"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Monday, January 12, 2009

What Good Is an Imagination?

The title caught my eye. A slender black volume with the The Educated Imagination inscribed in bold white letters across it. The back cover promised to explain “the value and uses of literature” and why it should still be read in “our scientific age.” Since the study of literature seems to be on the wane and does not appear to offer any practical help to modern man in the 21st century, I wondered how the author would convince me it is still important.

In the first chapter of his book, Northrop Frye classifies language into three categories. (1) The language of description, (2) the language of information, and (3) the language of the imagination. While the first two are practical and deal with the things that are, the language of the imagination projects not what is but what could be; or what ought to be. Obviously, each language uses the same words and in most cases two or more levels are used at the same time. I realize this is boring so to move on quickly, the point is this: we use imagination all the time. An architect uses it to draw up the plans for a house. A politician uses it to picture the changes in society if a certain law is passed. You use it every time you try to make those leftovers in the fridge seem a little more appetizing. Any time we want to tell others what we are envisioning we communicate on the level of the imagination. “Consequently,” says Frye, “we have only the choice between a badly trained imagination and a well trained one, whether we ever read a poem or not” (134-35).

Frye goes on to say: “the fundamental job of the imagination in ordinary life, then, is to produce, out of the society we have to live in, a vision of the society we want to live in” (140). Now since an evolving materialist world-view has no moral wisdom, a vision of what they “want” could be a horrible thing. For a Christian, however, what we want should be what God wants. Though we live in this society we should constantly envision the kingdom of God; the society we “want.” This means both explicit meditation on heaven and visions of “living the kingdom” to our very fullest potential in the future here.

I don't think it is a digression (well, maybe it is but what the heck) to consider some Christian stories that do create “a vision of the society we want to live in.” In regard to Christian artists making use of heaven, what immediately comes to my mind is C.S.Lewis's concluding Narnia story. In it the Narnian heroes reunite in the new Narnia with laughter and joy while climbing “further up and further in.” This is the best narrative I can think of that gives an imaginative glimpse at the joy of heaven. Other poets like Milton and Dante, most famously, have also tried to imagine heaven but, for me at least, their attempts don't stir me like Lewis's in The Last Battle. Of course this theme of Heaven does not need to be the main point of a story nor does it need to be explicit; allegory or one brief mention of joy is often enough to awaken longing. One scene in the Return of the King (if I may borrow from a movie just once) awakens this in me. During a battle Gandalf assures Pippin that this is not the end but only the beginning. Pippin asks what he will see after death and Gandalf replies: “white shores, and beyond that, a far green country under a swift sunrise.” One sentence about a beach and a field at dawn but somehow it does the trick; it “creates a vision of the society we want to live in.”

Apart from implicit and explicit visions of heaven such as these, Christian authors can “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” by example. These visions of a fully Christ honoring society, or individual within a society, can be done any number of ways, from a fantasy hero fighting the bad guys to Joe Average facing life in 21st century California; from a sci-fi planet untouched by sin to a community of believers striving to imitate Christ. Just one example, In His Steps by Charles Sheldon strikingly imagines a town in which citizens begin saying no to the world and instead ask: “what would Jesus do?” The stories are endless but the main idea is: what if? What if in our fallen society we strive to follow the faultless One and eagerly desire to be like him.

The imagination is also useful in defending us from the spirit of the age. Northrop Frye calls this spirit a culture's “mythology.” So America a hundred years ago had a “mythology” about “hard work, thrift and saving for a rainy day.” This has in large measure passed and a new “mythology” of materialism and pleasure has arisen. “Our imaginations,” according to Frye are what “protect us from falling into the illusions society threatens us with” (141). This again, for a Christian, is applicable. Even though not all of these “mythologies” are bad, many of them are and none of them are permanent. While there are other, more direct, defences against the temptation to embrace the world's illusions about what will make us happy—prayer, the study of scripture, etc—the imagination can look beyond what is in this fallen world to what can be when man's relationship to God is restored. Thus a Christian with a purified imagination will more easily see that “the world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17).

Fry, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1964, (2006?).

1 comment:

David Haddon said...

What is the difference between practical imagination such as the ability to forsee the dangerous consequences of temperatures colder than 50 degrees below zero (the faculty Jack London's chechaquo lacked in "To Build a Fire")and moral imagination, the ability to envision an economy in which, let's say, Christian bankers at least would not bundle bad loans along with everyone else?