Culture and Goodness (6)
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness wason the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters… Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good. Genesis 1.1, 2, 31
From ordinary to very good
It is instructive that the creating work of God took six days. It didn’t have to, after all. God could have spoken the creation into being whole, complete, and very good in a single word. But He didn’t. He chose to employ a process whereby He made something out of nothing by changing formless matter from darkness and void, through addition and adornment, to a unified, varied, harmonious, and very good thing.
When God began His work of creating, the world was just stuff, without color or variety, dull, dark, and dreary, empty and lifeless. But God acted on the ordinariness of creation and transformed it into a cosmos of beauty and goodness; and He Himself, the supreme Good, pronounced it very good.
Made in the image of God, human beings share a genius for creativity, for making something out of nothing, so to speak, for bringing out the goodness in ordinary, everyday situations and things. We are creative creatures, but creativity is a learned art; it doesn’t come naturally to us. And in the creative activity of humans, in all kinds of cultural fields and activities, forms of goodness appear that can bear witness to the goodness of God. The creative work of others can encourage and instruct us to use the culture of our lives to bring more of the goodness of God to light in the land of the living.
Out of nothing, something good
Artists have a knack for making something out of nothing. They have mastered the skills of creativity relative to their art and use them deftly to show us goodness where we might otherwise never notice it. We’ve seen how an artist like Peter Huntoon can envision a thing of unity, beauty, and goodness in what most of us would regard as a rather ordinary scene. And not only envision it, but create it. This is what artists do. Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi saw in the seasons of the year a Wunderkammer of beauty and goodness. He captured the familiar – and too often ordinary – sights and sounds of each season in four concerti, each uniquely composed to express the mood, colors, and activities of a different season of the year. The Four Seasons remains a favorite of many music lovers.
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was a master at observing ordinary things and, by describing them in his unique verse style, bringing out their inherent beauty and goodness. A bat circling a lamp, a pebble splashing in a well, a trout swimming beneath his feet, a plover gliding past his eyes, or the face of a stranger could ignite Hopkins’ creative spark and lead him to forge a poem of lasting beauty and goodness.
One of my favorite examples of creativity making something out of nothing is Paul McCartney’s song, “Penny Lane.” Here is a most unusual pop song, in that it masterfully employs all the resources of pop music, but offers none of the focus we tend to associate with the genre. Here are no sentimental or passionate expressions of love or loneliness, no angry rants against The Man or his institutions, no celebrations of drugs and sex, and no merely giddy expressions of fleeting fun. “Penny Lane” is a work of homage, a walking tour of a place that was important to Paul McCartney in his childhood and youth. In a 2009 interview with ClashMusic, McCartney explained, “‘Penny Lane’ was kind of nostalgic, but it was really a place that John [Lennon] and I knew; it was actually a bus terminus. I’d get a bus to his house and I’d have to change at Penny Lane, or the same with him to me, so we often hung out at that terminus, like a roundabout. It was a place that we both knew, and so we both knew the things that turned up in the story.”McCartney describes everyday sights in an ordinary part of an ordinary city, using his extraordinary gifts of creativity to lead us to an experience of goodness and delight.
McCartney’s poetry and instrumentation create sights and sounds that put Penny Lane in our ears and in our eyes. Further, McCartney draws from other eras of music to lend dignity to the composition and theme. He employs a “walking bass” foundation to the song, a device familiar to baroque composers like Vivaldi, but which also evokes the feeling of walking around the barber shop, the fish and chips store, and the roundabout on Penny Lane. He also employs a Renaissance trumpet to create continuity between his pop composition and his English musical heritage. Thus, by addition and adornment, McCartney creates an experience of goodness and delight from his memories of an ordinary place.
Many people would say “Penny Lane” is a very good song. And we can agree, but we must not stop there. It is not likely that Paul McCartney intended to honor God by celebrating the goodness of his home town, or by crafting a work of cultural goodness to delight audiences of every age. However, with the apostles Paul and James, we insist that whatever goodness is embodied in Paul McCartney’s creativity comes from God, and should lead us to turn from considerations of earthly and temporal goodness to the goodness of God, from Whom all good and perfect gifts come (Jms. 1.17).
Shining God’s goodness
All such expressions of goodness in works of culture bear witness to the goodness of the Lord, even when those who are the source of that goodness neither intend nor acknowledge His goodness in them (cf. Acts 14.17). When we experience goodness, we know delight, and this can have a powerful and positive effect on us. And such encounters with goodness can point us to the goodness of God as well, as the apostle Paul did with the people of Lycaonia. Similarly, when we use culture – especially everyday, ordinary cultural things and activities – in ways that refract the goodness of God, we shine His goodness on the people around us, and create opportunities for bearing witness to God, Who alone is Good (Matt. 5.13-16).
Most of us would perhaps say that we live ordinary lives. We aren’t artists, poets, or composers. How can we bring anything of goodness into the lives of the people we see each day? Yet we are all made in the image of God, and therefore we all have the ability to make something out of nothing in our lives. By seeing God’s goodness in everyday situations and things, and developing our creative abilities, we can bring the goodness of God into the land of the living in even the most ordinary cultural activities of our lives. And that will be a very good thing, indeed.
1. What makes a person creative? What can we learn from God’s creativity to help us be more creative in everyday ways?
2. What’s the difference between eating and drinking and eating and drinking to the glory of God? Which has more potential to bring out the goodness of God? Why?
3. “Culture” is simply what we do with the things and situations of our lives. And all our cultural activities can shine with the goodness of God. Suggest some ways you might improve in using all your ordinary cultural activities to glorify God.
Next steps – Conversation: Talk with some Christian friends about what makes for a good use of culture – a 1 Corinthians 10.31 use of culture.
T. M. Moore
What are you doing at 8:18 am? If you’re with Bruce Van Patter, you’re observing the goodness of God in your immediate surroundings. Take a look at Bruce’s column, and let your world come alive with goodness (click here). You can subscribe to receive 8:18 as often as it comes out, right on your desktop.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.