What God Has to Do With Your Creativity

Excerpted From
Images and Idols
By Thomas J.Terry and J. Ryan Lister

When it comes to utilizing the power of beginnings, no creative company does this better than Marvel.

By no means are they the first to harness the power of origin stories. From Aristophanes to Virgil, from Homer to Zola, from Dante’s Inferno to Gaiman’s American Gods, we’ve used stories to make sense of the human experience. Origin stories change us because they set out to address our most fundamental questions, questions like: Who are we? Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? It is why there are ancient stories of the world springing forth from a lotus flower. It is why the Greeks wrote poetry about Prometheus defying the gods by fashioning humanity out of the soil. It is why Goethe personifies the drama of the human predicament in the characters of Faust and Mephistopheles. And it is why Camus reframes Sisyphus as our modern-day savior, a messiah who counters the world’s absurdity simply with his existence.

Origin stories are Marvel’s creative genius. In storylines like Thor and The Avengers, the writers have tapped into our innate human need to know where we come from and modernized it for a contemporary audience. Marvel writers are modern mythmakers who confront our greatest existential problems through visual narrative. Marvel has spent the last few decades rescuing forgotten heroes from forgotten history books by putting them into the panels of the comic book and the digital projectors in the movie theaters right across the street from us.

This is why Marvel has dominated the box office recently. Origin stories are the key that has unlocked an entire generation’s loyalty, not to mention our wallets. Over the last fifteen years, Marvel has built an entertainment and film catalog unparalleled in the history of stories, modern film and now television. Holding it together are the central storylines giving us the backstories of our favorite superheroes and villains. These stories bring our favorite characters to life. They pull the masks off their true identities and uncover their hidden motivations. Because we’ve been in the seats since the beginning, Marvel executives are banking on the fact that we will stay in our seats as long as they remain true to the characters we first gave our hearts to.

Marvel’s modern mythmakers reveal something intrinsic to all of us. We love origin stories because we were made to love them.

We love them because they cast light on our own search for meaning and purpose, which usually involves an extensive excavation of the past. We love them because we are temporal beings. Looking back comes natural to us. We think that knowing our past might bring us closer to the truth in the present. As mythologist Joseph Campbell explains, when we look backwards, “What we are looking for is a way of experiencing the world that will open to us the transcendent that informs it, and at the same time forms ourselves within it.” Knowing where we come from helps make sense of the life-giving questions about who we are and where we are going.

This is why some of us have that session with a counselor later today. We need help confronting our personal origin story. If we can just address the past, we feel like the dark clouds of anxiety enveloping our present (and obstructing the horizon) might finally blow over.

We seek our origin stories because we think they can get us out of our not-so-merry-go-round worlds. We believe that they will point us in the right direction, that they form the runner’s blocks for our future lives. We investigate our origin stories because we believe, as the philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard said, that “life can only be understood backwards” even while it “must be lived forwards.” We can look to the future only when we have taken care of our past.

But here’s the irony. While storytellers—like those at Marvel—continue to write, film, sing and draw origin stories that explain the human experience, we wonder how many have taken the time to explore the origin story of their own creativity. Instead, the modern creative community has more often than not replaced the intrinsic search for creativity’s starting point with an emphasis on output. We’ve exchanged a philosophy of creativity for the pragmatism of productivity. The contemporary catchphrase “Never Stop Creating” offers little space to consider where our creativity originates. Our contemporary fascination with creativity’s production keeps us so busy that we don’t pursue creativity’s original purpose. This is creativity’s contemporary mission drift: We are concerned primarily with how we are going to fill the shelves rather than why we want to fill them at all. While our portfolios may be full, we will find it tough to explain—beyond subjective or pragmatic platitudes—why our portfolio exists in the first place.

And this lack of an origin story for your creativity shapes you more than you can imagine. Creativity actually needs direction, which means creativity needs a starting line. Like a traveler on her way, a point of origin helps determine our way. Without a beginning point for our creativity, we end up lost in a wilderness of our own design. We are susceptible to every mirage the culture offers us. Which means we are no longer on our way, or the way; it means we are following someone else’s way. This haphazard itinerary often has the intersection of exhaustion and superficiality as its final destination.

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Excerpted from Images and Idols: Creativity for the Christian Life by Thomas J. Terry & J. Ryan Lister (©2018). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.

Thomas J. Terry and J. Ryan Lister
Thomas J. Terry and J. Ryan Lister

J. Ryan Lister is a professor of theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and Thomas J. Terry is a spoken word artist and founder of Humble Beast.