The Neurological Reason Why Creativity is So Important to the Church


You know the cymbal guy in the back of the orchestra? The one who holds up two big cymbals and crashes them together at the climax of the piece? Now imagine those same cymbals, by themselves, without the context of the orchestra, coming together next to your ear.

Ouch!

So much of what passes for Christian thought and action in our culture right now is what the apostle Paul calls “a clanging cymbal.” Without love, theology – truth and propositions about God -is painful for the world to hear.

I think part of the reason the church has become a clanging cymbal to the world is a consequence of modern, Western society, which places high value on creating meaning through defense of reasoned propositions. The church has adapted this thinking to its own detriment.

Left-brain / right-brain differences are real

In his book The Master and the Emissary (hat tip to Leonard Sweet for the recommendation), author and brain researcher IainMcGilchrist points out the science behind the very real differences between the left and right hemispheres of our brain. These are true phenomenological differences and not just convenient tropes.

Here’s a quick chart of some of the differences between the left and right brain:

 

 

The church has followed modern culture in minimizing the value of the right-brain

The process by which we find meaning is a process where we filter our immediate, embodied human experiences – the products of our five senses, which first appear through the right-brain – through the analytical prowess of our left-brain, which categorizes and contextualizes what we experience, then back out to our right-brain for integration into our lives.

McGilchrist argues that our modern culture has lost a crucial part of how we find meaning because we have placed the work of the left-brain over the work of the right-brain. His book is basically a left-brained defense of the need for the right-brain.

It’s a process that starts with the right-brain (the “creative” side), goes to the left-brain (the “analytical” side), then back to the right brain again. What is missing, McGilchrist argues, is this last step of the meaning-making process. It is the part that re-integrates the concepts of the left-brain back into the experience of the right-brain.

We keep trying to identify truth through pure analysis. But it doesn’t work.

We can only find full understanding when we re-appropriate our analysis back into the immediacy of experience. He explains:

“The right hemisphere [of the brain] needs the left hemisphere in order to be able to unpack experience. Without its distance and structure, certainly, there could be, for example, no art, only experience – Wordsworth’s description of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” is just one famous reflection of this. But, just as importantly, if the process ends with the left hemisphere, one only has concepts – abstractions and conceptions, not art at all. Similarly the immediate pre-conceptual sense of awe can evolve into religion only with the help of the left hemisphere: though, if the process stops here, all one has is theology, or sociology, or empty ritual: something else. It seems that, the work of division having been done by the left hemisphere, a new union must be sought, and for this to happen the process needs to be returned to the right hemisphere, so it can live.” – Iain McGilchrist

Like a musician who sightreads a new piece, breaks it down into parts to learn, and then puts it back to gather to perform, we are meant to experience, process and then present.

Concepts need art to live

I am a creative director in ministry because I believe this is true. Abstract ideas of any kind – including ideas about God – must find root in human experience in order for them to make sense, to take root in our hearts, and to affect change.

Creativity is the process by which this happens, and the tools are story, metaphor and image.

To use McGilchrist’s neurological language, what I do with creativity in church is to facilitate embodied experiences so that people can parse experience into concept and concept back into experience, and thereby discover meaning in the truth of the gospel of Jesus.

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).

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