Everything is more meaningful when it’s on a sunset picture.
Okay, I know I didn’t come up with that quote. It was Kirkegaard maybe? That or something like it.
Anyway, I feed my family by designing software for a living. I work with a lot of creative people: marketers, graphic artists, interaction designers, interface designers, and yes, software engineers. Math can be creative, too!
And a lot of them struggle. I struggle.
I mean, Buddha wasn’t all wrong. Life is struggle. And my favorite definition of design is iteratively struggling to understand systems, processes, and artifacts that don’t yet exist and describing them in sufficient detail that they can.
And why not? Each creative task poses a problem: a sculpture which must be found within a rock; a painting which must emerge from smeared pigment on a surface; a dance which must consist in a series of very uncomfortable body positions that need to be practiced hours a day to perfect; a 47-minute 11-movement orchestra suite about the whole diggity ding dong world and everything in it, which must exist as both a sequence of sounds, and a bunch of marks on a page so a bunch of people can make the sounds in the right order. And yes, a big part of the process of creation is solving the problem that you’ve posed for yourself. Or, if you’re a special kind of lucky, the client has posed for you.
What if it’s not a problem to solve, but a process to enjoy? What if the act of creation was supposed to bring you joy, not pain, toil, misery, self-doubt, and anguish? What if …
Creation is meant to glorify its creator
The popular mythos of the artist as a simultaneously self-indulgent and self-destructive creature is unfortunate, because creation is supposed to be joyful. It is supposed to be uplifting, inspiring, engaging, and edifying for both creator and audience.
(Here I stop and confess. I’m a Christian. I believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. You don’t have to in order to enjoy my work. But knowing that is going to help you understand what follows.)
There is a further illusion that there is “high” or “fine” art that is meant to be adored and below that, an undifferentiated mass of merely decorative junk to be be consumed and forgotten. High art is of lasting value, its creators immortalized by the lasting impression of their creation. Low art is here one day and gone the next, sunk into the vast ocean of human regret and despair.
But the purpose of art is not to be adored; nor is it to immortalize the artists, no matter what that poem about Ozymandias may imply.
Rather, art was meant to glorify God.
There are two kinds of thing: Creator and Creation. As such, everything that isn’t God is in one way or another is an image that points to God — or ought to. People are made in the image of God, and Jesus is the perfect expression of that image that points with perfect correspondence to the Father (Genesis 1:27; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3), both sign and signified in one. Marriage is an imperfect “mystery” that points to the relationship between Jesus and the church (Ephesians 5). The heavens and earth declare his glory (Psalms 8:1; 19:1; 65:1–13; 69:34; 96:11–12). And so on.
As J. R. R. Tolkien pointed out, we are sub-creators who mimic The Creator of Everything (compare C.S. Lewis). This insight extends not just to the arts but to all of life: As the painter paints and the sculptor sculpts, so the carpenter builds and the contract negotiator drafts. “Whatever your hand finds to do” it’s for your creator (Colossians 3:23–24).
When God designed houses for himself on earth — I am thinking of the Tabernacle and the temples — they were not austere but highly decorated with cherubim, animals, flowers, and fruit trees. They were decorated in such a way as to evoke heaven and the Garden of Eden and to overwhelm the viewer with awe for the majesty, glory, and power of God (Exodus 26:1; 36:8, 35; 1 Kings 6:29, 32, 35; 7:29, 36). All these were but a dim reflection of the realities seen in Ezekiel 1 and 10 and Revelation 4 (Hebrews 8:1–7). Heaven will be a very sensual place, if only because it is nearer to the one who made senses in the first place, who knows best how to thrill them.
The senses were created so that man could appreciate his maker and reflect that appreciation back as praise.
God “planted” the ear, and in so doing, gave us a sense of hearing attuned to the reverberations of his creative Word who was in the beginning, simultaneously God and with God (Genesis 1:1–2; John 1:1–5). Job tells us that at the creation the “morning stars sang together / and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). So music, song, and spoken words that point to God glorifies him. That which does not is mere noise.
The sense of sight points to the light that burst forth at God’s command, “Let there be light” — and Jesus the light of men, and perfect light of the world (Genesis 1:3; John 1:4–5; 8:12; passim). Inasmuch as we point back to him, we too are lights (Matthew 5:14–16; Luke 11:34–36). We enjoy color, because God has thus devised our eyes and minds, and filled the world with it. Any visual art that points to God glorifies him. That which does not is mere darkness.
(If thinking about “God” in this way makes you uncomfortable — good! It should. Human consciousness yearns some kind of meaning in the universe, and if it’s not out there, that’s okay I guess, but if it is … it’s wild and it’s powerful and I want to get to know it.)
Movement hearkens back to the motion of God in creation, the fluttering of the Spirit over the waters, the stretching of the firmament, the rise of the mountains and recession of the seas (Genesis 1:1–5). Moreover, we have bodies because God sculpted Adam out of clay, touching him with his hands even as he was crafting the sense of touch (Genesis 2:7). We know of balance and proportion because God made us to have symmetry in one direction, and we have a variety of interesting poses and motions — arms and legs and shoulders and knees — because God made us to be asymmetrical in other directions. So choreography, dance (and sculpture which evokes them) that points to God glorifies him. That which does not is mere deformation.
We have a sense of taste that we may know what fruit is good to eat, and so we can enjoy the marriage supper of the Lamb, so we can (metaphorically speaking) “taste and see” that God is good (Genesis 1:12, 29; 2:8-9; Revelation 19:9; Psalm 34:8). So food that is delicious and is taken with thanksgiving to God, glorifies him. Gluttony, on the other hand, is mere sensuality, self-satisfaction minus gratitude for the amazing gift of life in the first place — which the existing such pleasure confirms.
(Worse, it is a kind of hoarding. To glut when others starve is unjust, unkind, and un-generous, which is the opposite of God.)
We have minds that were made to enjoy thinking, reading, writing; hearts to enjoy feeling, emoting, sympathizing and empathizing; mouths to enjoy speaking, eating, drinking, kissing; ears for hearing; hands for building, clapping, waving care-free; feet for running, walking, dancing.
Signposts & Reflections
God made it all and it is very good, but he made it to point to him, not to replace him. His glory he will not share with another (Isaiah 48:11).
Therein lies the danger. Any and all of the senses and faculties of humankind can be turned toward the self and the creation rather than toward the creator. Then a healthy use of the senses to appreciate the world God has made and so appreciate him devolves into mere sensuality. What would be communion with God is fornication with nature; what would be love of God is wanton self-pleasure, in a word masturbatory. (Sorry, it had to be said.)
See Romans 1. See most of Israelite history, or look in the mirror.
That is not to say that ugly things cannot glorify God. We understand the Bible to have been co-authored by God himself in the person of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter) and it certainly glorifies God. And yet it is not all autumn scenes painted in improbably warm and bright colors with soft, fuzzy brushstrokes. In its pages you will find unflinching depictions of sins of every kind. Even the grotesque body horror images of a concubine cut into pieces and mailed to the elders of Israel, or a basket of severed foreskins delivered as a wedding gift, or a conquistador who measures his own self-worth by the piles of his enemies heads, or for that matter, the suffering of Jesus Christ on the cross are put to the purpose of glorifying God, if only by way of contrast. To shy away from truth is no good way to serve the God who is Truth.
In sum, art that is not gratifying to God has no reason to exist, because any part of creation that is not gratifying to the Creator has no reason to exist, and will thus be erased, revised, trimmed, pruned, cut off, cut out, and cast away. If writing be re-writing, then behold! The Divine Author is as much an Editor as he is a Poet.
Soli Deo Gloria
Johann Sebastian Bach used to sign all of his manuscripts with either the initials S.D.G. or the Latin phrase soli deo gloria. It means “To God alone be glory” and it’s a confession that the art contained therein belongs to the creator and is intended by the artist to glorify Him, not to glorify Bach. It’s less well-known that he often started his compositions with the initials J.J., or Jesu juva, “Jesus Help” or the German version, J.H.
I’m not JSB, but I like to put S.D.G. on my compositions as well. You’ll see it in my Soundcloud descriptions for my major works. Even when I don’t remember to put it in the description, it may show up in the tags, or … well, I meant to.
All the music, art, writing, or what-have-you that you find from me should be understood to be written under the headings J.J. and …