Books / Commentary / Programs

Resources for creative practice as spiritual formation

Typewriter

I’m currently part-way through Brian Jay Jones’s biography of puppeteer and entertainment visionary Jim Henson. As a lifelong Muppet fan, I’ve really enjoyed filling in the bits of Kermit, Big Bird, and friends’ backstory that I hadn’t picked up over the years via TV specials and DVD extras.

But more rewarding still has been the process of watching, through Jones’s authorial lens, as the book’s protagonist comes into his own as an artist, storyteller, and leader of tremendously gifted creative teams.

Jones clearly shows how Henson infused his creations with liberal doses of his own personality and character. From Kermit’s playful but gentle demeanor to Rowlf the Dog’s soulful melancholy to the whole gang’s love of chaos and puns, there’s no mistaking where these colorful individuals came from. They came from the heart and soul of James Maury Henson.

And yet it’s equally clear that this creative process was not a one-way street—that in bringing them into existence, Henson was himself becoming more fully who he was. For example, in the early days, he was too shy to use his own voice on air, so he built early Muppet sketches around lip-syncing to period novelty songs. Only as it became clearer who his characters were did he gain the confidence to voice them himself. That decision freed him to create sketches that were entirely his own, thus beginning another cycle of creative development.

Henson didn’t set out to become a puppeteer or even a performer. But he came to understand his gifts by living into them, through the daily practice of increasingly fearless public play and creative dreaming.

Things are no different in the life of faith—or at least they shouldn’t be. The art we are exposed to helps make us who we are, and especially the art we bring into being. Creative expression is an important means to spiritual growth. Faith should, among so many other things, be fun, passionate, and expressive.

From where I sit at the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, where materials and tools for faith formation meet the practitioners who guide faithful Christians in using them, it seems to me that our churches are rediscovering these important truths. We’re remembering what Jesus told us about little children. We’re remembering that play and creative expression are therefore not just for them but for us.

Author, teacher, and workshop leader Dave Harrity puts it this way:

We’re created to create. We’re designed. We’re intentional. We have a purpose. In fact, you are God’s poem, God’s voice in the world. So maybe the best way to connect and to commune with God and with one another is to cultivate a creative faith.

There are many resources to support pilgrims who’d like to undertake that journey. This article gives an overview of some of my favorites.

Companions to guide us

As in all aspects of spiritual formation, it’s best for us to have a guide. Many of us lose our knack for artistic expression as we age. But some who use it daily have also developed a knack for coaching the rest of us.

That’s what Harrity sets out to do in Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand. It’s a collection of twenty-eight paired meditations and writing exercises designed to “incline your heart and mind toward mystery, wandering, seeking, exploring, and contemplating.”

I’m looking forward to spending Lent under Harrity’s tutelage (there are twenty-seven weekdays in Lent, not counting Ash Wednesday and Holy Week, so his book’s fit is just about right). On day thirteen, here’s some of the encouragement I’ll receive:

You have, simmering inside, that same intentionality, that thriving capacity, just like God in action. You have that mysterious forest of eternity living in you, so seek it in peace. What you speak onto this page is sacred, and nothing less—a bringing of God into the world. A ringing of your unique voice, an image of a creator, an icon written to one created. So stack your stones today in confidence that nothing you can do will make God love you or this world more or less. Your words go out to the ends of the earth.

The exercises are no less particular and concrete; the one paired with this meditation aims to help the writer explore spiritual connections. On that thirteenth day, I’ll be writing a series of similes: about bread, about kneeling, about chewing, about swallowing, about praying, about darkness, about grace. My writing classes never sounded this spiritually fulfilling.

Those more visually or aurally inclined may seek creative outlets like drawing, composing, painting, improvising, sculpting, or even filmmaking. I have recently found thoughtful coaches and companions in this last endeavor as part of a workshop offered by the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS).

Although not explicitly faith-oriented, the facilitators’ methods are grounded in a deep reverence for participants’ lived experience and a trust in the creative process that would not unfairly be called spiritual. Best of all, these workshops are starting to be offered online at an affordable rate.

I’ve been struck in this process by the power of music and pictures to tell the stories that we only begin telling by setting them down in words. In the silly-turning-serious story I decided to tell, what seemed confusing and under-specified in my script was clarified as I added these complementary dimensions.

It was a good reminder that “In the beginning was the Word”—but the Word was only the beginning.

Paths to healing

One of the privileges of participating in a CDS workshop is the opportunity to watch some of the most moving stories past participants have created. In almost every case, these narratives represent a process not just of reflection but of healing.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that videos about domestic violence, hospital visits, and near-death experiences resonate so deeply. All of us carry pain and hurt that are perhaps best explored obliquely (at least at first) via art of our own or even others’ making.

That’s an insight shared by Roger Hutchison, author of The Painting Table: A Journal of Loss and Joy. His story in words and pictures of a table he inherited from his grandmother and that is now “the place where [he goes] to pray” feels a lot like the stories my fellow video workshop participants and I were creating.

Hutchison invites anyone struggling with loss and change to join him around a table like his and be transformed by the experience:

The end result of The Painting Table is not the painting that is created. It is the conversation, sharing, and listening that takes place around the table. It is one mother comforting another mother as they both grieve for their friend who lost a child. It is like the conversation I had once with a third grade girl who told me she had had a really bad day. Her painting was dark and frantic. I listened to her for a little while—then encouraged her to paint another one. The second painting was a bit more colorful. She took her two paintings and smashed them together. When she pulled them apart, the darkness had lifted. I could see light, love, and a beautiful smile.

Not unlike Harrity’s writing prompts, Hutchison’s journal pages provide both inspiration and a space to let it sing through us. “Friend, will you join me at my painting table?” he asks. “There are stories to tell.”

Light on our path, light for the world

I would be remiss if I failed to make one final point about creative expression as spiritual practice: the way our creations can become inspirations to others. Faith-oriented art has long been among the world’s most important and appreciated, which serves as a way of introducing the message of this art to new audiences and new generations.

In the digital age, there is tremendous power for even our amateur creations to be an inspiration to others. I’ve particularly enjoyed corporate efforts to this effect, such as the United Methodist Rethink Church site’s Advent photo-a-day project.

I was energized to see my friends’ attempts to capture each day’s word with an image, and I’m glad I can now go back and search for the best examples from each day on Pinterest. The project underscores the way social media platforms can make creative faith expression an activity of call and response among the diverse people of God.

Whatever form our creative expression takes, it has the potential to bring us closer to God and each other. I am grateful for the cloud of witnesses sharing their insights with me, when appropriate.

And I am grateful for those resources that are helping me join these sinners and saints in conversation with the God who created us all.

P.S. I’ve only scratched the surface in this article. Please share your favorite resources in the comments!

Kyle Matthew Oliver (@kmoliver) is the digital missioner and learning lab coordinator in the Center for the Ministry of Teaching, a contributor at Faith Formation Learning Exchange (where this article originated), and a panelist on the Easter People podcast.