Day of Rest 8-5-12

The Image of God and Creativity

By Dr. Glenn Sunshine

In God’s image

Although the term “image of a god” in the ancient near east conveyed the idea of being a representative or steward of a god, the Biblical phrase also points to those things in human beings that make us similar to God and thus enable us to carry out our charge as His regents in the world. In this and the next several articles, we will explore aspects of our nature that reflect God’s own attributes, and look at some of their implications for our work as God’s stewards. We begin with creativity.

Creativity and human life

Christians don’t talk much about creativity as a crucial aspect of what it means to be human, and few formal theologians address it in connection with the image of God. Part of the reason for this is history: originally, theologians argued that only God could “create” (Latin creare), which for them meant producing something out of nothing (Latin ex nihilo); human beings could only “make” (Latin facere) things out of already existing material.

And yet, as Dorothy Sayers pointed out, “It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement … [that man is made in the image of God], he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the ‘image’ of God was modelled, we find only the single assertion, ‘God created’. The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.”[1]

Similarly, J.R.R. Tolkien, another great English writer who travelled in the same circles as Sayers, emphasized the idea of “sub-creation” in producing his fantasy works, striving to create a coherent, consistent secondary world. He saw this process of sub-creation “as a form of worship, a way for creatures to express the divine image in them by becoming creators.”[2]

So what exactly is creativity? The term is curiously difficult to define, though obviously it has something to do with the ability to create—“the desire and the ability to make things,” as Sayers put it. Not surprisingly, the early chapters of Genesis and the mandate to “have dominion” over the world outline some of the big picture elements of creativity.

In the beginning

God gave Adam two jobs, a topic to which we will return in later articles. First, Adam was “to work and keep” the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). The Garden is specifically described not just as a place where food grew, but as a place of beauty and delight (Gen. 2:9); we may thus infer that working and keeping the Garden involved not simply food production, but cultivating beauty as well. In other words, the arts have been part of God’s mandate to humanity from the very beginning.

There can be no question that God loves beauty. Consider the earth and stars as celebrated in the Psalms, or the specifications of the Tabernacle and its furnishings, as well as the priests’ garments, in Ex. 26-28 and 30, or the Temple in 1 Kg. 6-7, or the throne room of Heaven in Is. 6 and Rev. 4, or the New Jerusalem in Rev. 21. Both God’s works and His worship are bathed in beauty.

Even more remarkably, God told Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all I have commanded you….” (Ex. 31:2-6) So the craftsmanship and skill that went into the making the Tabernacle, as well as the ability “to devise artistic designs,” were the products of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and therefore reflect something of God’s own nature.

The artist, in using the materials God has placed at hand and the skills which God has given, is thus a sub-creator, to use Tolkien’s word, exercising the image of God by fulfilling the mandate to work and keep the Garden.

Adam’s second task was naming the animals (Gen. 2:19-20). This also was a creative act, though of a different type. In Hebrew, a being’s name was thought to reflect its nature, and thus to name the animals appropriately required studying and understanding them, and then coming up with the appropriate word to encapsulate their nature. We will return to this in a later article when we consider the sciences. For now, we need to note that the act of naming is an intellectual and creative activity, and as a result a full biblical understanding of human creativity includes not just the visual arts to the verbal arts as well.[3]

Language is, of course, a characteristic of God Himself. He spoke the universe into existence, and Jesus is described in John 1 as the word of God. Human use of language is thus another reflection of the image of God, particularly when we use words to create.

Creativity in language

The nature of Scripture itself affirms the importance of creativity in language. God did not reveal Himself through a list of essential doctrines or a schematic outline of theology. Instead, He chose to reveal Himself through the writings of a variety of authors over many hundreds of years in just about every type of literature then known to humanity. There are historical narratives, laws, poems and songs, proverbs, prophetic oracles, parables, letters, apocalyptic literature, even genealogies. In producing our own literature, we are following the example of God who gave us a rich literary heritage in His word.

This is precisely the kind of creativity both Dorothy Sayers and J.R.R. Tolkien had in mind when they talked about “making things” or “sub-creation,” though of course they would not have limited creative activity to literature. At the same time, however, both saw writing as a very high level creative act since it involves bringing imagination to life using words as God Himself did at the Creation. Of course, God’s words produced physical results, whereas the main fruit of writing is not the physical book but the ideas it conveys.

Creativity in music

Another area of creative activity found in Scripture is music. God is surrounded by music in Heaven (Is. 6; Rev. 4, 5, 11, 15, etc.). God’s actions in history were celebrated in song (e.g. Ex. 15:1-21), and music was central to the worship in Jerusalem (e.g. 1 Chron. 15:16-24). Jesus and the Apostles sang hymns (Matt. 26:30), as did Paul and Silas even when they were locked in the deepest part of a Roman prison (Acts 16:25).

Psalms, the longest book in the Bible, is a collection of songs, and it celebrates not only singing but instrumental music (e.g. Ps. 150) as a means of praising God. The Psalms include songs of praise, laments, pleas for help, introspection, prayers of repentance …. In any and every circumstance, it gives us examples of how to sing our heart’s cries to God.

The Apostle Paul even tells us that music is a sign of being filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18-20). Singing thus joins Bezalel’s visual arts as a work of the Holy Spirit and therefore as an aspect of the image of God.

Creativity in all of life

Creativity extends well beyond just these few examples here. In every area of life, at our home, in our work, and in our recreation, creativity plays a major role. The reason is simple: part of our nature as image bearers of God the Creator is to be sub-creators, and so to carry out our original mandate which God gave us in the Garden, to create culture as a function of our stewardship of the world.

[1] The Mind of the Maker, book is the most thorough treatment of creativity as central to what it means to be human and to the image of God that I have seen. It is no accident that Sayers was a novelist, playwright, poet and translator—in other words, a person engaged in “creative writing”—rather than a formal theologian.

[2] David C. Downing, “Sub-Creation or Smuggled Theology: Tolkien contra Lewis on Christian Fantasy,” This idea is also reflected in the story, “Of Aulë and Yavanna,” chapter 2 of The Silmarillion.

[3] There is common ground between visual and verbal arts. Bezalel had intelligence and knowledge, which empowered his craftsmanship; Adam needed the same qualities in naming animals, though he applied them using a different vehicle than the physical objects Bezazel produced. It thus seems fair to say that some type of intellectual ability is a prerequisite for creative work.

For additional insight to this topic, get the book, The Active Life: A

Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, by Parker Palmer, from The Colson Center online

store. Or read the article, “To Compose from Fragments,” by T. M. Moore.