Review: Steven R. Guthrie, Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human (Baker, 2011)

Steven Guthrie’s Creator Spirit is a gift to us who pursue beauty as a theological imperative. Guthrie relies on St. Athanasius to help him refresh an ancient understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit among questions of aesthetics. He asks, “Why should so many identify art (or beauty or music) as spiritual?” Most people do this, whether they are secular or religious, and sometimes to comedic effect. I am reminded of this scene in National Lampoon’s European Vacation:

More seriously, writing, painting, and sculpting can seem like the exhilarating or torturous fulfillment of spiritual urges. Likewise, engaging with something beautiful may be identified with a particular feeling within the soul. We are unlikely to consciously consider any doctrine of the Holy Spirit when we visit the Metropolitan Museum, but few would argue with someone who says that spending time in front of Vermeer paintings (or ancient Egyptian ruins, for that matter) is good for the soul. In fact, I often encourage my parishioners to seek these kinds of experiences. I crave them myself. Encountering something beautiful takes a person outside himself and may help him reset priorities and redirect his will.

Even if most of us aren’t thinking about the pneumatology implied in this sort of view, someone should be. And we can be grateful that Steve Guthrie is. God is spirit, and we are called to worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). We may fall into the idolatry of our individual desires, but our faith teaches that there is one God, one Spirit. Guthrie offers a variety of test cases from contemporary art, putting our appreciation of potentially beautiful things in conversation with St. Athanasius. Here’s the big idea: “In creation, incarnation, and redemption, the Holy Spirit is the humanizing Spirit.” Both the creative and appreciative urge are the work of the Holy Spirit, which always has one job in a human life — to make us the creatures God intends. Art does not liberate the soul from the body. Rather, through art, the Holy Spirit continues the work of Christ in redeeming and restoring our whole selves, body and soul. Art comes not to abolish but to fulfill. It doesn’t destroy material en route to transcending it — just the opposite.


Unfortunately, the destruction of the material is what bad theologies of the Holy Spirit and some modern artists strive to do. Guthrie appreciates but critiques the likes of Wassily Kandinsky in 20th-century painting and Arnold Schoenberg in 20th-century music. In both cases, ideology is elevated above material. So something ugly may be considered great art — even perversely beautiful — because it “abandons the world of objects.” But this is heretical pneumatology. Guthrie doesn’t say it, but it is a type of Gnosticism. For us who follow the Word made flesh, “the world of sense” is never detached from “the world of spirit.”

To this end, Guthrie offers a highly appreciative chapter on John Coltrane’s 1964 album A Love Supreme. It is difficult and even strange music, but it is the artist’s voice. It is the work of a Spirit-filled human telling us that the love of God may be weird, but it is perceivable.

And there’s more. A body-soul combination (me, for example) is not only placed into the world of objects, but the world of other creatures, who are humanized by the Spirit too. The beauty of holiness is not just for me or for you. It is for me and for you. The gift of the Spirit within me is mine, so that I may commune with God and with you. Guthrie notes: “My human identity includes my body, as does yours. But this is not all. Our humanity is also bound up with communities and relationships, with traditions and social practices.” Guthrie does not talk much about sacraments or ecclesiology, but they are the logical next step. Baptism is a humanizing experience — “born again” into the body of Christ. The effect for the individual is to open the gateway to life with God and neighbor. We are given an identity, and a beautiful one. And the Spirit-filled life of creatures in community is necessarily characterized by speech, song, dance, and visual arts — intentional acts to offer beautiful gifts to God, the source of beauty and the source of life.


But even for a serious musician like Guthrie, worship doesn’t stop with art, and neither does beauty. Guthrie rightly notes the strange phenomenon in the evangelical world of referring to worship as “the part of the service when we sing.” For a Christian, all of life is worship. And so every activity can have an artistic quality — an intentional expression embedded in the beauty of holiness. I encountered this very simple but profound message recently in Jim Jarmusch’s masterful film Paterson, New Jersey. In it, Adam Driver plays a quiet bus driver who happens to have the same name as the town he lives in. He is a Marine Corps veteran whose war stories, whatever they may be, lie beneath the surface, untold. There may be hurt within, but he radiates contentment, even joy, in a life that by almost no standards would be considered exciting. He comes home to his eccentric wife each night and laps up domestic life until his “magic watch” wakes him up again each morning to return to work, where he steals time writing poetry in the style of William Carlos Williams. Jarmusch’s film is a portrait of mystery and the triumph of everyday sacramentality — the epitome of a Spirit-filled life of grace, without explicitly naming our Lord or the Church. Ordinary life is liturgical and beautiful:

The second half of Guthrie’s book goes deeper into a mélange of musicology, art theory, and biblical exegesis. Guthrie wants to know how we learn to see and hear correctly. If art is spiritual, what is the Spirit actually doing? What about false spirits? Guthrie discusses the question in this video. And I quote here at length to sum up Guthrie’s point throughout:

The Spirit is above all at work in Jesus — the anointed one, the bearer of the Spirit, the giver of the Spirit. Moreover, the Spirit’s work is to make us truly and fully human, refashioning us after the pattern of the perfect humanity of Jesus Christ. The direction in which the Spirit is moving is Jesus. Spirits, John advises the church, are to be tested by their identification with the Spirit-anointed life and work of Jesus.

There is simply a lot of bad (dare we say ugly?) pneumatology out there that detaches the Spirit from Christ. Guthrie strongly reasserts the orthodox view. The byproduct turns out to be a great way to understand reality. Timeless Christian teaching on the Holy Spirit simply opens our eyes to a more beautiful world. A Spirit-filled heart set among other creatures can be a “museum of spirituality.” I, for one, am interested in the curating grace of God within me and among the brethren to accomplish this beautiful goal.

I am grateful for Guthrie’s book.

About The Author

Andrew Petiprin is Assistant Director in the Office of Faith Formation at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Nashville. He is the author of Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself

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