Jeff Adams gave a lecture on the Christian imagination at the 2009 L’abri Conference in Rochester in which he gave some helpful thoughts about how and why to cultivate the imagination. Imagination, Adams says, has been under-nourished in contemporary Christianity, and if we are to have a robust faith – and robust lives – it will mean, in part, regaining our imaginations. Imagination lets us see the beauty in what is there, and a deadened imagination can mean a deadened experience of living. There is wonder all around us, but that doesn’t mean we will see it, that we will participate in it. The sight of that beauty can be food for living. Adams gives 5 ways to cultivate the imagination and, through it, bring the Christian story to bear on all of life.
1. We must saturate our imaginations with the truth. Developing our imaginations is like developing a muscle or anything else. It takes effort and time. Saturating your imagination with the truth does not mean not exposing yourself to anything that isn’t true, but bringing the truth to bear on every situation.It means reading good stories, and not just reading them, but soaking yourself in them. A movie is not just entertainment, but a text to be read, a work containing depth to be understood and digested. The natural world becomes more than just dirt and flower and sunny days – it becomes an open book which is “pouring forth speech.”
2. Let the truth take root in your mind. This exercising of your imagination begins to make the truth permanent in your mind. They say when you really immerse yourself in a foreign language you begin to dream in that language. When you immerse yourself in truth, you begin to “dream in truth.” It takes root. Habits develop. You might say that the power to see is growing. Imagination, after all, is a certain kind of seeing. Everyone views the world through a lens that shapes everything they see, a lens not always of their own choosing. Cultivating the imagination is strengthening the ability to see through a true lens, to make changes to the lens itself to see with new eyes.
3. Recognize the Story in the stories. The world we are living in is not a series of random, unconnected occurrences, but rather, it is a story. There is a grand, over-arching story beneath which all the smaller stories of our lives play out. The Story is that the universe was made and it was good, but it fell and now we find ourselves in a muddle. The universe is not left in the mess, but is in the process of being set right by the personal God who made it good originally. That is what Christianity says is the most basic Story common to all people and things in this world. It is the original good, the fall, and the slow but certain movement to restoration. The point of cultivating the imagination is to learn to see this Story in all the little stories. To be able to take any new thing and see something of its history (it’s goodness), it present state (a glorious ruin), and a bit of its destiny (being made new). This is a big part of the new lens, the Christian worldview.
4. Imagine a redemptive future. In the play, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is a criminal who is transformed by an encounter with a redemptive imagination in the form of an old priest. He steals the silver from the priests house and when he is caught he is brought back to the priest so that he can identify Valjean. Instead of condemning him the priest welcomes him like a brother and tells the soldiers that he gave the silver to him, and, piling more silver in his hands, he pulls him close and says, “Jean Valjean my brother you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.” Valjean is never the same. The priest’s redemptive imagination created the reality that it envisioned. The Christian imagination is a work of hope. To love a person, a place, a church, or anything at all, often means seeing it, not as it is, but as God intends it to be. That is the power of imagination.
5. The imagination is a powerful teacher. It is a great grace to see the world through new eyes. It is a blessing to come to a fresh view of the world that has sadly grown routine around us. As Hopkins said, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” That grandeur is so often inaccessible, and we need the strength of our imaginations to stare into the world and be moved by it. In a sense, the imagination turns over the soil of our experience and discloses new treasures to us. It is a teacher in that it can show us the beauty (or the ugliness) in the world around us that was always there but we were blind to.
Thanks to Jeff Adams for his lecture, Walking With Giants: Participating in Redemption Through the Christian Imagination.