Erwin McManus: The Soul as Art

“When I became a person of faith, to be perfectly frank, all the models for discipleship were suffocating to me.”

“Who told you that you were naked?”

Erwin Raphael McManus is struck by the question still echoing from Eden’s Garden. Until the fall, the whole universe was reflective of the voice of God. Everything was informed only by his voice. When God saw that the first couple had fallen, he did not first ask them, “Why did you do this?” or “What happened?” He simply asked them, “Who told you that you were naked?”

What other voice did you choose to replace mine with?

McManus sees things differently. Expresses himself nontraditionally. He calls critics and devotees alike to turn an idea and see a different facet.

For this he has often experienced such resistance and vitriol that he stopped writing for six years. “It was just so much pain from the people that were my people, my tribe.” But he’s back with a book, The Artisan Soul, he’s inclined to refer to as his “creative manifesto” and his “life’s work.” A new anthropology, really.

McManus is convinced that the church is still viewing humankind through the distorted lens of the Industrial Revolution and its obsession with assembly-line efficiency. A way of thinking, he asserts, that has exerted so strong an influence that it has left even the church biased toward impersonal systems, instead of individualized and creative approaches to spiritual development.

So he calls the church to reassess spirituality in terms of the artisan soul, and argues passionately for us to view life as a masterpiece in process.

Far from a passive view, he’s calling readers to aspire to love and kindness, gentleness, generosity and beauty, but also to imagine and pursue a better tomorrow for those who follow us.

“Bees create hives, ants create colonies, but humans create futures,” he says. And for those who would cling to an eschatology that blunts innovative and compassionate action toward creating a better world now, McManus argues, “We have to believe in the eternal nature of temporary things. You cannot survive in time and space without eventually holding onto some hope of that.”

For McManus, the voice of God still fills an ever-expanding universe, and if we will hear it, that voice will fill the universe within, overpowering all competing voices, to urge us on toward the masterpiece we were designed to create, our own artisan soul.

Why relate soul development to artistry?

We tend to learn better when we see something done in its most elegant form. So we should all be healthy, but great athletes inspire us to greater health. We should all be learners, but great minds inspire us to learning. We should all have some sense of adventure, of exploration, of discovery, but great pioneers and adventurers and discoverers, they inspire us. Or look to everyday life. We have an eating problem in America with obesity and with eating disorders, and I think some of it is because we took food out of its artisan space and it became very much Industrial Revolution assembly-line processing, and so we start selling grease and salt. We’ve become a society of fast food, because we lost the artistry of eating.

It’s the same way in our spiritual development. We’re not looking at the most elegant and beautiful expressions of what spirituality looks like, so we end up becoming incredibly utilitarian. How can we process as many burgers—or humans—as possible during rush hour! Right? And you know as well as I do, if you’re trying to figure out how to punch out the most fries to make the most dollars to bring the high-volume hour of work, you’re going to begin to diminish other things that are really, really essential. Like quality and beauty—and even health. And I feel like that’s what’s happened in how we approach spiritual development.

If you want to understand how humans mature and develop and become whole and healthy, you have to pull out of the fast-food model and start looking at where we are doing this with our highest level of elegance and beauty. Where are we artisans of the process?

You say, “You don’t achieve an artisan soul, you awaken your artisan soul.” How did you awaken?

While other people were great at geography and math and science, I began my life with a high-octane imagination. Not because I lived in a good world where I got to sit around and imagine, but because I lived in a really broken world, with a lot of pain and a lot of wounding and a lot of isolation and despair. I learned how to step into my imagination to see a more beautiful world. At first it was a place of escape for me, but as I found the resolve and the courage and the passion to translate that imagination into reality, it moved from a place of escape to a place of promise and hope. I know the power of imagination; it saved my life. I know the power of the creative process; when you don’t have any hope in the world that you live in, you have to find hope in the world you can create.

At some point, faith became a part of the equation.

Yes, but when I became a person of faith, to be perfectly frank, all the models for discipleship were suffocating to me. They were paralyzing to me. I tried so hard to be a good disciple, to follow the rules, to fill in the blanks. But when you see humans as cogs in a machine, all you’re really trying to do is to get them to fit into the structures that already exist. We tend to see discipleship as standardization and conformity and compliance. We use more strategic words, like obedience and holiness, but they mean the same thing to us. We’re trying to minimize negative behavior—sin—and hope that somehow maximizes positive behavior. But we don’t even know what that looks like.

We don’t have an end game in Christian discipleship of unleashing the creative essence of every human being, of helping each person discover their uniqueness, of awakening within that person the artisan that imagines what can be created and finds the courage, the skills, the discipline, the competencies to turn that imagination into reality.

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Twenty years ago when I created Mosaic, we viewed spirituality as an art form. This isn’t something new I’ve come to; this is something I’ve known the church desperately needs. The church is a mosaic of broken and fragmented pieces, brought together by the artistic hand of God to create something beautiful, especially when his light strikes us.

So the artisan soul is not a new metaphor for me. It is what I stepped into when I stepped into faith, what I thought following Jesus was all about—that he was awakening in us the human that we would never be without him. He would awaken his divine image in all of us. Awakening the hero, the nobleman; awakening our courage and our creativity.

So part of this discussion is a reflection of our different personalities or our different ways of processing life—the way we think. Some people are almost disturbingly linear, literal, logical. Not surprisingly, they become somewhat mathematical in the way they think about faith. As an image of soul development, art suggests a very different process.

We have to remember, probably 80 percent of Americans are concrete thinkers—or linear. So the language is reflective of the whole, but it doesn’t mean it’s reflective of what the whole actually needs. The problem is that we’ve been led in our thinking, in our discipleship processes, and even in what it means to build the church, by linear thinkers who are dominantly committed to preserving the past, when in fact what the people in those congregations need—even the concrete, linear thinkers—is to be pulled into an entirely new way of thinking, so they begin to imagine and perceive themselves as creative beings.

When you put the gospel into a purely linear context, faith becomes a noun rather than a verb. But throughout history there have been men and women who have stood in a sense as icons of what our lives could be like—models of the artisan soul.

We’re not all going to be Mother Teresa, but if we’re all influenced by Mother Teresa, we will all become more humble and more committed to the service of the poor. We’re not all going to be Nelson Mandela, but if we’re all inspired and pulled into our humanity by Mandela, we will all stand against racism and oppression and violence and find a voice for those who are voiceless.

You say we are all works of art, and we are all artists at work. In that process of becoming and creating you emphasize the power of words.

The Scriptures have so much to say about the power of words. And we take it so lightly. We try to translate that into don’t use profanity. Don’t say mean things about people. Which I’m all for, by the way. But what the Scriptures are actually telling us is that our words have power. You can see this in such a tangible way when you watch a child who’s constantly demeaned by their parents. They create in that child such insecurity and uncertainty, insignificance and later, even bitterness and hatred and violence. Our words do create in the souls of others. In the same way, when we speak hope and optimism and acceptance and love, our words have power.

So a part of the voice is realizing that all of us have voices that have shaped us, have defined us, have informed us and formed us. And it can be a universe of voices from our parents, our brothers and sisters, our uncles and aunts, our teachers, our peers. As we mature as human beings, as we develop, those voices become a singular voice that becomes our voice, then that voice becomes the driving narrative of our life.

When God spoke in Genesis 1, there was light, the universe came into existence. God speaks, and his voice fills an ever-expanding universe. There’s a universe inside every human being, and if you’re not careful, when the voice of God is not there, you will allow a thousand different voices to begin to inform you. And when you do not have the voice of God informing you, you will have voices that tell you you’re less. But when you have the voice of God informing you, his voice is big enough and powerful enough to silence all the voices that have told you you’re less, so you can begin to hear his voice that calls you to more.

You suggest that in a world of so many voices, it can be difficult to discern the divine voice and to hear it with clarity.

I was thinking about the question Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am—and you, who do you say that I am?” They start throwing out ideas: John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. It’s absurd that they would say he was John the Baptist. Of all the options, that shouldn’t even be in the top three. And then it’s a leap to go, “You’re Elijah.” And it’s really low risk to say you’re a prophet. In other words, we don’t really know. I don’t think Jesus would ask this question if they didn’t have enough information to get the answer right. But they couldn’t see he was God, because they were informed by all the other narratives around them.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about when I talk about interpretation. It’s so hard for us to read what is actually there—or accurately read life—because we’re so overwhelmed by what we already bring to the narrative. So if we come in with bitterness or with anger or jealousy or envy, that will influence or inform our interpretation of what’s actually happening all around us.

We treat the fruit of the Spirit almost like a Hallmark card list of sweet things we should be. I see the fruit of the Spirit—those characteristics of kindness and compassion, gentleness and patience—as soul-cleansers, like ginger is a palate-cleanser. They clear away our soul so that we can be fully present in this moment and interpret it accurately.

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In international ministry, when we cross cultural and linguistic boundaries, we may see the problem of interpretation more readily. We step into an unfamiliar culture more conscious that our own assumptions cling to us like barnacles.

Yes. How are they interpreting the world? How does the Japanese businessman interpret the narrative of God when they’ve had so much tragedy in their life, in their recent history? How does a person in Ethiopia hear—not just interpret, hear—what we’re saying from the backdrop of their history and their experience? Sometimes we forget that communication isn’t simply how we interpret it, but how the hearer is interpreting what we say. And we wonder why they aren’t getting what we’re trying to say.

But even in our own cultural context—think about this in terms of discipleship. We have our ready-set materials we are sure people need in their life so they can mature in Christ. But when a person has just gone through a brutal divorce, learning about eschatology or about the Trinity is not what their soul needs. What they need are insights and light and truth and hope related to what they’re trying to interpret about life right now. That’s why assembly-line solutions can’t take the place of artisan ministry.

You talk about ideas being expressed as “images”—that at some point an idea is expressed in something tangible, something we see.

Absolutely. Eventually an idea has to become an image; it has to become a reality. It has to start translating into the world.

I see this over and over again with Jesus. He could have just told us he was going to die for us, that his body would be broken, his blood shed. But he takes bread and he takes a cup and he translates this into an image. It’s visual. It’s tangible. It’s palatable. You can taste it, you can smell it, you can hold it. I think we take this for granted. But God understands us. He designed us like this.

Even beyond words, images have the power to convey ideas.

Yes, and the image we create of the church, for instance, is sometimes more powerful than the message we give on Sunday. Without any disrespect in any way, the architecture we use will communicate whether we’re utilitarian or whether we believe in aesthetics. It will communicate whether we value an assembly-line process or whether we’re artisans and every single person gets the personal touch. We shouldn’t be surprised if people start thinking the church is like a mall—a place of consumption—when our buildings are almost exact replicas of malls. We shouldn’t be surprised if people start to think the church is a place you come to to observe and spectate because we build them like theaters.

The image has its own vocabulary apart from the words we speak.

Yes, and it has power, and it sets into a person’s soul. Before we realize it, even unintended meaning is absorbed into their worldview, the perspective from which that person measures everything in life. So I’m saying we need to be aware of what our images are conveying, and we need to be as purposeful as possible in the images we create.

You speak also about the elegance of workmanship. Creating this work of art—your soul—is not just something that happens. It’s something you consciously invest in.

We live in the middle of a mythology of greatness, whether we use God language not. Here in LA you’ve got people who do not believe in God, and they think their talent should cause them to soar to the top. They don’t realize there are 10,000 other people just as talented and just as attractive as they are. What’s going to divide them and sift them out is who works the hardest. Who takes this on as a craft. Who learns the disciplines and the skills and the competencies that turn talent into true greatness.

It’s the same thing with those who are Christians—except it’s worse. They go, well God called me to do this. God created me to do this. I’m just fulfilling God’s will for my life. They think because it’s a calling or because they were designed for this, created for this, that it should just come easily. You see people drop like flies because greatness always takes hard work.

To be called is to be called to the discipline of it. The craft of it. I always tell people, “You’re pursuing the wrong dream when you hate the hard part.” The person who really becomes great at something finds incredible pleasure and joy in the most difficult, discipline-requiring process to achieve that greatness.

All this flows toward the work of art God is creating within us—and our own artistic attentiveness.

We each have a different art form, a different context within which to live our most creative life. The more you paint your life through actions motivated by love, the more you will reflect the work that God has for you. I agree with Monet and Picasso and Van Gogh and Jesus that love is the driving force of all things beautiful.

Look at the people around you, because everyone’s swinging their brush, and you’re throwing paint on people who are in relational reach of you. You can look at the person you really are by how it’s affecting the people who respect and love you. Look at the canvas of their lives. Are you bringing greater hope and joy into their lives? Are you bringing meaning and intention?

And then also ask yourself, not only am I living toward my highest ideal of myself—Am I living the life I imagine and long for?—but am I creating a better world? I think all of us need to realize that a part of the canvas of our lives is the future we are creating for those who follow in our wake.