On Good Art
During my first week at Oxford, I did what any Narnia and Hobbit loving human would do---I walked my literary ass to the Eagle and Child. This pub on Magdalen Street, referred to by locals as the Bird and Baby, is a quaint Oxonian pub famous for hosting the Inklings, an informal literary discussion group that included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Hugo Dyson. I practically floated across the threshold where, only a few decades before, Clive Staples and John Ronald Reuel themselves graced the entrance. I ordered my pint and settled into a cozy private room with cushioned chairs, dim lighting, and a fireplace—also known as a ‘snug.’
In a place like Oxford, your brain involuntarily thinks more deeply and whimsically. If Lewis could imagine Narnia or if Tolkien could create Middle Earth between lectures, anything is possible.
For the entire month that I was in Oxford, the Weston library featured a free Tolkien exhibit, complete with interactive maps of Middle Earth, handwritten letters between Tolkien and his wife Edith, Tolkien’s original watercolor illustrations for the Hobbit, and his absent minded but intricate doodles on napkins or corners of newspapers. One thing was clear: Tolkien was a natural-born creator. He scribbled the opening line of the Hobbit on the corner of a student’s test, spent his free time developing the Elvish language, was constantly adding to the topography of Middle Earth, and wielded an entire mythology for the universe of Ea (home to Valinor, Beleriand, Numenor, and Middle-earth). Each winter he even wrote detailed letters to his kids from Father Christmas, complete with wild stories from the North Pole and illustrations of reindeer. It’s as if he couldn’t keep words and characters and colors from falling out of his head. I wouldn’t be surprised if they almost tormented him, badgering his brain until he let them out.
Although I didn’t know Tolkien personally, I get a deep sense that he didn’t create for fame or validation. He created because it was fun, because there’s no high quite like seeing an entire world of your own creation come to life.
When Tolkien tested the limits of his creativity, he found that they were virtually limitless, and I can’t help but believe this sheer delight and capacity for creativity is deeply human. Something within all of us. I believe we are all created beings, made in the image of a wildly brilliant and creative God. It makes sense that we would inherit qualities of our Creator, namely His creativity.
We are more alive when we’re creating because it’s part of who we are. In a way, we are meta-creators, created-beings that come alive when we are creating, fulfilling a limitless potential within all of us.
A few weeks ago, I went for a hike with some new friends. We took the 1 Train north to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and spent hours talking and walking and asking each other questions. Somehow we got on the topic of books and our favorite authors. We all have similar tastes and admire kindred authors: Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle---brilliant minds, nuanced thinkers, and creative writers with original ideas. One friend brought up the topic of Christian writers, and we all rolled our eyes, annoyed with the amount of bad art marketed to Christian audiences today. Bad music, bad writing, bad films. It’s not all bad, but let’s be honest, a lot of it is. We agreed that Christians, of all people, should be the front runners in the art world; those intimately connected with their Creator should be making the best art. That’s not always the case.
But God has a way of revealing Himself in the least looked-for place. In publishing houses, in horror movies, in rap lyrics, in poetry, in wall murals, in graffiti. This is where the good art is. It’s out in the world. And even though it seems like Christian culture is missing most of it, I love how the best art is being enjoyed by people who would otherwise turn their backs on Him. That’s so like Jesus---bringing light and hope to the dark and hopeless.
God is a God of creativity. Of good art. And that extends beyond the bounds of Christian culture. He is in the intellectualism of a university, the musician’s apartment, the fashion designer’s studio, the model’s pose. He pursues us all, everywhere, whether we know it or not. We are all equally un-deserving, yet He is equally loving and forgiving. Creativity is His gift to us, and I love that good art can show up anywhere. Human beings, when we create, can’t help but reflect and worship Him.