Wednesday, December 4, 2013

review of Steven Guthrie's "Creator Spirit"

I really enjoyed Steven Guthrie's Creator Spirit: the Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human. Guthrie looks to improve our "pneumatology"-- our theology of the Spirit. In this, I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis' quip that we're all theologians; the question is whether we're good or bad theologians.

In terms of bad theology, God-- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit-- suffer(s) from various distortions. (A related problem is that people are reductionistic toward the Trinity, resulting in some of these errors, among others.) God the Father is imagined to be unjust or without omnipotence because of "the problem of suffering". God the Son is reduced to a great moral teacher or a nice guy.  God the Holy Spirit is invoked for ill gains in some circles, but typically suffers from inattention (hey, couldn't we just drop Him from the Trinity?) or reductionism (imagining Him as a vague force).  

I've often been struck by the article in front of Holy Spirit's "name"-- and how it leads to the unfortunate inference that He is an It. The word "the" implies a title or description (as with God the Father and God the Son), so it's accurate enough. But given our limited understanding of the Holy Spirit, the article can feed the misperception. Perhaps we should use "God the Holy Spirit" to avoid this?

A word on the title. It's a bit unsatisfying in that it narrows the scope of the work. Yes, Guthrie discusses the Creator role of the Spirit. Moreover, the book focuses on creativity and the role of the Spirit in our humanity, particularly within art. And I'm not sure I can come up with a better title, so perhaps it would be better not to quibble!

Fortunately, the subtitle is more helpful. It makes the art/spirit/Spirit connection explicit and it brings in a vital theme for Guthrie-- the Holy Spirit's role in allowing us to become more (truly) human.

On the human spirit, the Holy Spirit, creativity, and art, Guthrie discusses the universal principle of "God's provision and our participation" as it applies to art. In most things, outcomes are some function of God's provision and our participation: God always provides, but we are typically called to participate. This is an amazing and powerful concept. My favorite verse on this? Ephesians 2:8-9 says we are not saved to do good works, but Ephesians 2:10 says we are saved to do good works, which were prepared in advance (from the time of Creation) for us to do!

What's true in general is certainly and obviously true within art. Guthrie is interested in various theories about the extent of our participation in artistic endeavors-- the primary purpose of his book. On one extreme, God is out of the picture and art is a purely human creation. On the other extreme, God does all of the inspiring and the human is merely a vessel by which God's artistry is expressed.

In terms of bibliology, one sees a similar debate between Muslims who believe that Muhammad was a passive recipient and transmitter of the Koran-- whereas Christians recognize that the Bible is "inspired by God" but influenced by the particular attributes and experiences of the authors. As such, we see physician references from Luke; we understand Revelation in light of John's exile on Patmos; we read Matthew as a Jewish-focused gospel; we recognize context in Paul's letters; and so on.

The very framework of Guthrie's book is a survey of philosophers and artists who have different ideas on the way in which art is received and developed. He ranges from Coltrane to Monk; from Kandinsky to Kandera; from Tolstoy to (Ann) Tyler; from Plato to Athanasius. In this, the book is somewhere between cool (especially if you're into his examples) and provocative.

Beyond art, God the Holy Spirit plays a huge part in Biblical history and the plan of "salvation". First, in Creation, He animates the dust of the ground. A cool observation: "God draws very near-- much nearer, and in a much more intimate posture, than the moment of life-giving famously portrayed by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel." (35; add to DC). 

Second, in Christ, He "incarnates". He works to conceive/animate and then empower Christ, making Himself available to Christ in His ministry as a human on Earth-- and ultimately, in His resurrection. "In Jesus, the eternal word of God is made flesh by the power of the Spirit." (42) Here, we see the Spirit's provision and Jesus' participation-- done perfectly.

Third, in us, He hopes to "re-humanize". He is the means by which we can become more human in our life on Earth (John 5:30, 15:5). Biblically, "salvation" is more than "getting saved". Again, God has Ephesians 2:10 in mind for us-- to participate within God's provision; to train up disciple-makers; to be workers in the field; and so on. The biblical term for salvation implies a wholeness and an abundant life (Jn 10:10) that extends far beyond a moment of salvation. As such, for the Christian, at least biblically speaking, being "spiritual" is Spirit-ual. "The work of the Spirit is to bring dust to life and fill it with glory-- in other words, to make us truly human, the image bearers of God." (42)

A great quote on this (153): "The work of God's Spirit is to restore sight: to allow human beings to see truly, no longer blinded by ideology and priestcraft. The work of the Spirit is to restore speech: to allow human beings to speak truly and creatively, no longer passive conduits for the Muse or the Big Other. The work of the Spirit is to restore freedom: to empower human beings to not only receive creation but also to become givers who add to the world."

As such, "discernment is not a matter of divining those rare instances when God shows up. Instead, it means learning to recognize, as Moltmann writes, 'that in everything God is waiting for us'." (158) As Dallas Willard puts it, God can only bless you where you're at. This is a key concept-- for understanding a personal and intimate God who wants to empower us to do great things for His Kingdom.

Let me close with two other ways in which we have a limited view of art and God. First, from Guthrie: "The eternal plan and purpose of God was to bring about a differentiated community...If our churches have often done a poor job at [this], perhaps it is in part because they resemble only the unity, and not the diversity, of our triune God." (164) Second, art is both an event and a lifestyle. Often we reduce prayer, worship, economics, study, etc. to "events" rather than seeing them as both. Art is the same. Art is something you do-- and art is a way of life.

As we ponder our pneumatology and our "art-ology", Guthrie is helpful in knocking out heresies and other unlikelihoods. But Guthrie is quite comfortable with the mystery of both the Holy Spirit and His influence on art. I really liked his reference to a line in a Madeleine L'Engle poem (she, of Wrinkle in Time fame): "Had Mary been filled with reason, there'd have been no room for the child." Our faith is reasonable, but reason must have its limits in things as immense, complex, mysterious, and as ineffable as God, love, and art.


At December 6, 2013 at 10:42 AM , Blogger Steve Guthrie said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At December 6, 2013 at 10:44 AM , Blogger Steve Guthrie said...

Hi Eric, thanks for this generous review of Creator Spirit, which Baker Academic passed along to me! I'm so glad you enjoyed the book! I also had to laugh when I read your comment about Creator Spirit not necessarily being the best title! That was the only sore spot for me in my otherwise wonderful interaction with the publisher! My original title was Breath and Dust which I really loved! They hated it, and suggested The Spirit of Creativity." (Which I hated!) We compromised on Creator Spirit! All that to say -- the title bothered me too, and for a good while . . . but now I've learned to live with it!
Thanks so much again. - Steve

At December 6, 2013 at 1:56 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

Steve, thanks for replying. I'm glad you enjoyed the review and glad to know that we agree on the title.

As I stay on this reading kick, in the midst of editing DC (beyond personal edification and sanctification!), I'm enjoying Michael Reeve's "Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian".

Speaking of DC, you might know those at your church or other churches who would benefit from our work, Thoroughly Equipped: Developing Co-Laborers / Co-Leaders. Enjoy!


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