Thoroughly Alive

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


We Need Imagination

This high, bright Colorado day, I'm sitting in a coffee shop pounding away on a paper whose topic is heartbeat close to my rapidly-beating heart. It's amazing the way a good idea can raise a pulse. My topic (with 5,000 words to follow) is 'A Felt Change of Consciousness: Language and Imagination in Apologetic Endeavor', which is a fancy way to say that we greatly need to recognize the power of imagination to communicate faith. One of the trends of modernity that most distresses me is the assumption that truth can be tied to a list of analytical or even theological statements. Our post-enlightenment reliance on reason to describe and define reality leaves little room for the interior, experiential truth of imagination, the embodied truth of human love, or the knowledge of the holy that comes to us in faith and is a mystery. To define truth by reason alone is actually a profoundly secular way of seeing the world, one we have inherited from materialism (in which what we can physically see and describe is the only reality) rather than Scripture, in which the language of story, psalm, image, and metaphor are all employed to communicate the reality of a God who is beyond every descriptive word.

Of particular frustration to me is the fact that Christian apologetics wanting to meet a culture conditioned by the language of scientific materialism on its own terms, often operate only in the language of argument. While I greatly admire the work and intelligence of popular apologists, and recognize their impact, the truth is that their arguments are only one part of what is required by a holistic Christian apologetic. Because what Christians are inviting others to experience is not a different argument, but an entirely different way to see reality.

One of the most potent ways in which this can be offered is through works of imagination, because image, language, and story allow readers to inhabit a view of the world that is different than their own. In Owen Barfield's description, a story or poem can allow us a 'felt change of consciousness' that presents reality to us in a 'new and strange light'. C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Malcolm Guite, Seamus Heaney, and countless other faith-driven writers and poets have argued powerfully for a language of invitation rather than argument, one that offers seekers a way to stand in the 'marvelous light' of a worldview rooted in Christ, perceiving afresh the beauty, hope, and reality of Christ redeeming the world and drawing us into a splendor we cannot yet imagine (however magnificent the stories we craft!)

This 'felt change of consciousness' was crucial to my own young faith. When I experienced disappointment and grief in my walk with God, it wasn't an argument that convinced me of his goodness. It was inhabiting the worlds of Tolkien, Lewis, George Eliot, and G.K. Chesterton with their kind and heroic characters, their narratives of suffering and hope, and landscapes of quest, adventure and beauty. It was poetry and essay that brought my angsty soul to stillness, and renewed my capacity to see beauty in the every day, and thus to wonder at its Maker. By standing in the 'new' light of those authors, I was invited back into the reality of faith, and they help me to dwell there everyday.

And now I really need to return to my paper, but the point of this is simply to say... go out and read a story today. Read a good tale to your children, read a heartening novel that takes grief and courage and weaves them into hope. Read a poem that revives your vision and allows you to delight. Read a psalm that gives you the right to sorrow, and to let the lament help you to glimpse the eternal. Don't submit to a culture that sees everything in terms of what can be observed and rationalized. Rather, immerse yourself in the holy imagination of writers who used language and imagination to gesture toward the eternal.

I'll stop my rant now. I'm off to read some Tolkien.

(PS: I meant to add a list of the books shaping this essay and answering so many if my questions: 'Imaginative Apologetics' edited by Andrew Davison, 'Faith, Hope and Poetry' by Malcolm Guite, 'Poetic Diction' by Owen Barfield, 'Planet Narnia' by Michael Ward, C.S. Lewis in entirety, and the essay 'On Fairy Stories' by Tolkien.)