Are We Secondary Creators?

[This is one part of a multi-part series. Please start at the beginning:

When Christian write about fiction in general and fantasy in particular, more and more they use the idea of secondary creation. This idea was essential to Tolkien’s understanding of what he was doing as a fantasy author. He viewed himself as the creator of his fantasy world. He is a secondary creator because he is only a reflecting what God has done as the primary creator of the primary world. Tolkien and other believers justify their action of secondary creation by claiming that creativity is a core component of the image of God.

                Although it is certainly true that human beings are creative and that in this creativity we are more like unto God than to a potted plant, is it true that creativity is what is meant by the image of God? The image of God is a notoriously debated doctrine. It is nowhere given a straightforward description in Scripture. Any definition of the image of God is assembled by inference – which is shaky ground for developing a Christian theology of fantasy.

                Furthermore, just because an activity makes us like God, it does not mean that the activity is good, profitable, or justifiable. Certainly setting up yourself as the all-powerful creator of a secondary world of your own devising does make you more like God, but that does not mean such an endeavor is justifiably good.

A quick review of Genesis 3 will make the point quite clear. The serpent tempts Eve with the fruit by telling her that eating of the fruit will make her more like God (verse 5). In verse 6, the Bible tells us the temptation to greater (God-like) wisdom was part of the attraction for Eve. Verse 7 describes how the additional (God-like) knowledge was not a good thing. Finally, in verse 22, God himself remarks that Adam and Eve are now more like God, and apparently for reason of their increased God-likeness, God punishes the human race with death.

The theme is picked up again in Genesis 11 with the story of the Tower of Babel. The human civilization is engaged in creating/building a structure of incredible grandeur. Verse 4 indicates that the motives of humankind were that of pride, self-glorification, and rebellion against God. The language hints at perhaps an underlying motive of wanting to set themselves up in the place of God. There is a sense in which the construction of the Tower of Babel was an act that was very much like unto God, but it was also evil – for the very reason that it was like unto God.

There are a couple of subtler ways in which the construction of the Tower was evil. First, there is the underlying sense in Genesis 11 that the human race was seeking to create something separate from and independent of God. It is the very fact that they were seeking to accomplish something great apart from (and even against) God that made it wrong.

Second, what about the building of the Tower had God most concerned? According to verse 6, it was the magnitude of the project that was most concerning. It was the sheer size of the Tower that made it so wrong and so worthy of God’s judgmental intervention. It was not just the heart motivations of the people that brought down the judgment of God. It was the actual size of the Tower itself. God acted to prevent the human race from ever engaging in a project on such a scale ever again.

So at what point does a building become a Tower of Babel? At what point does an act of secondary creation cross the line? These questions are difficult to answer, but they need to be asked.

Take the secondary world which Tolkien created. What is most striking is the sheer magnitude of his creation in both extent and in detail. Is Tolkien’s world a harmless flight of the imagination, or is it a Tower? Think of the effort, time, and thought that Tolkien expended in his project of secondary creation. Was his project on proper scale, or was Middle Earth his personal Babel?

And I do not need to pick just on Tolkien. Think even of the effort, time, and thought required to write the simplest of novels. Writing a work of fiction is a monumental task. Certainly it is a task of secondary creation, but is it the kind of way in which God intended for us to reflect his glory? Or is it the type of God-like task taken on in response to the voice of the serpent and the call of Babel?

Saying that writing fantasy is like God does not automatically make it a good thing. In fact, many actions are evil for the very reason that they are an attempt to be like God. There needs to be a far better justification for fantasy.

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13 Responses to Are We Secondary Creators?

  1. Bill says:

    So this one was something of a non-starter for me. From jump you seem to be conflating being in the image of God with “doing what God does”. So then you go about arguing (I think your exegesis on Genesis 11 is a stretch, God seems mostly to be worried that if humans complete the tower “nothing will be impossible for them” which is troubling and makes it a difficult passage but does not necessarily imply that God has a problem with big projects. Certainly, post-Tolkien, there is still plenty that is impossible for humanity) that we should not necessarily do things just because God does them. I don’t have any particular problem with that, I think you are right, God’s having done a thing is not warrant for humans to do the same thing (though neither is it ipso facto wrong for humans to do the thing). But when Tolkien talks about us as secondary creators, as an aspect of our being made in the image of God, he is not saying (as you seem to imply when asking “is it true that creativity is what is meant by the image of God?”) that creativity is the sum total of what it means to be created in the image of God, only that it is one aspect of being in the imago dei. In that assertion he is in fine theological company.
    Furthermore I wouldn’t say that a theology based on the imago is, thereby a shaky theological position. Of course Christians have had, and continue to have, long debates over the imago theology but debate doesn’t imply weakness. I think if you want to demonstrate that it is a weak foundation you should at least produce some robust theologies which would exclude creativity from the imago. In favor we could simply start with the greater body of scholastic theology (focusing on St. Thomas Aquinas) which sees human rationality (include Aristotelian concepts of the human soul as creative among other properties) as the fundamental category of imago. I am not familiar with Calvin’s take on imago (does it include creativity?) so maybe that is where you are coming from?
    I think you would also do well to bring in a theology of worship. If a writer creates as an act of worship, is it possible for that act to “be a Tower of Babel” (even granting your dubious Genesis 11 exegesis)? I would say not. Conversely, it seems that your blade here cuts too far. If you focus on magnitude rather than content or motivation for a project you will end up cutting out every magnum opus. The edge which cuts out LOTR on the basis of magnitude cuts out The Institutes as well.

    • I am not the one conflating the image of God with doing what God does. I am responding to such a conflation. As far as I understand it, the argument goes that God created man in his image. What do we see in the context? God creating things. Therefore, human beings as God’s image-bearers are creators in their own way.

      I have never fully decided what I think the image of God is. If I had to explain it, I would probably lean heavily towards the idea of dominion, with the caveat that human beings need to be like God in many ways in order to exercise their representative dominion. As such, I do think that creativity is probably an aspect of the image of God.

      However, it is not a settled question by any stretch of the imagination. There are a lot of theologians today who would define image much more strictly. For instance, theologians will define the image of God as man’s representative role in nature and nothing further.

      What I am reacting to is the rush to include creativity in the image because it justifies secondary creation. I often have the sense that authors and lovers of the arts take that view because they want it so badly to be true. Instead, they need to study the issue from Scripture and then draw their conclusions.

      And yes, I do think a particular theory of the image of God is shaky ground for making strong practical application. The mandate for dominion is given separately, so the doctrine of the image is not necessary to support it. As far as I know, the Bible draws only a single general practical implication from the image: that human beings have value as individuals. From this principle, Scripture draws a few specific implications (Gen. 9:6; Jam. 3:9; and perhaps some of the Proverbs on the treatment of the poor).

      I am also reacting to the idea that creation for creativity’s sake is enough to honor God because of the image of God. An idol could be very beautiful, but overall it is not honoring to God. It’s beauty may in some way bring God glory, but taken as a whole, the idol is dishonoring to God. In fact such beauty in service of idolatry might even make it worse. That is of course an extreme example, but I wonder about something that is “empty” creation, i.e., merely creative and nothing more (if such a thing could exist). If it is just creative, is that God-honoring? Is that enough to induce a believer to make it?

      I have found it interesting to go to the colonial era sections of American art museums. There is very little “pure” art from the colonial era. It is almost all practical — furniture, needlework, etc. They made practical items also be decorative. They applied their creativity to their necessary tasks. They added beauty to practicality. If creativity is being justified by the theology of the image of God, I wonder if this style of art is a more faithful outflow of that theology.

      Tolkien, of course, would argue that his stories are similar. They are creative, but they also serve a deeper purpose. In other words, he justifies the “empty” elements of his stories as creativity, and the “meaningful” elements as reflecting the True Myth. The latter half of that statement is dealt with in other posts in this series, but the former half is what I am saying is on shaky theological ground. There is a difference between saying that a story is just for fun and saying that a story is morally good and an act of worship merely because it is creative. At that point I think one is relying too heavily on an inference from the image of God.

      And I am not cutting out every magnum opus. I am calling into question a magnum opus for the purpose of being a magnum opus. The Institutes (which I have no real desire to defend or decry) was more of an accidental magnum opus. It’s main purpose was something else.

      And I am not certain what your definition of “worship” might be. How would a fantasy novel be an act of worship? I can think of several possible answers to that question, but I think the core answer of someone like Tolkien would probably not line up with a biblical understanding of worship. There is a difference between an act of a human being that glorifies God incidentally, an act of a human being that is intended as worship but fails to fall in line with the way God desires to be worshipped, and an act of a human being that is intended as worship and is in line with the way God desires to be worshipped. Only the last one is worship.

      As to Genesis 11, I would agree that my exegesis is not as strong as that of Genesis 3. However, I would say that there were probably lots of buildings built from similar evil motives, but only the Tower caused God to act. It was the sheer magnitude of the project that caused God to intervene. I believe I was clear in my post that it was the combination of evil motives and magnitude. I do think that any time a human being begins an endeavor which has impressive magnitude as its goal, we should stop to question the underlying motives.

      • billhoard says:

        Hmmm. I think here we have a fairly straightforward parting of the ways (on the subject of creativity). I hold that the creation of art is, ipso facto, worship, but that it (the art-as-object) can be (and probably always is to some extent) marred by our imperfection. Sometimes of course, it so horribly marred as to be a mockery of the worship God desires, but that makes it a good thing fallen or corrupted, not a neutral or evil thing.

      • Worship is a biblical idea. You need to start with a biblical definition of worship and then decide if creation of art fits that definition. At the very least you have failed to include the intention of the worshiper in your description of worship. How would you define worship biblically? Who gets to decide what is “good” worship and what isn’t?

  2. billhoard says:

    I would start with a distinction between “worship” and “worship which is pleasing to God” (A biblical distinction – Proverbs 15, Isaiah 1, Amos 5). I think that any action or state which celebrates God, either directly in His person, or indirectly in gratitude for what He has given us is worship. As I have said a given act of worship may be more or less pleasing to Him.
    God gets to decide what worship does and doesn’t please Him.

    • As far as I can tell, we are in complete agreement. Well said!

      I would add that the intent of any act of worship can be pleasing to God or unpleasing, and to a certain extent the act of worship itself can independently be pleasing or displeasing to God (or even neutral?) — and those can exist in different combinations. I think for the most part, Uzzah’s intentions were good, but touching the ark was not. I think Paul’s rivals in Philippians 1 had wrong motives, but their preaching was good. Usually, though, the intention and the act match.

      I would also like to point out (and you will probably not like this initially) that acts of worship fall on a spectrum between more and less overt. A praise song is an overt act of worship. If, as you argue, a pure act of artistic creation can be an act of worship, it is certainly less overt.

      I am not necessarily a strict adherent to a strong or weak regulative principle, but I do think it is necessary to take care when declaring something to be worship when it is lacking in clear biblical precedent. Artistic creativity for creativity’s sake is lacking in clear biblical precedent. For instance, the art involved in the making of the tabernacle was far towards the overt end of the spectrum — it was not just art for art’s sake. This leaves us with supporting the idea of pure art as worship from inference. That does not necessarily disqualify it, but it puts it on shakier ground. Such an inference is drawn from the image of God or from doing all things to the glory of God, etc.

      I would finally suggest that the further away one moves from the overt end of the spectrum, the less likely or clear it is that an act is independently pleasing to God. A lampstand made for the tabernacle is an overt, independent act of worship, but a lampstand made for a home is a much more difficult question. Is the latter lampstand just a lampstand? Is the lampstand an act of worship simply by being a good lampstand?

  3. billhoard says:

    Heh, I’m glad we can agree on a basic definition for “worship”. For myself I am probably somewhat “left” of the normative principle, never mind the weak vs strong regulative principles. In that vein, while I don’t see any inherent problem with your “overtness” taxonomy, I am loath to tie it in any particular way to conclusions about how receptive God is of a given act or state or worship.
    Specifically, I do see the creation of art as an end as an intrinsic act of worship. However I also agree that motive matters. So I want to be really clear that there is a motivational distinction between art as created out of a desire for self-glorification and art as created out of a celebration of creativity (a gift whether or not it is part of the imago), Beauty, Goodness, and/or Truth. The former is fundamentally worship of self, but the latter is fundamentally gratitude and/or a celebration, directly or indirectly, of God. So when people speak of art for art’s sake they may really be referring to art for the artist’s sake (which I take to be bad) or art for the celebration of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (which are instantiated in a given work of art) which, while corruptible is, in its nature, proper worship.
    So I would say that a well crafted lampstand in a home is likely a fact of worship. Actually the distinction between tabernacle lampstand and home lampstand seems to smack of just the sacred/profane distinction the reformation repudiated.

    • I know the lampstand sounds like a the sacred/profane distinction. I was thinking you would probably mention it. The thing is, I actually believe that it is conceptually possible for something as mundane as a lampstand to just be a lampstand. It may not ever happen in reality, or it may, I don’t know. But I actually think it is theoretically possible for a total God-hater to make a serviceable and attractive lampstand for no other purpose than to have a needed lampstand in his home. He is not making it out of worship to a pagan deity. He is not making it to make himself look good. He actually needs a lampstand, so he makes one. In a sense, such a lampstand brings glory to God, whether the man wants it to or not, but I do not really see the lampstand as an act of worship.

      I do think that under the new covenant especially, the “profane” areas of life can become sacred. I do not think that means, “Anything I do can be worship, so I will do whatever I want — as long as it is not intrinsically evil — and call it worship!” I think it means more “The things that I must and should do can be done as worship.” If you look at the context of passages that say “do everything to the glory of God,” you will see they are speaking of the affairs of the church and the necessary spheres of life (home life, work, etc.) In other words, these passages take the mundane, but unavoidable, parts of life that seem eternally meaningless (e.g., changing a diaper, washing the dishes) and transform them into acts of eternal significance.

      Does the same principle apply to art for art’s sake? I am not saying that it is impossible, but I am saying that the connection is less clear. A lot rides on the motives of the artist and his audience. I also think a lot rides on the time and effort put into it by the artist. For instance, does the artist abandon his other responsibilities for the sake of his creation? Even if his motives are relatively good, is this the best use of his time? This last question is perhaps the reason why some art in the past was worked into things that had to be done anyway — decorative scrollwork on furniture, flowery language in letters, etc.

      I am not writing off all art for art’s sake, but I am saying that art for art’s sake is intrinsically more open to abuse. The danger for Christians is to give them the carte blanche “Art is worship” as an excuse for anything. We tell them it is lawful, so then they never stop to ask if it is profitable.

  4. billhoard says:

    I think we might be getting pretty close to one another on this one. I do think that the lampstand, made well, to serve a good purpose, is defacto worship (which can be corrupted by particulars). I am not entirely sure, but I may simply value beauty a bit more than you. I am also reticent to judge another person’s priorities (an ever present temptation in American Christianity) since we all have different callings and are inclined to read our own calling (evangelism, preaching, teaching) as paramount. We probably agree that it is important to ask whether a thing is profitable as well as lawful, but we may have different evaluations of what makes a thing profitable.

    • I, of course, agree that we should be very slow to judge someone else’s motives, but just as with my work as a pastor, of an artist has to sacrifice his family to make good art, then it is no longer pleasing to God. A lot (not all) of artists have a kind of obsessive temperament. I am including myself in this (which explains why I write little fiction). It human terms, perfectionism/obsession is what allows the artist to create with such skill. It is kind of like in the business world. I can work hard, but there will always be that guy who will get ahead because he stays that extra hour or two, sacrificing things he ought to do to do his work better. I think this is the struggle Christians can face in the artistic marketplace. They are not willing to make such sacrifices, so their work will often seem mediocre by comparison.

    • And yes, I am wondering if we have made as much progress as we could make in this line of discussion.

    • By the way, I am interested in where Ecclesiastes fits into your idea of art. Is art subject to the same vanity of other human endeavors?

      • billhoard says:

        Since I see art as a category of worship, I would say that a log of the answer depends on the particular work or act of art.

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