Solomon wrote that there was “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The nineteenth-century theologian, W.G.T. Shedd, wrote: “Originality in man, then, is not the power of making a communication of truth, but of apprehending one.” One pastor I knew while growing up used to say, “True genius is not creating something new, it is knowing what is good enough to steal (and improve upon).”
I am told that every combination of chords that can be played has been played. And thus, there are no truly original pieces being written — yet, people are still writing new music. It can be said that every possible combination of words has already been written, yet new books are still being written. There are only a finite number of possible plot lines in literature and all of them have been explored, yet new stories are still being told. You can see the shadows of previous designs in every invention, yet we are still trying to build a better mousetrap. And the ideas that seem new or novel to us only seem so because we are generally poor at teaching history.
So, am I suggesting that we do not create? Not at all. In fact, I am suggesting just the opposite. One of the things that makes us human is the fact that we create new things, we learn from the things that others develop and we re-imagine those things to make them better, faster, more efficient, and more useful. It is this work of making new things that not only distinguishes us from the animal kingdom, but that reminds us that we are made in the image of a creative God. And so, as we imitate God, particularly in creative work, we grow in our reflection of His character, that is, so long as we create well.
There is a sense, particularly when it comes to artistic expression, of good creativity and bad creativity. Not every color blends together in an aesthetically pleasing way. Not every chord progression is pleasing to the ear. There are things that belong together and things that clearly do not belong together. Not every alteration on a design is helpful or appealing. And, while certain things appeal to one person and not to another, there are still combinations and compositions that are more or less universally disconcerting and disturbing to the eye, ear, or mind.
C.S. Lewis called this a departure from “the Normal” or the “Sense of Normal.” For Lewis, there was a sense of color, sound, and design that is found in the created order that we humans are meant to imitate when we create things. When we go outside of that sense of “Normal,” we find things to be disturbing and aberrant. That, of course, does not mean that people do not sometimes try and produce art outside of the realm of “the Normal,” but it does mean that the art will tend to only appeal to a certain niche crowd that shares the artist’s disturbing perspective on the world.
I am reminded of my college years and an instance in a class where we were to write a fiction story. I had written a story where the murderous villain was caught but escaped trial on a technicality. The response of my classmates was to be appalled. The technicality was a legitimate one and certainly, people had been released from jail on that technicality before. There was nothing outrageous or unrealistic about the villain’s release. Yet, in the story, I had generated such hatred and disgust for the villain that, when he was not convicted of the murder of these women, my classmates left the story dissatisfied and angry. Or, to put it another way, the sense of “Normal” also includes a basic sense of justice that needs to occur in a plot line.
The challenge we face in society is that as the knowledge of God is attacked and devalued in the classroom, we more and more fail to see the value of this sense of the Normal, which originates and is given value by God’s design. We also fail to see the importance of creating things of interest and beauty to all. Until we really consciously recognize that we are engaged in the imitation of our creator, the motivation for creation will always be self-serving and limited in scope and value. It is only when God’s sense of “normal” is applied to our creation, that true value and aesthetic beauty will be visible.