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Creativity and the Spirit

By Paul Chaffee


The notion supporting this month’s issue is that the ‘arts,’ defined broadly, mediate ‘spirit and truth’ in ways religion cannot, particularly if you take religion to be doctrine, rules, and organization. Of course religion uses the arts in all sorts of ways, which muddies and makes more complex the relationship between our creative energies and what we hold to be true and important. Indeed, for the ancient Greeks as with most indigenous traditions, painting, sculpture, dance, music, and story emerge out of ritual and spiritual practice, where the artist and practitioner are one and the same.

In the materialist world of the West, this oneness dissolved centuries ago, with artists freed from the tether of religion. To this day, though, I think the pastor and the artist know they have an important relationship, but one not to be trusted entirely on either side. Bach used to go out for a beer while the sermon was being delivered. Yet the music the church invited him to create for worship provides a spiritual experience without parallel for many of us.

Today the arts are a cashcow for a slew of industries, starting with videogames, big-ticket movies, and the millions of images and films downloaded on the the web every day. Still, in the midst of this cacophony, thousands of artists the world over, in every religious, spiritual, ethnic, racial tradition, are agents of the Spirit in all sorts of media.

This month TIO offers a brief sampling of different ways the Spirit is being expressed in the arts, particularly in faith and interfaith arenas. Our stories come from musicals, drama, the huge annual interfaith music festival in Fes, interreligious art exhibits, cartoons and billboards, online music in Egypt, sculpture, poetry, photography, learning to be an artist with the ‘enemy,’ funding films, and kids as spiritually grounded artists. The section concludes with two poems by Charles Gibbs, neither one about faith or interfaith, but both of which drive to the heart of what this issue is exploring.

The biggest gap in this brief overview is with film, the dominant art form of our time. Except for the piece on the Hartley Foundation’s support of starting documentarians, we’ve left film alone this time. But resources are abundant. You can find an Interfaith Film Festival on YouTube, with links to 169 (and growing) short interfaith videos from dozens of different traditions, many of them remarkable. This year’s Sundance Film Festival featured a Faith Panel, and Hollywood itself is turning more and more to religious and interreligious themes. (In Bollywood the distance between sacred and secular is much shorter than in the West.)

Frederic Brussat at Spirituality and Practice and Ed McNulty at Read the Spirit offer us dozens of up-to-date film reviews, and the Spiritual Cinema Circle, hosted by Mariel Hemingway, gives you access to outstanding films that may not make it to your local theater. MOST (Muslims On Screen and Television) members are doing important educational work, producing compelling feature films they distribute internationally; their influence to not stereotype Muslims in the industry is superb. In 2016 TIO will devote an issue to interfaith film.

Shakespeare, who seems to understood the human condition better than most theologians, so well hid his sympathies in the monumental, deadly struggle between Protestants and Catholics spanning his life, that his commitment to one or the other continues to be debated. Yet like other master artists, absent religious labels he manages to open up our lives, stimulate our thinking and our senses, and teach us deep stuff we couldn’t learn any other way. Enjoy.