Design & Theology

I did an internet search recently to understand what designers like me (web, graphic, or industrial designers specifically) think about their activity in terms of how it relates to God.  The first post I came across after doing a Google search was a blog with a category page with a confusing title of “The Design of Theology.”  All its posts were instead about the theology of design.  The first one I read was about how the main purpose of graphic / communication design was to share or promote the glory of God.  This seemed to me a good idea, but a little odd because a professional graphic designer often does things other than that, so it would be hard to argue that this is the primary purpose of Graphic design in the sphere of human society, and it would lead a professional to feel a little guilty that he or she wasn’t doing something “churchy.”  This is unhelpful theology to me or anyone not working as a graphic designer for a church.

The second post I read was much worse.

It stated that during the creative process of a designer, it is God who creates; we are just inspired by God to act as a result.  This argument is based on the observation that Jesus believed that the author of Genesis 2:24 (that a man should leave his parents and become one flesh with his wife) was Moses (Luke 24:44), and this statement was Moses’, (not a direct quote from God).  Because Jesus attributed this idea to God, this means that God always creates though us and we never create anything ourselves.  This is some strange logic.  It is one thing to say that God is the originator of reality and theological truth, it is quite another to suddenly say that because we can’t create truth propositions, we can’t create anything at all, including drawings, flower arrangements, or music.  In Exodus 31:2, God appoints Bezalel son of Uri to design the tabernacle furnishings and we read about him later designing and making these items.  God’s spirit was with him (31:3), but there is no indication that God was anything more than an inspiration, not the sole creator in the process.

I looked on for other perspectives, hoping to find something better to inspire me as a designer.  I found another post about “Theological Design,” which seemed also to have a church-centric focus, although with a decidedly less Reformed angle.  Art and media design in this author’s perspective is for drawing in people who enjoy that sort of thing so that they come to church more and hear the gospel. It is also a good thing to use with existing members to get involved more, stay informed, or better understand a message.  There’s nothing wrong with this approach–using art to facilitate church worship, community, and instruction isn’t bad, it’s what God wanted Bezalel to do when building the tabernacle.  However, I was looking for something more fundamental that would have meaning to both church designers and professional designers who make websites for the local grocery store or restaurant.  Is there a “theology of design” they can look to?

I ran across another post by Sam Mahlstadt, author of the book Creative Theology.  Here he describes some of his ideas about “Creative Theology:”

“One of the most basic concepts of A Creative Theology is that the encounter between an audience and a piece of creation develops a relational bond between that same audience and the creator of the creation. When you encounter a piece of creation, it changes how you view the person who created it. There is a bond or a disconnect experienced in that moment. How you view humanity is a direct reflection of how you view the Creator.”

This is beginning to become useful and interesting.  As a web and graphic designer who is a Christian, I can begin to appreciate the work I do.  Whether I am doing more applied art or art that holds meaning behind it in the way it is creatively manifested (like in the use of light in a  Thomas Kincade painting), a person’s artistic work manifests their relationship with God.  A combination of beauty and functionality is something God would appreciate, both of which are abundantly evident in His creation.  Some of these ideas resonate with the writing of Francis Schaeffer in his book Escape from Reason.  The artist is a prisoner of culture, and his/her work is a reflection of early developments in a cultural shift.  For a Christian who is a prisoner to Christ (in a relationship with Christ), their work is a reflection of that fundamental reality instead.

A final post I came across was the most inspiring.  It was a post by Russell Shaw on his personal blog/portfolio site.  His take on the theology of design or creative theology is as follows:

“There is something about the creative process – and not just for solving design-related problems, but in all creative problem solving – that feels very good to me. It is as though when I am creating something – anything – that I am in a “sweet spot.” My soul tunes to the rhythm of the project and I pour my whole being into the process. The finished product often makes me happy, but it is the work of creating that brings me deep joy.

My belief about our ultimate origin resides in the existence of God. And if it is true – if it is true that He created the heavens and the earth, and at some point created male and female humans, describing us as being in His image - then we exist in the image of a creative Divinity. When we create – be it designs or paintings, lyrics or melodies, scripts or movies, short stories or lectures, campaigns or solutions to social issues, even lesson plans or to-do lists in their own right – we participate in the nature of God. We find a “sweet spot.” Our souls rejoice in the process because we were created to create.”

This sounds wonderful to me.  To design, to be creative, is to take part in the way we were made – in the image of a creative God.  To do so brings us joy – it was how we were designed to be – to enjoy our work and to be creative.  I am reminded of a quote from the writers of the movie Chariots of Fire, where the olympic runner Eric Liddle talks about his gift of running:

“God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” 

This, I believe is the foundation for a theology of design.  God gave us all gifts, like Bezalel in Exod 31:2.  When we use them, we bring him pleasure and his spirit rejoices within us, and we feel it.

    2 Responses to “Design & Theology”

    1. Mathias

      Thank you, I am very grateful to actually see this article 🙂

      Reply to this comment.
    2. Jonathan
      Author Comment

      Mathias, thank you! I’m glad you liked it.

      Reply to this comment.

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