Made by a Maker to be a Maker - Gordon Conwell

Made by a Maker to be a Maker

Bruce Herman, MFA

Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts, Department Chair, and a professor of painting and drawing at Gordon College

I love that memorable line in the film Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddell’s sister confronts him with his duty as a missionary for Christ in China, admonishing him and scolding him for his “frivolous” participation in the pagan Olympic games in Paris. His reply: “Yes, of course! I am indeed a missionary—but God made me fast, and when I runI feel His pleasure!”

Made by a Maker to be a MakerGiving God pleasure—imagine! This has to be the heart of glorifying the Lord—a desire and capacity to give our Maker pleasure. I also love Augustine’s famous paean of praise: “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” It may be a bit cheeky, but I’d revise this just a little for the purposes of my article: “You are our Maker, and You made us to be makers. Our hearts are restless until we make something—something beautiful like what You have made.”

And the beautiful is at the heart of all that God has made. Open your eyes, and even a superficial glance at the night sky or the fields of wildflowers below our feet reveals this: God loves beauty—in its full range, from the awesome raging of the thunderstorm to the fragile petals of a rose. One might even be bold and say that just as God is Good and God is Truth, God also is Beauty—true beauty in all its multivalence and grandeur—God’s kabôd . And this is where I begin as a painter, desiring above all to give my Lord pleasure in the works of my hands.

My heart has been restless since my earliest days—restless to make something that would point toward my beautiful Maker—and by His grace I cannot remember a day when I didn’t feel this way. I have always made art, and I’ve nearly always wanted it to please God. Except for a brief interlude in my life during which I was confused about how to serve God as an artist, I’ve always at least intuited that God takes pleasure in the works of our hands and hearts and imagination—when it is done unto Him and for His glory.

What does it mean, in real terms, to make art to the glory of God?

First, I believe that because God is the author of all things beautiful and significant, it is a natural desire of all children to make beautiful and significant things. Children can, and do, distort this urge in order to simply garner attention for themselves. But adults are always disappointed to see this in their child. And that is because we all value the unselfconscious joy of making that we witness in children. The famous artist Pablo Picasso once memorably quipped, “I spent four years in the academy learning to draw like an old master. I’ve spent the rest of my life learning to draw like a child!” And what he was pointing toward, I believe, is the very principle being discussed: childlike, unselfconscious making—which naturally glorifies God just as the rest of God’s creation does, merely by being what it is.

It is easy for a child to make art to the glory of God—just as the sunrise or sunset, the thunderstorm or wildflowers glo-rify God without vanity or self-consciousness. But how is a fully grown person to do so, much less a professional who is paid and must always be promoting her works in order to gain exhibition space? Are we to copy the work of children and make clumsy, charming little works that show no knowledge or sophistication? No, of course not. This would be to indulge in even greater self-conscious posturing. But I do think there is a principle here to be noted: the child creates art from a place of fearlessness and natural freedom. Art and fear are not good bedfellows. To make art to the glory of God requires that we give our all in the process of making—holding nothing back. But the difference between the child and the grown artist is that knowledge, technique, experience, even a kind of artistic “wisdom” is operating as we mature and practice art over a lifetime.

Yet the requirement that a work of art be free from pretentiousness or self-conscious posturing is a good one—and the artistic act is one that can only be wholehearted. In his seminal work I and Thou , Martin Buber says:

This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being: if he commits it and speaks with his being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is released and the work comes into being. – Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.

Buber has uncovered something deeply signifcant here. There is in the creative process a certain mystery. His phrase “a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him” indicates that there is a dimension of authentic art-making that involves assent to a certain loss of control, a certain giving in to the form itself. This idea about art might sound at first quite romantic: mysterious forms jos-tling to be made into works of art independent of the artist, etc., etc. But I believe that Buber is simply describing the reality of the artist’s situation.

When an artist truly desires to be a servant of God, she relinquishes some of her autonomy. There is no room for prima donnas or dilettantes in God’s service—nor is there room for the artist to over-determine outcomes. In that case we are not talking about art but something else. Perhaps propaganda? There is at the heart of the authentic creative process a tacit acknowledgment that we are derivative creatures ourselves. We have not created ex nihilo. And the “form” that Buber speaks of here is nothing less than the artwork of God upon which we must draw in order to make our own works.

Moreover, as the Apostle Paul pointed out in his famous Mars Hill speech, there is an echo of God’s own voice in the poetry and philosophy of even the pagans—whose culture was rich with reference and patterning derived from the natural world. Plato’s concept of the pure forms is one of those echoes, and it is fairly obvious that Buber is referencing that platonic idea of form. The sensitive artist perceives those forms that our Maker employs in His own making. And those forms call out to us for a response of praise.

The most fitting praise for the works of our Maker is to be found in our earnest creative work. We were made by a Maker to be makers. Scripture tells us that we are formed in the image of God—the Imago Dei—and the first thing we learn of God from Scripture is that God creates. It should be no surprise, therefore, that we are restless until we engage in creative making ourselves. Buber’s thought is that we must give our all in our making—all our talent, skill, knowledge, feeling, intellect, love—holding nothing back. In this same passage from I and Thou he goes on to say:

The deed [making a work of art] involves a sacrifice and a risk. The sacrifice: infinite possibility is surrendered on the altar of the form; all that but a moment ago floated playfully through one’s perspective has to be exterminated; none of it may penetrate into the work; the exclusiveness of such a confrontation demands this. The risk: the basic word can only be spoken with one’s whole being; whoever commits himself may not hold back part of himself; and the work does not permit me, as a tree or man might, to seek relaxation in the It-world; it is imperious: if I do not serve it properly, it breaks, or it breaks me. The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it. – Buber, Martin (2011-05-17). I and Thou, trans. Kaufmann (pp. 60-61), Kindle Edition.

Again, he emphasizes that wholeheartedness is a prerequisite. But an additional requirement is glimpsed: there is a risk and a sacrifice in art making—and the artist must resist the tendency to objectify the form that “wants to become a work” through her. What does this mean? Buber’s entire book is predicated on the idea that human beings always assume one of two postures in relation to each other and to God’s creation: either we treat the creation as objects to be used and experienced (“It”) or we relate to the creation as “Thou”—that is, as being worthy of love, respect and care rather than possession, use and objectification.

We may seem to have wandered far from the question of how to make art to the glory of God. But this is the connection I am trying to make for us: to glorify the Maker, we must become makers. The kind of makers we are to become involves echoing God’s own character in our creative process. Just as God imbues his human creatures with autonomy and dignity and loves them rather than manipulating or possessing them, human artists are to serve the forms they create—endowing them with a certain freedom and autonomy. And this is what Buber is at pains to express, namely that human creativity involves the very same risk that divine creativity engenders: the risk that the created work might break or break the maker. And if there is any doubt that God’s creatures have the capacity to break their Maker, simply remember the Cross.

Where have we come to in our attempt to investigate the connection between human art and God’s glory? I believe that the spark of divine creativity that is within the human imagination is deeply connected to the principle I have been attempting to elucidate. It is in our very capacity to make works that outlive us—works that seem to exist independently of their author’s interpretive grid—that we most echo our Maker. The element of risk and sacrifice is also at the core of that resemblance to our God. In a very real sense, the Lord engaged in a cosmic risk by creating human beings. The possibility that we might rebel and refuse God’s love was there from the beginning. And that very capacity of the created thing to resist its creator is what eventually calls forth a sacrifice.

To make art to the glory of God, the human artist must imitate this “deeper magic” of God’s own creativity: risk and very real sacrifice must accompany our making process. If we avoid these and play it safe in our art making, we will always fall short of glorifying our Maker. To conclude let me recount a passage from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings :

‘Are these magic cloaks?’ asked Pippin, looking at them with wonder. ‘I do not know what you mean by that,’ answered the leader of the Elves. ‘They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are Elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all these things under the twilight of Lórien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make. – Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Fellowship of the Ring (p. 482). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

So then, as the Elves put the thought of all that they love—all the beauty and mystery and majesty of Lothlórien, their lovely land—we are called to put the thought of all we love of our own dear Lord’s handiwork into all that we make. Perhaps then He will be glorified and we will feel His pleasure.

Bruce Herman, MFA, is the Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts, Department Chair, and a professor of painting and drawing at Gordon College, Wenham, Massachusetts. He joined the faculty in 1984 and became the first Chair of the Art Department in 1988. His primary focus as a teacher and artist is figurative painting. He received the Junior Distinguished Faculty Award in 1992 and was awarded the first fully endowed Distinguished Chair at Gordon in 2006. His art has been exhibited internationally and is housed in museums such as the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Armand Hammer Collection in Los Angeles and the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts.