My friend handed me a book that changed my life just a few months before I graduated from college. I had a plan for graduate study, for a career. I had an answer to the “what’s next” questions that barrage us at every life transition. The book was Michael Card’s Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity, and the words on the page and the conversations with my friend about them revolutionized my understanding of the creative life as worship and faithfully walking in the calling with which I’d been called. My plans went out the window, and I’ve spent my life since living out the imago dei through my creative pursuits, worshiping God in all things, but particularly as a subcreator.
Five years after we graduated from college, that friend turned his back on his faith and his family and walked away from it all. And I was left to wrestle with what I’d learned arm in arm with him during those years, the insights he’d brought out in our many conversations that shaped how I followed Christ.
I was reminded of this a few days ago in a discussion on a Facebook group comprised of followers of The Rabbit Room. The original poster asked, “How do you handle the art of someone who made it at a time when they were (or at least seemed to be) following God, but has since left the faith behind?” The discussion ranged wide, with many individuals noting how they struggle with the same question, and others sharing the wisdom they’ve learned as they’ve encountered similar questions.
My post-college wrestling came to mind and I shared about it, remembering along the way other friends from my college days at a biblical university who have also walked away from the faith. I came to a place in that wrestling that actually aligned very well with the education I received at that biblical university: an understanding that all truth is God’s truth. If it is true, it remains true, even if the person who midwifed that truth to me no longer believes it. I found that I put those experiences in a similar category to the work of artists or teachers throughout history who have expressed profound truth, though they would not recognize God as the Author of truth.
Perhaps it’s because I just spent a week with a friend who is expecting a baby that the picture of a midwife came to me. But it resonated as I was trying to find just the right image to express what I’d realized in those years. My friend did not own the truth I’d learned with him; he had merely assisted its birth in my understanding.
I recall a discussion early on in one of my graduate courses on theories of writing. The central question at hand was the locus of meaning. In writing theory, there are many views: meaning may exist in the mind of the author, or in the mind of the reader. Meaning may be created in the exchange between the two. Meaning may exist separate from the work entirely. As the conversation in the classroom ranged, we divided fairly quickly into two main branches of thought: those who accepted the existence of absolute meaning and those who found it impossible to do so. I guessed that those who accepted the existence of absolute meaning (the camp in which I found myself) were likely informed by a biblical worldview, and as I got to know my classmates better, my guess was borne out: that entire camp were faithful Christians of one brand or another.
The idea that there is a truth that exists outside of humans is a distinctly biblical idea: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1, ESV). John’s opening words echo Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth. The earth was without form and void” (1:1-2). Both of these creation narratives presuppose existence before humankind arrives on the scene. “I AM”—that fascinating name God gives himself when he speaks to Moses—is a simple subject-verb combination: the personal pronoun and what might be the most fascinating verb in human language: “to be.” A statement of existence. If your worldview allows for this BE-ing apart from humankind, it is no surprise that your worldview allows for truth to exist apart from humankind’s understanding of it.
As a Christian who pursues creative work, or as a Christian who finds myself teaching in a church setting, or as a Christian who writes blogs or books, my aim is to speak truth. I want to tell a good story, or create a beautiful and excellent work of art, or engage my students with the scriptures, or teach ideas and insights I’ve gained from life. All this is valuable work. But my hope in that work is that it is not an end unto itself. As a Christian, my hope is that it points to the BE-ing who is the Author of truth.
My work, then, is a conduit. I am merely a midwife.
Birth is a natural process. In the modern western world, we have often so sterilized it that we forget that there are millions of women throughout history and around the world who have given birth without the aid of doctors and hospital beds and epidurals. For most of history, it was midwives from within communities who helped women through pregnancy, birth, and the post-partum period. Midwives (and later doctors and hospitals) helped to decrease maternal and infant mortality, but it is not as if birth would have stopped had they not been there. When a woman reaches the fullness of her pregnancy, her child is born. That’s just what happens, there’s no getting around it.
If this way of thinking about truth is valid, then it is no wonder that we are sometimes brought truth through unorthodox conduits. I remember reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (a book that requires the Christian reader to use all her power of discernment) and being struck by the fact that aside from an offhand mention, the God of the Bible and Jesus are not part of the story. Then I heard an interview with Gaiman in which he shared that he wrote a chapter about Jesus, but he just couldn’t make it fit in the book. He found that he could not make the character cooperate in his story alongside the characters of his various mythical gods. Reading between the lines, I thought, “It’s because Jesus is too real. All the other characters would pale beside him.” But the most interesting thing to me about the book as a whole is that the climax of the story involves a son, dying on tree. Try as he might, Gaiman couldn’t avoid the truth.
In his Institutes, John Calvin writes, “Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God” (2.2.15).
James Dolezal, a professor in the School of Divinity at Cairn University, notes in the University’s Cairn 10 podcast, following the quote from Calvin above, “A biblical education is actually a framework in which we can best appreciate, and even appropriate insomuch as it is true, what is there even in the secular intelligentsia—the writers and the scientists and what have you.”
As a Christian recipient of the works of humankind, I want to recognize them as midwives, not as the source of truth themselves. To be able to do so, I must have some understanding of truth, some measuring stick to stack up against. Dolezal goes on to note that “biblical knowledge” should not be seen as so otherworldly that it does not see the truth in this world, but that without that biblical knowledge, you will not be able “to admire that light that is within them if you do not have that framework of redemption and theology helping us to understand who God is, what he’s about, how his glory shines forth in all things.”
This framework of redemption is not only important in my consumption of works, it is necessary in my creation of works. As a Christian creator or as a Christian teacher, I seek to midwife well—I want my work to point to truth. To do so, I must steep myself in that truth, through all the avenues given to me: the Bible, the Church, the Holy Spirit. I want my work to be an excellent conduit for that which has been revealed to me, which I seek to reveal to others.
Paul himself was merely a midwife of the message he carried. He wrote to the Corinthian church, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve… Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:3-5, 8-11).