I guess this post title was inevitable, considering that I’m listening to John Lennon’s Imagine as I type, and considering that the book I will be reviewing is called Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, haha. I’m sorry it is so unoriginal, but I guess I’m not being very imaginative tonight.
Warning: This isn’t going to be a completely proper book review (maybe that statement isn’t necessary since I don’t ever do proper book reviews anyways, haha). (Edit: As it turned out, I hardly even mentioned the book Imagine, so this post turned out to be even less of a book review than I originally intended.) I’m going to also be pulling thoughts from Makoto Fujimara’s article in the September 2010 edition of Ligonier’s Tabletalk magazine, titled The Beautiful Tears. This article was referenced recently in a discussion with some friends, because of some rather unorthodox statements made in it. This group of friends (myself included) often end up dissecting, critiquing, and debating every subject possible, so somehow a couple quotes from this article were introduced to the conversation, leading to another spirited debate. A few days later I resurrected the article from my Tabletalk archive and while I may not agree with everything in the article, there were many points I greatly appreciated.
So my observations about creativity and imagination:
– Creativity is essential. In two ways.
1) It is essential to human existence. I don’t want to sound elitist or something, but I truly get annoyed when people say things like, “yeah, writing is nice, if you have time” or “I like art but it is such a luxury.” We were created by God in His image. We are the result of creativity. We have a creative God. The universe and our own existence is proof of this. So if we are made in His image, our essential nature must include an aspect of creativity. Since we are finite, we can never create something out of nothing, but we can combine the existing into new forms. And just as all people display the image of God, although in a fallen and warped way, the act of creativity is not an option or a luxury but a necessary part of our existence because we are human beings made in the image of a creative God. Therefore it isn’t an option to be artistic or creative, it is simply the way to exist. There’s a quote from Makoto Fujimura which sums this up well, “What many consider extra, and even wasteful, may come to define our humanity.” I admit that some people are more inclined to this than others, but creative ability can be displayed in ways that aren’t always associated with art. In a very real sense, when we do a task well, when the result of our work is good, be it sparkling clean dishes or a finished project at work, it is displaying one aspect of art, which is the desire for goodness, aptness, perfection, although we can’t reach that completely in this life. But some people have this drive to create some beautiful, something that previously didn’t exist, something that will “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” as the saying goes. This passion to create isn’t explainable. It just is.
2) Creativity is essential to progress. This was pointed out to me by a friend during our discussion of imagination. Imagination is having an idea of something other than reality. Purposeful progress of civilization cannot happen unless we can imagine a state of reality different than what it is today. Someone had to imagine a world where books weren’t written by hand but by a machine. Someone had to imagine a device which would allow you to talk to someone halfway across the globe. Someone had to imagine a machine that you could write on and then share those words with everyone in the world. On occasion, progress is made by accident, by happening across something previously unknown, but in those cases as well, someone must imagine how this new thing might change reality before it actually happens. Most of the time people have an idea for something better and then go out and try to find how to make it possible. This is creativity. This is imagination.
– Creativity isn’t rational. I mentioned this in the previous point but wanted to elaborate on it. The book Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer tries to explain why people are creative, why some cities have more creative individuals, why some companies are more imaginative and productive. He explored the brain activity of someone when they make imaginative connections or breakthroughs with a problem. He researched all the variables of cities with more and less creative people, from the layout of the city itself to how fast people walked on average in each city. While all of this was interesting, and while there were some good points about spontaneous collaboration and those “epiphany” moments, I felt that he was trying to rationalize something that can’t be fully explained. It is a mystery. To create a formula for creativity seems to take away the authenticity of it. Like in the Chronicles of Narnia, when it is often repeated that Aslan is not a tame lion, that he cannot be kept in a person’s back pocket to be used whenever it is convenient. To rationalize imagination and creativity is to destroy that unpredictability which makes it so beautiful and precious.
– Creativity isn’t enough. This may surprise some of you who have heard my ardent defense of Einstein’s quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” However, I have consistently acknowledged that imagination cannot replace knowledge. We cannot change reality unless we know what reality is. Since we aren’t infinite, we cannot create ex nihilo, so we cannot create a new idea out of nothing. It must be grounded in our knowledge of what already exists.
– Creativity is radical. I searched a long time to find the word that would sum everything in my mind. And I eventually found radical. And let me note that while the points above have pretty universal applications, the rest of this is really only for Christian artists and creators. So…why the word radical? Like I said earlier, it is the desire for perfection. While we won’t create the perfect novel or the perfect painting, we strive, oh so hard, to be as perfect as we can. The norm of this world is to say, “oh, that’s good enough.” But the creative person wants not to be good but perfect. We recognize the impossibility of that, and it forces us to admit that we are fallen, finite creatures, incapable of being perfect or creating anything perfect. This drives us to Christ once again, to admit our failure, and to depend solely on Him. Creativity also means vulnerability, and this is radical too. We want to be safe. We want to protect ourselves from hurt, from rejection, from mockery, from misunderstanding. But to create art is to express ourselves. To expose some part of ourselves to the world, even though we know that this will inevitably lead to pain, and rejection, and all those things that make vulnerability so difficult. It takes courage to be strong enough to accept the consequences of being vulnerable. Speaking of the act of Mary when she anointed the feet of Christ with precious oil, Makoto Fujimara says, “Christ is the great Artist. Maybe what He saw in Mary was a little artist, emulating and mirroring His great sacrifice. Mary transgressed cultural norms in this act of love, trembling in thanksgiving, knowing that the King must be anointed.” It is a sacrifice. While the death of Christ was primarily to redeem His people, we can learn from it. Christ gave all of Himself, He sacrificed everything for us. He made himself vulnerable in every aspect of the word. He did not hold back. And as artists we cannot reserve any part of ourselves to be “safe” or “easy.” We are called to risk all and suffer all, if necessary, for the glory of God. Creativity is hopeful, it speaks of a world that is better than this one, it cries out that this is not the end, that there is something more beautiful than this fallen world, that someday all that is now broken will be mended, all that is wrong will be made right, and all that has been promised will be fulfilled. This world is full of cynicism, nihilism, denial, and despair. So always looking to the judgement and life to come is radical. In a way, the Christian artist is like the prophets of old, crying out desperately to a lost world and telling of the reality which we, as sinners, long to deny. We are called to respond to the extravagant love of God by giving all of ourselves, in the ordinary, mundane duties of love towards those around us, in the sacrifice of our comfort and safety by creating art, and most importantly, in the complete surrender of our desires to the will of God, for His glory alone.