Where Does Creativity Come From?
Every now and then, Greek mythology gets something right. But it never gets it completely right. Some ancient legends speak of certain firm aspects of reality. This shouldn’t be a true shock to the Christian. All truth is God’s truth. And what I think is true, at least to some extent, is the notion of what the poets called “the muse”. The muses were nine daughters, offspring of the union between Mnemosyne (goddess of memory) and Zeus (father-king of the gods). The muses existed to inspire the artists. They distilled creativity to mankind.
I don’t hold to the reality of these creatures. But I do cling with white knuckles to the ancient reality they depict. And that reality spawns this question, “where does creativity come from?” Is it an innate ability of man, the product of a boundless imagination? Or is creativity something alien to us, something that sneaks in through the backdoor or descends like a dragon to shake the dry leaves in us all?
The sheer existence of creativity in us originates in God the Creator’s artistry. He is the bright epicenter of art. We create only because He creates. This marvelous correlation is derived from what the theologians call the imago dei, the image of God. Genesis 1:26 tells us that God created us, male and female, in the image of God, after His own likeness. This means that all the non-communicable attributes of the triune God permeate humanity. God loves, and so we can love. God hates, so we can hate. God is a self-sustained community, we require community to sustain ourselves. God has creativity, we have creativity. The shareable traits of God are reflected, albeit poorly and brokenly, in every human. This is what it means to bear God’s image.
Besides this, we ourselves are works of art. The apostle Paul, writing to the saints at Ephesus, called them God’s workmanship (Eph.2:10). The Greek word used there for workmanship is “poiema”, from which we get our English word “poem”. Effectively, Paul calls us the poetry of God. Speaking with respect to the creation of man, the poet David wrote that God has “crowned him with glory and honor” (Ps.8:5b).
Now, we can readily spread out the question of creativity and roll in it like pigs in the mud. I’m going to attempt to show from Scripture that 1.) creativity is a gift from God, 2.) skill is needed in the cultivation of creativity, and 3.) God gives creativity to the righteous and to the unrighteous. I intend to show that God is the muse.
Creativity is a Gift from God
In the Old Testament, the tent of meeting and all its accoutrements (the ark of the testimony, the lampstand, altars, utensils, etc.) were products of God-given creativity. In Exodus 31:1-11, God gives the job of creating these objects to two men: Bezalel and Oholiab. I encourage the artisans and the curious to read Ex.36:8-39:43 to see they actually created all in their charge.
In the Exodus 31 account, we see that both Bezalel and Oholiab were called and appointed by God for their work. He sets them apart as the artists. And not only did God fill these two Israelites with His Spirit, He also funneled into them “ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft” (31:3-5, ESV). This must be picked apart with pleasure.
First, they are given ability. That is, they are given unique skills, physical dexterity of the hand, with which they can shape their materials. This is a rare example in which particular technique descends on humanity like a dove. I will discuss the role of skill later, as this does not seem to be the norm in Scripture, but here, it is clearly a gift from God.
Then, God gave Bezalel and Oholiab intelligence, “with knowledge and all craftsmanship”. So, not only are these men physically capable of creating works of art, but God lavished on them such a mindset “to devise artistic designs.” He gave the inspiration for their art. So, both the technique and the creativity for making the art, in weaving, metalwork, sculpting, carpentry, and “every craft” are delivered to Bezalel and Oholiab.
However, when God gives the inspiration for art, this is not to say that art is inspired in the same way that the Scriptures are inspired. In 1 Chronicles 25, we see that Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman (three Levites) all used to prophesy with musical instruments. The Hebrew word there for prophesy means “to be in prophetic ecstasy, to speak as a prophet, to play (an instrument) while filled with (prophetic) spirit”. So, while their songs were not inerrant and infallible, it appears that their artistic designs were the distinct products of the Spirit’s promptings.
On the other hand, the inspired Scriptures are flawless and pure, the very breath of God. Art is more the breath of God, breathed through our lungs of dust. It is imperfect, it is second-hand, and it is merely a reflection of the work of the Creator. But still, it can .move us to tears in all its blemished beauty.
The Exodus 31 account is a strange narrative in that it makes skill and technique to be as quickly given as creativity. Even though creativity is given by God (and I’ll explain this more in the next section), skill is not so easily obtained. One may have that sudden inspiration, that moment of sublime and utter revelation, but without skill, the lump of clay is just a lump of clay. For all the good intentions and artistic designs upon it, the raw material will remain unmoved and unimpressive in all its sober indelicacy. Skill must be cultivated and applied.
And so God has ordained that there be tools to express creativity. How can creativity be implemented, cultivated, set loose upon the world with any semblance of subtlety and beauty? Skill has to be called into action. Skill is the nurturer, the protector, the guide of creativity. Like a chisel with a slab of marble, it trains and instructs the artistic design in the mind of the creator until the finished artwork is presented to the awe of admirers.
Consider Asaph. There are five guys named Asaph in the Bible, so I’m forced to be particular. The Asaph I’m referring to was a Levite, of the tribe of Israelites who managed the worship of God. In 1 Chronicles 15, David brings the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem at the head of a laughing parade. In this parade, the Levites with musical instruments are commanded to play (loudly, I might add) in vociferous celebration. Asaph was a singer who banged some bronze cymbals (1 Chron.15:19). Never once have I envied him that gig.
Asaph was a musician of great skill. At the end of 1 Chronicles 25, we see that the Levites had established some system of musical training. The teachers taught the pupils. As Asaph was one of the chief Levites in charge of worship, it’s reasonable to assume that he was skilled enough to be a music teacher to the younger Levites.
We always think of King David as the Psalmist, but Asaph was also a skilled songwriter in his own right. Centuries later, when King Hezekiah was reforming Judah, he reinstated the Temple services which had fallen into decadence. Spearheading this liturgical resurgence was music. According to 2 Chron.29:30, Hezekiah ordered that “the psalms of David and Asaph the seer” by sung in celebration of the renewed worship.
Somehow, in the space of two hundred and three hundred years, Asaph had become a legend, on par with David. He obviously had invested time and sweat into honing his craft. In Hezekiah’s day, Asaph had been referred to as a seer or a prophet. Obviously, he had developed other skills besides percussion. In fact, he seems to have gained a reputation for quality. 1 Chronicles describes how Asaph and his family become one of the three clans who coordinate the music in the temple (25:1-9).
In addition, Asaph wrote psalms. He wrote twelve of these sacred songs (Pss.50, 73-83). In most Bibles, Psalm 74 and 78 contain this superscript under each title: “a maskil of Asaph”. If your Bible has a footnote here, it probably explains at the bottom of the page (where all the other lonely riddles are confined) that the “maskil” is likely a term of musical or liturgical nature. It’s at this point that I throw up my hands and storm out of the room. That’s it? That’s all that can be said?
After licking my wounds, I did a small bit of research. I was compelled onward by a real need to know what kind of artist Asaph was. I was happy to find that the NET Bible had the following helpful illumination on this mythic word, the maskil:
“The meaning of the Hebrew term מַשְׂכִּיל (maskil) is uncertain. The word is derived from a verb meaning “to be prudent; to be wise.” Various options are: “a contemplative song,” “a song imparting moral wisdom,” or “a skillful [i.e., well-written] song”. The term occurs in the superscriptions of Pss 32, 42, 44, 45, 52-55, 74, 78, 88, 89, and 142, as well as in Ps 47:7.”
Out of the ashes of uncertainty rises the phoenix of clarity! So, a maskil is a song that could be introspective, insightful (remember that Asaph was later thought of as a seer), or just a song that is good. In any case, it seems to me that to write a maskil, one would need to possess considerable skill and understanding. And as we’ve seen, sudden mastery (or even sudden competence) is not the norm. Excellence (unlike creative inspiration) doesn’t usually fall from heaven to take one’s breath away. Even Jesus grew into a competent carpenter (Luke 2:52). Skill is a gradual, ever-sharpening thing.
I look at the artists I respect the most and see a marked difference between their early work and their later work. Whatever you may think of Beethoven’s earlier symphonies, it took him much time and toil before he could write something as sublime as the Ninth. The rough drafts and early tinkering of T.S. Eliot are, frankly, embarrassing. Even Michelangelo, at one time, made mud pies before he ever dreamed of bathing the Sistine Chapel ceiling in wonder.
Of course, there are those whom we refer to as prodigies, men and women who frolic where the rest of us labor. Skill is to them what heat is to the sun. It is what they exude, what they exist in (J.S. Bach comes to mind). But even for the geniuses, there were baby steps. They had to learn to use their hands just like Asaph and just like the rest of us. And it is through process that heir God-given creativity grew and was nurtured.
Creativity Is a Gift to All
Creativity is good. It is an attribute of God. It is one of the attributes of God that is also shared by all of mankind. James 1:17 states that every good and perfect gift is from God. Everything in reality that is truly and purely good has its sole origin in the Creator. Scripture is emphatic on this point: all that we have, we received from God (Ps.85:12; Matt.7:11; John 3:27; 1 Cor.4:7). But God does give good things only to those who love Him. Even sinners do that. Indeed, that would be too small a thing.
Jesus said that we should love our enemies for the very fact that God sends the rain for their benefit, not only for ours (Matt.5:44-46). Those who don’t love God also enjoy the sunshine. This touches on a doctrine taught in Scripture called common grace. It’s one of my favorite truths. Grace has two sides. One side is called salvific grace, the grace that is given freely by God to bring spiritual salvation to humanity. The other realm of grace is common. Common grace has nothing to do with salvation, but everything to do with God’s free gifts bestowed upon mankind. Common grace is evidenced in the world physically, intellectually, and morally.
So, if creativity is a good gift and all good gifts are from God, and God sends good gifts to all people as an act of common grace, then creativity is a means of common grace, given to all people.
It is true that creativity can be abused and perverted by anyone. Any and all of the aspects of God are mirrored in humanity as in a glass and darkly. We are broken by sin and therefore, God’s image in us is distorted and subjected to twisting. Nevertheless, simply because creativity can be abused should not discredit the truth that God gives it to all people. After all, anger and emotions and desires can be marred just as easily, though they too are good gifts from God. Creativity should not be divided into the two categories of godly and ungodly. It is all a gift from God. It is all sacred. It is merely filtered and utilized differently by different hearts, depending on the locus of those hearts’ affections.
God is the Muse
The poets of old were so close. They knew that creativity had been given to mankind from a higher source. They knew that there was some being responsible for the insight and imagination of the human mind. And how right they were! But it is the real God of the heavens and earth, the Creator God, Yahweh Himself, who is the source of every artistic design and impulse. What those ancient poets worshipped as unknown, this I proclaim as known. It is the God of all good things, the God of all satisfaction who gives the artist his inspiration. In no uncertain terms, God is the muse.
Holliday, William L., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament
 http://net.bible.org/bible.php?book=Psa&chapter=32#n2, 2005-2009. 12 Jan. 2009
 Gen.39:5; Ps.145:9, 15-16; Acts 14:16-17
 John 1:9; Rom.1:21; Acts 17:22-23
 2 Chron.24:17-25; Rom.1:32, 2:14-15; Luke 6:33
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