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Imitatio Dei

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.

Poetry of a Moved Heart

“My heart is moved; with a good word I speak this work to the king — my tongue as a pen and a skillful scribe.”

(Psalm 45:2 {45:1 in English})

Recognizing that in Jewish thought, the heart deals with the seat of the personality and intellect and not the seat of the passions, we should see the beginning of this psalm as the Sons of Korah being caught up with what later writers would call the “creative muse,” and we should not attribute what follows as a flight of emotional fancy. The poem is filled with language that engages the passions (as do most great poems), but it is also detailed and structured carefully to communicate exactly what the poet — the psalmist — intends to write under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Too often, people today assume that great works of poetry flow out of a moment of spontaneous inspiration, when truthfully the words of the poet come about with the same care and precision as the woodworker or the sculptor brings about his art. Every word and phrase is skillfully prepared and then delivered by a tongue, which acts as a skillful scribe.

Isn’t it interesting how skewed our ideas about writing poetry have become? Everything has got to come easily to the craftsman today, yet we wonder at the same time why we are not producing the works of art that were once produced in ages past. We proclaim our art to be “new” in style, but I wonder, will the works we produce today survive the scrutiny of time or will the future generations describe our own as a creative dark ages…a time where creativity was lost or otherwise squandered on pointless pursuits.

Creativity, friends, is part of the image of God that we bear and thus, as we develop creativity to the glory of Christ, we are growing in our sanctification. And perhaps, as we indeed do so, our hearts (personalities) may indeed be moved so that we may speak a good word to the King.

That Which is Lovely

“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

What does it mean to set your mind on that which is lovely? Literally, the Greek word that Paul uses here means “to engender a kind of brotherly love.” It conveys the notion that there are things in this world that when we look upon them, when we listen to them, when we take the time to appreciate them, there is a certain deep-felt “rightness” and satisfaction that wells up in our hearts. C.S. Lewis referred to this idea as “the Normal” in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

To develop this idea further, there are certain relationships and proportions that we see in the world around us that are naturally beautiful in our eyes. The Golden Ratio, for example, made up of the Fibonacci sequence, is found throughout the created order. This is the ratio found in numerous elements of the human body but the spiral that this ratio creates is found in everything from the structure of DNA to the spiral of the nautilus shell to the spiral of the great Spiral Nebula. Artists talk about complimentary colors and symmetry; architects use varying proportions to create an aesthetically beautiful building, composers use certain progressions of notes and chords, etc… Clearly, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it is found in how, when we create works of art, those works mimic or approximate what was made by our creator.

Often we speak about the doctrine of the Imago Dei — that humans are made in the image of God — and all the Imago Dei means when it comes to the inherent dignity found in all mankind. We often do not talk at length about the doctrine of the Imitatio Dei — the doctrine that as those made in the image of God, we best live our our lives in imitation of the God whose image we bear. And as God is a creative God, we too are to exercise our creativity to his glory. That does not mean that we create carte blanche, instead it means that we are to create with a certain degree of continuity between our creation and God’s…that is if we want to create something of beauty.

Today, though, it seems that art has moved away from this notion and instead of seeking out that symmetry and continuity, it seems that many artists strive for just the opposite — creating things that shock us as abnormal and hideous rather than lovely. Paul implies that such is not healthy for our personal sanctification. We are to set our eyes upon that which is beautiful and lovely because it seeks to approximate the beauty of the created order to the glory of God. The abnormal that is prevalent in our culture simply reflects the rebellion against God of our times and the chaos that ensues. From this influence we should flee.