I once participated in a discussion with a group of artists rehashing the foundational ideas that Dorothy Sayers and Francis Schaeffer tackle in their books on creativity and image bearing. The big idea of their work is that because we are made in the image of our Creator, we are also creators. Many Christian artists have found justification and drive for their work in the pages of these formative books, myself among them.
But I was frustrated by our discussion. The rehashing of ideas fueled a fuzzy, communal feeling among us artists as we politely snacked on store-bought cookies and drank bad coffee in a church basement. I heard myself cautiously complaining to the generous (and patient) group: "But what does this stuff actually mean? How does bearing the image of our Creator influence the difficult process of making work?"
In my experience, the discussion usually ends there. We revel in our creative call, and take pride in how cool (or sensitive) we are because we are capital-A Artists. And then, we crawl back to our studios, desks, classrooms, and theaters, and get frustrated in the messy production process. As soon as I step into the theater or pick up a pen and my coffee-induced, fuzzy feeling has disappeared, I wallow in self-doubt, questioning my poor vocational choices. Right there in the slough of the process, I rarely think of myself as a creative image bearer. No, I'm just faking it until I make it.
As a theater artist, I often rush past the process because I am fixated on the product. Two hundred people are showing up in four weeks to see a performance: tickets are sold, programs are printed, and cast members' grandmas are buying non-refundable plane tickets. I don't have time to reflect with any sensitivity on how I'm incarnating the Creator as I consider the banal (and painfully non-creative) details of the theater. Where will the donors sit? What's going to happen in Scene 4 with an actor out sick? How will I keep actors safe on the obstacle course set? In these times, I don't feel like a capital-A Artist, let alone an effective image bearer. I'm just an underpaid traffic engineer.
Sitting in the church basement, I wanted an answer to how I might image-bear the incarnation in this "traffic engineering" part of my creative work—the painful, friction-filled part. So I decided to put on my big girl panties, take on the burden and expectations of calling myself an artist, and get serious about image bearing.
What does the incarnation teach us as artists?
Christ's birth was full of friction. It was messy and beautiful at the same time. He was born through a virgin's birth canal (pause and consider that for a moment), into a filthy stable, into a dying body, into a broken world. The infinite God came into the world through a too-small space, to dwell in a too-small, finite body. Someone without an edge was born into a body with a defined edge.
The unseen became seen.
Christ's death is also a study in friction—grace and suffering. The most horrific and grace-full moment in history met on two narrow stakes just big enough to hold a body. The infinite expired, nailed to the finite.
Whoa. This blows my mind. The incarnation was not a sentimental Mary-Joseph-Jesus community making polite conversation about image bearing in the coffee scented basement of a church. Incarnation is messy. It's disruptive. It's the biggest thing in the universe confining itself inside the most fragile container in the universe—a dying body.
As I began to grasp this friction-filled, disruptive idea of incarnation, the sometimes banal, mostly painful, creative process took on meaning.
Reflecting on the incarnation of Christ provides renewed insight into the creative process. It is disruptive. It is grace and suffering. It is birthing an idea through a space that is too small to contain it. It is life entering a dying body. It is the unseen becoming seen.
Paul reminds us of this friction of incarnation in his letter to the Corinthians: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of the Lord Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies."
As artists, we live in the friction of absolute perplexity without despair so that our dying bodies can contain the un-dying life of Christ. This friction is the essence of the creative process.
Embracing the friction: creativity is disruption
Yes, the inevitability of friction can be discouraging, but I find that embracing it is the best way through it. Creativity is disruption. If it isn't, you're doing something wrong. If you quit when it gets hard, you've failed. Encouragement comes from knowing our image bearing requires disruption because the friction is worth the wait. It's where the creative process looks like incarnation.
What I'm saying is that incarnation is a paradox—two seemingly contradictory ideas existing in the same space: God and man, struggle and success, rumblings of inadequacy and liberation of expression. Rather than despairing and shoving our heads in the proverbial sand, we have to live in the paradox of the incarnation and realize that (for us) this is the "fellowship of his sufferings." Yes, we will feel elated when we succeed, but most often we will feel like quitting on the way there. The image bearing happens when we keep going even when the fear and friction are overwhelming.
As I started to embrace the friction, I identified practical ways I could be an image bearer in the nitty-gritty of the process.
Artistic success requires the commitment of vocation. It is much easier to view artistic expression that doesn't pay the rent as a hobby rather than a vocation—what Leo Tolstoy calls the "betrayal" of our calling that leads to "the right of idleness." But if we are called to be image bearers of our Creator, our creative expression is not a hobby that allows us to be lazy: It is a divine expression of our vocation as image bearers. By calling ourselves artists, we are forced to take our creative expression seriously, because we are performing acts of divine vocation. When we start seeing art as a vocation rather than a hobby, we can embrace the tension that comes with the process, and embody the grace and suffering of the incarnation. Yes, the conflict in our vocation is disruptive, but we are in the business of birthing big ideas through small spaces.
Successful vocation also requires discipline. I use art as an excuse for my lack of discipline with shameful frequency: "I don't have to be disciplined because I'm waiting for inspiration to strike, and discipline just messes with my process." Confession: I am a liar. I am also idle. The only reason I lack inspiration is because I don't show up every day and invite inspiration to come.
Why do we choose not to be disciplined? Because it hurts. Because, Siren-like, it invites suffering into our creative spaces. Because it disrupts our tiny universe. And maybe because we're afraid a big idea might come along that won't fit into the little universe we've created.
We might fail.
Yep. There it is. The boogey man that lives under the stairs: fear. Most artists would rather privately fail than experience the daily struggle of discipline. But as soon as we embrace daily disruption and the inevitability of failure, the time and space we make for disruption starts to give back. The disruption pulls the impulses that make us creative to the surface, and we become the image bearers we were created to be.
Today I showed up. I sat down on this bench in this coffee shop and I invited the friction and fear to sit down across from me. I even shared my coffee with it. I was sure I would fail. I would say the wrong things. I might even inadvertently commit heresy. But my divine vocation is in the process of this creative act. My ideas are too big to fit into these words—my ability and the body of this document are too limited. But I am an image bearer, and this is incarnation business. Grace and suffering have met on this narrow bench inside this frail body. Creative expressions are being forced into flesh. And through this disruptive forcing, I am learning how to bear the creative image of my Creator.
Subscribe to TCW's free email newsletter at this link for weekly updates and chances to win free books and music downloads.
Erin Naler is currently pursuing a PhD in Aesthetic Studies in Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. She has an M.A. in Theatre Arts, as well as over ten years of experience directing plays, working with new playwrights, and performing. She has a special interest in the theatrical creative process, American theater from the early 20th century, and the aesthetics of community and place in 1930s social documentary photography.