Christians sometimes minimize human creativity. “We don’t create anything,” it’s said. “We just rearrange what’s already there.” Of course, there’s a difference between God’s making and ours. God says “Light, please” and there’s light where there’s never been light before. He says, “Let the waters teem,” and they teem. Human beings always use pre-existing raw materials, which we receive as gifts from God. We break them down, reshape them, and reassemble them. We don’t make animals; we train and tame them. We don’t make trees; we plant them, cut them down, reshape the wood, and turn it into a shelter. We break and chisel God’s stones to make blocks and bricks for temples and palaces. We shear God’s sheep, spin wool into thread, and weave clothes. Or we wear God’s plants—flax, linen, cotton.
But we shouldn’t exaggerate the contrast between God’s making and ours. He speaks light into existence and makes other things by pure fiat. But he doesn’t complete creation directly. Empowered by the creating Word, the world fills itself. Trees and plants spring up because God commands the earth to “sprout vegetation.” God speaks to the seas, and sea creatures swarm in the Word-fertilized waters. Earth brings forth land animals. Human beings are the least ex nihilo of creatures. Yahweh forms Adam from the earth (‘adamah), and he “builds” (banah) Eve from Adam.
Every human invention replicates God’s way of making. He lights, forms, and fills, and we do the same. We make plans for a house, then frame, roof, and close it in; we furnish it and, we hope, fill it with joy and life. A dark and unformed patch of the world takes visible shape. We plot out the yard, plow up a garden patch, and then fill it with seeds that, we pray, will fill the patch with vegetables. We have a “bright idea” that leads to a business plan. Over time, we fill out the form by finding investors and partners, hiring employees, purchasing equipment, filling an office or a factory. Made in the Creator’s likeness, we are creators and makers. Made in God’s image, we’re made to make.
Soon after they’re made, human beings begin to mis-make. After Adam and Eve sin, they see that they’re naked and vulnerable to God’s scrutiny, so they sew fig leaves to “make” aprons. It’s the first human artifact, a potent symbol of our distorted, fallen creativity. Instead of re-forming creation as an offering to God, we remake creation to shield ourselves from his gaze. We design and build elaborate cultural, political, social, and economic systems to keep God at arm’s length. Much of our cultural production is no more than the sophisticated and ingenious, but ultimately useless, construction of fig-leaf aprons.
Mis-making continues as the human race grows and spreads. Cain kills his brother and then proceeds, like Romulus, to build a city. We aren’t told anything about life in the city of Cain, but we can surmise it wasn’t a city of justice and peace. Cain’s descendants show supreme creativity, inventing animal husbandry, music, metallurgy, and tool-making, as well as politics. But their making is invariably destructive. Jubal doesn’t play his lyre and pipe to praise the Creator, Jabal doesn’t raise sacrificial animals to offer to Yahweh, and Tubal-cain makes deadly weapons as well as agricultural tools. As they mis-make, the descendants of Cain unmake themselves, until they have filled the world with such savage violence that the Creator regrets having created in the first place.
The world is saved by a carpenter. Noah is the first rightly-ordered maker in human history, a true heir of Adam. He makes according to the word of Yahweh: “Noah made; according to all God commanded him, thus he made” (Gen 6:22; my translation). Instead of aprons of figs to screen himself from God, Noah makes an ark of wood in obedience to God. God’s Word is the inner essence of Noah’s makings. Noah is another Abel, a godly Jabal, who gathers animals and cares for them within the ark. The ark is a saving vessel, a miniature world, a rescue pod filled with the seeds of a new world. Through this saving vessel, Noah not only escapes the flood, but reaches a higher plane of human maturity. He renews humanity’s priestly task by giving the firstfruits of the new creation to Yahweh as an ascension offering, redirecting human making toward Eucharist.
In all this, the early story of human creativity foreshadows the hinge of human history. Jesus comes at the fullness of time, when storm clouds are ready to burst. A flood is coming (Matt. 24:48–49), one that will destroy the ancient world. The Carpenter of Nazareth builds a vessel of salvation to carry the world through the end into a new age. He harvests from the forest of humanity and assembles a human ark, reshaping the crooked timber of humanity according to the pattern of the Word. Within the ark of the church, the Greater Noah remakes us as makers, fulfilled as the creative creatures we were created to be.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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