Generative Love and the Character of God: Making Art and a Theology of Failure

April 4th, 2011 – by Bethany Tobin, Editors Blog

For the past two years, I have spent a lot of time holed up in my studio staring fearfully at blank pieces of paper. I’ve had my life-long dream of time, studio space, and the vision of expressing the beautiful truths of the universe – the generative love of the Trinity!  Yet making art has been such a struggle.  I have learned that the more I expected instant perfection, the more I was paralyzed. The more I was driven to produce success, the more miserly and contrived my work became. The lesson of this year is that making art is really about practice and unproductivity, working with imperfection, being willing to be vulnerable and open to risk and surprise. In short: Making art is only possible when one is willing to fail. And in an interesting symmetry, I find that the method looks like the beautiful truth it wants to express: Kenosis (self-emptying) is the source of generative love.

Our willingness to be vulnerable and risk it all is what allows us to create something new and make something more. Failure isn’t the end of the world, it is the opportunity to learn and grow. If you don’t have a theology of failure, you’ll end up burning out or devastated when you inevitably wake up to a mistake. We do what we are called to do not because we can do it perfectly, but because even in failure, we believe it is worth doing and that in doing our best God is honored.

What about productivity? A phrase caught my attention months ago and it’s been ruminating in my mind ever since. The phrase was, “You either contemplate or exploit.” (Andy Crouch, In “Andy Crouch: Love and the Risk of Innovation” in Faith and Leadership Newsletter, November 23, 2010). And it struck me that I was exploiting my art for my own sake (my progress, accolades etc) instead of listening to and valuing art for itself and what art inherently can do in the world. When art becomes about success (impressing people or making money) it stops being about the art, and the heart goes out of it. In that sense, art is for its own sake. You’ve got to make art for the love of making art because that’s the only way you’ll want to practice your craft. To practice our crafts, we have to have an attitude of gratuity: to “waste” time on work that will never leave the basement.

This year I also learned I must come to God with the same attitude; I must seek God for God’s own sake. Just as good art and solid practice withheld itself until I was no longer grasping for the quick road to progress – so God sat with me compassionate but tight-lipped, saying: “Seek after me for my own sake, because I will not be manipulated into serving your future.” You either contemplate or exploit. And God will be worshiped, not exploited.  In the fallow times our addiction to making everything serve our interest is broken. This is true growth and it happens when we are broken, sitting in front of the blank page of our lives. God will in fact enforce fallowness to help us learn it.  The mystery is that in apparent stagnancy, apparent stuck-ness, there the gift of new life is revealed- not the progress we expected, but a truer healing.

Then, the artist, stumbling through her own struggles and failures, is awakened to her own selfish desire to make everything and everyone her instrument. Instead she finds how God made each thing beautiful and out of God’s pleasure – to have its own inherent worth and be more than anyone’s use of it. Through this we have a new revelation of the foundational character of God, revealed to us in the mutual submission of the Trinity and the sacrifice of God the Son…It’s Grace! It’s the revelation of God’s gratuity! More than needed – waste even. It’s the opposite of utilitarianism. Kenosis that doesn’t kill, but flowers into more life. It’s the logic of the cross. By being willing to risk it all, to be stripped, to fail, to die – it becomes generosity that makes more: it is generative, over-flowing, abundance. That’s how creation got its start. That’s how we create. That’s how we are redeemed. When our selfish desires are stripped away, that’s when the real ability to create and produce are unleashed, and because we are willing to fail. There’s enough time. There’s enough energy. There’s enough love. And it’s all for love and through love and in love.

Bethany Tobin received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and drawing from James Madison University in 2006. In 2009 she received a Master of Theological Studies in Theology and the Arts from Duke University. Tobin is passionate about creating works of art that engage the life of discipleship to Christ. You can find more information and artwork on her website:

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