Is Creativity “Spiritual”?

Last week when I read the Introduction in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, (the 12-week course on “discovering and recovering your creative self”  I blogged about last time) I quickly came upon one of the issues that has long befuddled me in reading these sorts of books.  Quoting Ms. Cameron:

“For a decade now, I have taught a spiritual workshop aimed at freeing people’s creativity. I have taught artists and non artists, painters and filmmakers and homemakers and lawyers — anyone interested in living more creatively through practicing an art; even more broadly, anyone interested in practicing the art of creative living. While using, teaching and sharing tools I have found, devised, divined and been handed, I have seen blocks dissolved and lives transformed by the simple process of engaging the Great Creator in discovering and recovering our creative powers.

‘The Creat Creator? That sounds like some Native American god. That sounds too Christian, too New Age, too…’ Stupid? Simple-minded? Threatening? … I know. Think of it as an exercise in open-mindedness…Allow yourself to experiment with the idea there might be a Great Creator and you might get some kind of use from it in freeing your own creativity.”

When I first read this some twelve years ago, it bothered me. Because while God can and does use people who are not saved to communicate His truth, He doesn’t do it the way she’s describing. People are born depraved. He can’t creatively empower someone who has never believed in His Son, because they aren’t spiritually alive. They are darkened in their understanding, living in bondage to sin… So while you might be able to apply Ms. Cameron’s thinking as expressed above to someone who is saved, who has a new nature which cannot sin, who has received God’s very own righteousness imputed to them at the point of belief in what His son did for them on the cross and because of that work, the ability thru confession of sin to be filled and empowered by His Spirit, you just can’t with people who have not been regenerated.

Her whole premise is a lie, unworkable, deceptive… even evil. Years ago,   I tried to set that aside and read on, but this particular concept kept tripping me up. And as I mentioned in my previous post, eventually I quit reading the book and abandoned the “course.”

I come back to it now with the realization that Satan knows doctrine. He’ll use it, distorted, of course, with people who are unregenerate. He’ll move them to make applications of true doctrines in situations where they don’t apply. I learned this from my study of Job, where Job’s three friends were bringing up correct doctrines about the law of volitional responsibility and divine discipline for believers who had gone astray from the Plan, they just didn’t apply to Job.

So, armed with this new knowledge — ie, that some of the things said in The Artist’s Way might actually be truth, just applied to the wrong situation or person — I am finding myself able to read it as I had not been able to before. And almost the first thing that hit me in reading this introduction was the realization that creativity is not a spiritual function per se, but a soulish one.  As I said above, the ability to be creative is part of the soul of all men, part of being created in image of God.

And it’s this creative part that she’s trying to describe and discuss. Which is admittedly difficult because it’s invisible. Nor is it a faculty we can control. The left brain, which is said to be verbal, linear and logical is the area where we do our conscious thinking. The right brain is not verbal, but more spatial, intuitive, spontaneous and holistic. It’s the part that combines disparate elements into something new. With left brain thinking we work through a problem step by step. With the right brain, the ideas come out of the blue. You have no idea how they were formulated, they just appear.

Because of this, people have over the ages attributed them to various elements outside themselves, from the Greek muses to God Himself, via the Holy Spirit. Many writers of the books on creativity and making art that I’ve read are part of Western culture and not surprisingly interpret the situation in accordance with the Christian traditions of our culture, that is, they attribute their creative flow or urge to God in them. People who don’t believe in Jesus Christ and are embracing all manner of other occultic, fallacious things — yoga, trances, shamanism, meditation, out-of-body experiences, conversations with their spirit guides — nevertheless claim that God is moving them to create. Because God is a creator they are creators. Creativity is really the norm in life, and most people have just shut it down. Creativity is our link to God Himself. (and never mind about Jesus Christ).

I might be tempted to say, well, they’re unbelievers, so of course they’re wrong about that. It’s not God that’s moving them, simply the creative function itself. And how else are they going to talk about it?

As I said earlier, it’s not something we can see or feel while it’s working, nor is it something we can control at will. Yes, some people claim they can, and maybe they can to a degree, but I tend to doubt that. If one is just going to write the same story again with different minor components or paint the same picture again with different colors, I don’t call that true creativity. That’s more like cabinet making. Once you’ve made a model it’s easy to churn out others or variations on the theme. But to do something different, to start out not knowing where you’re going, how the story will turn out, to write with the notion that it has to be something that keenly interests you, to reach down inside yourself and pull out the things that really matter to you, that are true or painful or significant… that’s different. I know I can’t do that. It just happens. Things emerge and I run with them. Many times it’s only after I’ve completed a draft that I have any clear idea what a story is really to be about.

I was reflecting today about playing tennis and how when you start out you have to be willing to play really, really badly. I hated it at the beginning because all I ever seemed to do was chase balls that I’d hit over the fence or down the long stretch of courts that had no barriers between them. I used to practice hitting balls against the backboard, and at first many of them went over the backboard, thunked off my racket, were missed altogether, hurt my arm I hit them so badly, etc.

You can’t really control your movement. Not in the fine tuning. You don’t stand there and consciously direct each nerve to fire, each muscle to move at such and such speed at such and such time. You can’t. It’s hard enough to remember not to bend your wrist and to turn yourself sideways to the ball and to follow through after you’ve hit it. And when you get into an actual game, most of that flies out the window because you just can’t keep it all in your head. You don’t improve at tennis by concentrating harder. You don’t improve because you will to improve.

The only way to improve is to practice — hitting at the backboard and on the court with a partner, and playing actual games. Usually it’s playing against people better than you that helps the most, which means you’re going to lose.   Probably a lot.

And all that is for something physical — actual movements that we can “control” in at least a broad sense. I haven’t read any books about playing  tennis as a spiritual discipline (though I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re out there; I know there’s one about golf), though I have read about “getting in the zone”. That’s where you become one with the game and your play suddenly elevates to another level. I’ve experienced it the zone, myself. My point here, though, is that we can talk about playing tennis in a way that doesn’t bring God into the picture, so why can’t we do that with creativity?

Granted, this business of the idea suddenly blooming in your head, full-petal in the midst of taking a shower, does make it seem like something not of yourself. When you sit down blank-headed and start writing and suddenly it’s like you’re recording something you’re observing or even participating in, when you see it all in one fell swoop, when it starts flowing without any effort on your part, and suddenly this new character appears, or your old ones refuse to do what you’d planned for them and start doing something completely unexpected — that all seems pretty magical and even “godlike.” I’m connected to “spiritual electricity,” is how Julia Cameron describes it.

But that’s not what “spiritual” actually means, at least so far as the word is used in the Bible. There “spiritual” is used in contrast to “fleshly”. In 1 Co 2:14 the naturally minded man — the psuchikos or soulish man — is contrasted with the pneumatikos or spiritually minded man — the latter filled with the Holy Spirit, his thinking having been transformed to align with the mind of Christ through the study of His word. 

True spirituality can certainly produce “brilliant” ideas, but I believe it does so within the context of the way man has been made. Everyone, spiritual and soulish, Christian and non-Christian, gets brilliant ideas out of the blue — marketing folk, engineers, cooks, artists. It’s not some special connection to God regardless of one’s status with respect to Jesus Christ and His commands for the spiritual life. It’s an aspect of how we’ve been made, one that is mysterious because it cannot be clearly explained, traced out, or controlled. But an aspect all of us have.

In researching the ancient Romans, I learned that they had gods for everything. A god for every river, every stream, even a god of the cupboards. You had to appease all of these gods or bad things would happen to you. We think that’s silly today. People don’t worship a god of the cupboard or appease the god of the stream anymore, because we’re so much more sophisticated. People don’t drown because the irate stream god pulled them in and drowned them. We understand that accidents happen. There are the risks associated with streams and rivers. So we build fences, put up warning signs, redesign bridges or boats, heed weather forecasts,  wear life jackets, and follow safety rules, thinking in some way we control our destiny. We understand the situation now.

But this faculty of creativity, this sudden filling of one’s mind with an entire symphony, with a scene, with an image compelling us to paint it… where did that come from? We don’t know. We can’t see it, we can’t trace it, we can’t break it down into components of cause and effect… and so… oddly, we — or at least many in the fields of creativity — ascribe it to a god, or a spirit, or some universal power, or spiritual electricity — even to the God of the Bible, if that happens to be their thing. 

I suppose that believing you are connected to the God of the Universe through your art will give you a confidence you’d not have otherwise, so perhaps that’s the draw. Confidence and relaxation are important elements in the free functioning of the creative faculty, so believing in a higher power would no doubt produce the desired results, even if the object of that faith was bogus.

What’s important to me here, though, is my understanding that the creative element of man’s soul works in a mysterious way, in a way that we can’t see, logic or control, and it works that way in all of us, believer and unbeliever. It is a gift we cannot control or summon at will. And while the simple fact of its arrival may feel strange, mysterious and outside ourselves, that doesn’t make it a spiritual function. Even with Christians, creativity in and of itself isn’t a spiritual function, any more than speaking is. Spirituality depends on the filling of the Holy Spirit. And the content of what is created or spoken, though it may feel as if it did not come from us, I believe is drawn from whatever amount of God’s word you’ve learned and metabolized.

Not to say the Holy Spirit can’t or doesn’t direct creative function. He certainly can and does. I couldn’t write if I didn’t believe that. But it’s just like with the Pastor. The Holy Spirit speaks through his message, but if the man never studies the word, the Spirit’s not going to have much to work with.

I could go on in this vein, but I’ll desist. The point of this post was to sort through my thoughts on this association with creativity and spirituality and I think I’ve done what I wanted to do there.  It’s been like having a lightbulb go on in my head to realize that it’s part of how we were all made, and I find the fact that God made half our brains to think in ways we can’t direct or understand to be amusing. And significant.

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6 Responses to “Is Creativity “Spiritual”?”


  1. 1 Lori October 14, 2010 at 9:40 am

    Great post, Karen! Reading the exerpts of this book of Ms. Cameron’s, I notice how selfish it all sounds. It seems to me the “feel-good New Age-type” things she says is all about one’s self-empowerment, and not to glorify God. I’ve seen some very talented people who were quite honest about hating God and yet they were born with musical abilities that rivaled most people around them. In my opinion,they have proven just what you said about the difference between creative and spiritual.

  2. 2 Donna Hagan October 14, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Okay – since you’ve brought up this subject and you are what many would call an allegorical (Christian fantasy) writer – have you ever read, and do you care to comment on, The Shack? I have read many blogs for and against it and I came to the conclusion that my husband and I read it for pleasure. If the reader was looking here to find the (entire – all divine attributes) Essence of God – well, it fell short except for the love of God. But again – someone gave it to us and said you’ll enjoy this. We weren’t looking for answers there as so many claimed to have found. Maybe you don’t care to critique another’s writing – just wondering what you saw in it. I apologize in advance if you have already done so in past years’ blogs. Always see movies years down the road also – hah.

    • 3 karenhancock October 14, 2010 at 3:40 pm

      Donna, I have not read The Shack. And you’re right — generally I don’t like to comment negatively on other writer’s works, particularly Christian writers. I’ve read a review or two on it, but found nothing that really piqued my interest. I even have doctrinal acquaintances who rave about it, but so far I’ve not been moved to seek it out. Maybe some day God will lead me to read it, though. I’d never rule that out, given where He’s been leading me lately!

  3. 4 Gayle Coble October 14, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    A believer can function in divine power or human good. The unbeliever produces dead works. Both can function and be creative. So were is the spirituality in that? Karen, I love your views. I personally had enough of that new age “Stuff” in the 60s.


  1. 1 Is Creativity “Spiritual”? « Writing from the Edge 2 Trackback on October 13, 2010 at 10:45 pm
  2. 2 Is Creativity “Spiritual”? « Writing from the Edge 2 « Tennis Community Trackback on October 13, 2010 at 11:01 pm

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