Human beings can and should be creative. Look at the world around you and admire the things that man has created: huge buildings, beautiful buildings, automobiles, airplanes, literary masterpieces, scientific discoveries, space shuttles, microscopes, telescopes—even the computer, iPad, or smart phone you’re reading this post on. This world has seen incredibly gifted creators: Homer, Ovid, Leonardo Da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven, Arthur Guinness, Radiohead, Steve Jobs.
As diverse as these lists are, every creative human being has shared at least one thing in common: They all had to work within the world that God made. That is, they had to work with the raw material that God created.
Every person who sets out to create something is constrained by the possibilities and impossibilities inherent in the world as God created it. We often hear about the possibilities of ingenuity and creativity. And rightly so. But I want to point out the beauty of the impossibilities, the wonderful limitations that we must work within as we operate within God’s world.
Two very different people have helped me see the beauty in limitations: Jeremy Begbie (an ordained Anglican minister; professionally trained pianist, oboist, and conductor; and an influential theologian of the arts) and Jack White (a self-taught guitarist, drummer, and vocalist, appearing in such bands as The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, and The Raconteurs).
Jeremy Begbie has written extensively on the relationship between theology and the arts. Some Christian art advocates focus on art’s ability to draw our attention to spiritual truths, to help our minds transcend this world and focus on the next. As important as that may be, Begbie argues that we should also enjoy and appreciate the physicality of art. The artist creates something out of God’s world, and the materials themselves are part of the good creation of God. With the nearly endless variations and combinations of the materials of God’s earth, there are still inherent limitations, and we should rejoice in these God-given constraints.
Think about music, for example. While a musician has an overwhelming array of sounds and tones at her disposal, the possibilities only extend so far—the human ear is only capable of detecting a specific range of frequencies. This is a God-given limitation on the possibility of human creativity. The same thing applies to the colors and textures a painter uses. Amidst all of the possibilities, there are still limitations.
Jack White has spoken about the value of limitations in his career as a musician. He says that when you think of all the possibilities in music, of all the things that a musician could do, it can be paralyzing. So why not place limitations on yourself? This way you can be enormously creative within a smaller range of possibilities. Jack White has demonstrated this in his own career. He formed The White Stripes as a two-person band: he did the guitar and vocals, and his band-mate Meg played the drums. Jack said that he intentionally stuck with old, beat up guitars because he liked the fact that he had to fight against the guitars to keep them in tune and get the sound he wanted. When he played live shows he would place the keyboard an extra step away from the microphone so he would have to fight to get to it on time. In all these ways, he embraced the limitations inherent in the creative process.
Only God is infinite. We are finite, weak, and dependent creatures. We should rejoice in the fact that our creativity reflects these limitations. As Christians, we can and should reflect our Creator by being creative ourselves. But we must always acknowledge that our creativity is in an important sense different than God’s. God’s initial creation was ex nihilo, or “out of nothing.” Our creation is always out of something. We work within the boundaries, limitations, possibilities, and impossibilities that God has set for the world He made.
So next time you admire some incredible human achievement, pay attention to the limitations as well as the accomplishments. Don’t stop with admiring the beautiful design and lightning-fast speed of a commercial jet—admire the fact that the jet had to be designed in a specific way in order to fly through the atmosphere. When you admire a beautiful painting, consider the fact that the artist was limited to a specific range of colors and textures, all of which are determined by the way God made the world. When you listen to a brilliantly constructed song, consider the fact that the sounds the musicians employed all had to fit within the frequency range detectable to the human ear.
God gave us both the possibilities and the impossibilities we encounter, and our creativity should embrace both.