I took this picture just after sunset Saturday night near where I live in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala. The sky around me was so perfect — and the trees providing the frame so perfect — that I didn’t feel I was responsible for the art I was making. I felt more as though it was being handed to me on a silver platter. All I had to do was click the virtual shutter on my iPhone. When that happens, it feels like magic.
Most people who spend their lives concentrating on politics and power and governing philosophy don’t seem to spend much time thinking about the meaning of life. It’s all about rights and control and fighting someone else for supremacy. When I was much younger, I could understand that coolly rational way of looking at political discussions, but I’m way past that. For me to think it matters anymore, I have to have a reason why it matters insofar as living life. Experiencing such stunning beauty as I photographed last night — and playing a humble role in making it into art — helps make it all make sense to me. Please indulge me while I try to explain what I mean.
I have no desire for power over other people, so politics for that reason alone doesn’t interest me. I have trouble getting excited about tremendous wealth just to live a life of decadent luxury, so the thought of that bores me. I’m ultimately interested in power and money only if they can serve something I see as a higher purpose. My love of life and my love of beauty give me that purpose, because they give me an instinctive understanding of why I was placed here by “the all-wise Author of nature,” to use Adam Smith’s poetic title for God.
I love this life and all its aspects. Even with its hurts and low points and frustrations, life really is good. While we’re on this Earth, we experience most of that through our senses — sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. It’s in these ways that we experience what the world has to offer us. For an atheist, that’s all there’s ever going to be, in his view, so it stops there. For those of us who are Christians (or those who are expecting an afterlife through whatever they believe in), that next life looms as terribly important. But if we don’t see this life — and this world — as important, we’re questioning why our Creator put us here.
For me, I feel closest to God when I’m creating something of beauty and meaning — in the world and in the lives of other people. God has many roles in the Bible, but the first and foremost was of Creator — creating the world around us and all the life that live in it, including me. I believe human beings are most like God when we create in our own small ways, but not just art in the grandiose sense of the word. We’re emulating God’s creative power when we invent things or build cities or lead people to a better life. In short, we are most like God when we take the raw material He has given us and create a better world. When we create a better world for ourselves and others to live in, we are creating a kind of art and beauty that’s impossible to put a value on.
As I thought tonight about the meaning of life and of creation, I thought about the most intense experiences I’ve had with my senses. I’m not going to take the time to detail all of mine — partly because they wouldn’t all be interesting to you and partly because they’re too intensely personal — but I found that it was quite clear with each one of them which experience in my life most represented that sense to me. I realized quickly that they were very intensely emotional experiences.
For sight, I identify the incredible natural beauty around me — such as in the picture I took Saturday night — as my most intense experiences. Sometimes it’s been sky or trees or flowers. Other times, it’s animals or even people. Yet other times, objects made by humans were a part of those artistic combinations. In those cases, even those seemed natural and perfect and heroic in ways that I can’t explain. For sound, I was torn between certain music and the sound of a particular woman’s voice. Somehow, they meshed together for me. For smell and touch, the same woman played the most emotional role. For taste, I surprised myself by realizing that the most intense memories were from decades ago, not from the foods that I treasure and enjoy today.
There are dozens of things I could have mentioned in each category. Your list would be different from mine. There aren’t any “right” answers. But there are certain conditions which need to be met for us to experience those things. Creating those conditions in the world is the only reason I’m interested in political ideas or governance at all.
I’m a creator. I’m an artist. Sometimes, I’m not sure what my medium is. Sometimes I’m not sure I’m any good at the art I try to make. But it’s only through trying to create — making things and failing and then trying again and experiencing the triumph and the humility of success — that I live out the life God has given me in a way that seems worthy of Him.
We inherited a very fallen world. In Christian terms, it’s a sinful world. In more generic terms that almost everyone can agree with at one time or another, it’s a world where evil plays a tremendous role. It’s a world where darkness is constantly pushing against the light to roll back the gains that humans have made as we’ve inched our way out of savagery. It’s by trying to make a better world — for ourselves and others — that we are part of the light and that we push the darkness back.
It’s always going to be an individual choice how people want to live their lives, and that’s as it should be. Some people will choose to live in ugliness — whether it’s literal, physical ugliness or inner ugliness that reflects the values of darkness — and others will choose something closer to the beauty and light that the world are sometimes capable of being. What I believe is that people have a tougher time making a positive choice when they live in an ugly world and where they don’t believe beautiful and good choices even exist.
I can’t change the whole world. I can’t make the entire world beautiful and clean and free. But maybe I can help show that it’s possible to build pockets where that’s true. And if enough people see that it’s possible, maybe they’ll choose to build their own beautiful parts of the world. Until they believe it’s possible, though, they’re going to keep living in the ugly and coercive world that they’re a part of.
For me, creating free cities and free enclaves is a step on the way toward creating a more beautiful world that brings us just a little closer to what God intended. God certainly doesn’t need us to do it for Him. But as we use the raw material and beauty and freedom He naturally gave us to create something better, we’re making ourselves better people and we’re learning some of the things He put us here to learn.
The modern evangelical church has seen art in a utilitarian way for too long. It’s time that Christians accepted their natural role as creators of art for its own sake — for the sake of emulating God. Part of that creative impulse needs to be to create beautiful and free places in which people can live better lives. Even though Franky Schaeffer didn’t have the notion of building free cities in mind when he wrote his book, I think what he says about art is also true of creating a better world. For Christians, I highly recommend Schaeffer’s 1981 book, “Addicted to Mediocrity: Contemporary Christians and the Arts.” It’s an indictment of how the church has abandoned the historic role it once had in creating and fostering creativity across a range of endeavors.
For me, there’s an obvious and intuitive leap that goes from the beauty I see in the picture I took Saturday night and what I want to create in the world around me. Explaining that — and the theological implications for me as a Christian — are much more complicated. If you’re not a Christian, you certainly won’t share my particular reasons for wanting to create a better world (or better pieces of the world), but that doesn’t mean that love of beauty and love of life can’t be inspirations for you, too.
Whether you share my inspiration or not, most people can agree that creating great art is something we should strive for. Creating a free and beautiful world — or even pockets of it to prove it can be done — is worth giving a lifetime to achieving.
You might find creativity or artistic impulses in yourself on a shelf of underused things in the metaphorical closet of your brain. You really need to pull it off of the shelf and see what it feels like to use it again — or even for the first time. It can change your life and bring you closer to the truth about God, however you understand Him.
If I ever forget why I want to create a better world, I look at a picture such as last night’s — or think about the touch or smell or sound of someone important — and it all makes sense to me. That sort of perfect beauty inspires me to want to create more beauty. It’s not easy, but it’s worth struggling to achieve.