|A review of
Review by Sarah Winfrey.
While working on my novel the other day, I had an unusual experience. My characters were talking along, when one of them said something profound. It wasn’t the profundity of her words that surprised me, but rather the fact that what she said wasn’t something I knew, or at least wasn’t something I could have articulated before she said it. In fact, her words seemed to come from someplace other than myself, somewhere outside of me.
Artists and other creative people, as well as those who enjoy their works, have long touted the close relationship between spirituality and creative endeavors. This is especially true among Christians, who like to talk about creativity coming directly from the Holy Spirit, as one of His many gifts. According to these people, what happened with my character wasn’t as unusual as it felt in that moment, but is actually commonplace among those who spend much time practicing art.
In Creator Spirit, Steven R. Guthrie attempts to examine these creative experiences, not necessarily to illuminate the creative process, though some of that happens along the way, but to see what we can learn about the Spirit through these experiences.
To begin this ambitious project, Guthrie first sets out to examine the different ways that people think (or have thought) art and spirituality are related and to evaluate these from a Christian perspective. In chapter 1, he examines whether art and spirituality are related because both take us to a place beyond words, ushering us into a space where we can worship and commune free from the limits of language. In chapter 2, he wonders if art and spirituality are connected because both allow human persons to express the deepest parts of themselves.
Continuing in this vein, chapter 3 looks at whether art is often described as “spiritual” because it helps us see beyond the world of matter and helps us see essences instead of physicality. Chapter 4 notes that art, especially music, is a common part of human religious practice, and wonders if this ability to give form to the shared life of a community is what brings the two ides together.
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 go together to look at an idea that is ancient but still popular: that an artist is literally a conduit for the divine, and that he must set himself aside (or the power creating through him must thrust him aside) in order for any creative work to get done. Chapter 8 is related to this, examining discernment – the ability to sense a spiritual meaning in everything – as the deciding factor that makes someone either an artist or a spiritual master.
Finally, in chapters 9 and 10, Guthrie looks for eschatological connections between art and spirituality, specifically examining the concept that an artist is someone who has caught a glimpse of heaven and feels compelled to share it with the rest of humanity. As part of this discussion, he looks at whether beauty is spiritual, and what exactly that could mean for Christians everywhere.
In each of his chapters or sections, Guthrie not only examines the connection between art and spirituality, but then uses that connection (or lack thereof, as he finds in a few spots) to illuminate who the Holy Spirit is and how He works. It’s all about the Spirit for Guthrie, and the connections to art and creativity, while interesting in and of themselves, serve mostly to provide him fodder to expound on pneumatology.
While truly “Spirit-ual” things, like the best art, do take us beyond words, Guthrie concludes that this doesn’t mean we cannot say anything useful or fruitful about these things. Since Christians have a relationship with the Spirit and communication is at the center of relationship, we should be able to talk to and about the Spirit in a coherent, cogent way. In fact, that is what many artists try to do through their work.
He also determines that, while both creative and spiritual things do take us to the deepest parts of ourselves, these are also our most human parts, which include all aspects of our being. Instead of separating essence from physical, the Spirit connects us to all parts of our selves. The Spirit also connects us to each other, often through music, which us a demonstration of the true unity and community that God desires for His people.
When he looks at the artist as the conduit for the divine, Guthrie makes some important distinctions. His artist does not have to set aside himself to communicate the things of God, but instead is gifted with his skills by God, through the Spirit. As he moves into deeper relationship with God, the artist is invited to give to others these things that have been given to him. Thus, the Spirit and the artist work together, with the art belonging as much to the artist as to God.
Finally, Guthrie concludes that artistic practice is one way to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in all things, and thus to see the beauty that God has put in the world. When he shares these things, the artist, in some ways, shares an eschatological vision which allows others to see how the world should be, and how it will be redeemed.
As a creative person myself, I wanted this book to be more specifically about art. I appreciated Guthrie’s insights into who the Spirit is and how He works, but I wanted the rest of the story. Given what he’s said about the Spirit, what does that mean for artists? What exactly is the connection between this newly-illuminated Spirit and those moments of artistic inspiration? While Guthrie touches on these questions, he never lands there long enough to satisfy the creative soul, and that seems a loss for both book and readers.
At the same time, using places of connection and overlap between the Spirit and art make theology accessible to creative people in a way that it often is not. While it’s not possible to make a general statement about every creative out there, it’s unusual to find someone who both makes art, either vocationally or avocationally, and interacts deeply with theological texts. However, if creativity is as closely connected to the Spirit as Guthrie seems to think, these are the very people who need at least some basic pneumatology, and Guthrie gives it to them in ways that they will be more likely to understand.
In some ways, Guthrie’s approach here is revolutionary in the realm of pneumatology. Instead of looking at Scripture and trying to figure out what it means in the practicalities of creative life, Guthrie looks at artists’ experiences and then scours Scripture to make sense of them. While there are dangers in this approach, Guthrie is a careful and methodical theologian, even as he reveals himself as a deeply intuitive creator as well. He reward for taking an alternate route is new language for describing the work of the Holy Spirit.
For those looking for a fresh perspective on the Holy Spirit, Creator Spirit is a book that will provide much food for thought. While most of the insights themselves are not new, Guthrie’s novel approach of examining the Spirit in light of His relationship to art and creativity presents them in a new light and this may help readers incorporate truths into their own lives or put concepts together in a way that they had not done before.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com