Book Review: The Artisan Soul

The Artisan Soul by Erwin McManus book cover

Erwin McManus is a pioneering faith leader in the Los Angeles area, and although he has written a number of books throughout his lifetime, he deems The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art his quintessential work. Given this book's potential to cast a wide swath of societal influence, it's not hard to see why.

The Artisan Soul is McManus's powerful treatment of human creativity. From his perspective, our understanding of creativity has suffered from a number of myths over the past few centuries. One of these myths is that some people are creative (artists) while others are not (non-artists). He posits that, if people are created in the image of God, and God is essentially creative, the One who made us and the glorious world around us, then doesn't it stand to reason that all of us humans are essentially creative at our core? This is the concept of the artisan soul, that each human soul is creative in its essence, that one of our greatest capacities as humans is to make manifest in the material universe that which begins as but a tiny spark in our imagination. We convert the invisible into the visible.

"We are like children with nuclear fusion in our hands--never fully grasping our potential for good and for destruction. It's easier to control people if we convince them that they are inherently uncreative--everyone simply conforms and cooperates. If we want to create a better world, we had better start to unleash the creative potential inside each person to create all that is good and beautiful and true." (The Artisan Soul, p. 8)

While some people bring this creative capacity to bear by writing music or painting portraits, others do it in ways that are not traditionally perceived as creative--in the way they run a business, or organize their home, or raise their children, or conduct dentistry. According to McManus, creativity is not a gift given to an elite few, the talented folk. It is as everyday and as ordinary as breathing. When the shackles of conformity are broken, when we are set free from the religious rules imposed on us in the name of God, we step into the creative and adventurous life God actually intends for us. There is great fear to overcome in this process of creating, of breathing light into that life which does not yet exist, and so courage is key.

McManus is also valiantly taking back ground that has been surrendered by the Church at large. Up until the last thousand years or so, the Church had been a bastion of human creativity in its most sublime and glorious forms. At present, creativity and spirituality seem more like enemies than friends in many faith circles. McManus proposes a new anthropology and theology of what it means to be human: "We see ourselves as created beings, so we choose to survive. When we see ourselves as creative beings, we must instead create." He points out that we are both works of art and artists at work, and the most powerful and significant artistic contribution we will ever make is simply this: how we live our lives. I love McManus's assertions about how imagination relates us to God: "Is it possible that the human imagination is the playground of God... the place where humans could interact with God?... The life of faith is less about gathering information than it is about expanding imagination. The movement Jesus started was a movement of dreamers and visionaries, not a movement of academics and theologians."

Another myth that McManus debunks is that artistic expression exists for the sake of the artist to express him or herself. This is such a low view, in light of what McManus proposes: the ultimate motive for creativity is love, that what we create would bring life to other people. If love is the motive, then that which is created has intimacy and empathy and dignity woven throughout it. Another myth that I greatly appreciate McManus speaking into is that of "feeling inspired" as the impetus for creating. While we do experience fleeting--maybe even powerful--moments of inspiration, McManus reminds us that creating requires discipline, determination, diligence, strength. It is an invitation into unwrapping gifts we have been given, but it requires acceptance of the invitation and focused work ethic. One broad critique of the book's approach is that McManus sometimes seems to uphold "pursuing our dreams" as a worthy end in and of itself, occasionally qualifying this by adding that our dreams are worth pursuing when our heart is aligned with God. I think more emphasis on this latter qualification would have been beneficial, given that our dreams tend to be projections of our heart's orientation toward God (we are capable of some very dark dreams as humans, and many people make them manifest on this earth).

Overall, I greatly enjoyed The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life into a Work of Art and highly recommend it as a thought- and action-provoking read.

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Dr. Parke is a therapist who provides therapy to high-achieving teens and college students in-person and online in California. Cities served include Fullerton, Brea, and Yorba Linda; zip codes served include 92835, 92823, and 92886. © 2023 Jackie Parke, Psy.D. All rights reserved.