In this first volume of his larger project A Poetics of Redemption, Trevor Hart locates human creativity within God’s created, broken, and recreated world. Hart’s overall thesis is that while God is the supreme Creator-Artist, there is space within God’s economy for human artistry and creativity, meaningfully participating in God’s mission of making good. This humble, responsive creativity is the opposite of idolatry, which rises out of an “artistic autonomy” that clashes with and distorts “the master craftsman’s vision” (p. 57). Technically, only God “creates” (in the ex nihilo manner), but he enlists human poesis to add depth and significance to the splendor of his world and work.
Hart explores how the modern notion of the artist stands in direct opposition to how an artist should live out his or her vocation in God’s world. For the modern artist, creativity is about expressing one’s inner vision with unbridled freedom and autonomy, rather than responding within the liberating constraints of God’s creation and human traditions. In other words, the modern—and often most popular—view of creativity is essentially anthropocentric, displacing God’s sovereign agency in making all things new and placing this responsibility on the shoulders of human artists. Beginning with early Renaissance humanism and continuing through certain forms of postmodern art, Hart traces “a shift from an economy of gift and response to one centered and reliant instead on autonomous human merits and achievements” (p. 219).
In contrast to an anthropocentric approach to creativity, a theo-centric approach recognizes that human creativity always depends on and stems from divine creativity. This does not mean, however, that any faithful form of creativity needs to be limited to imitating reality as God designed and sustains it. As Hart explains, there is no “pure” representation; all mimesis involves an imaginative engagement with reality that interprets and transforms reality. The Christian counterpart to creative hubris, therefore, is not slavish imitation, but spirited improvisation within God’s created and re-created order.
This perspective dismantles common misunderstandings about creativity and situates it snugly within a vision of imaginative Christian obedience. Creativity is less about novelty and more about improvisational response to the given. Creativity is less about isolated inspiration and more about receptive collaboration with materials, tradition, and the artistic community. Creativity is less about being original and more about being obvious. Drawing on the seminal work of Nicholas Wolterstorff, Hart describes artists as “workers in fittingness” who find ways of crafting works of art that imaginatively fit with the grain of the universe.
The argument Hart weaves together in Making Good is erudite and extensive, and that is both the book’s strength and weakness. It’s a strength, because I know of no other theology of creativity that deals as widely and thoroughly with scholars in every relevant field, whether biblical studies, theology, philosophy, or creativity studies. The scholars and theologians Hart favors—Karl Barth, Jürgen Moltmann, Paul Ricoeur, Dorothy Sayers, Nicholas Wolterstorff, George Steiner, and others—are not bandied about without serious engagement with detracting voices. As such, Hart’s scholarship is careful, comprehensive, and critical without being dismissive. As a weakness, however, this wide-ranging interaction with scholars of every stripe can be laborious to read at times. Add to this Hart’s proclivity toward long, complex sentences, and this is unfortunately one of those books that many people might start with gusto have difficulty completing with equal enthusiasm. This book is a gift, but I only wish it was poised to reach a wider audience rather than a relatively small cadre of academically inclined readers who will benefit greatly for persevering to the end.
It’s also important to mention that the basic question of Making Good may seem odd to those who don’t share Hart’s theological commitments. Stated simply: if God is the sovereign creator and sustainer of all that is good and beautiful, what room is there for human creativity? For some, this question might seem inhibited by a faulty premise. But for someone whose worldview is permeated by the action of a sovereign God, it is absolutely essential to work out an understanding of human creativity that doesn’t “trespass on the soil of divine prerogatives,” but participates in God’s mission to make all things new (p. 330). Sprinkled throughout the book, Hart hints at how this view of human creativity and artistry centers on trinitarian theology and Christology, although a full unfolding of this claim will have to wait until Hart’s second volume in A Poetics of Redemption. In the last sentence of the book, however, there’s an intimation of what this entails: “the suggestion that human beings are called to be genuinely creative (albeit as created ‘sub-creators’ rather than ‘co-creators’) situates all human response to the world potentially within the field of an action at once eucharistic and eschatological, grounded in the vicarious self-substitution of Christ for us, and opened out by the work of the Spirit of Christ in and through us in the direction of that New Creation promised by the Father” (p. 339).
“Sub-creation” was J. R. R. Tolkien’s term, which he used to describe how human making is subservient to divine creation. Any act of human creativity is a genuine contribution, but it’s always “sub-creation” by virtue of its imaginative response to God’s acts of creation and re-creation. Hart summarizes: “Only God can bring about the ‘new creation’ to which the apostles and prophets bear poetic witness; but in the meanwhile, we are called already to live in ways that declare this new creation to be a hidden reality, performing parables of it in the midst of history, and so conforming historical existence, piece by piece, more fully to its promised destiny in God’s hands” (p. 328).