The 2012 Princeton Lectures on
Youth, Church, and Culture



Today’s young people are awash in a sea of brand logos, movies, advertisements, and pop-culture icons. These forces shape them to be consumers. In the midst of the noise, the Church is called to immerse young people in the waters of their baptism, unleashing the creative power of the Holy Spirit who has called them by name and commissioned them to “go into all the world.” Christ calls young people (all people, really) to share the Gospel with their God given creative abilities.

The theme for the 2012 Princeton Lectures on Youth, Church, and Culture is “Create”. The lecturers include an artist, New Testament scholar, professor of communications, theologian, and film studies expert. Each lecturer contributes their expertise to a conversation about the Creator, creation, creativity and the creative potential of young people as builders of the Kingdom of God. They tackle questions such as, “What does it mean to understand God as Creator, and what does it mean to be made in God’s image?” “How does the increasing influence of the entertainment industry communicate values to young people, and how should we respond?” “How might aesthetics and artistic expression grow and deepen ministry with youth?” We hope the insights offered in each lecture will fuel your own creativity and strengthen you for ministry.

Faithfully Yours,
Dayle Gillespie Rounds
Director, Institute for Youth Ministry
Princeton Theological Seminary

2012 Lectures

  • Cecilia González-Andrieu
    Taking Back the Aesthetic
  • Makoto Fujimura
  • Marianne Meye Thompson
    Made and Making in God’s Image: Biblical Reflections on the Creator, Creation, and Creating
  • William D. Romanowski
    Gotta Cut Loose: Youth Culture and Entertainment Media
    Off to See the Wizard: Cinema and Salvation, American Style
  • Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran
    Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: The Dark Side of Beauty
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Made and Making in God’s Image: Biblical Reflections on the Creator, Creation, and Creating

Marianne Meye Thompson is the George Eldon Ladd Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. Among her recent books are The God of the Gospel of John, Colossians, and Philemon (Two Horizons Commentary) and The Promise of the Father. She is an ordained minister in the PC(USA).

We recently had a family move to Pasadena and become part of our church community. They expressed a keen interest in getting the chance to hike and camp and explore and, as they put it, getting out to “enjoy creation.” I thought this way of putting things was both important and provocative. They could have simply said that they had a keen interest in “getting outdoors” or “getting out to enjoy nature” or “exploring their environment.” But to say we want to “enjoy creation” suggests a perspective that implicates a whole range of theological assumptions.

I have been asked to offer some biblical reflections on the theme for this forum, Create. “Create” has a number of cognates—creator, creation, creativity. Not all of these appear in the Bible. But we will look at those that do—most obviously, creator and creation—to see how the scriptural witness shapes our reflections and thinking.

Perhaps most obviously, to speak of creation implies some sort of creator. Some act has brought the creation into being. Some actor has brought the creation into being. Creation not only implies a creator, it also implies a certain relationship between the creator and the thing that is made. Something of the creator has gone into the creation. The creation reflects creator; what is made reflects who made it. So, there will be a difference in a cupcake frosted by a three-year-old, and a cake frosted to look like a racecar track or a Thanksgiving turkey, designed by the Cake Boss.

In this paper I want to look at the biblical commitment to viewing God as the creator of all that is and the implications for thinking of human creativity. So we will start with the “who,” the God who created all things. When we speak of the biblical picture of God as creator, asking who this God is, we must take into account the regular insistence in the New Testament that the cosmos was created through Christ (John 1:1–3; Hebrews 1:1–3; 1 Corinthians 8:6–10; Colossians 1:15–20). There is no work of God in creation that is not a work of God in and through Christ.

We will then look briefly at what God has created—cosmos teeming with life, with living creatures of all kinds, including human beings. There is a texture to the cosmos, pattern, rhythm, order, diversity, harmony, beauty—but not only that, as we shall see. As we think about the what that God has made, the creation, we will pay particular attention to the characteristics of the created universe as they reflect what God has put into and desires for this world.

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Having examined briefly the who and the what, the Creator and the creation, we will look at the role of human beings in this created world. Who the creator is and what the creator has made shape how we think about our role in that created world. As human beings we are among the what, the stuff, of the created order. Yet we are told in Genesis that we are uniquely created in the image of God. To be created in the image of God means that the human being reflects God in a way that no other entity does. If human beings are created in the image of a Creator, can we think of human beings as both made and making in God’s image? What will this mean for thinking of human creativity?

Who: God the Creator

First, who is the creator? A simple answer is that the creator of all the what is the living God. The biblical witness often links God’s identity as creator, the one who brought things to life, with God’s identity as the one who lives. The prophetic tirade in Isaiah and Jeremiah against idol worship shows this most clearly. The problem with idols is that they are dead: because they are dead they neither live nor can they give life. In fact, it is human beings that give life to idols: they manufacture them, set them up, move them around, offer food to them. Because the idol is not living, the idol worshiper has to provide whatever semblance of life there is to it. But this is all wrong. A God is one who lives. As Jeremiah emphatically notes, “[Idols] are the work of the artisan and of the hands of the goldsmith…they are all the product of skilled workers. But the Lord is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King” (Jeremiah 10:8–10). Virtually by definition, God lives.

Isaiah makes the same point. An ironsmith can fashion an idol; a woodworker can turn a piece of wood, shaping half of it into a figure to be set up into a shrine to be worshiped, and throwing the rest in the fire. But the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, is “the everlasting God,” “the first and the last.” The Lord lives, and the Lord lives forever.

And precisely as the living God, God gives life to the world. “The LORD is the everlasting God,” says Isaiah, adding, “the Creator of the ends of the Earth” (40:28). The “first and the last” is the one who “formed you in the womb,” the one who “made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who by myself spread out the earth” (Isaiah 44:23–24). If there is life, it is from the living God, the creator and source of life, who formed the world to be a living reality (Psalm 36:9; Jeremiah 2:13; Ezekiel 37:1–16).

The story of that creation is well known to us from Genesis, where we read, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the Earth. God said, “Let there be light…and there was light.” We go on to read how God created the entire universe and all the living things that inhabit it. God spoke the world into being: light and darkness, heavens and Earth, waters and dry land, plants and seasons, birds and fish, beasts of the field, and, finally, human beings. God spoke, and the world was. God created the world by calling it into being. So the Psalmist writes, “by the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Psalm 33:6). And we read how God made humankind by fashioning a man out of the dirt of the ground and breathing into his nostrils “the breath of life,” so that he became “a living being.” On the one hand, God spoke, and there was life; on the other hand, God breathed into a form of dirt, of clay, the very breath of life. God’s breath or spirit gives life to the world; God’s word calls the cosmos into being, to be the living, ordered world that it is. But the world never exists on its own, apart from God; it lives because God gives life to it.

In the New Testament, this living Creator God of Israel is the God who creates through and in his word, through and in Christ. Thus echoing the beginning of Genesis 1:1, the Gospel of John opens with the same phrase, “In the beginning.” And if in Genesis God spoke the world into being, according to the Gospel of page 3 John, God created the world through the word. This word, incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, is the agent of God’s creation of the world and of the giving of all life. By “all life” we mean both life as existence and life that is what we call eternal. And there is a connection. John first writes, “All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made” (1:3). This is a reference to the creation of the cosmos. But John immediately continues, “In this word was life, and the life was the light of all people.” What kind of life is that? What kind of life is or gives light to everyone?

It is easy for us to make the distinction between “created” life and “eternal” life. But note how John joins them together: The word, through whom the world was created, is the word through whom people receive the light of God that is and gives eternal life. The life that God gives to the world, in all its forms, in whatever its form, is the life that comes through the word. This word is the source of both, and he is the source of the one precisely because he is the source of the other. He can mediate the eternal life of God because he mediates the life God gives to the world. Other passages in the New Testament, such as 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:16–17, and Hebrews 1:2–3 similarly speak of God’s creation of the world through Christ, further identifying him as the agent of the reconciliation and renewal of the world.

The point of such statements is not simply to take Christ back there, back to the “beginning,” to say something about Christ’s existence and authority. Such affirmations are of course true and of great importance to the church in developing its Christology. More particularly, such affirmations unite the work of God and Christ in creating the world. There are not two creators, God and Christ, but one creator, God, who made the world through Christ. The preposition matters. God created, through the Son, through the word. The God who made the world in Christ is the God who saves the world in Christ. Or, to turn it around, the one who saves us through Christ is the one who has already made us through Christ. Our redemption in Christ insures that our creation does not end in failure, in death, but comes to its ultimate goal—to live with God. Indeed, as the church father Athanasius put it, the purpose of the Incarnation was not just to restore the creation to what it had once been, a going back to the past, but to prevent it from failing to achieve its perfection, its true destiny. 1 This is the one continuous work of the living, lifegiving Creator.

There are also a number of images in the Bible that portray God as an artisan and craftsman, borrowing descriptions of the way that human beings creatively engage with the stuff of the world, producing art, music, cities, pots, statues, garments, and the like. I will briefly mention five of these images: artisan or craftsperson, architect and builder, metal worker, musician, and tailor. We are familiar with the imagery of God as a potter (Isaiah 29:16; 41:25; 45:19; 64:18). Perhaps this is the image in view in the creation of human beings in the account in Genesis 2. Here we have a picture of God as artisan, one who took the stuff that had been formed out of the formless void and fashioned that stuff into a human being. God got his hands dirty when he made human beings. God molded a lump of clay into something distinct, shaped it, fashioned it, worked it, and then breathed life into it. Perhaps there is an allusion to God as an artisan in Psalm 8, where the heavens are considered the work of God’s fingers and human beings are given dominion over the “works of God’s hand.” It is not hard to see the potter at her wheel or the sculptor playing his craft as a creation takes beautiful shape under their deft guidance. But sometimes the potter decides to start over, to rework an imperfect pot or jug into something else, as Jeremiah notes somewhat grimly (Jeremiah 18:2–11). But if God destroys the pot, starting over, there is the promise of remaking the clay into something lovely.

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God is an architect. He laid the foundations of the earth, determining its measurements, and making sure that all things were plumb and the cornerstone rightly in place (Psalm 102:25; Job 38:4–7). In a slightly different picture, when God restores Israel he is like a builder fashioning a beautiful city of precious gems (Isaiah 54:11–12). And so the book of Revelation pictures the heavenly throne and throne room of God, as well as the future new Jerusalem, as brilliantly alive with color, precious stones, symmetry, beauty, perfection, mystery. God’s habitations are glorious, built and rebuilt to God’s magnificent vision for beauty and worth.

God can be compared to a metal worker, a refiner, who turns out a beautiful product from the heat of the furnaces. Most typically, God’s refining work is described in relationship to his purification of human beings (Zechariah 13:8–9; Psalm 66:10; Malachi 3:2–3). As one purifies gold and silver, so God purges those he has made so that they are beautiful and pure. Nothing is left impure or imperfect.

God is a musician. We are familiar with music as praise of God. People sing in joy and exultation to the God of the world. They create music in response to God. The heavenly hosts in heaven sing endless praise to God (Revelation 5). Along with the hosts of earth and heaven, the creation itself sings praise to God: the trees clap their hands, the mountains and hills burst into song before God (Isaiah 55:12); they shout for joy and sing (Psalm 65:12–13). But God is also a singer. God sings with gladness over his redeemed people: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zephaniah 3:17–18). Perhaps this is what is captured in the statement of Psalm 42:8, “At night God’s song is with me.” God inspires music; God even performs music, the music that echoes throughout creation and reverberates in our own beings.

God is also a tailor. Perhaps the image of the seamstress or tailor or weaver is in view when the psalmist writes, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb…My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:13–15). But the first such story we have concerns God’s work in the Garden of Eden. There God creates a hospitable environment for life, providing all the sustenance and shelter that is needed. That situation doesn’t last, and Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden—but not before God sews garments for them. God’s creativity is an act of divine compassion for the human beings he made, even as was the original creation of a garden for them to live in. Because God’s creation extends his compassion, Jesus calls his disciples to trust in the God who clothes the lilies of the field so that they are more glorious than Solomon in all his finery. Someday God will clothe the righteous in the garments of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10; Job 29:14; Ephesians 6:13–15).

These images of God as craftsperson, artisan, builder, and tailor underscore the point that creation is not simply an arena in which we experience grace and redemption, but is itself an act of grace and compassion extended towards us. In God’s handiwork we experience God’s provision, compassion, and commitment to the creation, the creatures, that he has made. We are the beneficiaries of God’s creativity, ourselves being created beings. And this leads us to examine more closely that which has been created, the what.

Creation: What hath God wrought?

The living God makes a living world; the living God creates life. We read this in the well-known accounts in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning, God created.” There is a debate in biblical studies about whether Genesis 1:1 assumes what is called “creation out of nothing,” creatio ex nihilo. The question is not whether God created all things so much as it is what Genesis is narrating. The New Revised Standard Version, for example, reads Genesis 1:1–2 as follows: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a page 5 formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” What exactly is “a formless void,” tohu vabohu? Is this some sort of primeval matter without shape, order and form, the so-called “primeval soup?” There seems to be something “there,” as it were, at least in this account of creation, regardless of how it got there. But God fashions it into something else. God creates the heavens and the earth. In that sense, God brings into being something that was not.

And what does it mean that God “created?” It has often been argued that the Hebrew word translated “create” (barah) is used uniquely of God in the Old Testament, implying a unique act that no human being can mimic: whereas God created, human beings make or form or fashion. To be sure, the word barah is used predominantly of God in the Bible. Therefore it is interesting to look at some of the objects of the verb create. From a partial list, we note the following: God creates the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1), the ends of the earth (Isaiah 40:28), the north and the south (Psalm 89:13), male and female (Genesis 1:27; 5:1), the stars (Isaiah 40:26), the wind (Amos 4:13), the sea monsters (Genesis 1:21). In other words, God made things to have limits: he made the ends of the earth, north and south. God made harmony in pairs: heaven and earth, male and female. God put things in their places: sea monsters in the sea, stars in the sky, and so on. God created a world with harmony, rhythm, order, and patterns.

Psalm 104 makes this abundantly clear. God created the earth, setting it on its foundations (v. 5). God set boundaries so that the waters stay where they are supposed to be (v. 10), watering fields and mountains and filling streams so that animals might drink and eat and live. God put the moon in the sky to mark the passing of the seasons. God made the sun rise and set, so that day and night are separated; the time when people work is separated; from the times when the wild animals hunt (v. 19–23). God sends his breath, his spirit, and these creatures live, but when God hides his face, when he takes away their breath, they die and return to dust.

The promises that God makes in the aftermath of the great flood are telling here too. Having covered the earth with death-dealing water, God promises after the flood that he will never again destroy the living creatures that he has made. More, he promises to keep the rhythmic pattern of days and seasons and variation in place: “as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Genesis 8:22). God determines that the world will continue to be a hospitable and reliable world. The sun will come up tomorrow.

The biblical picture of God as creator is a picture of God’s making something ordered, patterned, beautiful, and rhythmic. To put it differently, God makes cosmos and not chaos good and not evil, life and not death. The rhythm of day and night is created as God separates light from darkness. All this rhythm and light and order and life are, in God’s judgment, very good. This creation is good. It testifies to a good, life-giving, beauty-loving, rhythm and harmony-creating God. No wonder the psalmist can write, “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” or Paul can say that God’s “power and deity” can be perceived in the things that are made. Creation does not simply demonstrate the power of God but the life-giving power of God, the designs of God for a beautiful and harmonious world.

But this is not the only picture we have of creation in the Bible. It is beautiful and ordered and harmonious. But it is not always safe. It is ordered, but at times it appears to be random. There are patterns, but there are also things that are unpredictable. There is inherent in the created order a certain wildness, a reality that exceeds the power of human comprehension and may in fact appear as a threat to human existence. Perhaps the book of Job most clearly testifies to the dimension I am thinking of here. On the one hand, Job 38 offers page 6 a dramatic tribute to the God who made the world and did so quite without human help. Human beings do not begin to comprehend the vastness and majesty of the universe, the “expanse of the earth” (v. 17).

God reminds Job that he had nothing to do with the creation of the world and that there are things in the world beyond Job’s own small circle of knowledge and understanding. You know the litany. Job, why is there rain on a land where no human being lives? That seems unnecessary and random. Job, can you count the clouds or the stars? The world seems to have a super abundance of them. Job, do you keep track of all the animals, great and small, their movements, lives, and death? Do you know why there are animals that do not serve human beings but roam freely without human knowledge and not under their control? The world is apparently not merely here to serve Job and Job’s needs.

There is more in the world, more to the world, more that comes from God’s creative power than Job can ever imagine. We cannot count the stars or tame the clouds or manage all the wild animals; we do not make the sun rise and sun set; we do not control the constellations of the sky. There are recesses and deeps that we cannot probe, places that are unknown to us, realities we cannot comprehend, randomness that defies our control, superfluity that suggests we may not be at the center of all things, and mysteries that we cannot fathom.

Elsewhere the biblical witness talks about the monsters of the deep, Leviathan and Behemoth, and the powers of the sea, a power the disciples experience when crossing the sea of Galilee and fearing for their lives. The disciples are in danger without the powerful presence of Jesus, who controls the raging seas. If the storms on the sea can so shake the nerves of skilled fishermen on a small lake in Galilee, how much more dangerous might the oceans be? The thunder and lightning and earthquakes and volcanoes? However we speak of these natural phenomena within the providence and purposes of God, this point is clear: the world of creation does not exist simply to serve us, only to please us. The heavens are telling the glory of God—not of human beings. If we human beings are to think of ourselves as creative agents in this world in which we live, it is always as agents in a world whose ultimate reality far exceeds what we can think or know.

Made and Making in the Image of God

Having raised the question of human beings in God’s created world, we turn then to examine our role more closely. To capture that role in a nutshell, when human beings create, we create as those who are made in God’s image and also as those who are created, who belong to the what that God has created. The creative and imaginative powers that we have been given, the power to “make,” are always exercised in view of the reality that we are first made, even if made by God and in God’s image. The creativity of human beings reflects and responds to the creative acts of the God who made us and the world. The creation of art or music or whatever else human beings make may reflect beauty, rhythm, variety, color, texture, pattern, because these are the characteristics of God’s creation. As Job painfully learned, God’s creation outstrips the imagination of any human artist and, indeed, it can neither be manipulated nor controlled by human beings. Human beings engage in discovery, innovation, imagination, but human creativity doesn’t bring or impose order or beauty so much as expose it, invite new ways to see the created order as created. And all this doesn’t begin to compare with the creativity and imagination of God.

The pinnacle of God’s created “what” is humankind. This is the witness of Scripture and is affirmed in the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Human beings have a distinct role as part of God’s creation, a distinct role among God’s creatures. Human beings differ from God because we are part of the created order and participate in it. Yet we are given dominion over the Earth: to till the soil, plant, harvest, bring forth page 7 children, take care of the animals. In his book, The Mission of God, Christopher Wright comments on God’s entrusting to human beings the stewardship over the Earth and the tending of the garden as follows:
The care and keeping of creation is our human mission. The human race exists on the planet with a purpose that flows from the creative purpose of God himself. Out of this understanding of our humanity ...flows our ecological responsibility, our economic activity involving work, productivity, exchange and trade, and the whole cultural mandate. To be human is to have a purposeful role in God’s creation. 2
In other words, the world is the “workplace” in which human beings exercise their vocation as stewards of God’s creation. It is a task that includes all.

Human beings are material and live in a material world. We take the things of this world and make paint and canvas and brushes and create art; we take clay or marble or metals and fashion a statue or image or pot or vase. We find ways to blow through reeds and tubes or strike a skin stretched over a cylinder or draw a bow across strings, and we have music. We draw air into our lungs and open our mouths and sing. We take our bodies and discipline, exercise, and twist, turn, leap, and bend to create ballet and tap and hip hop. We invent and discover compounds that can be used to produce medicines that bring health to the sick and life to the dying. We find ways to use the stuff of the earth to design cars and airplanes and spaceships that take us far beyond places Job had ever imagined. We create art, music, dance, medicine, and technology all by using the “stuff” of this world by exercising our creativity. We participate in the goodness of creation. We contribute to the beauty of the world. We say, as God said, “And it was good.”

Our materiality, our physicality, is the way our bodies “extend our selves into the physical world.” 3 It bears repeating that the creation is material and that in its materiality it is good. It is important to make the point because not all persons have labeled physical matter “good.” In the early centuries of the church’s existence, there were some who believed that, since matter itself was a kind of evil from which human beings needed to be rescued, no God worth his salt could have been involved in the creation of matter. Whoever the “God” was who made the world according to Genesis 1 could not be the “Most High God” but was some sort of lesser deity. Against such dualism the church fathers argued extensively for the unity and integrity of the one God. The God who made the world is the only God, and this God is the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come to save us from this world, but to save us with the world.

The goodness of our physicality and the way in which it is the locus of our creativity was vividly brought home to me when my grandmother died several years ago at the age of ninety-six. When we gathered at the funeral home for the visitation, and as we stood around the open casket, someone said something to the effect, “She’s not really here” or “That’s not really her.” But as I looked at my grandmother’s body, I had an enormously powerful different impression, namely, that she, in fact, was there; that was her. My grandmother had been a farmer and farmer’s wife, and spent her days in constant physical labor. Everything she had done, she had done with her body. She was known as an extremely hard worker, picking berries, weeding fields of crops, planting, hoeing—chores mostly accomplished while kneeling or crawling in the dirt. But her very engagement with the dirt and stuff of the earth is where she demonstrated her creativity.

Tending her roses and hydrangeas and dahlias, she created beauty. But she didn’t make the flowers or the colors or the rain or the sun. She did not create in that sense, but she served the purposes of the creator in tending the creation and showing a bit of the order, beauty, color, and glory that belongs to the world. She made her own garden. She was a consummate seamstress, using eyes and hands together to design and craft page 8 clothing and quilts. Like God who clothed Adam and Eve, she created garments of all kinds for people to wear. She played the piano at the little country church, creating music for people to praise their God. My grandmother’s life in the body, in and through which she brought beauty, order, music, clothing, food, flowers, and so much more into human life, was a testimony to the creation of human beings in the image of God.

I want to note two aspects of the way that human beings make things. First, I have spoken of the order, rhythm, and patterns of creation, but our creativity is typically messy. Shakespeare didn’t write sonnets by simply plugging words into a rhyme and meter scheme; Monet did not paint by number; Beethoven didn’t write his symphonies by reading a book on music theory. Anyone who paints, writes, composes, dances, sews, sculpts, carves, designs, invents, or engages in any other enterprise that requires creativity or innovation or imagination knows that it isn’t simply a straight line from idea to finished product. Ideas get revised, drafts are written and rewritten, mistakes have to be fixed; ideas that don’t work have to be abandoned. So however our creativity is exercised, there is a winding path with false starts and dead ends on the way towards the beauty and goodness that we crave and seek. We shouldn’t short-circuit or decry the process of creativity, as painful as it sometimes is, for it is part of the way in which we exercise our heads and hands in the created world of which we are a part. Indeed, much or most of our lives may be lived on the messy road of creativity and not at its final destination.

A second aspect of the exercise of our creativity is more problematic. It has to do with a mess of an entirely different sort. While the creative acts of human beings may reflect the living and creating God and the goodness and beauty of the material world, the creative acts of human beings also have the potential to mar God’s creation, to make a mess of the good things that have been created. Human beings have the enormous capacity to misuse the things of the world into which they have been placed and in which they have been given a charge to tend the garden and be fruitful. This is not making a mess in the process of creating by using the good gifts that God has given us but making a mess by misusing the creativity that God has given to us. And we must not confuse the two kinds of messiness.

There are a multitude of ways in which creativity is misused. The creator God is a living God who gives life to the world, but human beings often exercise their power and dominion by serving death, not life. They foment war, create ecological disasters, and exploit the earth and its resources out of greed and desire. Human beings have the potential to create beauty in art and film and dance but use their bodies and minds and souls instead to produce pornographic work that cheapens human bodies and persons. Human beings who have the capacity to manufacture goods to buy and sell turn to buying and selling others, be it in slavery, prostitution, or human trafficking, or any of the numbers of ways in which human bodies become a means of exchange. Human beings have the capacity to synthesize drugs that can help heal, but turn towards synthesizing drugs that destroy lives and families. The list could and does go on. Do we also group these things under human “creativity?” Acts of creating? They are rather acts in which the creative impulse has been misused and misdirected. Our physicality and our existence in this created order are then not means of experiencing and extending life, grace and compassion, but of extending death, evil and ugliness. Unfortunately, our imagination and innovation do not always further the good creative purposes of God. Not all human imagining is human imaging of God.

So it is no surprise that the Bible not only speaks of the creation as reflecting God’s majesty and deity but also speaks of the ways in which reality is not the way it’s supposed to be. As noted previously, the book of Isaiah underscores the unique identity of the Creator God. But as Isaiah notes, human beings fail to page 9 acknowledge their creator, and that failure goes hand in hand with a misdirected creativity. Thus, in that famous and lengthy tirade against idol worship, Isaiah notes how someone will take a tree, cut it down, and use it for fuel to feed and warm himself, and then make a god and worship it, make a carved image and bow down before it. Perhaps this idol is beautiful; perhaps it represents order. It is certainly made of the stuff that God has made and put into the world. It is made by a human being with some imagination. But in its very making the living creator is mocked and misrepresented.

In the book of Romans, Paul makes the same point: while God’s power and deity can be perceived in the things that are made, human beings have distorted creation by “exchanging the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal human beings or birds or animals or reptiles.” Like Isaiah and the psalmist, Paul believes that “the heavens are telling the glory of God,” and that human beings should do so as well. But also like Isaiah, Paul believes that human beings don’t properly worship God, and so betray their Creator and the purposes for which they were created. The creation is magnificent and witnesses to the magnificence of God, but human beings have misused and marred and blighted the creation. In so doing they have perverted what it means to create, for they fail to create in keeping with the good purposes of the creator.

Concluding Reflections

Let me offer the following reflections on what “creativity” might look like in light of the biblical witness we have looked at briefly.
  • 1. God is the original and ultimate creator, who brings life, and so much more, to the world that provides sustenance—food and air and water—to the creatures who dwell in it. Creation extends and embodies God’s grace and life; in fact, to the extent that creation is the very life-giving work of the living God, creation is the mission of God. It is what God is up to. As those created in God’s image, it is what we are to be up to as well.
  • 2. Creation is the unique prerogative of God the Creator alone. As God reminds Job, human beings had nothing to do with the creation of the world. God did not actually consult him when the world was created. Human beings provided no input into the design of the world, offered no advice about the kinds of animals and mountains and stars and lakes that God should make, were not part of the focus group to offer input on their preferences for what a created world might look like. In fact, it seems rather clear that, left to their own devices, human beings might not have made some of them, such as Leviathan and Behemoth, or that they might at least have created things somewhat more amenable to their control —the storehouses of wind and rain and snow and the like. Perhaps creation is the way it is to remind us of who we are and who God is.

    Too often harm is done when we as human beings usurp the prerogatives of God, taking on the role of creator or redeemer, and try to exercise these functions ourselves or for our own ends or purposes. Instead, our creative roles are always to be exercised in acknowledgment of the fact that ultimately there is one and only one Creator.
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  • 3. Not everything that God has created has utilitarian value. There are aspects of creation that are inexplicable, wild, random, and even superfluous. There is more in the world, more to the world, more that comes from God’s creative power than we can ever imagine. This is another point that God makes to Job. God tells Job to lift his sights to see a world that is more magnificent than he can imagine precisely because it is beyond his imagining. Human creativity can likewise lift the imagination to see the glories of the world in new ways.
  • 4. Human beings are created in the image of God and given the charge to have dominion over the earth, to tend the world and bring forth life that is, in some way, to represent God on and to this earth. But we did not create the world. We may be creative but in a fundamentally important way, we are not creators. The distinction is important. Human beings are made, created, in God’s image, and so may and must exercise their creativity as God has given it to us. But even as Christ is the agent of creation, so human beings are but the agents of God’s creativity. We do not have an unbridled license to “create.” We are to exercise creativity in ways that are accountable to God and the purposes for which human beings were created.
  • 5. This earth we live in is first and foremost creation and not merely our environment. It is always the handiwork of God, given to us, and in which we are to exercise our own creative capacities. This means that the physical, palpable acts of creating are also good. The physical world is not evil or lesser in value than the so-called spiritual world, but human creativity may reflect what we sometimes think of as “spiritual” values, such as beauty, order, and harmony. Sometimes that creativity may take on strange or harsh or wild or untamed shapes in order to witness to the deep beauty, order, and harmony, the wild and inexplicable, the life that makes the world a cosmos and not a chaos. Creation is also free and untamed; somehow human creativity also bears witness to the great freedom of God.
  • 6. The purposes of God for the world are realized in the remaking of the world. The world that was made through Christ will be renewed through Christ. Whether we are thinking of “messiness” or “mess,” God will remake it, finish it. We live in that anticipation. And that renewal doesn’t require our assistance or contribution any more than the creation of the world did. The Bible insists that the promise of a new world and a new humanity cannot be attained in the present or by human effort. Rather, the new world entails a remaking, a recreation of the present world in all its mess and messiness by the God who first made it. Human creativity can bear witness to the promised renewal and remaking of the world. It can give expression to the yearning that is deep inside us, the groaning of creation for the redemption of our bodies and the renewal of the world, for the glorious freedom of the children of God and of all God’s creation. And in that way human creativity bears witness to the God who made and will remake the world.
1. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 6.
2. Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2006), p. 65.
3. Luke Timothy Johnson, Faith’s Freedom: A Classic Spirituality for Contemporary Chrsitians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1990), pp. 9–10.