Creativity in the Christian Context: Dr Mark Stephens
Dr. Mark Stephens is a lecturer from Excelsia College in Sydney, Australia. After getting his PhD on Revelation from Macquarie University, Mark taught the New Testament to Theology students at Excelsia College, and also gave foundational New Testament lessons to the arts students in drama, dance, music and graphic design. When the Theology department closed, his work focused on students from the disciplines of drama and music, where Mark conducts lessons on creativity and culture from a Christian perspective.
These days, Mark is also getting invitations to give talks in schools on these topics. In May 2015, he was the speaker at the In His Image Creative Arts Conference held in collaboration with Diocesan Youth Board (Anglican). The creative arts ministry worker who was organising this conference, Shirley, kindly let me listen to his lecture and I was intrigued by the points he brought up. Shirley eventually connected me with Dr Mark Stephens over e-mail, and we had a long Skype discussion where he shared his thoughts on the kind of issues creatively-inclined Christians face in today’s church.
I’m a typical academic. I love talking through ideas and as a Christian intellectual, I’m surprised at how I eventually ended up focusing on the creative arts ministry. But you know, my work is based on what God has placed in front of me. I’m not an artist, and I think I will always find “creative people” a little strange!
That being said, it’s important for the church not to view Creative Christians as self-absorbed space aliens. They may have a different way of looking at the world and may be more sensitive, but at the end of the day, they are as human as everyone else: we all sin, we all suffer.
Our Creative God
Creative Christians remind us that beauty is such an important part of our lives. Without beauty, there would be no emotions, no complexities. God loves beauty. You can see from Genesis that God’s creation of the world is not just purely functional. He created an abundance of colours, fruits, and animals, for His pure delight.
If you think about it, an absence of delight is a failure to trust God. Satan tempted Adam and Eve with the idea that God is stingy, and wanted to deprive them of delight. When we view God as stingy, that’s when we drift apart from Him and forget that the core of creation is truth, goodness and beauty.
The world is a majestic and delightful place, even after the Fall. With regard to beauty, even Scripture itself has so much literary variety with poetry and parables. Jesus was such an artful storyteller. I truly believe that creativity is part of the way God wants us to engage with the world.
However, many Christians hesitate to appreciate beauty, and in turn, creativity, because these concepts seem frivolous and full of unknowns.
As such, many Creative Christians feel devalued. The common impression is that artists are non-productive; at least a banker makes money or a doctor restores you back to health. What does art do? There is this very rational view of life that unless an activity achieves something practical, it does not have any worth.
Many Creative Christians also feel misunderstood because their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ might find their art or performances confusing or offensive. However, that’s usually because the non-artists have not learned the “language” or “grammar” of these particular art forms. I have to admit that I used to find certain forms of dance overly sexual and inappropriate. But as I began to learn about how different gestural movements communicate certain emotions, I began to realise the intended message was very different from the perceived message. Don’t just say someone is sinning just because you think what that person is doing is weird.
It’s important that the church should reach out to Creative Christians and ask, “Teach us about what you are doing.” You have to learn before you critique.
As with any form of work you do, boundaries need to be set, particularly in the creative context. However, I believe that it’s better to have a discussion rather than enforcing hard-and-fast rules. Many of my acting students ask me whether violence in films is right or wrong. I would always reply, “Well, that depends. What is this violence is trying to achieve?” If a war film with blood and gore highlights the cruelty of war, then maybe this violence serves a purpose in getting a powerful message across. However, if it is just a film glorifying violence and inciting the gore impulse, then it is not edifying.
I usually pose these questions to my students to get them to think about their creative boundaries:
How do I receive my gift from God?
Creativity is a powerful gift that can be abused easily: it can demean God, glorify self and create idols. As Creative Christians, they must always remember the end game: their talents should help people to love God and love one another. This does not just have to be limited to church. A Christian engineer blesses others by building great roads, and likewise, if a Christian creates great music, it can be a blessing to so many people as well. I tell my creative arts students that they have to question their motivations as vigorously and harshly as possible. They have to be willing to place their creativity on the altar and give it up if circumstances call for it. If not, their creativity has become an idol.
What am I becoming as an artist?
If a Creative Christian destroys himself or herself by overworking or being obsessed by perfection or adulation, then their art stops becoming an act of love. It’s important to never let any form of work (not just creative arts) take over your true personhood in Christ.
On the flip side of the coin, I also think that one should not be overly cautious when it comes to creativity. When I was in Singapore last year at the In His Image Creative Arts Conference, I met many youth who were eager to explore their creative talents, but there was a lot of worry and fear that they would go too far. They seemed very concerned that they had to get things “right”. Perhaps it is a cultural difference as personal freedom is a celebrated value in Australia, while Singapore is a more communal and conservative society. However, I do feel the urge to cheer on Creative Christians in Singapore to keep doing what their hearts are telling them to do. I also hope that their churches would recognise the open-ended nature of the creative process.
Church is an experience of compromises. If you read Romans 14, you’d find that everybody in the early church had different ways of working and thinking. Christians are made up of a group of awkward people who are not naturally comfortable with each other. But that’s where love kicks in. I will love someone even if he or she does not get my jokes, wear different clothes or does strange things. Sometimes, this might mean letting go of certain aspects of conservatism. Sometimes, for the Creative Christian, it could be deciding to hold back on something so as not to potentially cause other people to stumble.
In order for Creative Christians not to feel like freaks in a church, there has to more than just making a space for them. It’s important not to be afraid of creative talent and there should be more discussion on how this talent can be used in church. There has to be peaceful engagement with lots of “Can we talk?” Find the common ground, even if there may not ever be full agreement. Start by doing little things together where creativity and church leadership intersect. Both passionate for Christ and want to witness for Him? Let’s start from there.
At the end of the day, the message is this: give Creative Christians a voice in the Christian community by respecting their art. Allow them to tell their story in their own terms. Share their pain so they don’t have to bear burdens themselves. Rebuke them for specific sins and not because they are artists. Don’t give them ultimatums to give up their vocations. Be quick to forgive. Accept them wholly for who they are.
For Further Reading
- Genesis 1 & 2: The ultimate creative process — God’s Creation of the world — is chronicled in these passages.
- Exodus 31 & 36: God appoints and equips various craftsmen to make meticulous, artistic designs for the sanctuary.
- Romans 14: Paul warns early Christians not to be judgmental of each others’ differences, but instead, strive for peace and mutual edification.