Creativity and Christlikeness go hand in hand. Jesus’ greatest commandment to love God with all of ourselves includes the imaginative and creative parts too. We gain three jolts to our creative lives from Luke’s account of the first Easter.
Lesson 1: Matter Matters
Jesus’ friends “found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus” (Luke 24:2-3). Note well: “they did not find the body.” It was not merely Jesus’ spirit that rose or his inspirational ethics that live on. The tomb was empty because there was no longer a corpse inside.
The empty tomb teaches us that the material world matters to Jesus and it will always matter to him, so it should matter to us. This is a mark of good art. Look at a Dürer or Rembrandt woodcut. Study the tiny, elegant details in a hand, a beard, a wing, a rabbit, or a tree trunk. It is clear that matter mattered to the artists. Listen to Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ the Beatles’ ‘White Album,’ Radiohead’s ‘O.K. Computer,’ or Dustin Kensrue and Thrice’s “Alchemy Index.” Hear the sonic craftsmanship and mastery over their instruments. Matter mattered to these musicians. Taste the edible artwork of a good chef. Savor the care put into each ingredient and the precision at every stage of the cooking process. It is deliciously clear that matter matters to the culinary artist.
We must remember that when Jesus worked as a craftsman, he did not glorify the Father by etching fish symbols into wobbly tables or chiseling his favorite torah verse on crumbling walls. He glorified his Father by making good tables and building sturdy walls. He describes his own resurrection as an original work of craftsmanship: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 14:3). And in his bodily resurrection, Jesus launched his most epic building project ever—to renovate and beautify and ennoble all of creation. And he invites us into that grand creative work as his apprentices. Start in the kitchen, in the backyard soil, in the dirty neighborhood, behind a camera, in front of the piano, at the blinking cursor on a blank screen. Wherever you are tell the truth of the empty tomb, the truth that Jesus is Lord of all and that, therefore, matter matters.
Lesson 2: Good Art is a Protest
Luke’s narrative cuts from news of the empty tomb to a road where two of Jesus’ followers walk in despair. Jesus himself joins their conversation incognito and starts pontificating about the prophetic storyline of the Old Testament, how it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory.” The travellers’ “hearts burn” (Luke 24:26, 32).
What Jesus does for the travellers on the road is, in the words of John Calvin, “reveal to us a higher reality than is offered by this sinful world.” Except that Calvin was not talking about the first Easter when he said that. He was talking about good art. Herein lies a second insight into the creative life: True creative action has a way of shocking us from despair into a more glowing vision of the world.
One way to get at this insight is to think of the resurrection as a form of protest art. “Protest,” is a blend of the Latin “before” (pro) and “testify” (testis). Its basic meaning was ‘putting truth on display in front of people.’ When this is done in a creative, often shocking way, what we have is protest art. Good art jolts awake something deep inside of us that wants to scream—“This is not how it should be!” In that protest we find our longings intensified for a better world, for what the Bible calls shalom, the way things should be.
Bob Dylan didn’t just call for change by saying, “Racism is bad!” He sang “Oxford Town.” Picasso didn’t just say, “Booh war!” He painted “Guernica.” Dostoyevsky didn’t just say, “Down with Oppressive Religion!” He wrote “The Grand Inquisitor.” And so Jesus didn’t just say, “My kingdom has come.” He rose from the dead in a way that jolts us awake to a new and better state-of-being.
Jesus’ resurrection was his creative subversion of all that is destructive in the universe all at once. It protests what the New Testament calls “the present age.” Ancient Jews believed that the drama of the entire universe unfolds in two ages. There is “the present age”—ha-olam hazeh—the age of groaning, toiling, warfare, doom, tragedy, injustice, and heartbreak (basically, everything that people watch cat bloopers, inhale THC, and swallow antidepressants to forget about).
Then there is ha-olam ha-ba—“the age to come”—the age of shalom, peace with God, peace with one another, peace with ourselves, and the rest of creation. It is the true happy ending that so much great literature, music, painting, choreography, and cinema reaches toward and tries to touch.
Which age are we living in? Sadly, we are languishing in “the present age.” But there is a glitch, a cosmic anomaly, a flash from “the age to come.” A tomb that by all the rules of our age should be occupied is empty. A body that by all laws of our age should be quietly decaying is doing strange things—walking, talking, eating bread and fish—things that no body that has been through rigor mortis should ever do. “The age to come” has broken into (and broken the laws of) the “the present age.” The resurrected Jesus is the glitch in our system of death, decay, and despair. The antidote has been injected into a sick and dying cosmos, bringing vigor back to the once terminal universe.
What does this mean for our creative lives? Good art protests death and “the present age” and beckons us to life, even now, in “the age to come.” Abraham Kuyper makes the point far better than I can:
Art has the mystical task of reminding us in its productions of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster… enabling us to discover in and behind this sinful life a richer and more glorious background. Standing by the ruins of this once so wonderfully beautiful creation, art points out… the still visible lines of the original plan, and what is even more, the splendid restoration by which the Supreme Artist and Master Builder will one day renew and enhance even the beauty of His original creation. (Lectures on Calvinism, [Eerdmans, 1999] 155).
Lesson 3: Joy and Marveling
This moves us to a final lesson for our creative lives from Luke’s resurrection account. Jesus appears to his disciples in the upper room where he “showed them his hands and his feet.” Note the disciples reaction. They “disbelieved for joy and were marveling”(Luke 24:40-42). Commentators take Luke’s phrase to say that the sight of Jesus was just too good to be true. It was far too good to be true, hence the disbelief; but it is true, hence the joy and marvel.
There was the genuine shock and euphoria. The reason for this is that there is something in Luke’s account that is altogether missing from so much of our art. Jesus showed the disciples “his hands and his feet.” Why? Because that’s where the scars were. The glorious truth of the resurrection was not revealed in some dreamy netherworld, outside the context of the deep woundedness of our world.
An exuberant Easter Sunday becomes absurd the minute we leave out the scars of Good Friday and the hopelessness of Black Saturday. Friday, for all the infinite good it brings us, was a traumatizing horror of a day, a day to shudder, gag, and weep. On Saturday—what has been branded “Black Saturday” in some church traditions—God seems utterly silent.
But pain, death, and silence do not have the final word. Futility and despair were only temporarily true. Mix bright yellows into the palette. Let the cymbals crash. Clink overflowing glasses from the top shelf bottles. Forget yourself. Sing to each other. Laugh so hard you snort. Burn with joy “like Roman candles and explode like spiders across the stars” (to borrow Kerouac’s great line). Disbelieve for joy and marvel. He is risen! Cry out through your quivering windpipes—Haaaaa-llelujah!
The extent to which we fail to tell gruesome Good Friday truths and shy away from telling shattered Black Saturday truths is the extent to which our attempts to tell Easter Sunday truths will sound false. The joy of Redemption cannot be detached from the realities of the Fall without ceasing to be joy and becoming an airy fairy sentimentalism.
Good music has minor and major chords. Good paintings have dark and bright hues. Good movies have real brokenness and real redemption. Good beer has hoppy-ness and maltiness. The Good News has death and resurrection. Without the former the latter becomes inauthentic, contrived, artificial, plastic, kitsch. We must learn how to creatively tell the truth of the gory cross and the occupied tomb if we want good news of the empty tomb and New Creation it signals to evoke anything like the joy it should.
At the empty tomb we learned that matter matters. On the Emmaus road, we learned the power to protest “the present age” and shock into the hope of “the age to come” that dawned that first Easter. In the upper room we learned to show the scars if there is to be any true joy and marveling. Those three insights from Luke 24 hold a lifetime of promise for deepening our creative lives.
This post is adapted from REFLECT: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History by Thaddeus Williams (Lexham Press, 2017).