Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


My New Era

"How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book." -Henry David Thoreau New eras begin with new ideas, as Thoreau well knew. He spent a lifetime writing the kinds of books that might arrest a man mid-step, shake him to the core of his soul and set a new road at his feet. Sometimes, you can read something so powerful, so exactly sating to the hunger or hope of your particular soul that it sets a new path at your feet and changes the course of your journey. Thoreau knew it and these days, so do I.

Friends, I'm about to start a new era. The time has come and the choice is made. At 29 years of age, I'm finally heading off to college. I've been accepted to Wheaton College (near Chicago) and I'll begin my studies in English and Philosophy this fall. Wish me grace as I go?

The book that prompted this change? Well, it wasn't really just one. I suppose you could say it was the Bodleian itself and every stack of books I ordered for every essay and all the old libraries in Oxford that instigated this decision. But the books that really sparked it all were the ones I read through my C.S. Lewis tutorial, books that explored the "truth-bearing faculty" of imagination (as Malcolm Guite says). When I read Lewis' Surprised by Joy one rainy day, and understood that we may know what is Real through observation and reason, but also and equally through imagination and experience, through a beauty that speaks in a "language without words," I sat up straight in my library chair and knew that heightened air of a newborn era.

You see, I've spent most of my life trying to understand the truth that came to me through imagination. In the stories I have read, the music I have heard, through the hours I have spent in creation, I have known something true about God that has been the foundation of my faith. Beauty has spoken to me of spiritual reality since childhood, and I knew it was truth even though the knowing came through a language without words. The stories I read deeply shaped my interior world, widening my capacity to enter the story of God. But I never felt quite able to argue for the power of the imagination as equal to that of logic and reason.

As I studied in Oxford, I finally began to realize that in Western culture, we generally place the highest value on what we know through Reason, on the truths that are quantifiable, easily counted and observed. We tend to denigrate the knowledge of imagination and experience because it is something received, a presence that is subjective, interior, known only from within. Because of this, we think of beauty and the arts as peripheral to the spiritual, a by-product of holiness, rather than something that powerfully communicates it to us. But Lewis explained to me that this is a lop-sided view. Language is simply another set of symbols pointing back, along with imagination and creation, to what is ultimately Real.

My heart stood up straight at this new understanding. The dogged lists of Reason have never convinced me of God's reality and goodness. Creation has. Stories have. Music sings Him to me, and starlight glimmers him forth, and the images that come to me in imagination are signposts of a world that I know is real as my own breath. What I read in Oxford gave me, for the first time, the ability to articulate and defend the truth-bearing power of imagination. I had tried before. My book and talks on children's literature are all an exploration of the way that stories shape the interior of a child's soul. My blog is about becoming alive to God through beauty. But the study I did at Oxford made me able to speak and defend all that I felt.

I think it was the day I finished an essay on reason and imagination in the writing of C.S. Lewis that the era of long-term, formal study opened in my heart. Of course, it took awhile. I got home and kept on reading. Guite on "imagination as a truth-bearing faculty," Owen Barfield on poetic language as a way to evoke that which is beyond our sight, more of Lewis, Tolkien on the gospel-like grace of fairy tales. But the more I learned, the more keenly I percieved the impact that imagination has on our faith, our education, our very experience of daily life. Surely imagination ought to shape childhood education, surely we must cultivate children with a deep capacity to experience beauty, to imagine, to taste, to enjoy and so know what is Real, instead of plying them with facts alone. Surely imagination must be vital to the way we communicate faith to those who don't believe. Surely, art and poetry and music help us to apprehend the sacred nature of life. The more I read, the more I knew that I wanted to study imagination, articulate its power, write of its grace.

So when, about a month ago, I was confronted with the task of planning my future, the new era was like a storm ready to burst over my head. I prayed, I questioned, and I felt God push me to identify just what I would do and pursue  if all limitations and fears were laid aside. My answer was instant. It had been a year in the making, but it was ripe as a golden apple when the question came. I'd get my degree and go to grad school to study the nature and role of imagination. Well then, humphed God. No more prevarication, no more fear, no more confusion. Get to it.

Literally that day I sent in a late transfer application to the schools of my choice. Wheaton was always my first choice for many reasons, one of them being the fact that it is home to the Wade Center, a research library and museum dedicated to the writings of the Inklings and their friends. With hours to spare, I submitted my forms and sat back to pray. When, one blustery day, I walked to them mailbox to find my acceptance letter waiting, I felt as if God had placed, not merely a gift, but a whole new story into my hands.

So, I'm starting with Wheaton. I'll do my undergrad in English literature (no surprise there), but I want to add some side study in philosophy, to better understand how we know as human beings. Then, I'm thinking maybe the M.Litt at the Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts in Scotland, or something like it, and then... well, Oxford is in my blood. I kinda hope I end up there. At any rate, the adventure has begun.

I couldn't have gone to college before this with anything like the conviction I carry now. The timing, the place, the provision of this particular school in this particular year is so clearly, to my mind, the guiding of God, I wake in thanks every day. I'll still be writing here along the way (when I'm not feeling swamped with essays and exams!), and I intend for this to be a place where the study of imagination is cultivated and a hunger for the beautiful continued.

So, wish me luck as it all begins. I love the start of a fresh story. And I think this is going to be a good one.

Back in Oxford. With books.