The Crowd, The Critic, & The Muse: Chapters 9 & 10

We’re continuing our discussion of The Crowd, The Critic, and The Muse by Michael Gungor. I hope to make this accessible to everyone, whether you’ve read the book or not, but you should definitely read the book.


Two weeks ago, we talked about two more roots that affect our creative process, those being capitalism and celebrity. This week, we’ll be looking at the final root (religion) and some thoughts about what we do with all of these roots.

Chapter 9 – Religion: Sexily Shaped Mannequins

Michael admits up front that this particular topic is of great importance to him as a person of faith and that this particular root is one that has “always had an overt and direct influence” on his music. He discusses how growing up, art had no intrinsic value, but could only be a vehicle for something more important.

Because my art was so directly and severely limited by my religious beliefs for so long, I have a particularly strong desire to help people tend to this root in a healthy way. I have experienced what it is like for my beliefs to imprison my soul, and I have experienced what it is like for my beliefs to set my soul free. (Kindle Loc 1471)

This quote resonated strongly with me because I have felt the same. I have had creative expression shut down in the name of spiritual maturity and it was emotionally devastating. I am so grateful to be in a place now where that is embraced rather than squelched. It is indeed a freeing experience.

Gungor suggests that all artists need faith. I don’t believe he means religious faith, necessarily, but some kind of faith – in humanity, in God, in yourself. He also cautions against fundamentalism or rigidity in any of those beliefs.

Fundamentalism is not the same thing as healthy faith. Healthy faith is a gift held in open hands. there is humility in this kind of faith, a hope, an acknowledgement of the possibility of error and the need for growth and change. this openness leaves room for creativity. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, holds beliefs with a clenched fist. Fundamentalism is rooted in arrogance. It thrives in fear and control and darkness. (Kindle Loc 1484)

He then goes on to make a comparison between fundamentalism and idolatry. He tells the story of visiting a lawn mowing client’s home and seeing a Buddha statue there and running away. His whole idea of what constituted an idol was something that had a tangible form. But he later shares that his own fundamentalism that refused understanding of things that were different from his own expression of faith were their own idols. Concepts take the place of relationship. To cultivate a healthy faith and healthy art, we must be willing to look beyond those easy to digest bites of information.

Chapter 10 – Gardening: What Do We Do with These Roots?

This chapter starts by acknowledging that the American culture has a number of positive roots – a love of adventure, a pioneering spirit, and courage in adversity.

I want to neither attack American culture nor romanticize it, but rather to encourage a deeper engagement and awareness of the roots of our art. If we are more mindful of what lies beneath the films that move us, the music that scores our lives, the books that help build our worldviews, and so on, our eyes will be wider and more alert, and we’ll be saved from cultural and artistic imprisonment. (Kindle Loc 1587)

He then suggests that even these roots are inherently negative, but can simply become negative because of the soil in which they grow. “Any true reformation of our creative output can only come from how we engage with the deepest places of our personhood.” (Kindle Loc 1612)

When those deep places become corrupted, it will seep into our creative process and we’ll become prisoners to the negative aspects of those roots. We will dumb down our art to make it more marketable. We will rely on technology to make up for our lack of discipline. We will force our creativity to fit within the confines of a fundamentalist ideology.

We are made up of those things that we cannot change and those that we can. No matter what, I’m someone’s mom. No matter what, I grew up in a home with only sisters and no brothers. No matter what, I married younger than many of my peers. These aren’t experiences I can “unhave.” What I can control is simply how I choose to interpret my life going forward through those experiences.

Gungor then goes on to talk about three different ways that people can believe something.

  1. Professed belief
  2. Felt belief
  3. Lived belief

They follow very much the way that one would expect. We have our professed beliefs, or the things that we say we believe (creeds, statements of faith, declarations of intent, etc.).

Felt beliefs are those which we, well, feel. This is actually something that I’ve had interesting discussions with some of my atheist friends about. Jason would say that he didn’t choose to become an atheist, but instead that he simply no longer felt belief, even with his best intentions.

However, Gungor goes on to suggest that lived beliefs, when we put our professed beliefs into action, can cause a change in our felt beliefs. I do think that sometimes the “fake it til you make it” kind of process can work, but I would hesitate to call it any kind of guarantee (I’m not saying that Michael says that, only adding my own thoughts here). That said, I have experienced those changes in my creative processes, where daily acting on my professed beliefs helped to make them a deeper part of me. And it’s in those moments when all of those parts are lined up that I’m able to create better, more beautiful art.

Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think are hallmarks of healthy faith? Of a fundamentalist worldview?
  • Do you agree with Gungor that art requires faith?
  • Have you seen any areas of corruption in the roots that feed your art?
  • How do you see the 3 kinds of belief in your own life?


Next week, we’ll look at chapters 11 and 12, where we will begin to discuss the soil of faith and doubt. If you’d like to write about any of this on your own blog, please use the tag #CrowdCriticMuse so we can all follow along.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Also, today my friend Ed Cyzewski is giving away his newest ebook Creating Space: The Case for Everyday Creativity. You should absolutely go download this book, especially if you’re not sure how to make creativity fit into your life. (Edit: Ed’s Creating Space book will actually be free tomorrow and Wednesday, due to a glitch in the system. But you can still get a copy of ANOTHER ebook that he’s written about faith blogging free today on his blog. Because he’s awesome like that.)

  • Dan McMonagle

    Good post, Alise. I’ll have to get around to reading the book, though I’m more anxious to listen to the rest of Gungor’s live album. (Shows where my priorities are, right?)

    Interesting point that you bring up about the felt beliefs and the discussions you’ve had with atheists including Jason — the feeling of belief wasn’t there anymore. I went through pretty much the opposite thing back in college: a friend challenged me to go through a weekend retreat and just act as though God wasn’t real, see how my perspective changed. I couldn’t do it — I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t believe, and when I got to the point of giving in to that feeling and reaffirming my belief, I went on to have one of my most intimate weekends with God ever.
    On the art requiring faith thing, I think it’s sort of like the chicken and egg thing — whatever we create artistically (if it’s truly artistic and creative), it is a reflection of what we believe. So, although I wouldn’t have stated it in the order Gungor did, that we have to have faith to create, I do think our art shows our faith. Chicken, egg… six of one, half a dozen of the other.