A Theology of Creativity

The Shepherd Project staff recently began a fascinating conversation about creativity.  This is a subject that is important to most of us for personal reasons – we’re all fairly “creative” types – but our discussion about creativity was occasioned by David Kinnaman’s book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith.  In his role as president of the Barna Research Group, Kinnaman’s analysis draws on tens of thousands of interviews with young Mosaics (born from 1984-2002) raised in church.  Time and again in these interviews, the issue of creativity and its role in the Christian church comes up.  In short, the verdict seems to be that creativity is something that Mosaics value deeply and yet something that they feel the church has ignored or even stifled.

As our staff began to discuss this, it became clear that we could not think helpfully about creativity in the church until we had a handle on one very basic issue:  what exactly is creativity?

We found it a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Short answer:  we’re still working on it, but we need your input.  We’ve put together a little survey that will you’ll probably enjoy.  If you want to go straight to it, just jump to the bottom of this article right away!

Longer answer:  you might find it helpful to read the full article below and then take the survey!

Novelty & Creativity

Our first attempts to define creativity centered on the idea that something was creative if it was “outside the box” or somehow transcended established norms, patterns or conventions.  But then we looked at the cover of You Lost Me and all agreed that it was “creative” even though it isn’t exactly unique.  Certainly it follows established conventions in terms of its size, use of color, etc.  It isn’t made out of gummi bears or written in Klingon.  Yet its use of space and subtle variations of color convinced all of us that it was creative even though its designer hadn’t shattered the box of book cover design.  Ultimately we decided that there is an important difference between creativity and novelty.

However, we also recognized that some degree of novelty is a necessary element of creativity.  If someone painstakingly re-creates an exact replica of another’s work, most people would acknowledge the skill involved, but very few people would consider this creative.   So creativity seems to require some degree of novelty.  Yet something can be novel without being truly creative.  Novelty for the sake of novelty somehow misses the mark of creativity just as much as slavish reproduction.  So, while novelty is an important part of creativity, it is not the sole determiner of whether or not something is really creative.

Purpose & Creativity

This led us to consider the issue of purpose.  In general, we felt that things were more creative when they were purposeful; for example, when they employ novelty in order to accomplish a particular purpose.  We talked about two musicians choosing to tune their instruments differently and play simultaneously, creating a cacophony.  This might be novel, but on its own, it wouldn’t necessarily be creative.  However, label one musician as a Republican and one as a Democrat and suddenly the discord says something significant about the U.S. government…and does so in a way that most people would probably say is creative.  Novelty used to gain attention and make a point that might otherwise be unattended to is creative precisely because it serves a purpose.

However, we also recognized that every use of novelty and/or creativity serves some purpose, even if it is only “hey, notice me!”   Some purposes are better, more transcendent or more noble than others, but it is difficult to imagine any “creative” effort that is undertaken without any purpose whatsoever.  So, like novelty, purpose is an important part of creativity but it cannot be the sole determiner of whether or not something is really creative.

Swinging the pendulum back in the other direction again, we explored the concept of variety.  Novelty for its own sake does not necessarily make something creative, but doing the same thing the same way over and over again, even if it serves to accomplish a particular purpose, doesn’t make something creative either.  So perhaps the issue is variety.  Perhaps creativity relates to the attempt to accomplish a purpose in a variety of different ways.  Or, to put it another way, perhaps creativity emerges when we put our own personal touch on something in such a way that it still accomplishes the intended purpose. But while this understanding of creativity allows for both novelty and purpose, it still isn’t completely satisfying.

Creativity and the Bible

As a Christian organization, we were hoping to find some clarity on this issue from God’s Word, but the Bible has very little to say directly about creativity.  Most of the Hebrew and Greek terms related to this subject are about the execution of designs rather than about the creation of those designs in the first place.  Thus creativity is assumed, but it is rarely, if ever, addressed directly.

One thing worth noting is that the Bible regularly demonstrates a high value placed on skillful execution of artistic designs.  For instance, Exo 35:31-32 says “and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts– to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze.”  Similarly, Pro 22:29 says, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.”  So God appears to give – and value – skill at executing creative work, but this does not directly address the question of what makes the work creative in the first place.

This is not to say that there is no insight to be gleaned from Scripture, but only that developing a theology of creativity is a complex task, and one which must proceed from a wholistic understanding of the nature of God, humanity and of God’s intentions for humanity.

Obviously, the first instance of creativity in the Bible is Genesis 1, which describes God’s creation of the world.  Since there were no pre-existing materials for God to use (a fact which leads theologians to call this ex nihilo creation; literally “out of nothing”) there can be no doubt that God’s actions were novel.  Nor can there be any doubt that God was purposeful.   On this basis, one might argue that to be “creative” is simply to bring something new into existence in order to accomplish a purpose.  Though human beings cannot create ex nihilo, we can work with the raw materials of God’s creation to bring new forms into existence, so perhaps this definition will work.  However, it still seems unsatisfying because it does not address some of the other important issues raised above.

At the end of our meeting, the Shepherd Project staff felt that we still didn’t have a handle on how to most usefully define creativity.  And before you ask, yes, we realize that attempting to define creativity may be an oxymoron!   However, if we’re going to tell our churches that they need to foster an environment that values creativity, we have to be able to tell them what we’re talking about.  We can’t value, encourage or embrace something when we have no idea what it really is.

So here’s what we decided to do:  ask you.

Below is a short survey that gives some examples of things which might, potentially, be considered creative.  We’d like to know if you think these things are genuinely creative and why or why not.  By taking a few minutes to weigh in on this debate, you will be joining a very important conversation about how the Christian church will regain/retain its role in the world in the coming decades.

(if your device is cutting off part of the questions in the survey below, you can get a raw version of it by clicking here)