Ian Harris Otago Daily Times February 28, 2014
Festivals of the arts are celebrated around New Zealand, with the current international festival in Wellington a prime offering. From music and dance to drama, the visual arts and contemporary literature, they present a dazzling display of human creativity, all up front and personal. Most of those who attend performances are likely to enjoy and evaluate them on that basis alone. It is possible, however, to add another level to the festival experience by seeing events through the lens of the Christian doctrine that humankind is created in the image of God. In fact, the idea of God as creator and the creativity of the arts are more closely intertwined than many people realise.
“God created man in his own image,” says the biblical book of Genesis, “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” And the Hebrew word for image means just that, a likeness. The declaration in Genesis is not, of course, a scientific statement of origins. It expresses a relationship between God (or Godness) and human beings. At the very least, it says that humanity is capable of reflecting this God/Godness.
Usually the relationship is expressed as between creator and creatures, the one who initiates and those who owe their being to that act of creation: on the one hand lie divine power and will, on the other the duty to comply. For people who think of God as a being with an existence independent of humanity, that lies at the heart of their faith.
There is another way to approach the metaphor, however, and that is the way of creativity. It builds on the idea that if God is portrayed as creator, and humanity is created in God’s image, then one of the essential ways people reflect Godness is when they in turn are creative, even in quite humble ways.
Many years ago detective fiction writer Dorothy Sayers teased out the human creative process in a way that brought out remarkable parallels with the Christian understanding of God as creator. She says any artistic work begins with someone’s creative idea. The writer or artist envisages the completed work, so that in a sense the end is in the beginning; but at this stage there is nothing to show.
Time and effort, passion and sweat, false starts and endless revisions are needed to translate the idea into the appropriate outward form. An energy flows back and forth within the writer between the idea and its expression. But it is the originating idea that controls the choice of episodes or phrases or brush-strokes to make them conform to the pattern of the whole work.
Beyond that double process is a third and vital element, that of the work’s power to communicate to others. That can be known only in the reading/hearing/viewing of the finished piece – which will hinge largely on the talent of the performers and the responsiveness of the audience itself.
Wellington audiences will experience the creative power of Bach’s St John Passion, for example, or Britten’s Noye’s Fludde to the extent that they are engaged by them. Ideally, their experience of such works will have rounded out the composers’ idea and the creative activity that lie behind them, and fulfilled the works in the consciousness of those who attend them.
But while each of these three elements can be considered separately, the idea on its own is not the work, nor the activity of the composers and performers that bring it to fruition, nor its power to communicate. The dynamic interaction of all three is needed to fully realise the work.
In other words, there is a trinity to be discerned in the creative act – and, says Sayers, the remarkable thing is that this trinity mirrors in human experience what the early church sought to express through the Christian Trinity of Father (idea), Son (activity or energy expressing the idea) and Holy Spirit (communicative power).
A common mistake is to take each element of this Trinity on its own (or to use the more usual word “person”, which originally meant an actor’s mask, or role) and add them up to make three Gods instead of one. Another trap is to make the ideas so convoluted that ordinary mortals give up on them.
But as a symbol of the dynamic unity of idea, energy and power, this Trinity can be seen as both central to human experience and a window into Godness – and nowhere so clearly as in a festival of the arts.