Earlier this year, Fuller Theological Seminary professor of theology and culture David Taylor posted on Twitter: “After teaching classes on the vocation of an artist for years now, I’ve noticed a pattern in how Christians talk about their art-making process: it’s either over-spiritualized or under-spiritualized. God seemingly suffocates the integrity of the work or remains an afterthought.”

Taylor’s tweet sparked a conversation between him and veteran singer-songwriter Sara Groves about her upbringing in the Pentecostal tradition and how her beliefs on creativity and inspiration have shifted throughout her 20-year career.

David Taylor (DT): When did you first start to rethink inspiration as it related to your music? And how did your Pentecostal background influence your thinking?

Sara Groves (SG): I remember my first major tour with Michael Card. After the concerts he would overhear listeners giving me compliments about what I had shared and how that would launch me into a deep self-deprecating, almost penitent mode. He approached me later to say, “You know, you and I, we are not our gifts. We get to be co-celebrators with the audience. They say, ‘that song really helped me,’ and we get to say, ‘it helped me too’.” That idea lifted my head and was the beginning of my journey to find a better framework for inspiration and gifts; it created a separate space where creativity was the invitation, a collaboration with God.

I think much of the over-spiritualized talk around the creative process came from my attempts to signal that I recognized my worminess. No one feels able to claim rights to the part of our art that falls outside of consciousness and skill; no one within or outside of the church. Centuries of philosophers and psychologists have attempted to explain inspiration, muse, or furor poeticus, poetic madness.

You have taught at length about frameworks for thinking about inspiration, and have written several brilliant books on creativity and faith. What have you found to be the most helpful?

DT: What I tell my students is that there are essentially three models of inspiration as it relates to making art. First, you have what might be called the “ecstatic possession” model. This is an idea that was popular in Greco-Roman and Romantic contexts, and still today in many artistic circles. The rock’n’roll guitarist Eddie Van Halen gave expression to this model when he once quipped, “I am just a medium, man!” The idea here is that the Muse either takes possession of the artist or stands on the artist’s shoulder in order to dictate the work into her ear.

The artist on this view plays a completely passive, rather than active, role in the labor of art. Steve Guthrie, in his book Creator Spirit, summarizes Plato’s dialogue Ion, in which we discover an early version of this model.In Socrates’ words, “the god takes [the poets’] intellect away from them when he uses them as his servants, as he does prophets and godly diviners.” In other words, the artist loses his unique voice, rather than retains it, in the experience of being in-spirited; he is possessed rather than endowed, or as it’s often put in certain Christian communities, “It’s all God, not me.”

Second, you have what I’d call the “naturalist” model. In this view, the experience of inspiration is reducible to chemical, biological and cultural forces. There’s no metaphysical gift from above, there’s no “outside of himself,” there’s no “in-breathing” goddess of art and literature, there’s only what gets churned up in the brain and pre-determined by one’s social-historical influences. I also think that plenty of believer artists buy into a soft version of this naturalist model. For them, there’s no real sense of the active, personal presence of the Holy Spirit in the work of art-making. The Spirit is merely experienced as a nebulous and distant reality or, at worst, like a kind of impersonal electrical current.

Article continues below

The model that I recommend to my students is what I’d call “interactive-mutuality.” In short: the creative process is all God and it’s all me, along with everything that has made me me, but it is also always God initiating, sustaining and bringing to completion the good work that I make. Put otherwise, in Christ, God makes each of us unique, with a “space” to be our true selves, to “our very depths,” as the Swiss theologian Karl Barth once put it. And it is the Spirit who frees us to make something of the world “in our own way,” but never apart from the life-giving power of God.

I’m curious how your upbringing shaped your thinking on this issue, especially as it relates to music, which some Christians have historically seen as an especially “anointed” activity?

SG: In the Pentecostal church, the language of anointing is ubiquitous. Sometimes I felt like it was being used like a scorecard as it felt akin to what Simon Cowell would call the ‘x’ factor! When I sang in church and it moved people, I would hear that I was anointed. When I started going out to churches all over the country, I heard that again, with additional warnings that I should be careful to not lose the anointing. This idea that I could do something to lose the Holy Spirit seemed to be about identity—was I going to be Saul or David? Both were anointed by God, but in the villain/hero binary, one used his gifts for himself, and the other in service to God. You can hear so much of this questioning of motive in my early songs. I might be doing the right things, but for the wrong reasons.

As I started going out to a broader range of churches, I found that these ideas were not limited to Pentecostals, but we are preoccupied with ourselves and our spiritual fitness. If we believe that gifts and anointing are given based on fitness, then we know ourselves and know intimately that we are never fully fit. It creates a dissonance; a secrecy. It demands a performative mask. So, it took me a while, but I had to figure out a better way to think about anointing.

DT: Is there one ministry of the Spirit that has helped you to make sense of the idea of being anointed and the experience of inspiration in your work as an artist?

SG: I was helped by the many references to the Spirit as teacher, that is, that the Spirit will show us what is true. In my mind’s eye, I saw the image of myself on stage with the audience holding up anointing scorecards and felt that had to be wrong. They were anointed to hear as much as I was anointed to sing. I saw the audience, with every heart like a guitar, resonating with the truth. At first, this meant true doctrine, but it has come to mean what is true about us, what is human, what Jesus came to be acquainted with. I think this would fit within your definition of “interactive-mutuality” in the sense that I am bringing my whole self to view the whole world with a Spirit lens—a learner, a namer, a considerer of lilies.

As a holiness movement, Pentecostals put a high value on the fitness of the artist. The vessel had to be holy in order for the art to be more true. But if the Spirit was going to teach me what was true, then what was true about us as humans could come from anywhere. I could stand in front of a painting painted by a man with problems, and if he had understood anything about what is true about being a human, or about God’s heart, and had conveyed any of it into the world, it would resonate—in spite of him, his problems, or maybe even because of them.

Article continues below

This spoke deeply to me as I had begun to deal with postpartum anxiety and depression. In my previous construct, this could only mean that I was “Saul.” I had been beset with torment, and God would have to move on and raise up other “Davids.” I say this in passing here, but this grieved me deeply. At the same time that this thought was grieving me, though, there was another voice that said, “I give good gifts!” Ultimately, I believed that voice. The Spirit was going to work in and with me to make something from these same things that grieved me.

DT: I love how you put that. And it reminds me of the fact that the Spirit willingly, gladly, and repeatedly gives us gifts in order to enable us to accomplish both ordinary and extraordinary things in our lives. The story of Bezalel is a helpful example, I find, for how the Spirit works in and through us, not despite or beyond out actual humanity. Exodus 35:30-35 says:

See, the Lord has chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of artistic crafts. And he has given both him and Oholiab son of Ahisamak, of the tribe of Dan, the ability to teach others.

The Lord in this case gives Bezalel his Spirit and the Lord gives him knowledge of the trade, wisdom to know how to use that trade, craftsmanship skills to execute the trade, and teaching abilities to instruct others and thus to pass on the trade to future generations. Put bluntly: it isn’t one or the other. It’s both a special anointing for a specific task and a fundamental endowment for a life’s calling.

Any thoughts on this in light of your experience as a musician?

SG: Yes, I remember studying Bezalel in a Rabbinic study (where the emphasis is on the Hebrew language). God calls him by name and says, “I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom... to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver and in bronze.” The Hebrew word chashab, “to make,” can also be interpreted as plan, imagine, or dream. So, he dreamed in gold, silver, and bronze. What a beautiful idea! While this one dreams in gold, another dreams in numbers, and he in rhythm, and she in cloth, and he in car parts. I dream in melody and lyrics, but I won’t blame God for all of my songs! I will celebrate that I get to write them.

DT: Amen to that! In the end, I think, welcoming the person of the Spirit in our work as artists is a habit that we cultivate so that our practice of the presence of God becomes “natural,” as it were, not something that we have to “rouse up” or “conjure,” as if the work of art-making involved an incantatory manipulation of the Spirit’s power.

SG: Not less of me, more of God; but all of me, all of God—a profound mystery.

DT: Yes, exactly like that. Beautifully put.

Sara Groves is a singer/songwriter and advocate. Sara and her husband Troy run a unique community art center, Art House North, out of an old church where Sara has recorded her most recent album, “Joy of Every Longing Heart (Christmas).”

W. David O. Taylor is associate professor of theology & culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and the author of several books, including Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts. He tweets @wdavidotaylor.