Solving Problems or Making Things New image

Solving Problems or Making Things New

There seems to be a growing appreciation of creativity within British Christian culture at present. In the noughties the buzz words were ‘social action’ and ‘justice’, now increasingly ‘art’ and ‘creativity’ fulfil a similar role. Everyone likes the idea of churches being more creative and valuing the arts and creative people being given their moment in the sun. However, not many people seem to be able to articulate why.

Is it just that we’re bored with plodding on with the slog of faithful Christianity – prayer, reading the Bible, worship, witness (yawn!) and we need something interesting, yet ultimately peripheral to spice things up a bit?

Of course not! We’d never do that. What a ridiculous suggestion. Well, why should we encourage creativity and value artists in our churches then? What good would a surge in artistic creation in our churches actually do? Um… it would add a bit of colour. It may improve the look of our website. It may make things more interesting to distract from the slog of… wait a minute!

This question becomes all the more important when we understand that the main way to really promote creativity and the arts is to invest money in it. That’s what those pesky artists in your church are really after! (And justifiably so when you consider that Christian artistic renaissances of the past didn’t exactly come cheap. All those medieval paintings of Jesus weren’t funded by Kickstarter campaigns!) Church money, in my experience, is not often invested in peripheral distractions.

Now, I have many thoughts on this matter, but I’ve just finished Dorothy Sayers’ classic Mind of The Maker and she has got me mulling over some new ones. I thought I’d mull them over with you, if you don’t mind.

Dorothy Sayers was a contemporary of C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and an associate of their gang of Inklings and Mind of The Maker is a fascinating study of the relationship between creativity and the doctrine of the Trinity. The whole thing is worth a thorough read, but I was particularly struck by the penultimate chapter, which gives a thought provoking insight into a hugely helpful role that creatives can play within society generally (and by extension the church).

Sayers outlines the artist’s role in striking against the unhelpful and simplistic view of the world that boils everything down into a problem needing solving.

It has become abundantly clear of late years that something has gone seriously wrong with our conception of humanity and of humanity’s proper attitude to the universe. We have begun to suspect that the purely analytical approach to phenomena is leading us further and further into the abyss of disintegration and randomness, and that it is becoming urgently necessary to construct a synthesis of life. (p 181)

The synthesis she recommends is the kind of thing an artist does when approached with a situation. A creative mind doesn’t immediately see a problem that needs solving, but it looks for ways to make something new out of it.

From our brief study of the human maker’s way of creation, it should be fairly clear that the creator does not set out from a set of data, and proceed, like a crossword solver or a student of elementary algebra, to deduce from them a result which shall be final, predictable, complete and the only one possible. The concept of “problem and solution” is as meaningless, applied to the act of creation, as it is when applied to the act of procreation. (p 186-7)

Firstly, then, she puts this idea forward as a reminder to artists not to get sucked into the ‘detective novel’ type of art, in which everything must all be neatly wrapped up and all questions answered by the time you finish the book. However, she also applies it more broadly as an approach to life. An approach along these lines responds to suffering and pain not just by seeking to survive it in the short term, or alleviate it in the long term, but by creating something new from it. Similarly, when we confront the joys and delights of life, we shouldn’t seek to simply understand them, we can enjoy them and create new manifestations of them to communicate them to others. She uses the example of a rose, which can be described and analysed into sterility or used creatively by a perfumer, a gardener, a flower arranger or a painter.

Her warning against looking at life in terms of “problem and solution” is highly applicable to us as Christians. It is very easy for us to view the world in this very black and white way. I’ve often presented the gospel just like this (point 1: the problem, point 2: the solution, point 3: response) and as people for whom God has switched on the lights, we are those who can most clearly see the problems that still lurk in the shadows all around us. Therefore, it is very tempting for this simplistic way of thinking to overspill into all areas of life and ministry.

Of course, there are significant problems that need to be solved in the world, in our own lives and in our churches. And, yes, Jesus did a great job at solving, among others, those two whopping problems of sin and death. However, it is worth noting that the incarnation was more than just a problem solving exercise. In Jesus, God was making all things new.

He’s in the habit of this you may have noticed. At the start, he came upon a formless and empty planet and created something new. Then he took hold of some dust and did the same. In similar fashion, he came down into the mess that we’d made of his world and our lives and even from that unpromising soil, he created something new and beautiful: legions of new creations. At the end, we’ll see how our fabulously creative God does an even more magnificent job with the entirety of human history, not throwing it away and starting again (which would certainly solve the manifold problems we’ve caused), but working with it to form a new heavens and new earth.

Sayers comments of the artist:

The artist does not see life as a problem to be solved, but as a medium for creation. (p 188)

This is not some obscurantist approach to life pursued by some weirdos who turn up late on Sunday morning and don’t attend life groups as regularly as you’d like. That’s how God works too!

So, as an artist, I’m encouraged not to see my work just in terms of content. I am not creating solutions to problems. I am not creating evangelistic tracts or marketing tools for Christianity. My very acts of creation are prophetic statements about the nature of God and our future hope and a kick in the teeth to the reductionist approach to life that is leading us “further and further into the abyss of disintegration and randomness”. I hope that encourages other artists too.

However, for the rest of us, back to my original question – why should we encourage creativity and value artists in our churches? Because they can shake us out of a simplistic, lifeless approach to church that sees everything as a problem to be solved or a number to be crunched. As Sayers puts it so well:

If the common man asks the artist for help in producing moral judgements or practical solutions, the only answer he can get is something like this: You must learn to handle practical situations as I handle the material of my book: you must take them and use them to make a new thing. (p 192

Such wisdom may even be worth a few quid from the refreshments budget.

(All quotes are taken from The Mind of the Maker (Harper San Francisco, 1987))

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