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Heartbeats of Incarnation: Creativity in Crisis

July 3, 2020


During World War II, C.S. Lewis wrote an essay called “Learning in War-Time” in which he defended the continued pursuit of education during a time of global conflict. In his conclusion he admits the limits of human culture and its ultimate finitude in light of the eternity which Christians anticipate. And yet Lewis’ final words affirm that there is nonetheless some sort of echo of that eternity which the pursuit of knowledge makes visible, and which it may even reveal in a way: “If we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.” The employment of the intellect opens up a window into the life of the divine mind itself, and that is something that cannot, even in times of cataclysm, be disregarded.

As a composer, this notion of the value of intangible pursuits in crisis is one that hits home for me, and for many Christians who participate in the creative arts. With so much difficulty and suffering around us right now, what difference does it make to create new works of artistic expression? Times of crisis strip the veneer away from every part of our lives, and force us to look at the heart of the matter, to see what truly remains, and what falls away. I have come to believe that when all the extraneous layers are removed and we get to the beating heart of our faith that remains during times of calamity, we find that it beats with the rhythm of creativity, a rhythm at the very core of the Gospel.

John 1 reveals that the Word through whom “all things came into being,” is the same Word that “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:3, 14). Colossians 1 reveals that Christ, “the firstborn of all creation,” through whom “all things have been created,” is the same person who comes as “the firstborn from the dead,” to “reconcile to himself all things.” (Col. 1:15, 16, 18). What might we understand from these vibrant passages? That the act of creation and the act of redemption are inseparable. The work of God in Christ, from creation to redemption, is always a creative process.

Creativity is inextricable from the beauty of the Incarnation. When we prayerfully create, we are emulating Christ’s act of Incarnation: taking the Gospel as an idea and transforming it into something palpable, taking words and concepts and enfleshing them into living testimonies to God’s redemption. We are becoming, as Tolkien says in On Fairy-Stories, sub-creators. In a time in which people are more separated from each other, and from contact with the world itself, Christian works of creativity are even more crucial in bringing the Gospel to bear, to helping communicate the potent power of an incarnate savior who draws near to us, right in the midst of our unintended vigils in the silences of isolation. 

John Cage comes to mind here, and his deceptively empty composition 4’33″. The piece was originally meant to be entitled Silent Prayer, based on eastern ideas of absolute void and nothingness; but Cage eventually changed his tack after, among other experiences, he visited an anechoic chamber (a room with artificially induced silence). While there he realized that as the silence fell around him, he could still hear his heartbeat. Ultimately, 4’33″ expressed that when we enter into what we believe to be silence, emptiness, solitude, we find it to be full of hidden meaning and value.

In the silence of isolation, we Christian artists have the opportunity to hear certain heartbeats that shape our capacity draw close to Christ and make him manifest to those around us. The first heartbeat is the voice of the Holy Spirit, revealing to us most powerfully in our solitude that the world is not void, but rather filled with the presence of the divine; “God is draped in silence,” as Cardinal Robert Sarah says in his wonderful book The Power of Silence. Only in that practice of listening and waiting in stillness do those quieter voices emerge. In modernity, it has become conventional wisdom to think of the artist as rebellious, as a maverick who pushes boundaries and breaks down norms; for the Christian artist, however, creativity is an act of radical rebellion only insofar as it allows itself to become radically inculcated into the still, quiet voice of God whispering in the stillness. That is true countercultural action.

Another heartbeat it reveals is the absolute inability of ourselves to be truly cut off from our belonging to community, to place, and to tradition. By virtue of separation from it for a time, we are drawn into a deeper awareness of our connectivity to those binding threads. I think this sense of becoming aware of our stewardship to the world and our belonging to the rhythms of Christian tradition is part of what balances us from an unhealthy attachment to silence in itself. Only God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. For Christian artists, we are called to enter into what seems to be nothing, and instead to discover anew there the presence of the God who is always at work in the fabric of the world, redeeming and restoring it. It is from that space of encounter that we are able to complete the fullness of our calling, to return what we receive in that solitude back to our communities as an act of obedience and worship, and love, in and through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Finally, and perhaps most vitally, we might listen to the heartbeat of our own hunger, our desire to participate once more in the feast of the Eucharist. The incarnational potency in artistry and creativity might help to keep our hunger alive, reminding us again and again that the God we worship does not merely intend us to comprehend him but rather to experience him; that he has not only revealed the good news of salvation, but has given himself, Body and Blood, as the bread of life. Creativity, as a catalyst of incarnational expression, might actually help pique our appetites, to prepare us for the joy we will experience when we can once again return to Holy Communion.

To put aside creativity in a time of crisis is to communicate that creativity is ultimately a trivial act. And to believe creativity to be trivial would be a tragic misunderstanding of the Gospel. For the good news that we have received in Christ beats most fundamentally with the cadence of creativity, of renewal, restoration, and re-creation. God has never ceased his creative mending of the world, which becomes most potent precisely when we feel things have most completely gone wrong. It is in the silence of uncertainty that Christians in the creative arts might most uniquely show the consoling love that enters into the voids in our lives and fills them with life, light, form, color, and music.