I’m not sure how it happened, but some time back while scrolling through social media, I stumbled upon a video of a man mowing a wildly overgrown lawn. I was captivated. Evidently, this man has a YouTube channel where he films himself tackling some of the most difficult lawns he can find. Often, he does the work for free, since he is able to support his business by his social media presence. He took something chaotic and ugly and was able to create beauty and order.
Perhaps it’s my personality or my particular sensibilities, but the world feels more broken now than it ever has in my lifetime. If you spend any time watching the news or checking social media, the onslaught of darkness almost feels like a physical presence. And if we allow the fear of this darkness to fester and take hold of our minds and hearts, that dark presence comes knocking on our doors and testing our windows, trying every which way to gain an entrance into our homes. It’s pervasive and relentless in its desire to destroy, deface, and dehumanize.
I see signs of it everywhere. It’s in the coarsening of how we speak to one another and the ugliness of the entertainment we consume. This darkness is seen in our society’s desire to poison and mutilate our bodies, in our destruction of families and Godly traditions and practices. The world hates beauty, goodness, and light and seeks to eradicate them in every way possible. My guess is you know exactly what I’m talking about and if you don’t, you have some sense of where I’m coming from. You can feel it in the air.
My love affair with home renovations shows.
Recently, I’ve started watching home renovations shows on a regular basis. In the past, I had occasionally watched the classics like “This Old House” and “Fixer Upper”. In the beginning, I watched these shows because my wife enjoys them, and I wanted to take part in something that interested her. After a while, I didn’t need any outside reasons or motives to watch them. I watched them because I loved them.
I’ve asked myself a number of times why I enjoy them as much as I do. I’ve landed on a pretty simple answer: they celebrate the joy and art of subcreation. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with that term. J.R.R. Tolkien invented the idea of subcreation to describe humanity’s creative impulse. We, as mortal and fallen, cannot create “ex nihilo” (out of nothing) like God, but we can use that which we find in the created order to continue the creative process. In other words, subcreation.
Home reno shows are all about the subcreation process. Regardless of what you think of the specific designer involved, in each of these shows, they take something old, worn down, and broken, and using their gifts and talents, they refashion, remake, and remodel it into something more functional and more aesthetically pleasing. In the grand scheme of things, what they do is small and fairly insignificant. But instead of adding to the noise and chaos of the world, they create beauty.
Examples to help you create beauty.
Perhaps you are like me, and you lack the skill or the ability to create beauty with your hands. No one is going to hire me to renovate their home. I wouldn’t hire me. Where do those of us who have not been gifted with artistic talent or skill turn in our quest to take our place in the creative process? What is our role in bringing more beauty into an, at times, ugly and broken world?
I think we can participate in the creative process in a myriad of ways. In fact, as far as I can tell, there is no limit to how we can create beauty in our lives. Do you find deep joy and satisfaction with a clean and well-ordered home? That is beautiful. Perhaps you play a musical instrument. Use that talent to push back against the darkness that threatens to overtake your world. It’s likely you aren’t talented enough to “go pro” with your music. No matter. The very act of using your talent and playing your music will create beauty in your life and in the lives of those around you.
Draw. Paint. Write. Garden.1 Look for ways to reject the brokenness. Your small act of subcreation will not save the world, but it can be a spark, a light. When you create beauty, you are reflecting the ultimate beauty, the beauty of the One who spoke all things into existence. The One who, with a word, brought forth worlds and constellations and galaxies. He who contains all beauty has placed a sliver of that beauty in our hearts, inspiring us to imitate His example.
We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God.J.R.R. Tolkien
A lesson from Samwise Gamgee
In “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, during a brief respite in Lothlorien, Galadriel gives gifts to each member of the Fellowship. Each gift is given with purpose. Some receive weapons or sheaths. Others receive beautifully constructed belts. Samwise receives dirt.
Perhaps that sounds like he got the raw end of the deal, but in fact, it was a prescient gift from Galadriel. And it wasn’t just any dirt. No, it was dirt from Galadriel’s orchard. An orchard she had nurtured and grown by her skill and innate power and sustained and protected from decay by her ring of power. She gives this great gift to Samwise Gamgee, a humble gardener by trade.
Near the end of the story, once the quest to destroy the ring is over, the four Hobbits return home to The Shire. They find it overrun and despoiled by the evil wizard Saruman and his henchman. Trees have been cut down in the name of progress. Homes destroyed. Hobbits imprisoned. The four Hobbits, having grown in courage and wisdom in their journeys, marshal the strength and the passion of their fellow Hobbits, and defeat Saruman and his men. The Shire is safe and secure once again. But it is a shell of its former beauty and glory.
Samwise is particularly affected by the devastation they find. As a gardener who understands the time and effort involved in growing things, Sam realizes that the damage caused by Saruman will take generations to heal. It is then he remembers Galadriel’s dirt. Knowing what a great gift it is, he does not want to waste it.
His fellow traveler Pippin suggests he toss all the dirt into air on a windy day and let the dirt take root where it lands, but Sam does not want to be careless. Merry suggests he use it all in one spot, to “see what happens to the plants there.” Sam rejects this plan as well and his response gets right to the heart of everything I’ve written so far: “But I’m sure the Lady would not like me to keep it all for my own garden, now so many folk have suffered.”
Taking Frodo’s wise advice, Sam uses all his skill and knowledge as a gardener coupled with Galadriel’s gift, and he works tirelessly to create beauty all over The Shire, not just for himself or his friends. The Shire is transformed and renewed, even surpassing its former glory.
Create beauty with Kingdom living.
We are all gifted and skilled to create beauty. As image bearers of God, we carry His creative impulse. Sadly, we often bury that impulse, covering it with darkness and chaos. Reject the noise and the rage. Cast out the coarse and the ugly. Embrace your subcreative role and go out and create beauty. Don’t keep it all for your “own garden”. As Sam aptly put it, “now so many folk have suffered” keeping this beauty all to ourselves is the opposite of how we are called to live.
Creating beauty is not just about the things we make or produce. The beauty we “create” is merely a reflection of God’s character and beauty. How we live can be beautiful. How we love is beautiful. As the Bible says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”2 As citizens of the now and not yet Kingdom of God, we should be light in a dark and broken world. A “city on a hill” to the world around us. If we are living in the Spirit, our lives should radiate with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.3 Those are beautiful. Live like that and you create beauty everywhere you go.
As for me, I refuse to dwell on the rancid garbage the world celebrates any more. I would rather dwell on things that matter. Beautiful things. Things that bring truth, beauty, and joy. Things like watching a man mow a lawn.
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind. [...] That right has not decayed: we make still by the law in which we're made -- Mythopoeia - J.R.R. Tolkien
- I highly recommend you read this article by Sarah Benton over at The Helwys Society Forum. It is a robust look into how gardening fits into this topic. The major points Sarah makes would apply to everything I’ve written here, and frankly, she says it much better than I ever could. ↩
- John 13:35 ↩
- Galatians 5:22 ↩