Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Off the shelf: The Creative Call

As I’ve been working through the idea of the arts as soulcraft, I’ve received some great thoughts and ideas from people – and I’ve found several books to be interesting. Janice Elsheimer’s The Creative Call popped up on several recommended reading lists, so I went straight to the library website and put a hold on it, hoping it would give insight.

Elsheimer’s book is more a practical workbook than a detailed treatise of theology. She aims her writing not so much at the professional artist as at the individual who used to play music in high school and college, but dropped it for more practical things. In many ways, her book is more like a Christian perspective on the very popular The Artist’s Way. Elsheimer rightly recognizes that there’s a lot of vague “spirituality” talk in books about reclaiming creative powers – but very little talk about the specifics of working out your art in relationship with the living savior Christ. She aims to correct that imbalance:

“Most artists see creativity and spiritual growth as intimately related, but Christian artists go a step further. They understand the need to reconnect our talents back to their source: the God who created us and who calls us to become a cocreator with him. The Creative Call offers Christians a point of view and an approach that is consistent with Christ’s teachings. Instead of hoping that finding ourselves will result in practicing art again, we need to realize that only through losing ourselves and becoming reliant upon God can we discover how to use those gifts the way he wants us to use them. We will find the artist God intends us to be when we empty ourselves of self and become open to his plan and to the inspiration of his Holy Spirit. Only then will we experience personal artistic revival.”

As such, this book isn’t a theology of aesthetics – it is a series of exercises designed to help people overcome barriers from their past and learn to exercise their creativity. She begins with a basic framework of all humans being made as creative beings in the image of God – and then she moves on through concepts of learning to listen, awakening to what God is stirring within, exercising forgiveness (for past rejection that may have led to stopping creative effort), breathing in (taking in material), breathing out (producing material), time management, and simplification. Through each chapter, she gives several exercises and cites numerous sources (possibly one of the more valuable resources of this book are the sources she cites – a ready list of where to go for deeper information). The book ends with a blueprint for a personal retreat in which one can launch one’s new artistic endeavors.

This book is meant to be used for the exercises. Thus, there’s not new information here – rather a deliberate arrangement of material from a host of other sources. It’s essentially a course workbook that could be useful for a group setting. Thus, Elsheimer gives us lots of practical tips about clearing the mind to do art. And these tips reveal insight into how the arts can advance sanctification. For instance, when talking about the idea of the “artist’s daybook”, Elsheimer acknowledges that journaling isn’t a new idea -- but she presents it not just as a technical exercise of recording ideas and working out thoughts – it’s also a spiritual discipline for working out prayers, recording insights on scripture, and pouring out the things on our mind so that we can more readily attend to our relationship with God. She also emphasizes scripture memory as a key ingredient in “listening” – listening to God’s call upon our lives. “Learning to hear God’s voice despite the cacophony of our everyday lives is something that will take time. Reading his Word, memorizing passages that speak to our desire to reawaken the artist within us, and writing regularly in our artist’s daybook are ways of quieting our minds so that we can hear God’s voice as we offer our words to him.” (35) Immediately we see how the regular discipline of working in the daybook involves self-control and patience – and the subjection of the creative impulse to the encounter with the word of the Living God will result in growth of other spiritual fruit alongside the development of creative material.

Similarly, in her chapter on breathing in (taking in material), she talks about paying attention to the details and wonder of the world. This is a basic need for any artist – to see the details that most of us miss. However Elsheimer takes this to a different level by reminding us that we are attending to the handiwork of the God whom we worship. Attending to the details and wonder is attending to the craftsmanship of the Lord. She quotes Annie Lamott: “There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation…to see everything as an outward and visible sign of inward, invisible grace.” And thus we see the spiritual fruit of Joy – developing the capacity to rejoice in all the handiwork of the Lord.

The chapters on making time and simplifying rehash much of the same work that can be found in any time management text. However, in the context of the book, they remind us that our use of time and use of things are intimately related to our vocation and to our spiritual life – thus calling us to a greater exercise of self-control. I would have liked to see more about dependence on the Holy Spirit to help us accomplish these goals.

All said, a helpful book for the right audience. Not intellectually too challenging, but practical in its application.

Soli Deo Gloria