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Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist
By Manuel Luz, Elizabeth Newenhuyse
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2009 Manuel Luz
All rights reserved.
God the Artist
Made in His Image
"Daddy, draw me a horse."
So begins a typical scene in my home. One of my twin daughters, Rachel or Paige, will appear beside me with a colored marker pen and a sheet of paper, and ask me to become Artist Daddy. Most of the time, it's not difficult. Horses, stars, dogs, cats, and flowers are typical requests from six-year-old girls, and they measure the quality of my work not by its realism, but by whether or not the characters are smiling. In a former life, I was a cartoonist for my college newspaper. So I accept the challenge. I take the pen from her delicate fingers, smooth out her crumpled paper, and draw.
The result is part caricature, part cave drawing, but she is delighted nonetheless. "Thanks, Daddy," she will offer politely. And then she will muse, "Her name is ... um ... Buttercup." And then she will color it and add green grass, a yellow sun in the corner, and eyelashes (because this is how little girls distinguish girl horsies from boy horsies).
This, to me, is a picture of the first chapter of Genesis. God the Father is also God the Creator. It is not just what He does; it is more precisely who He is. It is not a gig for Him; it is inherent in His very nature. And because He is the Creator, the Artist God, He must stretch the canvas of infinite emptiness around Him, and wish for more. Then, from the eternal imagination that is His nature, He begins to paint: galaxies, nebulae, capacious, dynamic kaleidoscopes of light and energy and mass, churning and coagulating at His fingertips. Mass yields to gravity, atoms become molecules, stars begin their intricate dance. Cosmos comes from chaos. And by His very will, the Artist God paints the universe we know and understand and live in.
We create because we are made in the image of the Creator. We simply cannot help it.
Then He stands back. He puts down His palette, cleans His brush, examines the easel. He smells the wet acrylic, feels the interplay of colors on the canvas. He takes it all in, and then He slowly smiles. And then He calls it "good."
But He is not done yet. He calls on His creation, that which is humanity, that which is privileged to experience the wonder of it all, and invites him to participate in this creation. Abba God calls Adam to His side, and then gives him a job to do: to name the animals. And in so doing, He calls us to be creative ourselves. The created becomes creator, the art becomes artist. We are invited into the mystery of His inborn aesthetic.
Genesis says that we are made in His image. This is more profound than we know. We are made with intellects, with the amazing capacity to understand and ponder and offer explanations about the world around us. We have sentience, the awareness of our own being and a consciousness of the universe. We have the ability to build machines, create cities, form entire civilizations, and then destroy them. We can philosophize, moralize, theorize, and know good and evil. And we are made not just as physical beings, but as spiritual beings as well. We are made with a capacity to love as He loved. To have free will, as He has free will. To choose the course of our own lives. And also, to create as He creates. To express ourselves in artistic and imaginative ways. In short, we are artists because He is an artist.
Thus, as artists, we are endowed with both the ability and the desire to create, and the ability to derive pleasure from it. We create because we are made in the image of the Creator. We simply cannot help it. This is why Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel. This is why Homer told his stories. This is why Shakespeare penned his dramas. This is why David played the ten-string lyre. This is why children draw and play-act and imagine.
That is who we are: artists. Children of the Creator. We grasp at sunsets and attempt to paint them. We hear the sound of the ocean and compose sonnets in its honor. We see the autumn swans dance, and we dance. And we draw horses named Buttercup.
Discovering the Passion
When I was a little boy, more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be a concert pianist. Of course, more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be a police officer and an astronaut and Spider-Man. Still, my mind was consumed in a fascination for classical music. Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schroeder were my idols. Liberace was my antichrist. And by the age of thirteen, Bach had become my hero.
My parents tell me that I first began to take lessons when I was almost five. My first piano teacher was a little old prunelike lady named Mrs. Branoni. I would extrapolate ten-second minuets like "Putt Putt the Speed Boat" for her as we sat perched on the piano bench, my legs dangling, her toes keeping time. Occasionally, she would nod off, only to be awakened when I asked her a question. And if I played well, she would stick a silver or gold star on the page. I liked that a lot.
From that time until I was fourteen, I banged away on an oversized, out-of-tune mahogany upright, putt-putting through a dozen piano teachers along the way. I loved that piano, loved the sound that it made, loved the control I had of it, loved the security of being behind it. In good ways and in bad, it became a part of my identity.
I played my piano noncommittally, never putting a lot of thought or effort into it, never needing to. From the time I can remember, I'd always had this magical ability to play almost anything on the piano that I could hum. Seriously, I thought I had composed "Heart and Soul" when I was six.
Then came Professor Krauss. Professor Krauss was a stocky German with square features and big, burly hands that played with mesmerizing authority and exactitude. He was a passionate man, passionate about this thing called music. And the passion was contagious.
Twice a month, he drove his Mercedes diesel from Carmel Valley to my home on the poor side of Salinas to teach this short, fat, twelve-year-old Filipino kid with glasses. He challenged me, opened my mind, opened my heart. There was something inside me that awoke during that time, something that helped me transcend the ordinariness of my life. Without knowing it, Professor Krauss changed my life.
One day, he brought me a skinny yellow book filled with lots and lots of notes. They were called "Inventions" and they were written by a guy named Johann, which I thought was oddly cool. Bach was a different kind of guy. There was something about him, not just the precision of his work, but the emotion that lay within it. It was only later that I discovered that the passion of his music came from his faith. Johann Sebastian Bach—artist, composer, keyboard innovator, definer of his genre—was first and foremost a worshiper of the Living God. Everything he did was for God's honor, and not his own: "The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul." One day I hope to meet him in heaven. Maybe take a lesson or two.
Under the tutelage of Professor Krauss, I learned discipline and control, dexterity and nuance. I learned the craft. And I caught the passion. Two years later, he had to leave, but not without a last word: "Keep pragtizing your finger egzercises, yah? Like dis, yah?" And I do. To this day.
That was three decades ago. Since then, I have moved on from my puppy-dog love affair with classical music. There was rock and roll—naive and exciting like a teenage crush—which my brothers and I discovered on the AM band of the living room stereo. Then came jazz—like the bad girl who flirts with you when you're on a date—and I learned that the rules of music were made to be broken. I have played pop, soul, country, blues, Dixieland, big band, reggae, R&B, church music, smooth jazz, and trash rock and roll. I've played in cover bands, coffeehouse groups, marching bands, symphonic bands, fusion bands, and garage bands. And whatever the style, the passion remains.
I have come to realize that this passion is more than just a hobby. I believe it was put inside of me from the moment I was born. It was in me when I climbed on a piano bench for the first time. It was in me when I took clarinet lessons. It was in me when I played my first solo, wrote my first song, recorded my first demo, formed my first band, produced my first album, first sang a song in the shower. It is in me today. Because I don't just play music; I am a musician. I don't do art; I am an artist. More than just what I do, it is who I am. That is who God made me to be.
"For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.... My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (Psalm 139:13, 15–16).
This is the way for everyone, I believe. We are all artists, fashioned by the Artist, to create, reveal, and interpret the world. Some of us have more skill or talent or ability than others. But all of us have this innate artistic predisposition within us, placed there by the Creator. Some of us have just never found the passion. And that is a shame.
I didn't become a cop. I didn't work for NASA. I wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider. But I do believe that God made me with a passion for music. And I must be true to that.
The Artist Incarnate
Someone asked me once if Jesus Christ had been an artist. "Good question," I replied.
We talked about the vocation of His stepfather, Joseph of Nazareth, who was not only "a righteous man" (Matthew 1:19), but also a carpenter, a craftsman of wood. The carpenter, rather than today's modern notion of the carpenter as house builder, was more so a craftsman, a skilled artisan. Not so much a hammerer of nails, but more a shaper of wood. It was an artistic craft that took many years of training to master.
We talked about how it is the Jewish custom (as in many pre-modern cultures) to pass on one's skills to the sons, and how the natural implications of that custom would have impacted this firstborn son. It would have been the responsibility of Joseph to pass on the skills of the trade to Jesus, in order that his son would have a vocation and a future. So although nothing is said of Joseph's relationship with his stepson, one would assume that Jesus knew the craft from an early age and that it was the vocational context upon which He saw life.
We talked about a wonderful quote I read once in Madeleine L'Engle's book Walking on Water, which read: "Jesus was not a theologian. He was God who told stories." That is not to say that Jesus was not wise nor learned, as evidenced in the account of Luke, for he says of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, "Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:47). But He was not a theoretician, one who systematizes and extrapolates and publishes. Instead, He told parables, Truth so practical and real and profound that it confounded the Pharisees and delighted the crowds and cut to the very essence of being.
The Lost Coin. The Prodigal Son. The House on the Sand. The Mustard Seed. The Sower. The Pearl of Great Price. The Plank in Your Eye. The Lilies of the Field. The Lost Sheep. The Bread Which Was His Body. The Wine Which Was His Blood.
Jesus was speaking of unfathomable mysteries. And the words we have invented to unravel these mysteries—words like propitiation, incarnation, atonement, ecclesiology, grace—are simply too small and inadequate to fully describe and explain the truth. And maybe our brains are just a little too small to fully understand them anyway. So when He spoke, it was necessary to use the art of words—metaphors and similes and parables—to more adequately express the depth of truth that is the cosmic drama. As if this mortal life we live were simply a metaphor for some larger eternal life He invites us to.
Jesus was a master of the parable, the simile, the metaphor. He spoke Truth wrapped in the art of storytelling. The eternal Word, speaking the Truth of the Word, with the art of words.
And we talked about John's poetic extension of Genesis 1, a revelation of the person of Jesus, which is found in his first chapter: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:1–3; see also Colossians 1:15–17 and 1 Corinthians 8:6). Jesus is eternal, one in essence with the Eternal Father and Eternal Spirit. Jesus was not only present in the act of creation, but the act of creation happened through Him.
Being an artist is not just about what you do, but also how you live your life.
This is so deep as to be astounding. The creative muse of the Trinity mysteriously and inexplicably poured through the Person of the pre-incarnate Son. Was it Jesus who said, "The sun shall be yellow" and "the sky shall be blue"? Did He give peanut butter its taste, and the hummingbird its flight? Was He the inventor of the dimensions, of length and breadth and height and time? Was He the creator of the sun and moon and planets, and the choreographer of their cosmic spirographic dance?
And finally, He was God in the flesh. He was the Incarnation, the fleshing out of Deity. He was the human personification and embodiment of God Himself. In the act of incarnation, through birth and life and death and resurrection, He indwelled that which He Himself created. So He was the Artist who was literally present within His Art.
Was Jesus an Artist? I believe He was. But not only by vocation. Maybe by Inspiration. He lived His entire life—His relationships, His ministry, His calling—as an art. He lived and loved deeply and with passion. He lived from the heart. I'd like to believe that He was an artist, manifesting this descriptor physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Because being an artist is not just about what you do, but also how you live your life.
Learning to Live in the Mystery
One of the Christmastime traditions my wife and I established with our children when they were young was looking at the Christmas lights around our community. Bundled up under blankets in our minivan (the twenty-first-century version of the horse-drawn sleigh), the entire family would go driving down one street and up another, looking at all the decorated houses in our neighborhood.
Kids don't look up at the clouds anymore and imagine bunnies and minnows.
And people would go all out. Life-sized reindeer. Nativity scenes. Santas coming down chimneys. Snowmen with top hats and pipes. Candy canes lining people's driveways. And lights. Lots and lots of lights. The more the lights, the more we'd "ooh" and "aah." Then we'd drive back to our house and have hot cocoa.
It was in their third Christmas that my twins, Rachel and Paige, were old enough to really appreciate the event. And that they did. Through their little three-year-old eyes, our neighborhood was a magical and amazing place. Every house glowed like fresh-baked gingerbread. Trees glistened like the moonlight on fresh-fallen snow. And everywhere there were lights, Rachel and Paige announced excitedly, "Ommagosh, it's bootiful."
It was extremely entertaining listening to them. They must have said it two hundred times. And every time they made this startling declaration, they really, really meant it. "Ommagosh, it's bootiful." "Ommagosh, it's bootiful." "Ommagosh! It's bootiful!!!" I never got tired of hearing them say it. It was as if each street was a new adventure in awe and wonder.
I think we've forgotten what real awe is. Our high-tech, computer-generated, virtual-reality, angst-ridden, dysfunctional world has taken much of the mystery and wonder out of life. Kids don't look up at the clouds anymore and imagine bunnies and minnows; after all, they studied precipitation in third grade. They don't take much time imagining dinosaurs; there are any number of movies out there that have imagined them for us already. Science—which teaches theory as fact and conjecture as theory—has erased all of the mysteries. Just ask any kid and he'll tell you: the very mysteries of the universe are carefully and regularly explained in half-hour segments on the Discovery Channel.
My sons aren't nearly as impressed by the sight of a rainbow as I used to be when I was their age. Or as I am still.
Things I used to be in awe of when I was a little kid: Purple mountains. Big telescopes. Airplanes. Thunder. Pretty girls. Lighthouses. Big bass drums. Red fire trucks. Stoplights. Crossword puzzles. Our first color television. Walking on the moon. Snow. The doctor's office. Policemen. Sousaphones. The pyramids. Rockets. Big cities. The redwoods. The stars on a cloudless night sky.
Excerpted from Imagine That by Manuel Luz, Elizabeth Newenhuyse. Copyright © 2009 Manuel Luz. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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