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When faith and creativity collide: An interview with Blaine Hogan

The creative director at Willow Creek Community Church explores the intersection of faith and creativity.

Blaine Hogan, creative director at Willow Creek Church, explores the intersection of faith and creativity.
Blaine Hogan, creative director at Willow Creek Church, explores the intersection of faith and creativity.

Blaine Hogan, creative director at Willow Creek Community Church, explores the intersection of faith and creativity.

T.S. Elliot once said, “Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” If you’ve spent any time wrestling through the creative process, you know that Elliot spoke truth. To birth an intriguing artifact while avoiding the pitfalls of obtuseness or cheesiness is gut-wrenching. Some people are better at this process than others, and Blaine Hogan is one of them.

Blaine is the creative director at Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago where he lives with his wife and daughter. After being a professional actor for more than 12 years, he now works on projects for Google, YouTube and the Olympics. Most recently, he released a revised an expanded edition of his best-selling book, UNTITLED: Thoughts on the Creative Process. Here he talks about bringing creative ideas to life and how faith can inform the process.

JM: In your book, you explore the creative process. You advise to “just start”, to just do something. Where ans how would you advise getting started?

BH: What moves you? This is the question everyone must ask when they begin. If you don’t start with what moves you, most likely whatever you end up making will lack meaning and truth. Once you’ve answered that question, you need to sit your ass down, face your fear of failure (or of success), look resistance in the eye, and put pen to paper. This is, of course, easier said than done. The real truth about starting is that there is no easy way. The work wouldn’t mean anything if it was. Once you acknowledge that the work will be hard, even the sitting down and starting part, you can better understand that how it feels right now in the beginning is all part of a lifelong process.

JM: For someone working with a limited budget and few resources, how can you bring a creative idea to life?

BH: Creatively. That may sound like a cop-out answer, but I’ve found that when I’ve lacked resources is often when I’ve done my best work. We so often think of constraints as negative things. We want creative freedom and unlimited budgets. But those things don’t help us to actually be creative. Practically, you need to answer three questions:

1. What story are we telling?

2. What is the absolute best way to tell that story?

3. How do we do that with what we have?

My 2-year-old daughter thinks every cardboard box is a school bus. Her story is that she wants to go for a ride to school. Well, what’s the best way for her to do that? A school bus, of course? Unfortunately, our one-bedroom-plus-den apartment doesn’t have room for the object of her story (nor do we have the budget). What do we have plenty of, though? Cardboard boxes from diaper shipments! Tons of them! Suddenly, we have parking lots filled with school buses.

JM: What does one need to know about legal issues when it comes to creating a work (when using outside materials and protecting your own)?

BH: My rule is ALWAYS ASK. If I want to go after a song from an album I really like, I track down the manager or agent and tell them how amazing their band is and that I’d like to use their track for something. From there, it’s all negotiation. The other part refers to protecting your own work. There are a lot of different theories out there on how to do this, but the question you need to ask yourself as a creator is, “What do you want to most protect?” Your idea? Or your pride?

JM: How does or how can faith intersect with creativity on a practical basis?

BH: All of storytelling is about belief. A good storyteller makes you believe in the world and the characters she’s created. The story doesn’t work unless you believe. A great storyteller makes you believe in the world and the characters she’s created without you even knowing it. Almost as if the story always existed and she’s simply letting you in on this thing that was always there in the first place. I wish people thought of faith more in this way. Faith is essentially about what story you believe in. The real problem with how faith and creativity intersect practically is that we have some terrible storytellers. Want to get someone to believe in something? Want them to have faith? Tell them an amazing story.

JM: You say creativity is work. What are some disciplines you employ?

UntitledBH: I try hard to write something new and read something new everyday. Whether it’s just a thought I jot down in my notebook or in Evernote, I want to have a new thought before the day is out. This for me is called “capturing.” Then every few days or so, I go back to these notes and pull out a handful of bits that are still exciting or still resonate with me. These bits turn into blog posts, subjects for new books, talks I want to have with my wife, life lessons I want to learn.

The other practice I employ is called “scratching.” The concept is from the great choreographer, Twyla Tharp. She would use a cardboard box and when she started working on a new piece she’d spend days throwing cassette tapes, pages of books, notes, photos, whatever she thought might help with the project. It was impulsive and visceral. Did the thing make her feel something? Did it somehow feel like the thing she was trying to make? If the answer was “yes” it went in the box.

The same concept holds true for me. Instead my “box” is my Evernote, Pinterest board, physical mood board in my office, or a current Spotify playlist. I listen, look, hunt and gather. I do this even when I’m not working on something specific. I create these digital boxes and refer back to them in the same way I do with my notes.

Incredibly, I’ve always found something, some connection I would have never found had I not thrown a bunch of stuff I never thought I’d really use into a box.

JM: What practical resources do you recommend to someone seeking to cultivate creativity in his/her life?

BH: Therapy, first and foremost. A great therapist is probably the best money you can invest in yourself as an artist. Again, if the goal is to tell stories that make people believe in something great, then the artist must know their story first. My grad school prof, Dan Allender, always said, “you can’t take anyone further than you’ve gone yourself.”

For reading, I’d recommend the following:

Art & FearDavid Bayles & Ted Orland

The Art of the IdeaJohn Hunt

The Creative Habit – Twyla Tharp

The Gift (creativity and the artist in the modern world) – Lewis Hyde

The War of Art & Turning Pro – Steven Pressfield

BELOW: Blaine creatively guides the Willow Creek congregation through communion.