Someone's heretic.

Ex Materia

How Faith Can Unleash Your Creativity in a World Where Nothing is New

CH 4: Creative Identity

Note: the following is the second chapter in a book that I wrote called Ex Materia: How Faith Can Unleash Your Creativity in a World Where Nothing is New. If you haven't already, I would recommend reading Chapters 1-3 before launching into Chapter 4. 

A lot of people aren’t doing anything because they aren’t sure what they’re supposed to be doing. That, or they’re confused about their identity. I've been in both positions.

Back when I was severely struggling with creative block, I had an identity crisis. I would think things like this: "If I'm having trouble creating, am I really cut out to do creative work professionally?"         

I started realizing that I needed to figure out my identity before I could press onward.

We’re All Different

All creatives are different. You and I are not the same. We both have individual gifts and talents, and we both have personal struggles and doubts. Every person has their own distinct characteristics, struggles, and proficiencies.

For instance, I wrestle with coming up with new ideas; my friend Harrison, on the other hand, has so many ideas that he cannot possibly act on them all.  He even offered to give me some once.

The concept of creative diversity is important to grasp. What works for one person, might not work for you. I’m writing this book well aware of this fact. I know that some of the ideas and principles that I’m talking about won’t impact every single reader.

In a letter written to a Corinthian church many centuries ago, the Apostle Paul talked about how each Christian is unique and plays a different role in a community of believers. Paul explained that the church is like a body, and each member is a different body part. One person might be a “hand,” while another might be a “foot.” Some of these parts might seem more important than others, but Paul told the Corinthians that all roles were necessary and part of a whole.

I see this played out extremely well on a film set. The director could be described as the “head” of the group. He has the leadership, vision, and power to control the way the movie turns out. Despite this, the director cannot make a movie on his own. He has to have a team of camera operators, cinematographers, make-up artists, writers, set designers, lighting technicians, editors, producers, assistants, and a long list of other people. The “lowly” camera operator might not feel as important as the director, but his role is essential and necessary.

Application: do your best in the position you are currently in. If you are a “hand,” be the best possible hand you can be. Don’t try to be a “foot” because it just wouldn’t work out.

Don't Try to Be Someone You’re Not

Often I find myself wishing I was someone else. If only I were the leader or the one with all the attention. I wish I were the person that has too many ideas instead of too few.

If you try too hard to be someone you’re not, the world might just miss out on who you really are.

As creative individuals, the temptation to compare ourselves with others might be the hardest battle we have to fight.

We have to accept the fact that we are unique creators. We might share similarities with other people, but we must embrace our individuality.

Try new things, and figure out what works best for you.

If you try too hard to be someone you’re not, the world might just miss out on who you really are.

Finding Our Identity and Meaning

As creators, it’s tempting to label ourselves based upon what we do. If we’re successful, it can be tempting to place our worth in accomplishments and fame. But, to place the meaning and worth of your life on something that can fail is dangerous. Furthermore, you’re selling yourself short by confining your work and purpose to one thing.

Consider the parable of the two foundations that Jesus told. One house was built on a foundation of sand, and the other was built on rock. A storm came, and only one of the houses stood strong.

As creatives, when the storm and the waves come, will our “houses” stand strong or will they collapse?

This is serious business for artists and creatives because we often make a living through things that are not certain and not consistent (especially freelancers).

One moment we can be succeeding, the next we can be failing. Building our “houses” upon shaky ground might work for awhile, but we must consider what will happen when hard times hit.

Solid Ground

So, how do we find purpose and meaning that won’t come crashing down? We must look to Yahweh. If we find our worth in Yahweh, we won’t be dependent upon success or the acceptance of others to be content and happy.

There’s a lot of talk about finding identity in Yahweh, but how do we actually go about doing that? We must come to grips with who we are on a foundational level. It’s not about what we do or what our personality is; it’s about our origins.

You are a creation of Yahweh.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, so let’s reframe that statement: Yahweh chose to create you. He purposefully placed you within this world. As a Christian, you were created in Christ Jesus for good works. He planned these good works ahead of time.

Furthermore, you are his workmanship. Yahweh is the Master Creator, and you are a creation of the Master.

This is your identity. Rest in it.

Build everything upon your relationship with Yahweh.

Embracing Your Identity

Coming to terms with the fact that we’re all different and will all have varying levels of success isn’t easy. It all comes down to how satisfied we are with our identity. Are we content with who we are?

We Must Have a Higher Purpose to our Creating

Why do I create? Why do I write? I ask myself things like this because they’re important questions to answer.

The writer of Ecclesiastes constantly talked about how everything he did was striving after the wind. In other words, everything was pointless. Ultimately we’re all going to die, and we can’t “take it with us.” We can’t keep our fame. We can’t keep our awards. We can’t keep our money.

If the only reason you create is for material and earthly reward, then you’re making a terrible investment.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to store up treasures in heaven instead of on earth. If we do, our investment will be safe and waiting for us. It’s tempting to strive after the wind by seeking fame and fortune through creating, but it’s not worth it. Those things are not bad, but they shouldn’t be the priority.

Instead, we should worship and glorify Yahweh through our creating.

Worship Through Creating

Some people worship Yahweh best through singing songs of praise, but one of my favorite ways to worship is through my creativity. When I volunteer my time, or work for causes that further Yahweh’s kingdom, I not only get the pleasure and excitement from making art, but I’m storing up treasures in heaven. Even when I’m just creating for my own enjoyment, I can do it as unto the Lord.

As that verse in 1 Corinthians 10 says, “whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it as unto the Lord”. The “whatever you do” includes creating.

So, as artists and creatives, we should create truly exceptional things and do it as an offering of worship to our God and Creator.

I feel a sense of connection and worship when I create as if I were doing it for God. Try it yourself sometime.

Is it Okay to Create?

When I was younger, I struggled with the fact that doing creative work seemed unnecessary. I wrestled with whether or not I should pursue a creative field. Aren't there more important things that need to be done?

The other night, I went to my college's homecoming pageant. One of the young women that was competing was asked why she chose to study the fine arts. Her answer was disappointing to me. She basically said that fine arts is a great choice for people who aren’t athletically gifted. Her statement reflected the idea that the arts are somehow lesser or not as good. Only go into the arts as a last resort; it is only a good option if you can’t do anything else.

Creative work is work that must be done, and the church needs more of it.

This sentiment is similar to how I felt about it from a Christian standpoint. I felt pastors, missionaries, and evangelists had much higher callings. More important callings. To stay in America and pursue a creative career seemed too safe and not radical enough for a Christian.

Here’s the truth though: it’s a worthy calling that can have great impact. Creating is an act that can glorify Yahweh just as much as anything else. Remember, the body of Christ is made up of many members; all members have different skills, gifts, and callings. No one is better than another, but each has a different role.

Creative work is work that must be done, and the church needs more of it.

Yahweh Calls Creators

Perhaps you or someone you know still thinks that being an artist or creative is somehow a lesser calling. If so, I’d like you to take a look at what Yahweh does in Exodus 31:

"Now the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship, to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze, and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship. And behold, I Myself have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill, that they may make all that I have commanded you…" (NASB)

Yahweh calls creators. Here in Exodus there are two prime examples: Bezalel and Oholiab. These men were called by Yahweh to create the aesthetics and design for the tabernacle. Just reading about their callings makes my heart beat faster. It helps me realize that there is a place for art and creating as a Christian. Furthermore, being creative can be a God-given talent and calling. **

Created for Good Works

Bezalel and Oholiab were two artisans whom Yahweh called to help create the tabernacle. These two men are inspirational to me because they were creatives who were reliant upon Yahweh. Additionally, they were gifted by Yahweh with skills and talents for specific purposes. I believe this still happens with many creatives today.

In his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul wrote that Christians were created in Christ Jesus for good works. Take note that he did not say specifically what those good works are. Why? Because they are different for each person.

I believe that Yahweh has called, is calling, and will call creative people to create good works. These works can improve lives, bring enjoyment and satisfaction, and also introduce people to the Gospel both indirectly and directly.

If you’re struggling with feeling like a failure creatively speaking, then seek Yahweh. If he has called you to create, then he will provide you with the inspiration, energy, time, and ideas to do the good works that he has prepared for you in advance.

That’s by far the most encouraging and meaningful thing we can hold on to as Christian creatives.

Created for Community

I’ve been talking a lot about finding your identity in this chapter, but there’s one important that we haven’t discussed yet: the people you surround yourself with. Your community.

One of my biggest mistakes as a creator was thinking that I could go it alone. I didn’t have a community of like-minded people to work with, and I was suffering because of it.

In a world where nothing is new, you need help from Yahweh, but you also need help from other people. A verse in the Bible speaks of “bearing one another’s burdens.” I think we as Christians can apply this to creative burdens as well. We have plenty of those:

  • Lack of inspiration
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of funding
  • Messing up
  • Not being understood

These hardships can pile up and feel overwhelming at times. If you are trying to endure the pressure by yourself, it will be a struggle.

I used to try to do everything myself. Eventually, I got so worn out that I finally realized I couldn’t do it all. Even if I could, the results were not as good as they could have been. I was spreading myself thin.

I needed help.

The Free-for-All Myth

One of the greatest lies that creative people believe is that they are in a competitive sport. It becomes a power struggle where there’s only one winner, and we have to be that one winner.

It’s every man and woman for themselves, and to help someone else would be to hinder your own chances of success.

But that's all a lie.

The creative life isn’t a free-for-all. There are too many obstacles, hardships, and pitfalls to go it alone.  Creativity is a team sport. Are you trying to play it by yourself?

Creativity is a team sport. Are you trying to play it by yourself?

Benefits of the Body

The beauty in having connections and friends is that you have help if you need it. We cannot be skilled at everything, but when we come together as a whole, new possibilities open up to us. If I need a good writer, I can find one. If someone needs a photographer, I can offer my assistance.

If you do not have any connections or anyone to go to, then you will not make it very far.

In order to live up to our fullest creative potential, we need help from our fellow creatives and believers. This points back toward the concept of ex materia creativity. We were not meant to create alone. We need to have resources, inspiration, and a community to create out of.

Gestalt Theory

Gestalt Theory says that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When multiple elements come together to function as a whole, they end up being worth more than their individual values.

To make a movie, you have to have numerous “ingredients” for it to work. There’s sound design, cinematography, set design, music, acting, visual effects, lighting, art, costume, and more. Each of these things individually has its worth, but together they create a beautiful whole: a complete film. The whole film does more and is worth more than simply the sum of its numerous parts.

In the same way, when you're a part of a community of other creators, you can do a lot more. By yourself you might be able to do some great things, but there is power in numbers.

You Can’t Take all the Credit

When I was younger, I wanted to become a filmmaker. One day, I realized that I couldn’t do it on my own. If I wanted to make a feature-length movie and do it well, I would have to rely upon other people. Back then, when I was younger and more foolish, I thought this was awful because I would not be able to take all the credit. I could never say that it was my movie. Instead, I’d always have to include the whole team.

Now, I’ve stopped caring about taking all the credit. I’ve realized that to be truly successful, you can never go it alone. Even if your craft is something you can do “alone”, you need encouragement, advice, and much more to be all that you can be.

Gestalt Theory is seen beautifully in the Body of Christ. There are many different Christians, and we all play different roles, but we are united (hopefully) together as one. Alone, we still have worth and ability, but together we can do so much more.

There will always come a time where you can’t do it. It’s a lot easier to get together a team and a group for support before you burn out.

Share It Before it is Done

One of the greatest advantages to having a community of people surrounding you is that you can share your works-in-progress to get feedback before they go live.

My friend Zack was recently building his personal website. He had written a short bio for his about page, but decided to send it to me for critique. I was able to look at it with a fresh set of eyes and see things he might not have caught.

Sharing your work before it’s finished is like testing the water before you dive in. By letting others see it, critique it, or try it out, you are safeguarding yourself against possible problems and failures. You are discovering if there are any hazards in the water before you jump.

It’s even better if you can find someone that is already in the water to ask if it’s safe to dive in. This is why we ask people if they liked a movie, or if the restaurant we are thinking about going to is good. We are seeking out the advice of someone who’s already experienced in the field we are about to dive into. They can coach us on possible issues we might have or pitfalls to avoid.

However, if we don’t have people we can turn to, then we are going to have to dive head first in the dark. I don’t know about you, but to me that’s scary and risky business.

Lowering Your Pride

Putting your work out for critique and advice isn’t easy. In fact, it requires you to lower yourself. It forces you to admit that you aren’t perfect and that other people have wisdom you need.

To close this chapter out, I want to compare and contrast two different types of creators. There are Prideful Creators and Servant Creators. I hope to be the latter because there’s power in creative humility.

The Prideful Creator

The prideful creator relies upon her own skill, ambition, and time to succeed. She sees the creative world as a competition and tries to fight for supremacy.

Prideful creatives do not serve others. Sharing, coaching, and helping others only increases competition. The fear that someone better will come along is crippling.

The prideful creative sees herself as better than those around her. When she see others succeed, she gets jealous and defensive. Everything is a threat.

For Christians, this lifestyle is unacceptable. We have to be different.

The Servant Creative

Christianity offers a radical spin on life. Principles like the first shall be last are utterly at war with human nature. Servanthood is one of the defining elements of the Christian life, and it needs to be seen in every aspect of who we are, including our creativity. That means we must become Servant Creatives.

Servant Creatives volunteer their time and skills for good causes.

Servant Creatives willingly coach, mentor, and assist the people who are just getting started.

Servant Creatives are not driven by their desire for fame and fortune, they are driven by a desire to glorify God and add value to the world.

Servant Creatives do not let their success change who they are.

Torry Martin is a Servant Creative. He is a strong Christian who is a great actor, writer, and speaker. Instead of keeping his wisdom and skill to himself, he gives it away with gusto.

Torry was one of the reasons why I decided to actually write this book. I met him at a conference in Nashville, and later he visited my college for a speaking engagement.

During his time at my school, I and four of my peers had the privilege of getting to spend an evening with him. I got to talk to him about my goal of writing a book and share some of my fears and doubts.

Our little group spent almost four hours in a dimly lit room at 11 o'clock at night, sitting around a wooden dining room table. The conversations that took place that evening were some of the most meaningful I've had in a long time.

I wish I could remember word-for-word what he told me. He looked me in the eyes and, with such a strong sincerity, told me that I definitely had something to write that was worth hearing. It didn't matter that I was only twenty and still in college.

Torry wasn’t getting paid to stay up till 1 a.m. talking to a bunch of college kids. Instead, he saw it as a way to minister and give of himself for the benefit of others. He poured into us encouragement, advice, and even resources.

Torry is not content with letting his creative skills and talents benefit only himself. For that, he is a Servant Creative.

And I want to be one too. I want my creative identity to be wrapped up in Yahweh and the servanthood of Jesus.

He is the potter, we are the clay.

**A lot of my opinions on this subject were formed from reading Art and the Bible by Francis Schaeffer. I highly recommend checking that book out. I don't claim to be speaking anything new here at all.