There are many kinds of writers in the world: those who write to get money and fame from others, those who write to entertain others, those who write to sermonize others, and those who write to serve and inspire others. It is this last group whose words, like birds, perch in the reader’s heart and sing a new song. Their books are treasured, handed down from mother to daughter and father to son, and their books inspire further creativity in those who read them. They are, in a word, generative writers.
I first encountered the term “generative” in Makoto Fujimura’s reflections on culture care (Refractions, Silence and Beauty, and Culture Care). He used the term to describe intentional creativity that cultivates culture and is marked largely by its generational, inspirational generosity. In other words, generative writers aim to enrich the future, not just the present; their work is born from epiphany and begets epiphany in others; and they literally spend themselves for the sake of others. They embody the Pauline charge to live unselfishly, doing nothing out of selfish ambition. For these reasons, the term “generative” is not limited to artists or writers, but applies to all people who live generatively. Their ambition is aimed outward, not inward, and benefits others in three remarkable ways.
First, generative people think long-term. Cultural vitality depends upon a generational perspective in which people create and craft for their children in the hopes of serving their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Because they think generationally, their work transcends gender, age, race, geography, and even religion. In the end, this kind of creational perspective amplifies love and extends it beyond the person’s self, thereby elevating the work.
Second, generative people not only think long-term, they also transmute their personal experience into inspiration for others. The epiphanies born from their personal sufferings and joys spark creativity and action in their readers. Like a silkworm, they create strong, durable, and beautiful work from their depths. Their life reminds us that we are not alone and it enlarges our being. It gives us mystery felt, hope tasted, beauty revealed. It illumines and charges our day-to-day, somehow singing a new song in our hearts. When we watch them, we catch a glimpse of the divine that testifies to the invisible behind the visible universe. They are living poets of the sublime. Thomas Carlyle said, “It is a man’s sincerity and depth of vision that makes him a poet.” Whatever the form of their life—teacher, mechanic, physician, or preacher–generative people are poets who elevate us by their sincerity and depth of vision. The generative person aims to produce transcendent work that affirms life and enriches our experience of life.
Finally, the generative life is impossible without generosity. Generosity is the bone-marrow of the generative life, reflecting the truth found in II Corinthians 9:6 that “He who sows sparingly will reap sparingly, but he who sows bountifully will reap bountifully.” Generative people lavishly give away their time, effort, and talent. They tend to see opportunities where others see obstacles, and abundance where others see scarcity.
People who dwell on their obstacles and scarcity are rarely generous, but I have known the poorest of the poor who, having an abundant outlook on their lives and circumstances, showed remarkable generosity. You cannot live the generative life while inculcating in yourself self-pity for your circumstances and a mindset of scarcity. If the King of Kings and Ruler of the Universe was willing to sacrifice it all to gain us, his ultimate treasure, then you should imitate him even in your decisions—whether minor or major decisions. Christ feeds us so we might feed others. He serves so we can serve others. He lays his life down so that we might lay ours down. The more we dwell on his sacrifice and servant-leadership, the softer our hearts will become and the more our hearts will lean away from our own self-aggrandizement. We will recognize that it is less about what we are doing to impact the world and more about what God is doing through us to serve his purposes.
The generative life is a fruitful one, expansive and constructive, like a tree. It never ceases serving others, offering shade, oxygen, strength, and color. Even in death, tree leaves protect the ground from harsher elements and fertilize it. The term “generative” is the flourishing opposite of “degenerate” which means to lose good qualities. The world desperately needs people willing to displace degenerate lifestyle’s and degenerative worldviews with generative ones. A world rapidly running from God needs people willing to redirect traffic. A world disenchanted needs us to re-enchant it. A world that has forgotten where it began and where it is going needs us to re-story its narrative. A people accustomed to fragmentation, disintegration, and meaninglessness needs people who unapologetically press toward wholeness, integrity, and healing. Christians, of all people, should be eager to cultivate such a culture.
On this Thanksgiving weekend, I encourage you to think of the many generative people in your life. Consider how and why they do what they do, and then take a moment to thank them.