We are all confronted with a variety of messages that vie to narrate our lives. The voices of fear and shame sometimes feel more familiar, but the voice of love offers something that is so much richer. Here, Carrie Cates, a third-year Master of Divinity student, writes about the two gospels—one of fear and one of love—that seek to mark her work as an artist.
In 2012, two researchers at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Karen Dwyer and Marlina Davidson, administered a survey to eight hundred and fifteen college students, asking them to select their three greatest fears from a list that included, among other things, heights, flying, financial problems, deep water, death, and “speaking before a group.” Speaking before a group beat out all the others, even death.
—“I Can’t Go On,” Joan Acocella, The New Yorker, August 3, 2015
A momentous and mysterious factor that keeps us going through every obstacle is the love of our unfinished work… We cannot see our unborn creation, we cannot know it, but we know it is there and we love it; and that love drives us to realize it. The work in progress can be experienced much as another person with whom we interact, whom we get to know… Like loving someone, commitment to the creative act is commitment to the unknown—not only the unknown but the unknowable.
—Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play, 167
This November, I am going to present an original solo theater piece at the American Academy of Religion conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The working title of this piece is The Snare is Broken and We Are Set Free (a reference to Psalm 124:7). The Snare is (or I think it will be) an exploration of religion, ritual, death, and mourning. How is it that people from across faith traditions talk about death and dying? What are the ways different religions ritualize the passage from death to life for both the living and the dead? Why does it matter?
I say that I think The Snare will explore these questions because I don’t really know what the piece will look like yet. This is a frightening thing because the days till November are becoming less and less. I am fretting over the work, insisting it answer my questions, making harsh demands of it, and am being met with silence. The silence terrifies me; this work terrifies me, and in my fear, I grow less and less able to listen to both the voice that calls me to create and to the unborn creation itself.
The fear I feel in this process has been surprising in its swiftness and all-consuming nature. I fear failure. I fear humiliation. What if my art is not good enough, for myself or for anyone else? What if I am not the artist I thought I was? What if I fail? I glut myself on these and a thousand other anxieties, consuming and being consumed, forgetting that this ever had anything to do with desire and with love.
There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18, NIV
Oh love—I remember you. I remember before I was afraid of the peril of artmaking that I was overjoyed to be invited into the electric fray of creation. I remember that accepting the risk of baring my face, revealing my heart, and using my voice was a part of an invitation toward wholeness before it began to feel like a condemnation unto death. I remember my longing to be a part of breathing beauty into ashes; I remember the Spirit’s breath in me.
As artists, we are constantly in a battle over which gospel rules our lives. There is a familiar gospel of fear, and it is a gospel of scarcity. Its disciples are stuffed with the worry that never sates, the anxiety that can’t be quelled. It’s cheap; there’s always too much and there’s never, ever enough.
Then there is the gospel of love, which is a gospel of abundance. It is free, and it also costs you everything. But what it gives—hope, faith, courage, joy—always begets more and more goodness, more and more beauty, all moving toward wholeness. The gospel of love for artists, for myself, is that which calls us to create in the image of the Creator. Creation is joyful, tender, and intimate. There is delight and anticipation, a belief in the goodness of the unseen That Which Is Not Yet.
So the question before me as an artist is: which is my gospel? I have been a ready student of fear, it is true, but I am yearning to be a disciple of love. This gospel teaches me love for my Creator, love for myself, love for the work that I labor over and birthe. It calls me to a kingdom beyond fear, where the glory of creation and living unto and into wholeness means more than any measurement of success or failure.
Changing allegiances from fear to love does not happen overnight, and perhaps may never fully happen in this life. But for today, I will choose to live and create under the banner of the gospel of love as much as I can. And today, perhaps that is enough.