The loss of transcendence is often the price of relevance, and the converse may also hold true. The familiar can wedge us into oppressive ditches, and usually in ways that catch us unaware. One might be lying facedown, oblivious as the drainage runs over with unanticipated fury.
After all, the stigma of ritualism is no respecter of persons. It’s no respecter of liturgies. Is it possible to embrace liturgy and creativity at the same time? Or are we doomed to have one without the other?
We often think robes and candles and chants are the stuff of stuffy ritualism, where jeans and guitars and stage design signal freedom and spontaneity. But any consistent form of worship—whether new or old—is a type of liturgy.
If liturgy is the form of any worship, no matter its expression or style, how does one avoid the slip into immanence without transcendence or transcendence without immanence? Or you could say, how do we avoid liturgy without creativity? Once the false dichotomy is broken apart, how do we resist the human tendency to atrophy? How do we bring creativity to bear upon our liturgy?
Creativity is also unjustly enlisted to serve in our worship wars, made partisan to our particular preferences. We bastardize its importance by too closely allying it with the novel, or identifying it too nearly with the new. If there is nothing new under the sun, then creativity does not neatly (nor willingly) cram itself into our furrows. It isn’t just novelty. It isn’t just the new.
Rather, creativity runs with faster feet both forward and backward in time, drawing out from the past what the future discovers anew, anticipating that where we will end up might be where we have already been before. Each generation must unearth creativity afresh, and often does so in finding that their heritage didn’t die with their fathers.
The ancients understood creativity to be a process of discovery—art as the imitation of the divine handiwork. Even as late as Chaucer, creativity was considered the faculty of God alone. There is thus a profound and un-severable connection between the sacred work of creation in the vast recesses of eternity and its temporal re-disclosure in the work of the people—literally, the liturgy.
The work of creativity in our liturgies—however we wish to classify them—begins by acknowledging that our creative efforts stand as a derivative to God’s creative essence. We never truly create something new. How could we? Instead, the deepest truth is that every glimpse of beauty, every masterpiece that lifts our hearts and intellect above the mundane, every note and phrase that moves our spirits in an ecstatic dance—each and every instance of creativity is merely finding God again in a new way, teasing out a previously unknown facet of the incomprehensible divine being.
All creativity is thus woven into the same tapestry, the threads of the ancient voices joining into the same refrain as the ones who will tend to our graves. In an age where personalities and styles in worship too often drown out the harmony of the church’s voice, how fitting to remember the fleeting beauty of our efforts set next to the painful image of divine love on the cross.
And just as both the soul and the bones must either grow or decay, so our liturgies must be constantly renewing themselves from the fountains of creativity. This actually bears itself out less in the specifics or the tactical and more in the posture. Are our works of worship stale merely because they repeat the tried and true, a seething comfortability with the traditional? Or do we take our rest in the restlessness of novelty, seeking the new for its own sake?
Either approach turns insipid eventually. And when we remove the trappings we find fortresses we’ve erected to protect the familiar, in whatever guise. Creativity is unleashed in worship when it is given back, when it is pursued for its true sake, as an expression of love for God and an imitation of His creative infinitude.
The truth discovered here is that God’s infinite beauty and creativity logically entails that we will never come to the end of it; as such, any particular expression can never fully capture it in its totality. In actuality, we should reject any such determination as the blasphemous heresy it is, the setting aside of the first commandment—making creativity a god that we worship.
Ultimately, the problem with our creativity is not that we have too little of it, but rather that the kinds of creativity we presume for ourselves are far too small. The soaring cathedrals that raise ones eyes to heaven bear their own humility in the crumbling buttresses that time brings to naught, just as the last note of a song that captures the soul will eventually fade into the silence.
The question to be asked is not how to be innovative or clever or novel or any other buzzword we want to use to describe our worship. Instead, the question that all creativity comes back to is what part of the divine image do we discover in all its freshness and vitality? The tactical practicalities of worship styles or musical transitions or thematic elements or whatnot wane in the shadow of the looming and all-encompassing creative wonder of the God who is the source of all that is old and all that is new.