On Sunday evening in Nashville, my wife Angie and I will attend the Keith and Kristyn Getty concert: St. Patrick’s at the Ryman. Once again, we are looking forward to hearing their music and being led in worship by the Gettys. If you are within driving distance of Nashville, you should do what you can to be there as well.
In my continuing series on the intersection of faith and creativity, I asked if Keith Getty would be so kind as to answer some questions about the subjects. I think you will be encouraged, fascinated, and challenged by his wisdom.
An Interview with Keith Getty
PN: You have been artists for many years. When did it start? What triggered the desire to make beautiful lyrics and music?
I’ve made music since I was 10 years old and I have always loved to create, so that has been part and partial of my music making. The particular desire to write hymns came out of a desire to bring something of historic church music to the contemporary language; music that had a timeless feel, that was more immediately congregational and that was rich in biblical content.
PN: Creativity is often a solitary journey, how do you know when something beautiful has been accomplished?
For me, it’s a very rare experience! I tend to work hard, throw a lot of ideas out and keep very few. Being an extrovert, I do lean on the people around me, most especially Kristyn and Stuart (Townend), but ultimately when that moment comes, I recognize something in my writing that feels a little more fresh and unique than the other music and ideas around it. In a way, it’s like finding a meal with unique taste, or a color that just works for your home. It’s a slightly intangible sense that everything is coming together for what you want, and yet as with any form of popular art, the melody that has a “je ne sais quoi” tends to have an overwhelmingly larger impact than any other idea.
PN: Your work has been described as creating a modern hymnody. Is that an intentional journey or has it come about simply in how the church uses your music?
A little bit of both – in terms of my learning, I am steeped in the history of church music and hymnody. At the same time, I don’t hold a certain period of church music as holy. It’s not about fighting worship wars in a peculiar way, but just trying to create an art form that achieves what we set out to do.
PN: In our modern culture, much of what we call art is expressed as music. What are some of the unnoticed ways that creativity can be expressed through the church and with our faith?
Well, as people who are created in the image of a creator God, each one of us expresses our own humanity through creativity and respond to the unique creativity of others. The arts are a wide and deep world in which evangelical Christians would certainly do well to steep themselves in more – from poetry, to prose, art, sculpture, architecture, and design. The thing most of us creative people have to remember though, is that we tend to vastly overestimate our own sense of spiritual maturity, and often forget that the greatest creation we will ever see is God’s “poiema” – the human life. So as much as the arts inspire and fire the mind, so much more should the beauty and uniqueness of our every day living be a vibrant example of salt and light to everyone around us.
PN: What is the role of discipline (or work ethic) when it comes to beauty and creativity?
There are certain things that are consistent with every part of life. Nothing is achieved without sacrifice, indeed new life in Christ itself was only achieved with the ultimate sacrifice. So every part of life requires discipline; from being a student to raising a child to conducting our daily work, whatever that would be. In the arts, a lack of discipline usually manifests itself in people who have a short period of creative excellence but doesn’t achieve longevity in their career. Any songwriter or musician I know who has maintained and developed their career for 20+ years did so by relentless commitment to constantly learning and committing.
PN: Are there biblical guidelines or principles that we need to observe when engaging in artistry? Are there any parts that should be off-limits in expressing our faith?
When I am confused about an issue such as this I usually go back to the basic principle that the Lordship of Christ overrides every aspect of life and thus art is merely an extension of our lives. Indeed in cultures such as the Burmese culture they still use the same word for life and artistic expression such as sculpture and dance.
PN: Are there such things as “creatives”? I guess I’m just wondering if there is any hope for people like me.
As I mentioned earlier, I think we are all creative because we’ve been created in the image of a creator God, so each of us shows our creativity in different ways. For example, how we show love to our wife and our children, how we present our work, how we plan our house, vacation, conversations. It does seem to me, however, that each of us have different skills and some of us are more inclined towards creativity whereas others are more inclined to be more organizational oriented or people oriented. Thus, creativity usually finds it’s natural home. For example, I invest my time playing the violin better, or organizing a house party, or studying mathematics, or looking after children. That said, the parable of the talents still applies to each of us. Each of us is encouraged to fan into flame primarily the gifts of God, but also the talents and circumstances presented to us as well.
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 and artisans?
Education has been focused more on the basis of analysis and much of what creativity does is hard to teach – especially when talking about general corporate structures and how they relate to unique individual gifting, especially when they are extraordinary. For example, the creatives who most influence our society don’t even fit into corporations like Disney, much less high school. That said, we need to learn to appreciate beauty at an emotional level, and also find ways in our education that is both more people orientated, fires the imagination, and has flexibility to allow creative expression to flourish.
PN: Conversely, what do poets and artisans need to learn from the theologians?
I think ultimately theology is an art. So all artists gain identity and focus by collaborating with each other and with other arts they feel passionate about. As a hymn writer, I should take note that all the most influential hymn writers in history have had close relationships with theologians. Whether they are poetic theologians, academic theologians or pastoral theologians. As Christians, knowing God better should be a core part of our daily existence, so all of us have a responsibility to be learning from theologians who fire our imaginations and teach us truth in a faithful and vibrant way.
PN: What can a local church leader do to best use the artistic gifts of the people in the congregation?
I think in the church context, as with Christianity itself, character always trumps gifting. Thus, our primary dedication is to knowing and encouraging and helping grow individual believers in their Christian walk and in their relationships in the community. After that, I think encouragement is 90% of it. Encouragement is the “oxygen of the soul” and makes each of us more creative, more passionate, and ultimately more human. Specifically with the arts, I think we all have to recognize as Christians the importance of the arts in life and the society around us. We must insure that it does have a prominent place in our church life; otherwise we become, frankly, boring.
PN: What cultural differences have you discovered between the expression of art and faith in the U.S.A. and your homeland? Or other parts of the world?
America and Great Britain are very similar. Britain has a slightly stronger sense of history and honoring the past. Americans have a slightly greater obsession with the “now” and what is new. There are positives and negatives with both. It seems to me British Christians are more intent in learning from those who have gone before, and gleaning from the rich history that we have as believers, but also paradoxically have less confidence moving forward. The American church is more optimistic about the future, but quicker to jump onto new ideas, some of which are good and some of which are less wise. These are terrible generalizations though, and the truth is “the seed of very sin is in the heart of every man.”
PN: How can the church better engage the artists and arts community in their city?
Short answer is ultimately by doing it. The longer a reflection is this; if you do not have a history of doing this, it is a slow and gradual progress. Relationships don’t grow over night and perception doesn’t change overnight and knowledge isn’t found overnight. So what is preached and valued in our pulpits and congregations has to reflect this, and that has to be followed, in my opinion, primarily by the engagement of individuals and learning to value how they think, and what makes them tick. At a corporate, or more political level, I’m not really sure.
PN: What should be the end goal of the artistic expression of believers?
To glorify God and enjoy him forever – That’s actually the first question in the Westminster shorter catechism!