Growing up, I often wondered whether my scribblings would amount to anything. Shouldn’t I be working harder at my schoolwork, or developing other profitable skills? As a Christian, shouldn’t I be working at “discipleship” (whatever that meant) or helping the poor, or whatever? I loved writing, but it often seemed such a terrible indulgence!
At the ripe old age of twenty-seven my “mad hobby” (to borrow a phrase from my favorite author) hasn’t yet brought me any of the trappings my society labels success. Even so, I can’t think of another activity that I value more than my art. In fact, I rarely feel so authentically human as when I sit at my laptop, typing out my little stories. While I won’t go so far as to claim that creativity is necessary to spirituality (to say nothing of religion), I do think it’s a rich way to connect to something deeper than ourselves – which all too often Christians (and others) undervalue, at our own peril.
The Christian Bible begins with a creative act: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” My favorite fictional world, Tolkien’s legendarium, also begins with a creative act, and in this one an aesthetic one. Readers familiar with the Silmnarillion will remember that Arda begins not with a bang or a whimper, but with a song:
There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made. And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad. (Ainulindale, The Silmarillion)
As we learn in subsequent pages, these Ainur – in many ways similar to the Christian angels – do not just perform the songs revealed to them by the God of Arda. They actually create (or more properly sub-create) their own music. The original theme may come from God, but it is the Holy Ones who flush out this theme in all its aesthetic majesty.
But creation – creativity – is not only the work of angels. In Tolkien’s legendarium, this work is ultimately continued by the Children of Ilúvatar, who are fated to take part in a second song at the end of time. Even more to the point, it is through the children’s actions that the Ainur learn what they missed in that original song. That is the beauty of Tolkien’s legendarium: sub-creation is the birthright of everyone.
What does this all have to do with us? Fans of Tolkien often speak of Arda as a “secondary world,” a sort of history that is taken by conceit to be *our* history. But it is still just fiction, and certainly shouldn’t be taken for theology. Still, there’s a marked similarity between Tolkien’s creation through art and the Biblical version:
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps up creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26-28; NASB)
This is not, as some have suggested, carte blanche to ransack the planet, ignore ecological concerns, or anything of the sort. Governance is an intrinsically creative act, as is of course the Biblical mandate toward procreation. The philosophy-lecturer in me is clamoring to give a mini-talk on Aristotle and the nature of change, but in the interest of space I will say only this: Aristotle recognized that there were different kinds of change, including not only the mechanistic change of the natural world but also the change humans impose on the world through our choice. Out of all creation (a word I’m sure Aristotle would balk at!) we alone are capable to add to that world. In that sense we are made in the image of God, and we can join Him in the creative function of adding to it and improving what needs fixing.
Art – broadly construed, including writing, drama, music, and less obviously creative acts – gives us the best opportunity to do just that. The Scottish philosopher George Turnbull argued that art presents the world not as it is but as it might be, and as such it drives us to consider the possible. Crusading, philanthropy and other reparative efforts are of course necessary given that real people are suffering. But the more I learn of art and myself as an artist, the more convinced I become that art gives us a vision we desperately need.
As Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Looking for light in dark places is key to all religion, and in Tolkien’s legendarium as well. Remember what Sam saw in the heart of Mordor:
There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
That’s a lesson all humans could do to remember, and art is a powerful way many of us can learn it. Or relearn it, as is all too often necessary!