This post has been adapted from the talks I gave at the SPARC National Gathering 2018 and Femelle Creates 2018, after being asked to share the notes. It is rougher than usual, but you’ll get the idea.
When I was a teenager, my creativity was misdiagnosed as awkwardness. Uncoolness. Weirdness. In the environment I grew up in, wearing wacky clothes wasn’t ‘creativity’ it was ‘a lack of conformity’. Writing epic plays about your friends was symptomatic of someone who had ‘issues’. Someone who was unable to be normal.
But then, of course, I discovered that there was an entire breed of people who also have this distinct ‘inability to be normal’, and when I came together with them, remarkable things could happen. Community could happen. Humour could happen. Deep love and encouragement. Art – and along with it this art- beauty, excellence, innovation and healing.
It isn’t surprising then, that artists tend to group together. I’m a picture of it.
I married an artist.
My friends are artists.
My ex-friends are artists.
My colleagues are artists.
I run a ministry for artists.
I dated an accountant once as a creative experiment.
If my child wants to be an engineer I’ll probably kick her out of home.
I have spent my adult life incredibly grateful for creative community. I have always been held by it more than I have ever been led astray by it.
But I noticed something, when I moved between the wide worlds of industry artists and artists that believed in Jesus… there was something more to creativity in the kingdom of God.
Through the lens of Christian spirituality, artists didn’t make art simply because they had a talent, or a desire – they had a calling.
In God, they had a creative identity, and a specific great commission – and I realised that that changed everything.
The thing is, as artists in the world, we are told to find our creative identities in the practice, delivery and reception of our art. We are told to work for our own breakthrough, or the breakthrough of our own agenda. We are taught to make art in our own image so it can be received and glorified, and so it will glorify us as the artists. We are told that to be successful, we have to win.
I did this. I lived the insecurity of it. The glory of it. The crash and burn of it.
But then I learned that as an artist in the kingdom, things were different. As Christians, we are told to find our creative identity in Jesus. To make work for the breakthrough of truth and beauty. To be grounded by the love we create out of and the love we inspire. We are called to live as works of art ourselves, made in the image of God, glorifying him (not us). To be successful, we need to love so hard that it hurts us. We need to lose.
Creative people in the kingdom are missionaries, in the truest sense.
I had to quickly relearn how to be an artist when I got saved. The worlds of seeking glory and giving glory are two very different worlds – two very different callings and vocations.
But an observation I have made over the past six years of intentional creative Christian community, and living in the tension of two worlds, is this:
If we really are supposed to look different from the industries we are pouring our art into, we are failing.
We are failing to divorce our own success from the mission God has given us.
We are failing to retain our heavenly identities in the face of rejection.
We are failing to create from divinity, and are creating from saleability.
We failing to accept our own failure, and God’s mercy, and we’re trying to win in very hard industries in our own strength.
We have turned our temples – our sanctified creative identities – into marketplaces.
We are making art the world’s way, and we have forgotten the holiness required of us.
15 When they arrived back in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifices. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, 16 and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace.[c] 17 He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.”[d]
So how have we got here? What can we do?
THE SPIRIT OF SALEABILITY
Also known as ‘selling out’.
I call it ‘The Spirit of Saleability’.
That’s the American spelling, but I’m sticking with it, because Americans are a bigger market (wink).
It’s making the art that sells, the art that people have said they’ll buy, instead of making exactly what’s been put on your heart.
In LA, I remember watching a city of desperately talented creatives trying to fit the molds that Hollywood gave them. The cry of their hearts was to make, but they were forced to leave behind the films, songs and stories that they felt called to, in order to make what was selling.
I think we can all smell it out, when something is made in response to money, instead out of truth, or generosity.
We see it in actors being cast due to how many instagram followers they have, not their talent or suitability for the role. We see it in the money-idolising and misogynistic music on commercial radio. The theatre in our national companies often aimed solely at a high-paying subscription audiences and not the struggling young people who would so love to see their stories on stage. We know why they make so many Spiderman films, it isn’t because it is the most remarkable parable of our time – it makes money. We know why they make The Bachelor, and we know they secretly market it to us, even if we think we are watching it ironically. Money.
We have to gather the attention of the people – a lot of people – and their dollars, before we are allowed to give the people our actual heart and soul work.
In the spirit of saleability you aren’t entitled to share your art unless it is what people are already willing to buy.
It’s a difficult line for the Christian artist in particular.
We know we’re in business when we enter the creative industries, and choose to make our living off of our creative practice. You can’t ignore the fact it is a business. If you want to survive, someone has to pay you.
WHAT IS KINGDOM CREATIVITY?
If you are a Christian artist reading this, I would guess that your creative practice flows not from some desire to proselytize or teach morality, but from a deep oneness with Christ – the creator of the universe. This doesn’t mean you make blatantly Christian songs or films, write stories solely about Christians, or paint pictures of angels, even though some of you might be called to that.
It simply means that you the artist have engaged out of your redeemed divinity – not your brokenness, not your jealousy, greed, pride or vanity. You have created out of your spirit, which has been set free, and accepted for all eternity.
It means that you create from your process of healing, and not your self-destruction.
Not for saleability, but for service.
That is kingdom creativity.
The spirit of saleability, or ‘industry creativity’, judges a work. It says that piece of art was not accepted. It isn’t worthy. Perhaps that reflects that I am not worthy.
Kingdom creativity says my inherent worthiness qualifies this piece of art, renders it and the process of creating it holy, and makes my contribution to my wider industry meaningful and pivotal.
It’s imperative that we seek our truest creative identities, and reject the spirit of saleability.
When we create only what we know people are going to buy we are willingly contributing to the echo chamber, not prophetically pushing our communities.
When deny our mandate from God, we deny our spiritual identities.
So how do we foster our kingdom creativity, and not adopt industry identities?
I believe that answer is community.
The artist that isn’t in solid spirit-filled creative community forgets who she is.
The artist that knows their integral belonging in the body of Christ remembers.
The thing is, when we lose our heavenly identities we will desperately ask the world to validate and affirm our earthly one.
Without heavenly identity in these industries, being encouraged and built up by brave artists around us, we lose touch. We lose our leadership, we lose our influence and we lose our relationships.
An identity built on the praise or rejection of others is a house built on sand – it falls down.
Worldly significance is not heavenly significance.
My worth is not determined by whether they call me a worthy artist.
I am a daughter.
Like a child paints pictures of her family for the fridge, and not for galleries, so my art is for the fridge of God, regardless of what platform the world might find for it. If others visit and stare at that fridge, and find that art beautiful, and moving, and significant for them, then glory be to God. If they find that offensive and crass and ungodly and unreasonable, then glory be to God.
I work unto him. I create because he calls me.
Note: I’ve seen the marks of kingdom creativity in artists that do not believe in God. Salvation isn’t actually a prerequisite for generosity, sacrificial boldness, and humility. Those aspects of kingdom creativity are accessible to all those made in the image of God. Just because you know God, doesn’t mean you’re doing it better.
IN KINGDOM CREATIVITY, ART IS PRAYER
Yes art can be business, but for us believers, creation is no small thing. This vessel is a temple, and what it creates is a sacrifice of devotion.
Art is like prayer.
As artists, our primary concern is creating as an offering to and in response to God. It is speaking with God.
It does not have to be religious, or evangelistic, or pure, or perfect!
But like prayer, it has to be vulnerable. It has to be surrendered. It has to be a conversation – a collaboration. It has to think about your neighbour, and their suffering. It has to think about your own failings, and your ability to develop and repent and change. It has to be humble. To be honest. And to be bold. And it will always be laced with hope.
So many of us want to speak with the world.
We want to be placed before them as a mouthpiece – to make a certain point, to teach them the truth, to make them laugh, to make them feel guilty, to make them like us, to give them hope, to give them what they’re selling or buying…
I understand that desire, but if this really is such a holy task – if we believe all this stuff about the theology of creativity – that we are created to create – then surely there is more to it than instagram followers, book deals, and box office sales.
There has to be a bigger reason to making than selling.
I would argue that as believers, our most resonant and profound works of art come from the posture of prayer, from intimacy with God.
It is the freest posture.
I know my work was edgier before I became a Christian. I know it was sexier, and received more accolades and praise. I know it was more broadly bought by the industry I am in. But, it was bound and tormented and greedy art.
My work as a believer might not be as cutting edge now, and it might not be as confronting, but it has compassion.
That ingredient makes all the difference for me, now.
THE PROMISE OF PROVISION STILL APPLIES TO THE ARTIST
I completely understand that you need to eat. I understand that you want to own a house one day. Art is business, and that’s okay.
The truth is that success is appealing. It is fun. It pays our bills doing the thing we’re most passionate about. SUCCESS IS NOT WRONG. But thinking we can forsake our true creativity to get a worldly leg up in these industries, is wrong. Especially when the only person who has that power is God.
We need community to support us in walking the fine line – in falling at the feet of Jesus and creating in obedience over and over again.
Whatever it is the world promised you that you could find in worldly success, in fame, in money – it is not faithful to its promises.
Only God is faithful to His promises.
The world’s word turns to dust in your hand as you reach for it.
Only God’s word does not return empty.
As Tim Keller says, the two great tests are success and failure – and neither is better.
In fact, the worst thing God can do to you is give you over to the desires of your heart, give you wild success in the field of your choosing, if Jesus is not king of your life.
It is a deeper gift, to fail when you need to
To succeed in his strength and timing.
Jesus was tempted by the devil with power, with provision, with protection – all of which he denied in exchange for the real thing.
The truth is, we do not need to accept counterfeit versions of these things.
God will provide for you and your family.
God will give you His power.
God will give you His protection.
I want you to ask yourself, are you creating out of and for the temple, or out of and for the marketplace?
- Do you make your work in the hope it pleases the masses, or in the hope it pleases the one?
This might look like political correctness instead of staying true to the original call, or changing key aspects to make it easier to sell.
Are you making it with God in mind?
Are you forsaking goodness, truth and authenticity for the temptation of saleability, popularity or power?
Are you censoring your own work to make sure you come across more likeable, or less offensive? Are you buying into the idea of you gathering followers instead of pointing to the one who is leading you? Are you changing your heart message to get more likes?
Are you making creative decisions out of fear, or out of freedom?
Are you making it with surrender, accepting that God might only use it in a small circle to change one person’s life, or are you only accepting worldwide distribution?
- Are you using your artistry/influence to sell or buy validation, instead of take prophetic risks or serve?
How much of your creative practice is about you, and your own ego, and how much is it about the people you get to give to, and change the lives of, and minister to? How much is it about something outside of your sphere?
Are you treating the people who receive your work as hearts and souls you get to love, or as potential dollars?
- Is all your creativity is for sale or public consumption, or is some saved for the secret place?
I have fallen into this trap before. It doesn’t mean we don’t share works of worship, but it means we find our first audience in God.
I believe we need to create more alone with God and for God than we do in the public sphere.
How we create in our devotional time will directly impact how we operate in the industry. It is the foundation we can stand upon. If everything we write or sing or paint is given to the public, and subject to their praise or criticism, what does that say about where we get our worth?
I am also not asking you to make solely devotional artwork. I am asking you to interrogate how much you’ve let God in to what you do make.
Do you allow a full collaboration?
Do you let him be your agent?
Do you let him rewrite that chapter with you?
Do you trust him?
Are you afraid he’ll hijack your career and make you only make D-grade Christian movies?
Do you think that God will let you fail?
MISSION, MERCY AND HOLINESS
Holiness in art is not squeaky clean – with no swearing or nudity. It is not art that propels conservatism and nothing else.
In fact, holiness should offend the spirit of religion.
Holiness in art reflects intimacy with God. Intimacy with God inevitably reflects holiness.
Holiness can only exist in us when we accept the mercy of God.
Mercy pulls us up to standing before our master – it is the notion of God saying – it doesn’t matter what she’s done or what anyone else thinks – I qualify this artist, I bring her towards me. I place her art upon my fridge, delighting in how she sees this world I am teaching her about.
Let’s acknowledge our brokenness, and the distinct privilege it is to be qualified by Jesus to create.
If we make art out of the lie of our self-righteousness, out of our own strength and ownership of the genius, guess what we make?
Mirrors of our own blindness, sin and brokenness.
We glorify our own depravity, instead of reflecting the grace that lives and work within us.
I believe in your art.
I believe in your worship.
I believe you were bought at a price, and have been made holy.
Let us not desecrate these creative temples by making them into marketplaces.
Turn over the tables, and let yourself be called a house of prayer.