In part one of my interview with Staci Frenes, we heard about the issues of creativity, discipline, and art. Today, in part two of the interview, we’ll discuss if a class of creative exist, what can theologians learn from artists, and how the church can better engage the creative community in their city.
PN: Are there such things as “creatives”? I guess I’m just wondering if there is any hope for people like me.
Philip, I’m here to tell you there’s hope for you. And with that hope comes responsibility! I’m thinking about the Parable of the Talents. Different amounts are given to the three servants, but the same expectation is applied to each: go do business in the kingdom with what you’ve got. The story clearly speaks to “what we do with what we’ve been given.” It’s silly for us to do all of this comparing and categorizing of gifts; that’s so NOT the point of the story. We’re each called to invest in God’s work with the unique opportunities and talents He’s given us. Chances are yours won’t look like mine, (unless you’re hiding some musical chops I’ve not seen over the years…?) So what? I don’t see that being relevant in the story. I see the salient point being use it or lose it. Don’t let fear, or intimidation or lies you tell yourself, or lies others tell you, allow you to bury what you’ve been given.
PN: Beauty is a concept that seems to be embraced by artisans and sometimes ignored by theologians. What does the academy need to learn from the poets?
Well, I heard a scientist once say that art and science are both dependent upon revelation, so maybe the first thing would be a healthy respect for mystery. Poets accept (and I think embrace and celebrate) that there is an untamed, unmanageable aspect to our existence. I understand the desire to name, quantify, understand, and analyze mystery but at the end of the day, I don’t think it can be fully done. And that’s a beautiful thing. So, let’s not get nervous when song lyrics don’t resolve neatly in the bridge, when paintings are abstract, when films and stories don’t have tidy endings or even a “moral” that we can detect. Let’s not try to close open-ended discussions so quickly. Leave room for mystery, for interpretation, for other aesthetics than our own. We might just discover beauty where we least expect it.
PN: OK. So what do poets need to learn from the theologians?
That beauty’s ultimate purpose is to woo us to its Creator. That at the heart of mystery is the heart of God wanting relationship with us.
PN: You’ve used the word “revelation” several times. As a person who teaches doctrine, it makes me a bit nervous. 😉 What do you mean by “revelation” as different from the Scriptures?
I think all artists are dealing with the same raw material—notes on a scale, colors on a palette—but hopefully something new happens when we bring our unique perspective and experiences to the creative process. I think sometimes that “something new” is revealed to us in the moment: a new insight, a new shade of meaning, a glimpse into the character of God we might not have had before. And from that revelation we create something distinct to our sensibilities and style, but also brand new—even to us. It’s a discovery, a brief tapping into the mystery that God allows for that moment, for the purpose of revealing something new.
PN: How do you remain in a posture so that God is the inspiration of your art rather than creation becoming your muse?
I’ve been thinking about how Paul describes the Holy Spirit in Corinthians. He says that just as the spirit of a man knows the heart and mind of that man, so the Spirit of God knows the heart and mind of God. And, he tells us, that Spirit lives in us. So for me, staying in close connection with the Holy Spirit–through prayer, the reading of God’s Word, worshipping with other believers–means I’m staying connected to my source of inspiration, the heart and mind of God.
After a long time of doing something, you become familiar with how to switch into auto-pilot and do it without thinking, and get away with it for a while if you’re skilled enough at it. The danger is that kind of creative work just becomes more noise in an already noisy world. Adam was dust and clay until God breathed into him. The work of our hands that’s not God-breathed has no life, and my best hope as an artist is that the art I create will have a life beyond me.
I tell the story in concert of a woman named Charlene who attended a Bible study of someone who knew my music and had given her one of my CDs. Charlene was obese—probably 100-150 pounds over her healthy weight—and she was in an abusive marriage, with a teenaged son starting to show the same behaviors of abusing her that her husband had. It all became too painful for her; she told this bible study group she didn’t think she deserved any better but couldn’t see going on the way things were. One night she got into her car, intending to drive herself off one of the steep embankments on a winding stretch of road not too far from where she lived. She thought ending her life would be easier than living it. When she turned on the car, my CD was in the player from earlier in the day. She later wrote me a letter and said that she drove all night listening to my CD, and that as long as it was playing, she heard some kind of hope in my voice and in the songs I was signing. She felt like maybe she could believe that God loved her, and that she deserved to be loved. And she couldn’t do it, couldn’t end her life. Her letter ended by saying, “Your music literally saved my life.”
I remember that CD, how hard we worked to get it done, how long it took to raise the funds for it, how close I came to giving up on it because it just seemed impossible that it would ever get off the ground. But we kept at it, and released it. Getting that letter, all those years later, was an incredible experience and lesson for me. First, about being faithful to start and finish the work we’re called to do, and also about the life the work can have beyond us.
PN: One last question… How can the church better engage the artistic community of its city?
I think by showing a genuine interest in and supporting artists’ work, and by working alongside, or collaborating on projects that focus on our common ground rather than what separates us. I also think by putting out great work from within the church, work that speaks to the whole of human experience, and not just the isolated experience of being part of an evangelical community. I’ll be honest, I’m not a fan of using the adjective “Christian” in front of any kind of art. It doesn’t make any sense to me, other than in the context of marketing. It’s a label that says, “Here’s a product for Christians by Christians.” Artistically, that’s probably not going to interest anyone outside of the church.
I love that the producers of Blue Like Jazz made that film for the general public, and that it takes an unflinching look at a character caught in the tug of war between doubt and faith. It’s a good story, well told, and I think it resonated with a lot of people, whatever their church background. It makes me happy when a record like The Civil Wars does well in the mainstream music industry, because it’s great music, first, and secondly, because the believers involved in making that record now have a bigger platform from which to engage people and impact culture.
PN: Wow. Thanks for all of the great insight.