An Argument Against Andrew Peterson’s “Lesser Lights” and Tolkien’s “Sub-Creators”

C.S. Lewis once called myths lies and this riled up Tolkien so much he wrote a poem about myths and the creative act. In “Philomythus to Misomythus” (Myth Lover to Myth Hater) Tolkien calls all men and women “Sub-Creators.”

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues

The poem speaks about a future Paradise when:

poets shall have flames upon their head

Andrew Peterson (the author of an award winning fantasy series and a singer-songwriter), in referencing Tolkien’s poem, says we are just “men and women endowed with [God’s] image, scampering about like children on a playground, unable to help themselves from speaking into being these many lesser lights–lesser, but no less the Lord’s.” (via Rabbit Room)

For Peterson, the connotation of splintered light (men, women, and artists) is a hierarchy, the art of humanity is a lesser light compared to God’s holy creation. Because we are made in God’s image we can create like God, but our creations are “lesser.” Our art and stories and poems are “lesser.”

We are just children playing out and about.

Being a Sub-Creator is a permanent finality. God acts and deems it so. Even rejecting the Sub-Creator title renders one still a product of the great artist, an ARTifact. Changing your last name doesn’t allow you to escape your DNA. Sub-creators create refracted light from already refracted light.

I don’t want you to think you are a Sub-Creator. Not in the way Peterson describes the role. I’d stay closer to Tolkien’s views than Peterson’s interpretation, although I’m still unsatisfied. (Tolkien was arguing against materialists, evolution, and modernity, even more than he was contending against the myth-hater C.S. Lewis.)

I can be a stickler for words (as much as I can be flexible with words). Sub-Creator is a dangerous word.

It will infect how you think about yourself as an artist. Peterson is great, but this lesser light thing is bogus. (Since Peterson facilitates a creative community I can forgive him for appealing to those playful creators he fosters in wonderful discussions and posts.)

We’re all creators, but we’re not all children just playing in the park. If you’re just playing than I respect you and want to be your friend.

But I want something more than just play.

I need something more than just lesser light.

Stories and poetry and music and art are all something more. They aren’t lesser lights, they are illuminating truths.

They are “the elves that wrought on cunning forges in the mind, and light and dark on secret looms entwined.”

Sub-Creators can’t illuminate the mystery, the hidden realities, the depth and width and breadth of humanity. Not while on the playground with a God who only created them once.

God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling. It is the calling for all of us, his creatures, but it is perhaps more conscious with the artist–or should I say the Christian artist? –Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

Co-Creators work in partnership with the Holy Spirit. There is reciprocity and temporality. A Creator is only a Co-Creator when he or she asks. The request must be made.

Sub-Creators are such by their existence. Co-Creators must appeal for the involvement of the Creator.

This is why I misquote Psalm 45 in my prayers:

Fill my heart with a noble theme
as I recite my verses for you the King;
give me the words of a skillful writer.

Sub- and Co- are as different as the Old and New Testament.

Sub- is the story of God creating and naming it good.

Co- is the story of God indwelling and incarnating.

Co-Creators create to explore mystery.

Sub-Creators play around with “lesser lights.”

What kind of Creator are you?

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7 thoughts on “An Argument Against Andrew Peterson’s “Lesser Lights” and Tolkien’s “Sub-Creators”

  1. “God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling. It is the calling for all of us, his creatures, but it is perhaps more conscious with the artist–or should I say the Christian artist? –Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water” Love this thought and I choose Co-Creator, I explore the mystery of God; in my art in my reading and writing….hence

  2. I agree that Peterson’s comment is not how I would frame an artistic life and vocation. We cannot create ex nihilo as God does, but I don’t think that makes us “Sub-creators.” I think humans as beings that bear the sacred image and the reality of the incarnation need to be more closely factored into how we see ourselves as artists and how we frame our process. I think of my creative process as collaboration with God or perhaps a grand conversation. And while there’s certainly an element of play involved, the image of children scampering about seems to negate the sometimes hard, painstaking work and discipline involved.

  3. Thank you. I now know that poem, and I like The Rabbit Room. Oh yeah, your stuff was good too. Seriously, some deep stuff spoken plainly. I really enjoy your writing. Not so much the Red Pen stuff, but I like this.

  4. C.S. Lewis was a brilliant writer and thinker, but disregarding myth so candidly insults the ancestry of storytelling, and the foundation on which he himself was allowed to tell stories. Allegory, symbolism–things he was very big on, but which stem from mythology and ancient oration. Myth is representative of the collective psyche, how is that a lie?

    Creation in art is, I’d think, the most beloved aspect. Nowhere else in life can you stir up something new and of your own and of your own will. And what better way to take hold of yourself? Your work is an extension of you. By creating, we get to harness and ourselves shape our formative essence. That we do this through communicative mediums–it is our deepest connection to our fellow man, the shared expansion of our being.

    Also, thanks for the follow! This is great stuff you have going here.

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