Cultivating Creativity

A Guide for Reflection & Conversation

The three essays in this month’s magazine describe some ways creativity is being cultivated in some churches and church-like spaces. There are varied expressions highlighted: there is poetry; there is music; there is visual art. Ellen McGrath Smith describes The Bridge Series, a monthly gathering of poets and other writers who read their work in order to raise consciousness, concern, and funds for social justice organizations. Ana Hernandez highlights three churches where singing and chanting – and generative listening – have become practices in service of creating beloved communities. And, Angela Yarber explains how the paintings in the Holy Women Icons Project empower marginalized women and repair a damaged world.

All of these offer much creative space for reflection and conversation.

Plowshares, Pruning Hooks, and Poems

• For Ellen Smith, what does poetry (and other kinds of public readings) contribute to the power of the Bridge Series experience?

• How do you think the introduction of poetry changes the character of the gathering, makes it different than, say, for example, a fundraiser for a good cause? How does the introduction of poetry, specifically, accomplish that?

Smith offers four ways of thinking about a poem (as aesthetic object, political act, personal expression, and social exchange).

• Are there others? How do you think about poetry, about what it is and what it does?

Here is a poem called “Making Peace,” by Denise Levertov.

Try reading this poem with the four lenses Smith provides.

• How does it impress you aesthetically? How does it read as a political act? What do you learn from it as Levertov’s personal expression? How/Where does it invite a social exchange?

Smith suggests that faith figures into the functions of poetry because it potentially permeates all of them.

• But could faith figure into the functions of poetry because poetry invites or engages faith? How might poetry do this?

Generating Church through Sound: Showing Up, Listening Deeply, and Practicing Together

• For Ana Hernandez, how does singing and chanting as a spiritual practice work to help people to find their own voices and to also deeply listen to the voices of others?

Hernandez draws on Otto Scharmer’s schema to describe different levels of listening and the character of the listening at each level (downloading, open-minded listening, empathic listening, and generative listening).

Give an example of your experience of each of these levels of listening, both as the listener and the one being listened to.

• For example, when have you “downloaded” or listened to another with an open mind?

• When have you been listened to empathically or at the level of generative listening – that is, when have you known that your heart has been listened to?

Scharmer’s levels and Hernandez’s explorations of them map closely to the four movements of the ancient practice of reading scripture, lectio divina, which is itself a practice of listening to texts – reading the words (downloading), thinking about them and letting the mind make associations (open-minded listening), paying attention to emotions and feelings (empathic listening), and finally dropping into silence (generative listening).

In this way, Hernandez’s collective singing and chanting is a contemplative meditation on each other as a kind of sacred text. “As we learn to listen and hold space for what we hear in one another’s hearts, we’ll learn to call each one by their true names.”

Here is a link to a simple meditative chant. Easy to pick up and repetitive. Try it as a group practice.

• Can you “feel” what Hernandez is inviting you to?

• How does chanting, and music in general, create connections within and across communities?

Art as Justice-Making: Painting and Writing Holy Women Icons

• For Angela Yarber, what is the continuity shared by the Holy Women Icons Project with the icons found in traditional and ancient religious iconography?

• What spiritual and historical chasms are filled and bridged by her “folk-feminist twist” on the iconographic form?

Yarber suggests that creative imagination is assumed to be mutually exclusive from nurturing the soul and repairing a broken world (at least by some spiritual leaders and activists).

• How do you see the relationship between creativity, soul-care, and social justice?

• How is imagination redemptive?

• Are there different kinds of imagination? That is, is there a difference between creative imagination and say, for example, spiritual imagination? Is it different than “holy imagination”?

Yarber highlights the life and contributions of Gloria Anzaldúa to the intersections of queer, feminist, and Chicana cultural theories, but also as a border-crosser of linguistic boundaries and binaries. Anzaldúa speaks of the importance of bearing witness “to what haunts us,” to see patterns, and to use “the imagination and its visions” to repair the damage.

• How would you characterize “the transformative power and medicine of art”?

Yarber describes the power of the Holy Women Icons – as well as the creation of them – for justice-making. There is also spiritual power in “praying them” in the long tradition of ancient iconography.

Read one or two of these short essays about icons and the practice of praying them.

Then enlarge one of the images from Yarber’s essay – Anna Julia Cooper or Gloria Anzaldúa – or find an image of interest to you at the Holy Women Icons Project page. In a quiet space and place, be present to the image in a contemplative way.

• Reflect on your experience.

Reflections on the Series

The authors in this series are describing how creativity – through poetry, music, and visual arts – is being cultivated in different spaces. But they are also prescribing how the church might work to become a more robust cultivator of creativity in the world, the implication being that the church is not presently such a cultivating, creative space.

This is more than a little perplexing, isn’t it? Poetry is not unknown to the church. Poetry is the language of its sacred texts, of the psalms and the prophets, and even the language of Jesus himself.

Chanting and singing is likewise not unknown to the church. The earliest New Testament texts record the first Christian hymns, liturgies are set to music, there is a rich history – many centuries old – of hymnody, not to mention the chanting identified with specific religious orders and monastic communities. Visual art is not unknown to the church. Architecture, statuary, banners, altar paraments, and special garments all make “church” a feast for the eyes, not to mention that the practice of writing icons is nearly as old as Christianity itself.

Moreover, each of the authors amplifies the power of these creative expressions when done in a group, engaged as communal practices. But community is not unknown to the church – isn’t that the form it has always taken? As assemblies of people, as the ekklesia?

How is it that “the church,” so especially poised and equipped to be a cultivator of creativity, has become the thing that artists and activists must work outside of? Why must they be outside of the church in order to catalyze their creativity in service of deeper spiritual experiences and passionate social activism?

There is a lot of language in these articles about bridging gaps and chasms, suggesting the connection of two points. Yarber names the dyads: “we need to bridge the chasms that exist between spirituality and the arts, the arts and social justice, and social justice and spirituality.” But perhaps it would be more helpful to imagine a triangle, where the arts and the social activism are connected to a third point – spirituality as an embodied experience. This seems to be a critical aspect distinguishing the experiences described and prescribed in these essays, that people are engaged in a deeply participatory way. They write and read and talk about the poetry, they do not download it; they are invited to find their voice and to hear the voices of others in a deep and generative listening, they are not spectators at a concert performance; they are invited to actualize the creative potential living within each human being, they are not merely consumers of other’s artistic expressions.

Like the Bridge Series, the Holy Women Icons Project, and singing and chanting workshops offered by Hernandez, the ARC organization – a creative collaboration for theopoetics – strives to “cultivate embodied and just ways of knowing and being through artistic and spiritual practices,” and to work for a world where “creativity and spirituality work together to promote the flourishing of all creation.”

So, too, does The Sanctuaries project in Washington, D.C. – “igniting the sacred power of the arts for social change,” and activating artists “to build power, shift culture, and heal spirits.”

The triangle of relationships between the arts, activism, and embodied experience creates a liminal space, the space of engagement with God, the divine, the Great Silence, the life force. Hernandez describes it in the chanting: “As we focus on opening our hearts we can feel God’s divine presence within the circle.”

Jane Hirshfield describes it this way in her poem, “The Supple Deer”:

The quiet opening
between fence strands
perhaps eighteen inches.

Antlers to hind hooves,
four feet off the ground,
the deer poured through.

No tuft of the coarse white belly hair left behind.

I don’t know how a stag turns
into a stream, an arc of water.
I have never felt such accurate envy.

Not of the deer:

To be that porous, to have such largeness pass through me.

Cover Image: Kris Chin, “Wall Art” (August 17, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 4: bamagal, “‘Together, we create’ on a brick wall” (July 13, 2016). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Pamela Shellberg

Dr. Pamela Shellberg is the Scholar-in-Residence at The BTS Center, crafting “Course Corrections,” a program for imaginatively responding to changes in the church and in life based on the biblical template of Paul’s life and writings. During the 2015-16 academic year, Pam was the visiting professor of New Testament studies at Andover Newton Theological School, jointly appointed by ANTS and The BTS Center. She is the author of Cleansed Lepers, Cleansed Hearts: Purity and Healing in Luke-Acts (Fortress Press, 2015). A teacher in schools for lay ministry in the Maine Conference of the UCC and the New England Synod of the ELCA, she thinks and writes about the metaphors in poetry, art, and music as lenses for bible reading and as tools for interpretation. Pam may be reached via e-mail.

h