Paige Britton

Paige Britton has a BA in English from Haverford College. She writes, teaches, paints and cooks in Lancaster County, PA. Most of her creative work (besides dinner) is gathered at www.grassrootstheological.wordpress.com.

On the Minds of Makers

My home is a mansion of many Makers. According to the local census there are only four of us, but if we were numbered according to our creative titles we’d rival the population of a Downton Abbey. We boast a Novelist, a Cook, a Seamstress, two Programmers, a Painter, four Teachers, two Poets, a Web Designer, an Essayist, a Composer, a Model Railroader, two Bakers, and a Botanist. I could go on.

As you would expect, having so many Makers in close proximity results in many messes, the creative debris of each successive artistic eruption. (Here the senior Programmer begs to differ; his desk is always neat.)  But as you might not expect, these merry Makers and all others like us also model a Mystery: in our creating, some might say we are a reflection of the Trinitarian God of Christianity.

That something as inscrutable as the Trinity should find a mirror in the minds of Makers is hardly commonplace, even in Christian circles, but perhaps it’s a notion that should become more familiar. When Christians attempt to describe (to themselves or to others) how one God can exist simultaneously in the three Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the analogies they choose are rarely satisfying and are usually open to grave misinterpretation, emphasizing either unity at the expense of diversity or the reverse. Regardless, through analogies, Christians strive to speak both of simultaneity of being and distinction of roles, in order to preserve the living dynamic of Three-Persons-All-At-Once that the Bible describes—and we must put all this in terms related to our experience, if we hope to grasp it at all.

The standard analogies for the Trinity taught in Sunday School tend to run along the same lines: they pull some object from our experience that we see in different forms and make a comparison. But they all fall short. The familiar comparison of the Trinity to the three states of water suffers from the weakness that the three states must occur to the same water in succession, not all at once; and the tripartite egg can yet be peeled and separated, whereupon shell, white, and yolk can’t each be said also to be “egg.”  The same holds true for the apple and the three-leaved clover. Apparently, mere “threesomeness” in nature is not a guarantee of correspondence to God’s Tri-unity.

But illustrate threesomeness in a dynamic as opposed to a static way, and you may discover a connecting bridge between human experience and the Triune God. In her 1941 book The Mind of the Maker, theologian and writer Dorothy Sayers whimsically defends the notion that the creative mind provides us with an effective and intelligible Trinitarian analogy. As she writes in her preface,

“The point I shall endeavor to establish is that these statements about God the Creator are not, as is usually supposed, a set of arbitrary mystifications irrelevant to human life and thought. On the contrary, whether or not they are true about God, they are, when examined in the light of direct experience, seen to be plain witnesses of truth about the nature of the creative mind as such and as we know it. 

By bringing Sayers’ ideas into contemporary creative conversation, in examining the minds of makers, we might better grasp both the Christian confession of the Trinity and the biblical concept of the imago Dei, the image of God, which teaches that we are all in some way like the Creator who thought up this world in the first place.

Idea, Energy, and Power

Whether the task of creation is mundane or among the finer arts, Sayers explains that all making involves a controlling Idea made incarnate in the world through the Energy of the Maker, and ultimately communicated to and received by other minds via what she calls Power—three elements of human creativity closely analogous to the roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of Christian Trinitarian doctrine. Thus the Cook, for instance, has in mind the Idea of dinner, and exercises her thought and hands accordingly, choosing actions and ingredients that are compatible with her controlling Idea and rejecting those that are not. When the Idea made manifest by her Energy is consumed by herself and others, the Power of the Idea “is released for communication to other men, and returns from their minds to [hers] with a new response” (in this case, hopefully, “Yum! Make this again, mom!”).

Sayers recognizes that while we are all “makers” in the simplest sense of the word, “it is the artist who, more than other men, is able to create something out of nothing.” As she was herself an accomplished playwright and author of detective fiction, her illustrations describe the special creative cases of fiction-writing and drama, though the Trinitarian model of Idea, Energy, and Power applies to all imaginative making.  Speaking as if for every artist, she writes,

If you ask me what is this pattern which I recognize as the true law of my nature, I can suggest only that it is the pattern of the creative mind—an eternal Idea, manifested in material form by an unresting Energy, with an outpouring of Power that at once inspires, judges, and communicates the work; all these three being one and the same in the mind and one and the same in the work. 

And because the creative process sets forth in the world something new—whether made of wood or words or a trio of woodwinds—other humans, having the same triune propensities, may react to what has been made manifest and respond in turn with “an Idea in [the] mind, some form of Energy or Activity (speech, behavior or what not), and a communication of Power to the world around [them].”

Scalene Triangles

Here the Painter in my home wishes to interject into this essay a helpful illustration relating her Energy to the work of the resident Writers: “Just as I patiently apply each successive layer of plaster to a rough wall with a firm but painful hand, taking time to sand the surface smooth till I have a suitable canvas for my mural—so, too, must you smooth each draft of your piece, patiently (and painfully!) eliminating the threadbare expressions and unnecessary words till you have a streamlined vehicle for your Idea.”

Map Dragon (Detail of 4’X6’ wall mural; plaster and acrylic), 2014.

Map Dragon (Detail of 4’X6’ wall mural; plaster and acrylic), 2014.

To be candid, the Writers quietly resent this intimation that their work involves challenges and limitations similar to a Painter’s craft, which is so clearly mired in the stuff of the material world. Plaster and pigment are media that require physical labor and skill to manipulate into some kind of order. “Isn’t the medium of words somehow beyond such effortful Energy?” murmurs the junior Poet. “Surely the Idea is all I need; my natural gift for language will carry it into being.” The Composer might say the same, endowed as he is with more than one human’s share of ear-hand coordination; but he knows he’s beat—entry into the composition program at the music camp requires a passing score on the theory test. Some disciplined Activity is apparently necessary in this world, even for the gifted artist.

It’s hardly surprising that human creators, being both stubborn and finite, would resist or neglect one or another of the three elements of making. In fact, as Sayers puts it, “the co-equality of the Divine Trinity is represented in pictures and in Masonic emblems as an equilateral triangle; but the trinity of the writer is seldom anything but scalene, and is sometimes of quite fantastic irregularity.” She goes on:

“Writer after writer comes to grief through the delusion that what Chesterfield calls a ‘whiffling Activity’ will do the work of the Idea; that the Power of the Idea in his own mind will compensate for a disorderly Energy in manifestation; or that an Idea is a book in its own right, even when expressed without Energy and experienced without Power.

Adopting the language of Trinitarian theology, she identifies as a failure in the “father” any weakness in the controlling Idea (as when “the work, having started out as one kind of thing, ends up as another kind of thing”); as an impoverishment of the “son,” every failure “in form and expression…from clichés and bad grammar to an ill-constructed plot”; and as an abdication of the “ghost,” a fundamental “failure in Wisdom—not the wisdom of the brain, but the more intimate and instinctive wisdom of the heart and bowels.”

Trinitarian Love

Essentially, getting the trinity of making right—or as close to right as we can—is an act of love. On this view, “good” art loves God and neighbor through truth and skill and considerateness. So the Essayist does not gloss over an uncomfortable passage in American history in her article, and the junior Baker remembers to butter and flour the cupcake tins this time. The senior Programmer adds another button to his game and asks the Editor, “Do you think people will understand these directions?”  And the Composer mercifully removes half of the sixty-fourth notes he’d written for the flautist. Truth, skill, and considerateness are the Father, Son, and Spirit of our making. In the trinity of our creativity, we reflect not only the Persons of the Godhead, but also the Love.

FILZ (Java Code and screen shot), 2015.

FILZ (Java Code and screen shot), 2015.

Though the analogy to the divine Trinity breaks down where our human trinities of making go awry, it’s undeniable that Sayers has fingered a reality of the creative experience that resonates with the Makers in my household. Directed by our Ideas, compelled to Activity suiting our various media, and hopeful that the Power of our embodied imagination will be useful or pleasing to others, we daily demonstrate a Trinitarian picture in our creativity. If it’s true that this image captures something of the mysterious doctrine of the Godhead, then, as Sayers has it, “this, at least, is to man a homely and intimate thing, ‘familiar as his garter’”—not so far removed from human experience, after all.