Dim Sprite


Dim sprite.
But living,
Breathing and bloody,
Hearty and brave with wide eyes.
A clearing in the rough
Captured with the heart’s eye.
Dismembered in the next instant.
Softly faded.
Drowned with a smothering spell.
Did he really say?
Fragments of an image only momentarily beheld.
Slithering voices,
Some friend, some foe,
But none quickly named.
In the deafening twilight,
How can the image be restored?
Who has gathered the pieces?
Where are they stored?
By what method can one light the fire of sight?
With wickedness in heart,
Spare a seed imperishable,
I languish for the flame
That only the sun provides.
But the flicker is my warmth.
I hold my breath,
I pray, don’t blow it out.
Instruct me in how to burn.
Point me to the fuel.

21 September 2015

Book Review, Theology

Steven Pressfield, ‘The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles’ (Review)


Many of the books I’ve found most helpful on the topic of writing and creativity have a no-nonsense, let’s-get-down-to-brass-tacks style. They aim to demystify the creative process and focus on the practicalities of actually producing work. Of these, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles is one of the most direct treatments I have found. Its author, Steven Pressfield, best known for his novel The Legend of Bagger Vance, intends to diagnose and counteract the powerful internal force which impedes creative work–an enemy he labels Resistance. He writes in an entertainingly punchy style, formatting the book into (largely) page-length thoughts. The result is encouraging, practical, empowering, and–surprisingly–leaves me questioning the theological implications of his argument, which I will expand on below.

The book’s central thesis is that the difficult part of writing is not the writing itself, but the sitting down to write. If we can beat the forces which prevent us from actually getting to our work, we can be set free to produce the art which is our gift to the world. The name of the enemy is Resistance, that pernicious inner tug which takes on any form necessary to keep us from achieving the things we know we should. Split into three sections, the book first defines this enemy, then looks at ways in which to combat it, and finally points towards the elements which sustain creativity once Resistance has been overcome.

Anyone who has attempted to follow a higher calling knows Resistance intimately. It manifests itself any time we try to transcend our path-of-least-resistance, lower-nature mentality to do something of moral and spiritual value. It stops at nothing to prevent this. The difficulty is that it is an extremely subtle, invisible, internal, and often very rational force. Rather than showing its face clearly, it is most often expressed in procrastination, coping mechanisms, addictions, victim mentalities, criticism of others, and rationalisations. Essentially, Pressfield argues, it is fuelled by fear. But in betraying itself by fear, we can know that the more fearful we are, the more significant the task before us.

However, we know that Resistance can certainly be defeated, otherwise there would be no Macbeth, or Don Quijote, or Michelangelo’s Pieta. The way to overcome, as Pressfield puts it, is to “turn pro.” Primarily, the professional possesses a mentality which the amateur lacks. While the common view is that the amateur works for the love and the professional works for money, the author asserts that in reality the amateur does not love the game enough, otherwise he would dedicate his life to it like the professional. A professional stakes it all on his calling, plays for keeps, turns up to work and commits full-time. The basic attributes of what this looks like are to work daily, no matter what, over the long-haul, taking risks, accepting remuneration, mastering one’s craft, having a sense of humour and receiving blame or praise without over-identification with one’s work. Pressfield’s argument is that there is no luck or magic involved, but simply a wilful decision to turn pro and approach one’s work with this relentless perseverance.

The final question pertains to the source of creativity once Resistance has been put in its place. Pressfield opens the book with a prayer from the Odyssey, invoking the Muses, the mythical daughters of the gods, to inspire the poet in his work. The author takes the Muse as representative of that common feeling among artists that the work is not their own, but rather handed to them to ‘enflesh’. Amateurs only work when inspiration happens to hit. Professionals create a regular space where this can happen. Rather than waiting inactively for the Muse to descend, which turns out to continually be ‘mañana’, simply turning up to work daily creates a space into which the Muse can speak. This voice, the author explains, is what the ancients called our “inner genius,” the unique gift of our individual soul. Thus, he exhorts us, “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

The practical aspects of this book have been revealing and uplifting, causing me to take my calling more seriously, recognising Resistance when it attacks and resolving to “turn up” to work so that inspiration has a ready vessel to fill. Beyond this, however, the work raises some interesting theological questions in its discussion of the creative Muse. Pressfield, on his part, seems to take this spiritual aspect with absolute seriousness. He states that his daily ritual begins with a prayer to invoke the Muses. But, at least for him, this is not only a method, but a real act of worship. He bows his pride to the Muse and offers his gift back to it. Although he encourages the reader to follow him even if he doesn’t believe in such things as angels or Muses, there is a clear indication that every artist implicitly recognises that there are real, powerful, immaterial forces at work in the act of creation. Although Pressfield takes pains to thoroughly demystify the process of writing, and I think he is successful, in the end he reinforces a spiritual notion of the source of creative inspiration. Ultimately, for the author, the artist’s journey is that of discovering ‘self’, because the Muse is his authentic self, talking to him from a higher plane of existence where “God is all there is.”

What is interesting to me, therefore, is that the book points to sources outside of ourselves as the source of creativity, but on the other hand ends up identifying those external forces with ourselves. What Pressfield espouses, therefore, is a form of Monism or Pantheism. With this in view, the book can almost be seen as a theological treatise, with Resistance playing the role of sin, and invocation of the Muse the salvific act which, through artistic expression, connects us to our estranged inner god. In this framework, both the thing that we are striving for and the thing which holds us back are within us. Thus, Resistance is an illusion caused by fear of our inner divine potential.

But why is it more plausible to think that the Muse is simply our authentic, divine self, than that it is the eternal, immaterial, creator God at work? When taken as a whole, the author seems driven to this conclusion by being unable to deny the spiritual forces at work in his craft, but being unwilling for some reason to admit that this could be God, separate and distinct from his creation. Perhaps there is Resistance to this idea because of its possible moral implications on the artist’s life. Of course, it would also, unfortunately, imply that we ourselves are not God.

Culture, Review

Lewis Hyde, ‘The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World’ (Review)


Some books sit just above you, speaking to you but calling you up to their level. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World (Canongate: 2012) is one of these. I feel it’s significance but I don’t quite have the perspective from which to appreciate all it’s implications. So in some ways, I’m certainly not qualified to write a review. But then again, even from my position, I can see that it holds enough treasures for me to be impelled to share, write and reflect in response.

The Gift has been in print continuously for the thirty-three years since it was written, a fact which shows it’s continued relevance to readers interested in creativity, whether as practitioners or consumers. But as the foreword by Margaret Atwood highlights, the book “has always been hard to summarise in pithy prose.” As far as it can be reduced to a sentence, I would say it is a study of the nature of gifts and how the gift of art interacts with the market-driven world.

Hyde, former Director of Creative Writing at Harvard, begins by outlining the characteristics of gift culture through the lens of anthropology and folk literature. His intention is to make clear what human cultures seem to know innately about gifts through the stories we tell and the rituals we perpetuate. He then counterpoises this realm of gifts with that of the marketplace. Part one thus leads to an examination of the tensions created in the modern world by the confusion of these two spheres. Then, part two explores Hyde’s analysis taking poets Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound as case studies. In the end, as the conclusion admits, the book serves to raise the question of how artists, who essentially operate within the culture of gifts, should interact with the market-oriented culture that now predominates in modern life.

Part of what the book expertly reveals is that the relationship between art and commerce is only getting more complicated. Previously, folk cultures all over the world consistently operated on a double standard, a gift culture within the community and a market culture outside the community. For example, in the Torah, God prohibits the charging of interest between Hebrews because it is inimical to gift-giving. For outsiders, however, a market culture was allowed, maintaining a healthy boundary and allowing the internal community to flourish. Since the Reformation, however, the ancient prohibition on usury has been reinterpreted to allow for the charging of interest to all, whether inside or outside. Indeed, this is essentially the system on which the entire world monetary system is now based. Thus, Hyde argues, there has been a growing loss of the distinction between objects which can be commercialised and those that can’t.

As the first part of the study shows, artists almost invariably recognise their creativity and inspiration, as well as the fruit these produce, to be gifts. Gifts are received freely and must be given freely, as turning them to capital of any sort violates their nature and nullifies their benefits. There is always a reciprocal flow which is marked by generosity and gratitude. Gifts transform us and point us to something bigger than ourselves, creating a community through the bonds of love which they invariably forge. Artists are thus in a difficult position because their labour produces something which loses its value if commercialised–hence the artist’s age-old dilemma between staying true to the gift and making a decent living. Whitman responded to this dichotomy by giving of his self to the point of near ruin. Pound responded by embracing Fascism, which he saw as fostering a theory of money that made a place for the artist.

As the case studies show, the value of the book doesn’t lie in the answers it provides, but rather in helping to clarify the questions. Hyde admits that he is unable to offer a solution to the artist’s problem, except in hinting that society should provide a return of gratitude to artists for their gifts. This would allow the gift to remain a gift and the artist to continue in her work. But the practicalities of this are not explored in any detail. In all honesty, I found the sections on Whitman and Pound to be quite taxing. Perhaps this is due to being unfamiliar with their work. But where the book really succeeds is in showing the distinct nature and benefits of gifts, how art is itself a gift, and how artists and art are compromised by market commodification. These insights, I feel, have profoundly affected my thinking and I have an inkling they will continue to do so for years to come.

In all, the book has given me a deeper appreciation of the value of gifts, how they affect and change us, and how we ought to respond to them naturally in gratitude. As a result, Hyde has helped me to better understand the way I feel about my own art. I have always felt that it was a gift given to me, and that in gratitude to this gift, I must in turn share it with others. I now understand and can articulate why it is that I feel the dis-ease and turbulence of disobedience when I allow my gift to remain unused. I now understand why it is that I feel a tension whenever it is that I come to talking about money in relation to this gift. But perhaps with this new understanding I will be better equipped to negotiate the tension, accept it for what it is, and navigate with a clearer vision. I may not know the answer, but I feel now I at least know why there is a question.

Apologetics, Culture, Reflection, Theology

The Problem With ‘Using’ the Arts


The problem with treating the arts as a means to another end is that when that end is achieved the arts suddenly lose their value. Lewis Hyde showed this in The Gift by highlighting the decline of arts funding in America after the Cold War. During the propaganda war, the arts had been supported as a bastion of Western freedoms. This is the period when the National Endowment for the Arts was founded, when the CIA worked behind the scenes to exhibit American artists abroad. But when the West ‘won’, an era of unselfconscious market triumphalism was ushered in and the arts quickly began to seem superfluous. They had served their purpose.

Evangelical Christians, in the majority of cases that I have experienced, tend to justify the arts only as a means to an end. Most commonly this means the only respectable argument for investment in the arts is that it will lead to increased church attendance or greater relevance to contemporary society or engagement with the youth. I have been party to this too and I understand the tension.
These are certainly worthy and worthwhile goals. Of course we want more people to know God and reach every generation and culture effectively. But as Christians, treating the arts merely as a means to evangelism, or relevance, or engagement, assumes that art has no inherent and enduring value to be cultivated beyond these goals. The Bible, however, shows quite clearly that this is an impoverished logic, for artistic creativity will long outlast these temporal ends.

In the new Heavens and Earth, there will be no need for evangelists, neither will there be disparity between the people of God and their surroundings, nor will there be rifts between generations. All will see him, all will know him and all will worship him in solidarity. But one aspect of human existence that will continue to grow perpetually, eternally, for the people of God, is our reflection of his nature. We are being formed into the images of Christ, the image of God. We will reflect his glory by reflecting his nature, character and activity. We are to be made like him–not exhaustively, but truly.

Genesis 1:1 reveals God as the Creator, the great Artist wielding his brush out of the overflow of Trinitarian love. We thus meet him in scripture as Creator before he is Saviour, Father and Judge. Can we afford to neglect this aspect of our God, or of ourselves, his image-bearers?

There will come a time when evangelism will have served its purpose, but the gift of creativity will endure. When the cause of winning people of Christ has been fulfilled, we will continue to create in collaboration with our Creator God. While no one will then need to be convinced, the glory of the gospel will continue to be proclaimed in ever more wonderful and imaginative ways.

Evangelism, in one way then, is a means to creating more artists.

I’m not arguing merely to exalt the arts out of self-indulgence or special pleading, but to honour the Gift Giver by enjoying his precious gift. A gift used merely as a transaction, to gain a measured reciprocal response, leaves the realm of the gift and enters the market of commodities. But to use the gift as a gift, to consume it for the joy of it’s being a gift, transforms us with gratitude and compels us to pass the gift along because we know it is not our possession. And what could bring the giver more satisfaction and glory than to see his gift wholeheartedly enjoyed, like the contentment of a loving husband revelling in his bride’s disinterested pleasure?