What does Babel have to do with Portland?

Innovation is at the heart of creativity.

Paint-by-number kits and cover bands typically don’t change the world.  Rather, these exist because we replicate what we love, because we can’t get enough of the original.

And we love the original because they are . . . well, original.  

This is why artists are in constant pursuit of the unique, the distinct, and the novel.  They seek to alter culture through brushstroke, pen, and arpeggios.  Creatives, by definition, set out to create, and, more often than not, set out to create one specific thing: a name for themselves.  

Innovation is at the heart of creativity.  And that means pride is not far behind.  

But there is a fundamental problem here. Human artistry is never our own.  Human artistry is always borrowed collateral. There is nothing new under the sun.  Pure human creativity is a misnomer.  

Our own frustrated experience tells us this.  Robin Thicke “blurred lines” between his material and Marvin Gaye’s. David Bowie and Queen paved the way for the rapper who shall not be named.  The Verve sounded too much like The Rolling Stones.  

There isn’t much difference when we look inward either.  When we break our craft down to its basic elements, we have to admit that every note we play has already been played; every letter we write has been written before; and every color we capture has been captured well before our gifts graced the world.  

Art is not done in a vacuum.  No artist is beyond influence.  Liner notes make this clear.  Every artist—no matter how innovative she is—“tips the cap” to those who’ve gone before. Writers read, musicians listen, artists observe, parents (yes parents are artists) watch others, and students study, in part, because they love their art and want to be challenged by other artists.  This is a creative principle, a human principle, and a discipleship principle too—it is why disciples have the Master and the Master has disciples.  

But our experience isn’t the only thing telling us that our creativity is not just about ourselves. God has. Remember the Tower of Babel. In many ways, this narrative is about this co-mingling of art, pride, and embezzled creativity.   

Gen 11:3-4: And they said to one another, “Come let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves....”

This is the human condition as told through the artist’s story.  Here, God’s image bearers work together with one language for one purpose: to make a name for themselves. We come by it honestly, don’t we?  Our ancestral influences wanted their names in lights too.  

And they will claim their fame through their creative ingenuity.  By building a city-tower that will reach into the heavens, our ancestors will write their name in the sky for the rest of the world to see. Through their architectural innovation, they will show the world their worth.  

And here the problem is again.  “Name-making” through our own innovation forgets that our originality has an origin outside of ourselves.  Our creations are never ours to begin with.  All human creativity is derivative.

This was the case at Babel.  The innovators at Shinar build their city-tower with bricks and bitumen made from pre-existing materials.  Their design borrows from their Creator’s creation.  Ironically and defiantly, God’s image bearers use God’s raw materials, derived from God’s original creation project, to crown themselves with the glory due God’s name.  

We can’t get around this.  This is no antiqued story; it is the human story.  Babel is about our beginnings and, as such, it has much to say to us, even today.  Genesis 11 explains why each of us is still building our own “city-towers.”   It is your heart’s origin story and mine as well.  Babel, and its connection to Eden, is why we are all trying to forget everything that has been given to us and that everything has been given to us.  For the creative, this means your art, your medium, and even the creative process began outside of yourself.  

This is hard for all of us to hear.  We don’t want to be reminded that we are the apprentice and not the Master. Nor do we want to hear that, while God spoke creation into existence, we can only mumble his words back to him.  Instead, like those before us, we tend to ignore how the bricks and bitumen got here in the first place, or that we are created beings ourselves, or that the world was not written at our typewriters.  We want our name in lights, so we steal from the one who created light in the first place.  

The irony is that as we try to blot out the Creator’s name with the brilliance of our own, it is only the Creator who can give us a name that really matters.

This is why Genesis 12 follows Genesis 11.  God scatters the artists for their arrogant and idolatrous artistry but then settles his grace on Abraham, a son of Babel. The Creator comes to Abraham to continue his redemption project by making his covenant partner’s name great.  

Genesis 12:1-2: Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

Genesis 12 is the divine answer to the dark question looming in Genesis 11.  What will happen to God’s image bearers dispersed across the earth?

God will bring them back together through his covenant with Abraham to make both of their names great.  

Genesis 12’s solution to Genesis 11’s problem teaches all of us—artist and audience alike—that there is only one name-maker in this world and he is God Almighty.  He has made us for his good pleasure to image himself to the world.  

Sin leads us away from this purpose.  Sin leads us to believe that all we have to do is find God’s name, replace it with our own, and for ourselves the lead role in this divine script.  

But let’s face it.  We can’t carry the part. No matter how hard we try, we are bit actors, biding time until the Lead Actor and Author takes center stage; which he rightfully should.  He made all this, including us, and everything we have.  

If this is true, if our gifts and talents are really from him and for him, then let’s use them to make his name great.  This is the purpose sin led us away from; this is the purpose that God leads us back to through Christ.  And in his beautiful, marvelous, mysterious grace, our names go up beside his on the marquis too, eternally.

So let’s let Babel sink in.  Let’s let every rhyme we pen, every sentence that bleeds from our fingers, every empty canvas we step in front of remind us of this: God is the Creator behind every beautiful thing we create, and may every thing we create bring glory to his name.

Babel’s perspective helps. It’s true.  We are all ripping him off. But that is what we are supposed to do.  He made us this way.  We long to create because we bear the image of the Creator.  So if you are in the habit of creating, remember where you got your material.  And remember where your name really comes from.    

Be innovative. Be exceptional. But be humble and do it for the right reasons.  The problem isn’t with being original or with making great art.  The problem is with our motivations.  It always has been and that is what Babel has to do with Portland, or wherever you are creating.  

So let’s create and let’s do it for the right reasons, for the right name, for the glory of the Creator of our creativity.