In Genesis 4, we read this curious little family history:
Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.
Agriculture and the nomadic life; music; metalwork, the traditional “arts”. These three men are the first named “creators” in the Old Testament record, and they give a minuscule glimpse of how the createdness of God’s beloved creation in turn generated creators. We have no idea, really, of what sort of music or agriculture they were engaged in, but the metalwork has produced some of the objects shown here – early testimony to God’s creative power at work in humans.
I am concerned sometimes that we take the meaning of creativity and somehow mangle it beyond use so that we end up assigning it to the decorative arts and (maybe) design only. Ken Robinson’s useful definition of creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value only takes us so far, and runs into the bulkhead of “originality”. This latter is greatly overestimated by those who are only, really, seeking a kind of competitive advantage for their creativity. This search for originality for its own sake has led us into some strange paths, as any visit to a design museum or a modern art installation will from time to time reveal. Jubal, Jabal and Tubal-Cain, I am positive, were not branching out as original artists. They were giving creative expression to the crafts that they required in order to live, and in doing so, created a culture. Whether this is literal or allegorical actually does not matter. Somebody, somewhere, took this creative impulse that had started in Eden, and built human cultures with it. And this was possible only because they were created and were image-bearers of their creator.
Perhaps, looking back at the glories of architecture and classical art and music, it is the dedication to craftsmanship that actually counts in creativity – the quote by Ruskin here is one among many we could have chosen from him – and the willingness to engage in hard work rather than simple “originality”. Work was a theme of Eden – Adam was at heart a farmer, bringing forth good crops and healthy animals by paying attention to the health of his garden and working hard so that it should bear good fruit. Wendell Berry (a great admirer of Ruskin and Adam both) returns to this theme time and again in his essays, poetry and fiction.
In the first two essays of his collection “What are People For?”, Berry establishes the principle that creativity is a function of creation – that we are creators only inasmuch as we contribute to the health of the whole of creation. In the first of the essays “Damage” he talks about a time when he severely damaged his farm with a pond he was hoping to build, and how the legacy of that is not something that “art” can easily eradicate: it lives with you. In the second, “Healing”, he writes:
A creature is not a creator and cannot be. There is only one Creation, and we are its members.
To be creative is only to have health: to keep oneself fully alive in the Creation, to keep the Creation fully alive in oneself, to see the Creation anew, to welcome one’s part in it anew.
The most creative works are all strategies of this health.
Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the creation to novelty – the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder.
Pursuing originality, the would-be creator works alone. In loneliness one assumes a responsibility for oneself that one cannot fulfill.
The essay continues, contrasting the work of pride and despair with that based on good work and grace, so that solitude, rather than loneliness becomes apparent. Following the rising up of the “inner voices” – akin to the work of the Spirit in us, Berry concludes:
In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude, laden with the gifts of circumstance.
This view is really helpful, because it undercuts our sense of self in our creating, and reminds us that “in Him we live, and move, and have our being”. This being so, creativity as well as being a gift, is also a responsibility and one for which we will be evaluated. We are made in the image of a great God, and although we have fallen a long way from him, he is calling us back by his beauty and sacrifice, through Jesus, the way he has made for the restoration of all things. In proclaiming his new creation through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, many other things become clear – not least, the calling of all creation to show forth the glory and beauty of God in all that we do.
Tom Wright puts it like this in Surprised by Hope:
It is part of being made in God’s image that we are ourselves creators, or at least procreators…to make sense of and celebrate a beautiful world through the production of artefacts which are themselves beautiful is part of the call to be stewards of creation, as was Adam’s naming of the animals. Genuine art is therefore a response to the beauty of creation, whihc itself is a pointer to the beauty of God….Art at its best not only draws attention to the way things are, but to the way things will be, when the earth is filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. That remains a surprising hope, and perhaps it will be the artists who are best at conveying both the hope and the surprise (p234, 236)
Thinking back to the three Mesopotamians of Genesis 4, I feel that Wright has unnecessarily narrowed his view of the arts to the expression of beauty. There is more, in engineering, agriculture, practical design, cooking etc., that demonstrate the creativity of God at work in humans, and much of this is not merely beautiful, but (and both Ruskin and Berry would agree with a more practical-useful definition of the arts) all of which does reflect God’s call to us to steward creation properly.
Creativity, ultimately, must have craftsmanship at its heart, and this craftsmanship necessarily requires hard work and a willingness to find its place in the ordered world that is God’s good creation.
We are his poem, his considered workmanship and beloved handiwork, if Paul in Ephesians 2 is to be believed. We were created in him, Paul continues, to do good works, prepared for us in advance (2:10).
Here we see ourselves as thoroughly created, purposefully given work to do, and like Adam, a “garden” prepared for us to work in. We are both creatures in Creation, and created to create that previously created for us!
The good work is not specified, though the chapter continues with a description of the awesome devastation wreaked by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection on the separating wall between Jew and gentile. This, more than anything, is a guide to the purpose to which our creative instinct must be put, and which confronts us every day – the healing of the nations and the people who inhabit them.