Our four kids have worn out our Toy Story 2 DVD. When they were toddlers, we’d catch them walking around the house clutching the disc.
Now, I don’t mean to give the impression that we ran a Pixar marathon on a sixteen-hours-a-day loop. We try to limit television time and encourage active role play and generally stay off the bad parent list. But there is some degree of screen time in the house, and for a period of a couple of years, easily, the favorite movie in the house was Toy Story 2. Our oldest, Kaylyn, especially liked the protagonist Woody’s girlfriend Jessie. When Kaylyn was six, she insisted on being Jessie for Halloween.
We have many of the film’s characters as dolls around the house, including Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie and Woody’s horse Bullseye. Since the premise of the movie centers on toys that come to life when the humans aren’t around, Shar and I decided to play a game with the kids. When they weren’t paying attention, we rearranged the toys in funny positions, such as Woody with one arm hanging out of the toy chest or Bullseye with his leg caught in the bedframe, as if they were forced into frozen positions of escape by unexpected impending humans.
The kids totally bought it. it became a fun game to see when they might catch the toys in funny positions. This went off and on for a few months, until we eventually forgot to keep the game going.
One of our better parental achievements is that, at nine, Kaylyn still believes in magical toys. Now, don’t mistake her for a dim bulb. Kaylyn is in the accelerated program at her school and is particularly gifted in the visual arts, having won art awards in second grade that bested fifth graders around the school district. It is the innocence that we cherish. Someday she will figure out that Toy Story dolls are inanimate, just as she will figure out the “secrets” of Christmas and Easter. My prayer is that she never becomes so grown up that she dismisses these stories as lies. I want her to understand that Santa Claus, for instance, is very real. The truth of Santa Claus is not found in a covert icy warehouse run by small people. The truth of Santa Claus is the joy in a child’s face.
My daughter’s openness to mystery and art and image are attributes of a storyteller’s heart. It is an awareness of the truth invisible to our deductions, to the Cartesian parts of us that operate in the rational realm. As her spirit matures, my hope is that she will innately understand that God is mystery.
Sometimes I have trouble with worship songs that characterize God as a “friend”. I understand their intent and am grateful for the gift of the Incarnation it connotes. Yet God is wholly Other, and while grace reconciles us it does not make us peer gods. Children, yes; peers, no. We cannot fully know the Creator of the universe. God is beyond our deepest knowings. While there is much from modern era theology we can learn from and be thankful for, to limit our understanding of God to systematic theology is to try to put a collar on God.
Not only is this impossible, it’s tragic. How much greater is a life lived in the exploration of the divine glimpse? When Jason Moore and I first left Ginghamsburg Church in 2000 to make worship media for a new market we were trying to help create, one of the first pieces we did was a contemporary rendition of the shepherds in the fields at night. Here it is:
After having produced local church worship videos for years under the pressure of a weekly Wednesday to Saturday timeline, we were eager to explore the possibilities of more sophisticated production with higher quality equipment, storyboard and shot sequences, locations, actors, and more. We decided to create a rural setting for the shepherd’s story. Working in Texas, we had access through our parent organization to an authentic working ranch. We scouted it; it had a farmhouse, windmill, rickety barn, horses, chickens, cattle, an old Ford pickup, and even a mangy dog.
We took a cast and crew of nine out to the ranch to capture the story of the angel’s visit to a few low-level field workers. The production was initially a disaster. We discovered the hard way that the “at night” part of the equation presented some issues when stuck in a itchy grass field with no convenient outlets in the dirt. Two pugnacious generators pumping power into our 1000-watt field lights didn’t really simulate the light of a missing moon, which meant day one of the two-day shoot yielded nothing usable. In spite of these problems we ended up with some good footage.
Later, we discussed project titles with our colleagues at Lumicon. We were infatuated with catchy double éntendrés but couldn’t think of anything sufficiently clever. We settled on Glimpse the Divine. I was not thrilled with the title. At the time I thought it lacked a certain marketing punch. But over the years I have warmed to it. It captures the nature of the story of the shepherds in the fields at night: the revelation of their vision, the beauty in the middle of the drudgery.
It also captures something much more: Our notions of God are domesticating and narcissistic. Instead of worrying about how God might clean up our little mess, what if we were to set about the business of co-creating with God? This is the awe of art. Art is essentially a glimpse of the divine, a moment when we are hit with the wonder of truth, both for the receiver and for the artist. To create art, to tell a story, to sing a song, is to engage in wonder making. It is to discover the heart of our Creator God through a co-creative process.
Madeleine L’Engle says,
“Life is ultimately mystery, closely knit to God’s creative activity, which didn’t stop at creation. God is constantly creating, in us through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling.”
As a creative person, I find that the creative process – especially writing – is itself devotion. I am often closest to God, with an acute awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit, in the creative act, because it is the moment when we, the created, in spite of our brokenness and essential earthiness, experience communion with the transendent Creator. Us humble humans are given power as of God. All of these things and greater we can do. This power is awful and aweful and awesome.
Maybe it is why so many artists are nuts. Our essential earthiness is unable to shape and be fully shaped into Christ’s likeness in this life. The incongruity is in greatest relief in artists who struggle outside of the gift of grace. Yet even those who know grace cannot fully shake the dust off our skin. We walk through life as spiritual Pig Pens, Charlie Brown’s dusty friend. We are surrounded by a cloud of our own earthiness, co-creating with our Creator.