I’ve been reading a lot about creativity lately, and in the course of my reading I’ve come across an essay by Gregory Wolfe entitled “Art, Faith, and the Stewardship of Culture.” In it Wolfe, founder and editor of the longstanding Christian literary and arts quarterly Image, explores how art and imagination can renew our culture amid contentious political debates. Wolfe’s essay is his contribution to a larger collection on art and faith, and while that collection was published in 2000, the questions he raises seem even more relevant today.
Speaking of the U.S.’s polarized political climate, Wolfe writes,
The very metaphor of war ought to make us pause. The phrase ‘culture wars’ is an oxymoron: culture is about nourishment, cultivation, whereas war invariably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse.
Now, the many issues over which faithful Christians disagree are worth being contested. Much is at stake. As I understand it, Wolfe’s larger concern is that we avoid a scorched earth approach – that amid debate we still have a vibrant culture worth fighting over. He fears that Christians have abandoned the realms of art and imagination, even though they can provide the nourishment we need to flourish holistically. He writes,
The Judeo-Christian concept of stewardship applies not only to the environment and to institutions but also to culture. To abdicate this responsibility is somewhat like a farmer refusing to till a field because it has stones and heavy clay in it. The wise farmer knows that with the proper cultivation that soil will become fertile.
Wolfe’s focus, understandably, is on art as an aspect of stewarding culture, but it’s not the only aspect that’s been neglected in recent years. In fact, Wolfe’s assertions about art as a means to steward and renew culture can be extended to the work Christians do in other fields not traditionally associated with creativity and imagination.
How does the work you do, whether in your job, career, or calling, contribute to the nourishing and cultivation of society? It’s not a question of if it does – it does. The question is how. And only you can figure that out in your specific context. The refreshment and renewal of hearts and minds can best be done by Christians committed to tilling their communities and their places, by Christians embedded as “resident teachers,” a term James K.A. Smith coins in another essay.
So we need Christians to nourish our culture through culture, and that takes place on canvases and in recording studios and when curtains rise on theater stages. But it also happens in classrooms and boardrooms and showrooms and a host of other places where Christians faithfully and imaginatively apply their creativity. Let’s not neglect any of these realms.