involved in the process. If artists within the Church are not to push the boundaries, then what are we to do? The Church is far too afraid of controversy, of opposing viewpoints on minute theological issues, of portraying Scripture (and God’s love) in the graphic, and often offensive, reality that with which it manifests. Those who are taken aback by art think. Those Believers who think turn to God. Those who turn to God grow.

    I resonate with what this conversation in the sense that I find the consistent desire for “warm and fuzzy,” comfortable art to fit comfortable Christians repulsive. I am not the only artist in the Church to feel this way. I don’t think any of us want to be placed on some sort of dais and considered the “tortured artists” above question or reproach. I think we would just like more experiences like I had with the second re-write. In those situations, everyone wins. And I think God smiles.

  5. Robert Yates permalink
    January 11, 2011 3:31 pm

    Thanks, Sara, for this well-reasoned and lucid post.

  6. January 14, 2011 11:17 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’ve found the church to be largely an encouraging and great place to work as an artist. Full of a rich and diverse people and history. As an artist, if you are unwilling to lay in deep roots like a vine searching for water then the church will largely disappoint and the art will taste thin. it requires commitment and the benefits of a challenging ecosphere.

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