Walter Brueggemann, contemporary theologian and Old Testament scholar, suggests that “the key pathology of our time is the reduction of our imagination so that we are too numbed and satiated and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.” Essentially, he is saying that when we choose not to exercise our imaginations, we are headed for turbulent times! Depending on our background, such a comment from a theologian might be nearly shocking. Those of us familiar with more conservative traditions have sometimes been advised that our imaginations are dangerous. Some church leaders have suggested that the imaginative creations of others—whether plays, novels, or paintings—are, at best, a waste of time or, at worst, a detriment to our spiritual journey.
It was exactly this type of thinking that drove George MacDonald, author and literary mentor to writers like C. S. Lewis (think Chronicles of Narnia) and Madeleine L’Engle (think A Wrinkle in Time) absolutely crazy. For MacDonald, our imaginations are a gift from God to be treasured and cultivated as a means to conceptualize and understand what true, vibrant, and appealing goodness looks like. MacDonald empowers us to explore and take strength from images of goodness and beauty, because, for him, in drawing close to these images, whether from nature, the imaginations of others, or ourselves, we come closer to the Creator.
MacDonald suggests, “God is so beautiful, and so patient, and so loving, and so generous that he is the heart and soul and rock of every love and every kindness and every gladness in the world. All the beauty of the world and in the hearts of men, all the painting, all the poetry, all the music, all the architecture comes out of his heart first.” This affirmative view of nature and our creative imagination encourages the authentic pursuit of a spiritual journey rather than inhibits it. Further, it encourages genuine interaction with others because we recognize their creative acts as potential means of approaching God.
During the various stages of our spiritual journey, imaginative representations of goodness can help us re-examine aspects of God that previously went unnoticed. Imagination, when properly grounded in truth, empowers us to step outside our own pains, fears, and limited perspectives and engage with the world in a meaningful way.
Consider Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. At certain times of our lives, it actually might be easier to draw courage from imagining him than imagining the historical Jesus. This might be because we feel our picture of the sandaled and robed Jesus is far away. Or it might be because we feel uncomfortable embellishing certain aspects of his appearance or personality with imaginative details; we might feel like we are kind of treading near heresy. Aslan and other imaginative depictions of goodness are safer playing fields.
Think of this. It’s 2:00 a.m. and you have the burden of responsibilities, choices, and regrets swarming through your brain. You desperately want to pray, but prayer feels somewhat empty and intangible. You tell yourself you don’t have to necessarily pray with words; you’ll just imagine Jesus being near you. You’ll imagine his quiet strength and slip a little closer to him, he’ll shine his compassionate eyes on you, and you’ll be filled with courage.
You slowly visualize Jesus sitting in the shadowed left corner of your room. Jesus with coiled brown hair and strong cheek bones partially hidden underneath a thin beard: the evidence of years of sensitive sapience and weighted thoughts understated in the yielding lines around his eyes. A middling framed Jesus in a royal blue robe and dusty sandals, sitting on an imaginary chair.
How do you feel with this image?
Now think about Aslan. What palette of colors would you need to create this image if he were to stand at the end of your insomniac bed? Perhaps green for the penetrating eyes, light pink outlined with dark charcoal for the respiring nose, soft shades of ocher for around the mane and cream for the soft muzzle. Aslan with undomesticated force, yet unmet and piercing lovingkindness. Think of Aslan’s gracious treatment of Edmund after he betrays his siblings or his gentle reassurance to Lucy in her anguish. Think of how Mrs. and Mr. Beaver adore him and how his coming brings forth vibrant blooms of spring.
Now, if you’ve read the book, think of Aunt Beast from A Wrinkle in Time.
The tall colorless beast probably wouldn’t sit at the end of your bed because she’s much too comforting and maternal for that. Instead, she would probably sit at the head of your bed, her soft, furred tentacles delicately brushing your forehead and shoulders.
Okay, last one. If you’ve read one of George MacDonald’s Princess stories, think about Great-Great-Grandmother.
Listen to the reassuring squeaks that all good rocking chairs make when hosting beloved mother and grandmother figures. Follow the trail of sound to where it originates in your mind: a tall stairway that leads to an attic where the most beautiful of beautiful grand ladies resides. She, with the beauty of divine compassion, will gently stretch her porcelain arm and invite you to her lap. Nestled there on her knee, between Aslan and Aunt Beast, you can finally feel safe, your heart able to pour forth honesty to God and receive his unconditional reassurance that all will be well.
Perhaps, during this little imaginative experiment, you felt just as much peace with the image of the historical Jesus at the foot of your bed as you did when the literary creations visited. When I go through this exercise, sometimes I don’t. And sometimes that troubles me. How can I derive a greater sense of comfort out of literary metaphors than I do out of picturing Jesus himself? Of course, the Jesus I bring to mind is a mere representative of his actual divinity, but still. Is my lack of faith so extensive that my confidence of his reality as presented biblically has little effect at that moment? Is my faith that fledgling?
To be sure, the peace I derive from these figures does not come from the images themselves; it comes from the Person of Goodness they point toward. They are imaginative depictions of how my heavenly Father relates to me: images of God the fierce protector, God the embracing nourisher, God the intensely relational individual who draws me near and consoles my troubled heart. That is the amazing and wonderful power of our God-given imagination.
In the years since first reading their stories, I have continued to be enriched by these luminous, insightful mentors of faith who have guided me in the instructive role imagination plays in our pilgrimage home. Luminaries like C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and George MacDonald, who are rooted in the conviction of God’s goodness and involvement in the lives of his children. People who view Jesus’ life on earth as the ultimate affirmation of God’s desire to interact with us in our daily lives, and people who wield the power of imagination to wake us up from our slumber into relationship with the One who imagined us into life.