For years, my friend Lisa Cole Smith has been working with artists and thinking about their important role in the world. She has been building a community to support artists and other creative people through a Christian church in the Northern Virginia/Washington DC area and at times, I’ve been fortunate enough to participate in that effort. My conversations with Lisa are always rewarding, whether we are simply catching up as friends, giving each other encouragement for our work, or discussing theological concepts. Although she works in a church and I work in an academic setting, we have similar pursuits.
In my current writing projects, I study various reflections on the doctrine of creation so that I can discuss how human creativity falls within a framework of God’s creative activity in the world and what role human cultural activity and art-making has in salvation. While I’ve been doing that, Lisa has been thinking about the prophetic role of the church and the potential of artists’ work to be prophetic. In a recent article about a prophetic voice in pop culture she writes, “Whether you are a visual artist, dancer, writer or poet, the creative act starts with observing what is and isn’t and responding in a way which is both creative and evocative.” We both believe that artists and other contributors to human culture have an opportunity to contribute to the betterment of our world by countering nihilism with hope and creating new visions and options for how humanity lives on this earth. Lisa’s article provoked me to share some of my thoughts about how creative action re-creates the world.
In a previous post, I discussed how my reflections on the Christian doctrine of creation has led to my belief that God is a creator, that humans are created, and that accordingly, we are part of an interrelated world of beings and things. I’d like to expand upon that and connect it to creativity. Every person is created to be a creator and a cultivator. People create some form of cultural good in every form of human activity. In doing so, we either nurture or damage human relationships with each other and with the natural world. Therefore, our work as creators must also be cultivative, like gardeners who tend to a plot of land they hope will produce something good. Good cultivators look at what is there and what they have to work with, and then make decisions about what needs to be added and what needs to be taken away to reach the desired end.
The work of theologian and activist Dorothee Soelle has helped me see that my understanding of creation is inextricably connected to what I think humanity should be striving to do with our lives – our desired ends. (This is what she calls our “ontological project.”) We should be working to overcome discord and alienation. In my religious tradition, I find a slightly more specific ontological project – to be “ministers of reconciliation,” healing the disharmonious relations between God, people, and the other beings and objects in the world.
The prophetic artist begins by noticing what’s going on in the world and responding to it. Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On? is a great example of this. Yet all of us have the same creative power as we contribute to the world in our own domains. When we do so, we re-create the world and participate in its ongoing creation. We can use the products of our work to overcome sexism, racism, ecological destruction and other forms of human domination over other beings in the created world.
If you are interested in exploring creation, creativity and the prophetic role of art, you may want to pick up these books by feminist thinkers on my reading list:
To Work and to Love: A Theology of Creation, by Dorothee Sölle and Shirley A. Cloyes (1984). Soelle discusses how the work of creation continues. She affirms the importance of creation theologies as well as liberation theologies to address ecological destruction, militarism, and the maltreatment of laborers, poor people, and women.
The Vocation of the Artist by Deborah J. Haynes (1997). Haynes defines the vocation of the artist in way that highlights the artist’s prophetic and visionary roles. She develops an understanding of the artist’s role that incorporates aesthetic values, moral reflection, and intellectual analysis.
God, Creation, and All That Jazz: A Process of Composition and Improvisation by Ann Pederson (2001). Pederson builds on the work of Dorothee Soelle and other scholars to talk about creativity as a social process. She explicitly links creation and creativity, describing them respectively as the way God acts in the world and the vocation humans are to fulfill. Note: Her process metaphysical perspective is the kind discussed in yesterday’s post by Xochitl Alvizo.
Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.