Month: September 2017

This Fleeting Life: Reflections on Work, Culture, and Creativity

Last year, what was billed as the final season of American Idol – at least until ABC picked it up after its storied run on FOX – aired over the course of a few months.

harryI had watched bits and pieces of the first few seasons as a teenager. But I didn’t really start keeping up with the show more regularly until its final three seasons, after Harry Connick, Jr. (who knew a few things about music theory and not just singing or stage presence) came on board as a judge. Throughout those last episodes, the show periodically stopped to look back on some of its most memorable highlights.

And that’s when it hit me: fame in 2001, when Kelly Clarkson won, was a different beast than fame in 2016, when Trent Harmon won.

chewbacca-momIn the age of overnight social media sensations like Chewbacca Mom, the fleeting nature of fame has become much more apparent. Structured singing competitions like Idol, with their promises of superstardom, seem antiquated in an increasingly cynical world where anyone could rise to and fall from prominence on social media within a week. Similarly, Hollywood has experienced its own image makeover. Idealized dreams of fame and fortune, which once took center stage in musicals like The Muppet Movie, have been tempered by the harsh, cold reality of managing life in the real world, as glimpsed in last year’s La La Land.

I’m going to issue a challenge to my fellow Jesus-followers in a few paragraphs, and it might make some feel uncomfortable.

Normally I’m not one to suggest a divide between “sacred” and “secular” spheres. But I’d like to use those terms here to draw a distinction – and a comparison. In the secular space, specifically Western civilization, we’ve witnessed a society that collectively celebrated and placed their trust in human achievement and effort gradually evolve into a more cynical one. The accessibility of information and ease of storytelling has made the brevity of life and fleeting nature of fame startlingly clear. The pursuit of significance through fame has morphed into a pursuit of significance by virtue of leaving a legacy – doing something that will make a long-lasting impact after we leave this earth.

cultureIn the sacred space, Christians have traditionally subscribed to the understanding that human life is finite and limited, meant for something beyond this world – and the idea of legacy ought to reflect that. Beneath that understanding are many different approaches for living life and engaging with culture. Some might be more fatalistic in their view – this world will end one day anyway, so what’s the point of bettering it? – either assimilating into culture without a second thought, or fortifying themselves and refusing to engage with it. Some might be more dominative in their view, engaging with culture to drown out and silence those who have an opposing viewpoint. Others might be more transformative, contributing to culture to improve it and live out the Gospel.

No matter what sphere you’re in or what perspective you hold, the fleeting nature of our life here is something of which we’re becoming more aware – and our response to that realization informs much of how we live day to day. But I want to focus on one area in particular: our creative nature. If fame and life in general are so fleeting, then what is our creativity – our contribution to culture – actually for?

creativityI’m concerned that in our society of consumers, it’s become all too easy to leave the work of building culture to those we label “creative people.” It’s easy to segment and compartmentalize different types of vocations, categorizing some as creative and placing everything else in its appropriate box. If we don’t see ourselves as a part of the “creative box,” our natural bent is to consume the creative output (read: goods and services) of others, supporting those from whom we want to see more and avoiding those from whom we want to see less. And while that’s kind of a part of life in this culture, I can’t help but wonder if we were made for more than just that.

Personally, it’s hard for me not to feel conflicted whenever my brothers and sisters in the faith lash out at Hollywood after a politically or religiously charged disagreeable statement from an actor or director is made. On one hand, some of that criticism is indeed deserved. But there are a couple of pitfalls that can easily accompany it. If you’re distant from that world, there’s a tendency to view Hollywood as a monolithic entity with a singularly focused agenda – and to feel threatened by it. If you’re more connected to pop culture, there’s an equally unhealthy temptation to personalize its players on an individual basis – crafting idealized images of those you support, being disappointed whenever those images aren’t congruent with reality, and moving on to the next product to consume.

But what if there were another way? What if people who exist in the creative box – including Hollywood – are just like you and me? What if they’re just as broken and in need of a Savior? What if they, whether or not they realize it, also bear the image of their Creator? What if their capacity to create, even when we may at times take issue with the final output, is a key part of that image?

workIf we as followers of Christ are going to be a part of His redemptive plan for the world, our view of creativity has to differ from society’s, and on a more foundational level, our view of work has to differ as well. Whether you’re an artist, a carpenter, a janitor, or a programmer, work in God’s economy isn’t merely a utilitarian function to keep society stable or to provide for only ourselves. Work itself is something we are created for. It’s a gift from God to discover our callings and to benefit others and meet their needs, even in the context of a fleeting, short life. It’s an inherently creative and collaborative effort, regardless of what vocation is involved. And while it can be personal, it never exists in a vacuum. It necessitates relationships as part of the creative process. It’s a part of a much larger ecosystem that ultimately plays a key role in God’s redemptive story: culture.

It’s impossible to separate oneself completely from that ecosystem. Whether or not we intend to do so, we contribute to culture each and every day. The challenge is this: where are our hearts when it comes to the work in which we engage each day and the way we contribute to culture?

Do we work simply because it benefits us, or because it serves a greater purpose? Do we work to tend our bodies, or to shape our souls? Do we engage with culture to respond, or to contribute? Do we create because we want to redeem culture or because we want to build our own subculture? Do we develop the gifts and talents God has entrusted to us, or do we bury them and focus instead on how others use theirs? Do we create because we want to achieve an end result or send a message, or because we want to reflect and share the joy our Creator felt when He created us?

Where are our hearts?