ARTicles Pt. 3 | The Doctrine of Sub-Creation – Why Do We Make Art?

By July 23, 2014Archive

Doctrine of Sub-Creation

“The primal artistic act was God’s creation of the universe out of chaos, shaking the formless into form; and every artist since, on a lesser scale, has sought to imitate him.” – Laurence Perrine

Let’s recap for a moment. Hi, my name is Justin. I’m doing a blog series on literary art this summer. I am a nerd. I like books, superheroes, The Lord of the Rings, and learning. I am riveted by debates, reading, and indoor, cerebral activities in general. I have been to a Renaissance Fair(e). Once, I almost went to Comic-Con. However, I haven’t always been true to my geek heritage. Aside from my comic book attachment, I used to be a nerd-poseur, having not actually read The Lord of the Rings, but claiming to be a HUGE J.R.R. Tolkien fan (solely based on the movies). This pseudo-love for all things Hobbits was just one of my many, many identity hats worn in my formative years. Though the book series overwhelmed my impatient teenage mind at the time, I finally earned my nerd “cred” last summer by completely reading these masterpieces of imaginative fiction. If you’ve never encountered his literary genius, please stop reading this piece of trash and come back once you’ve read The Lord of the Rings. See you in a bit.

OK. Tolkien was so good – and, believe me, he is good — because he understood what literary art (and particularly fantasy) really is: creation, or at least “Sub-creation,” a term he coined for the process of world-building that occurs in the imagination of a storyteller.

Tolkien created his own fantasy world, Arda (+10 nerd points if you knew that), complete with history, nations, and peoples. In doing so, Tolkien became a creator, like his Heavenly Father before him. He called this act Sub-creation and defined it as legitimate creation of an artist within God’s primary creation. We are not the prime Creator, but we are all little creators. We create by using God’s creation, whether physical creations like paper and pigments, or conceptual ones such as ideas, words, and truths. Looking back at last week’s post on the imagination, Tolkien even noted that “Art [is] the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-Creation.” Think of the process like this: Artist’s Imagination à the Art itself à Sub-creation in the reader’s mind. In this progression, as was said last week, art is by nature communal, creating a shared experience between artist and viewer/reader. We make art in order to share it.

When speaking of art and the imagination in his definitive essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien fleshed out what happens to a reader when experiencing a great story: “What really happens is the story-maker becomes a successful ‘Sub-creator.’ He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside” (60). Great literary fiction draws you in and makes you an honorary citizen of that world. Ironically, successful art keeps us “lost.” The best stories stay with us (and we in them) even after the final page. We retain our imaginative citizenship. On the contrary, when we are suddenly snapped back into the confines of our own tangible reality having pulled back the curtain of the story’s world, we know the writing has faltered and the artist has failed.

This bothered Tolkien’s friend C. S. Lewis, a lover of myths (man, they really just don’t make epic friendships like they used to, do they?). Before his conversion, Lewis complained that the worst part about reading fantasy is being whisked backinto the ordinary worldand realizing the myths were just false, like Santa Claus. He determined that legends were beautifully worthless, simply being “lies breathed through silver.” Tolkien responded to this objection to art with artwork of his own. Writing the poem “Mythopoeia” in response to Lewis, he not only addressed the beauty of myths, stories, and art, but argued that they can convey facts and foundational truths, and are ultimately truer than the progressive empiricism that dominated his day. Tolkien highlights the glory of man in myth-making because he is a Sub-creator by nature. Here is an excerpt of that poem:

“The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
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.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.

Yes! ‘wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!
Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream,
or some things fair and others ugly deem?
All wishes are not idle, nor in vain
fulfilment we devise — for pain is pain,
not for itself to be desired, but ill;
or else to strive or to subdue the will
alike were graceless; and of Evil this
alone is deadly certain: Evil is.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate
that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;
that seek no parley, and in guarded room,
though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom
weave tissues gilded by the far-off day
hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.

Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build
their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,
and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,
a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.

Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.

(Read the full poem here)

In case poetry’s not your thing, here’s my condensed version:

Inspired by God, man likes to create. Creating imaginative stories is not mere escapist “wish-fulfillment,” but instead peeking at the truth beyond the dreary shadow of this fallen world. Storytelling is not the “flight of a deserter” scorning this land; rather it is the “escape of the prisoner” towards his true home. Stories can contain hope. They contain a truth of a different kind which is equally necessary to our being and essential to being human. Truly, this is more necessary to our condition than a “just the facts” mentality, which cuts out our heart and imagines us as simply brains on a stick. A life of “pure facts” divorced from story leaves us cold, dry, and imprisoned. Good fantasy (the most unadulterated form of Sub-Creation) helps us to escape from our materialist prisons imposed by a secular culture. Human beings “are designed for transcendent truths, whether they know it or not, and they pursue these truths and some exercise of their spiritual faculties anywhere they can” (Granger 2). And we usually find them in stories

Tolkien’s idea of Sub-creation is grounded in the biblical doctrine of the Imago Dei, or the image of God. The primary meaning of the Imago Dei is one of function (what we do), rather than mere substance. It has to do with the concept of dominion: that Adam & Eve were commissioned to fill the earth (with image bearers) and subdue it, as God separated (Days 1-3) and filled (Days 4-6) His creation. Genesis 1 reads: “[26] Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’[27] So God created man in his own image, / in the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them” (ESV). However, this divine image was marred in The Fall; Noah and Israel subsequently failed as new representatives of humanity. However, Jesus as the Last Adam succeeded and now has dominion over all Creation and is filling the earth with His image bearers.

But what does the Imago Dei have to do with why we create art? Here’s how I think the image of God and the concept of Sub-creation relate: our intended dominion is not coercive (think of the Earth-pillaging line of Cain in the movie Noah, or…corporate giant Monsanto; take your pick) but creative. As rulers in God’s image, though fallen, we still create imperfectly out of joy, fellowship, love, and wonder. Even within art, we are separating (form, genre, and plot) and filling (characters, colors, setting, etc.) as God did during Creation. In Genesis 1-2 we’re really given almost no detailed information about God, except that He’s a Creator. Author Dorothy Sayers noticed this and identified that “the characteristic common to God and Man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.” Our Father makes things. We like to make things, too.

Out of this innate quality, humans make art. We make art because our Creator, the One whose image we bear, is an artist and we are the apex of His creation.

However, we are not God. He is Creator; we are creation. At our best, humans are Sub-creators designing off of the blueprints of the master Maker. How does this fact affect our art-making? It warrants humility. Unlike God, no human artist creates ex nihilo. In his book Echoes of Eden, Jerram Barrs argues that, for artists, this reality should cause “humble submission to the rules of one’s discipline, respect for its traditions, and a readiness to find freedom of expression within the forms of God’s creative order. No artist ever starts from an absolutely new beginning – except for the Lord Himself at the original creation. Any human artist is a Sub-creator working within these creational and historical forms” (57). Boundaries allow for freedom; they’re good things. Case in point: having zero boundaries in a marriage destroys intimacy. Likewise, without a canvas, watercolor is impossible. Without a frame, the composition of the artwork becomes meaningless. Without a back cover, the story never gives closure.

God is an artist. He made the world out of nothing. We make art out of something. On the one hand, our cosmic creative debt should prompt us not to think too highly of ourselves, get puffed up with pride, or especially pander to the masses. On the other, we sometimes can think too little of our creative capacity, trading in originality for banal, “Christian” bookstore kitsch and forgetting that we are made in the image of One with an unlimited and beautiful imagination.

So, in light of all this, why do we puny humans create art? Because we’re all created in the image of God. Yes, all of us, even poseur-nerds, which is precisely why we get so giddy about great sub-creation like The Lord of The Rings…even if we still haven’t read it yet.


Barrs, Jerram. Echoes of Eden. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966. Print.

Granger, John. How Harry Cast His Spell. Chicago: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008. Print.

Justin Worley

Author Justin Worley

Former intern at iNVERSION, Justin Worley recently moved back to the Bay with his wife and teaches high school English. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinWorley_

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