Epic Theology

Finding God through the lens of an artist



A Challenge to Creativity

I’m now officially back in school for the winter 2014 term. I have had my first class in a couple of my courses, and I haven’t been this excited for school in quite some time. Not only are the professors some of my favourites, but the courses going to be more exploratory than rote memorization. In my class on the Psalms, for instance, one of my projects is to do something artistic (or write a paper on something artistic) that relates to one or more of the Psalms! So cool!

However, after taking a couple hours to think about this project, I became overwhelmed by the vast array of options available. Do I write and perform a drama piece? Do I write something bigger and get other people involved? Do I do a photography set? Do I write a paper comparing the Psalms to video game? The options continued to flow, each one just as exciting as the others.

This brings me to my topic for today: the problem with too little structure in the creative process.

As artists, we tend to like to push the boundaries a little. We like to see what happens when people are made to be uncomfortable. We like to see exactly what lies on the other side of the line we are told not to cross. We like to have room to be creative!

However, this is a situation where more is not better. Some space to play is great! A lot of space to play ruins the game. Without lines to cross, we can lose interest, or become overwhelmed by the options laid before us. I love the raw creative potential of sandboxes, but the beach is less exciting.

I’ve read before that structure and limits breed creativity. They focus our creative powers so that they are all aimed in one direction. They stop our boundless energy from going in all directions, and allow us to spend this energy solving whatever problem we are faced with.

This is why I have never really liked sandbox video games. They offer a boatload of options, but very little direction. You can spend a day exploring, or talking to people, or fighting bad guys, or whatever you want. But purpose seems to be lost. I would rather have a compelling story that I am brought into over having all the options that the real world offers.

So, what does this mean for us artists? I think they may be times when we need to apply limitations to our own work. We need to be “the man” who holds us back from unleashing our entire creative prowess. Maybe the limits we impose are completely arbitrary: the two characters in this play can never leave the stage; I can only use two colours in this painting of the city; I will write this poem in iambic pentameter despite it having nothing to do with Elizabethan poetry. See what happens when you cut yourself off from your normal process.

When we do this, when we divert our efforts from our normal artistic engagement, we are forced to explore and learn new paths, and true creativity can be released. Trust yourself in this. You are an artist for a reason. We can become great artists by pushing ourselves within the boundaries of our art, whether they are imposed on us by others or by ourselves.

What kind of fences can you put in the way of your art this week? Let us know. Maybe others can find just the limiting inspiration that they need to create their next masterpiece.


Creative Rituals

We all have rituals. Some are religious, like praying the Rosary. Some are habitual, like flossing your teeth before bed. We use them to simplify our schedules, organize our lives, and affect our futures. Yet how many of us are deliberate about our rituals? If we look at the intended purposes of some of the historical rituals of the Church, perhaps we can find a wealth of tools to use in our creative lives.

As an ex-Catholic turned Evangelical Bible college student, I’ve heard time and again that the Catholic Church is full of empty rituals. I argue that this simply isn’t true. The rituals of the Catholic Church are no more intrinsically empty than anyone else’s. The real source of fulness or emptiness is not the activity itself, but the heart of those participating in it. Yoga can be empty if one’s heart isn’t in it. Belting worship tunes can be empty if a guy lets his mind wander to last night’s game. Kissing your children goodnight can be empty if you are really carrying anger over the latest tantrum. The issue is the heart.

Rituals are important for several reasons. First, they force us to make room for something. Twice a week, I slow down from my schedule to sit and write this blog. It has become a ritual for Monday and Thursday afternoons. When I read the Bible, I am making room in my day to sit and be with God. When I go for a run, I am making room for my health. Many rituals cause us to leave our normal, daily lives to seek out something higher, or at the very least, something different. They draw us out of ourselves to make room for something else.

Secondly, rituals can connect us with a long line of people who have participated in the ritual. Knowing that others have come before your God (or gods) in the same way that you are is an awe-inspiring and often humbling experience. To join thousands of pilgrims in Mecca for the Hajj is to also join with millions of Muslims over the centuries. In a world that values individualism over community, this connectedness is a breath of fresh air and a huge boon for humanity.

Thirdly, rituals can be an opportunity for learning and growth. Many rituals are handed down through the generations. As we struggle to find a deeper connection to our spirituality, the chance to join someone else in their ritual can be of great value. Perhaps fasting can help bring you closer to God. Or reading through your Scriptures daily. Or reciting the prayers of those who have come before. Not all rituals will succeed in helping everyone, but the search can be very rewarding.

Finally, rituals can be a comfort and a guide when things are not going well. When I have hit low points in my spiritual journey, some of my daily rituals have been incredibly comforting. Many find reading the Bible to be boring or dry, but it has been a source of peace and joy for me, and a place I can connect with my God when other avenues fail. We tend to rely so heavily on our feelings and refuse to act unless our hearts are totally behind us. Yet there are times when our feelings are just tired or worn out, and the adherence to a ritual can keep us headed in the right direction until we are able to sort out the heart issue.

While most of the conversation so far has revolved around religious and spiritual rituals, I believe each of these concepts applies to our artistic lives as well. Let’s have a look.

As artists, we have skills that need practicing. Whether it is stretching, sketching, or singing scales, we need to keep our craft sharp thought repetitive practice. If we see our practices as rituals, then our first point above makes perfect sense. Writers don’t always feel inspired to write, but taking time out of each day for the ritual of consistent writing will keep them better at their craft. Devotion to taking photos will create a better photographer because it forces him or her to leave what is comfortable and make room for practice. We won’t become better artists without work, so we need to make room!

Every time I pick up a quill and ink pot to write a letter by hand, I think of the many writers throughout history who have done that very act before penning their words. I lay out my paper, thinking of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing by gaslight. I laugh at ink spots on my hands, wondering if Shakespeare was always covered in ink. I know that literate humanity has done just these very things for hundreds of years, and it’s exciting to be part of that company. We have a long list of people in our world’s history and it’s really cool to know that we have something in common with many of them.

I spent two years at a Theatre School learning acting. Looking back now, I realize that most of that time was spent learning and practicing the rituals of my professors and other actors. This is how the Royal Shakespeare Company tackles text, so it is how I will try to tackle text. At the end, I was able to walk away with many ritualistic tools that allowed me to be a better artist. I still practice them whenever I get to perform, so their usefulness has not diminished with time, a testament to the power of rituals.

Finally, artists sometimes need encouragement. Like everyone else, they can be caught up in the difficulties of trying to live out one’s calling. Especially during dry times of no work or little creative muse, consistent practice can be the assurance that we haven’t lost our purpose. The class we attend can be a reason to get up or leave the house. The weekly meeting with a mentor can be uplifting and encouraging. It is in the harder times that we must allow the ritual to do it’s work, even when we don’t feel like it.

So, what are your rituals? A more important question, I believe, is do they work? Do your spiritual rituals draw you closer to God? If not, spend some time thinking about the issue and see if the problem is with the ritual or in your heart. Do you have artistic rituals? When is it hardest to keep them? These are the moments we must hold onto our practice or risk falling into a slump and dulling our tools.

Until next week!


Oh, For a Muse of Fire

Ever have one of those days you are passionately inspired to do…something other than what you currently have to do?

That has been me at work for the past couple days. I am blessed with a job that I like: I am able to grow as I am given new tasks and responsibilities, I can engage in spiritually fulfilling and challenging conversations, and I am surrounded by people I am growing to love.  Yet God has also been blessing me with inspiration for new artistic projects and the passion of new art is burning as I work. Today, I want to talk about this elusive gold mine of creativity: inspiration!

There are many articles written on how to become inspired. As I write this post, WordPress is showing me several other WordPress bloggers who have written on just the subject. I rarely find these “how-to” articles to be of much use, since everyone is inspired by different things. Instead, I wish to show you where I find my muses (figuratively speaking…not the actual Greek goddesses who inspire artists). Perhaps something in this post will inspire you. Perhaps the post will drive you to seek out inspiration. Either way, I hope you find something to light your creative fire.

For me, the muses come and go, seemingly by a will of their own. There are days I sit to write and nothing comes to mind. Some days, I have an early idea that catches my fancy, but after a few sentences, it fizzles out, needing more time to stew.  Other days, a complete play will pop into my head, and I can spend hours writing down what comes to me. While I may have little control over when it comes, I have noticed a few common ways that inspiration can strike.

The first thing that inspires me is often an image that arrives, fully formed, into my head. It can be the opening scene of a play, or a character for a story, or a shot for a film. Like a photograph that I’ve never seen with my eyes, this image captures my imagination and I start building from there.  I begin asking questions about what’s happening in the scene and how I can share the story of this picture with other people. The story may not come to me right away, but if I keep thinking about it, I can usually come up with something that fills in all the blanks.

The next muse that fans the creative fire within me is a short bit of text. An idea that I read can sit in the back of my brain, nagging at me until I explore it fully. I once read that St. Augustine believed original sin was part of the human physiology, which led me to explore the idea of a “sin gene” that we inherited in Eden. This concept turned into a play idea that is currently waiting to be written. These inspirations are exciting because they show me how little is needed to draw out a wealth of creative resources.

Reading stories is another supply of inspiration. As I am brought into the world another author has created, I begin to imagine other stories that could take place in their world. Or other adventures these characters would go on. “What is Puck doing while he isn’t on stage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? I wonder what other characters would do in the situations provided by the novel. I pull together stories and characters drawn from twenty-odd years of reading to find out new combinations. I’ve heard it said before that stealing from one source is plagiarism; stealing from two is creative genius!

My final, and perhaps most common source of inspiration is questions that come up in daily conversations. “What would a Christian superhero look like?” “Can we redeem the zombie genre?” “Doesn’t it seem like living today is akin to living in a post-apocalyptic world?” The question will sit with me, and I will often contemplate it over a few days. In the best scenario, a story will surface as I explore the ramifications of the question, and perhaps more importantly, my answer. This has led to many of the stories I’m currently writing/exploring.

I have no answer as to why the muses strike when I have little time to write, but they do. The only thing I can do is write down the thoughts as they come. I often carry a small notepad with me throughout the day to jot down questions, blog ideas, images, etc. I have another journal at home where I write down more fleshed out ideas. This book contains information like potential titles, the scene, themes, characters, and a simple plot, if I have one. After they are written down, I know that I won’t forget the ideas. When I have time to write, I can open one of my notebooks and see which idea will inspire me again.

So, what inspires you? Do the melody or lyrics of a song, or the colours in a painting ignite something inside of you that just wants to create? Does your muse visit you often, or do you need to grasp everything she gives you because you know it will be a while before she returns? How do you find the raw stuff that you mold into wonderful works of art?


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