CHARLES R. CAMPBELLCharles R. Campbell is distinguished professor of teaching and writing at Spring Arbor (Mich.) College. He is pastor of the United Methodist Church of Concord, Mich.

How can i live a christlike life? How can I build a life of inner strength? How can I touch the lives of the people who surround me? Above all, how can I find the time, the strength, and the courage to do all of the things that seem to be required of me?

These are crucial questions, questions all earnest Christians ask at one time or another. We look to many sources for answers, but how often do we look to the arts? In fact, the arts offer a model of creativity that might invigorate our Christian lives. If we look there, we may find surprising help.

The Story Of Jonas

Albert Camus, in the story entitled “The Artist at Work,” introduces us to an artist named Jonas. Jonas is interested in nothing except painting. He loves nothing else, he does nothing else: he simply paints.

Jonas marries a girl named Louise. She is his opposite: energetic, tireless, and interested in everything. Louise decides to make something out of Jonas. She becomes an art expert. She constantly praises Jonas. And sure enough, her efforts do help her husband become famous.

Soon Jonas and Louise move to a new apartment with a large, high-ceilinged room for his work. As Jonas paints, new friends and disciples fill his studio. The more famous he becomes, the less painting he is able to do. In response to his disciples’ demand that he become a philosopher and critic, Jonas seems to forget his wife and children.

He eventually leaves home and wanders the streets. Later, Jonas returns home with a desire to create his “life’s work.” He climbs into a tiny loft with a blank canvas, brushes, and paint. Louise passes food up to him as he works night and day. After many days, Jonas collapses and is carried away to die.

A friend goes to the loft to view Jonas’s great work. He has to know: For what has the master given his life? And he finds a canvas, blank except for tiny letters forming a single word. The word is either “solitary” or “solidary.”

Poor Jonas was a man caught in the middle of a dilemma. Is life’s meaning captured by the word “solidary”? Is life supposed to be lived in solidarity with people? Should Jonas always be with people and give up his own interests in order to serve mankind? Or is life’s meaning captured by the word “solitary”? Should Jonas spend all of his time painting and ignore the world of people surrounding him?

Article continues below

Unable to answer these questions, Jonas destroyed his marriage, his artistry, and his life. At bottom, he failed to live creatively, because the dilemma he faced was a false dilemma. We Christians must understand, as Jonas did not, that living creatively involves both “solitary” and “solidary.” We must learn to relate to the solitary life, which might be called the experience of seeing, and balance it with the life of solidarity, which might be called serving. To do so is to live creatively.

Learning To See

What is this “seeing,” this solitary life that tempted Jonas? We speak casually of artists seeing things differently, and they do. The artist sees dynamic raw form in the shapes and colors of the everyday world and seeks to give it meaning. The artist senses deep meaning in everyday events and tries to express these meanings in painted shapes or words that capture our attention.

But there is another way of seeing that is possible for all of us, not only artists. Christ’s gift of the New Birth should make us want to enjoy the surrounding world to the fullest extent. No matter what our specific habits and interests, we all can learn to take the time to see the world in a new way.

The hook in that last statement is the word time. It takes the investment of time to experience the solitary, to see the artist’s vision. It takes time to hear the soft hoot of the great horned owl in the grey light of a busy morning. It takes time to enjoy the winter trees etched against the evening sky. It takes time to see the person behind the face of a stranger.

My 14-year-old son went away to a four-week sailing camp last summer. During the rigors of an enforced “quiet hour,” this active football player-wrestler-TV addict became observant and thoughtful. In a letter home he wrote: “I’m sitting here in front of my cabin on one of the butterflies (that’s one of our sailboats) watching the rumbling black clouds roll in over the north end of the lake. As the breeze screams through the rails and sidestays (they’re the wires holding up the mast), and as the gentle waves rush, I thought of you. So I ran back and grabbed my pencil and paper, and as you guessed it, I’m writing you a letter.”

It doesn’t matter that half of the words were misspelled and there was chocolate smeared across the paper. For the first time in his life, my son was “seeing” the world around him. He was taking the time to really look at the glories of God’s creation, time to both enjoy and express this vision.

Article continues below
Seeing And Serving

The second aspect of living creatively is “serving.” In “The Artist at Work,” Jonas is literally forced to serve. As his fame spreads, he finds devoted followers who want to listen to his every word, young artists who want him to critique their work, and society women who ask for his support of civic projects. The tragedy of Jonas’s life is that he cannot see and serve at the same time.

What about us, we who take the name of Christ? The most exciting thing about the life of service is that it is doubly productive. Serving enriches both the person served and the person providing the service. I give and I am given to. I serve and I am served.

Service, furthermore, is not a matter of serving humanity in the abstract, it is the joy of helping and working with real living, breathing persons. Every human life can be enriched and deepened by having in it an element of service.

Christ’s life was filled with images of seeing and serving. Not only did he teach and preach; he showed love and concern to troubled individuals. Christ took time to pray alone, yet he fed those who were hungry. Christ always had time to see the world and to touch it.

Praise And Organization

In the experiences of Jonas we have identified seeing and serving. The creative Christian life contains one more critical ingredient, the aspect of organization. The artist and poet try to capture bits and pieces of their experiences of living in the world and make them understandable. They take the inanimate and the living, the past and the present, and weave them into a fabric of unity and beauty.

Living creatively—both seeing and serving—is done with a limited supply of time. Obviously, then, it requires some organization. That is accomplished by having a center around which we can organize our lives (much as the painter organizes a painting around a focal point). For Christians, the center is praise. We are to build and to organize our existence around our faith; we are to live lives of unity and flexibility, of work and celebration—with all of it praising God. It is this aspect of living creatively that helps us fit the diverse pieces of our lives into something whole.

Praising is the process of organizing life’s experiences into meaningful bundles, giving life a pattern through rituals of task and worship. In a life of praise, Christians bring together the fruits of seeing and serving. Through praise we have the power and responsibility to copy our Creator and become truly creative.

As human creatures and followers of Christ we must accept the mandate of the psalmist to have dominion over the world around us. With that mandate, we have the responsibility to choose to live creatively. Creative Christians are persons who have discovered the secret of taking time both to see and to serve. Creative Christians take the experiences of seeing and serving and create a life of praise, a life filled with meaning and vision.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.