An old man kneels by a fire, telling imaginative tales to eager children. They hang on his every word, transported from their world to another. Their world is beautiful, but broken. He speaks words into their hearts, words that string together to form new worlds, anticipating the one which will surely come. These are the seeds of the unseen world.
N.T. Wright, in a lecture on the impact of the Resurrection of Jesus, has said this:
Art is love creating new worlds; justice is love rolling up its sleeves to heal the old one.”
This is the hope of the artist with holy imagination. To work, and by her work, to serve. To plant a seed that may, in time, grow into a new world. A world that reflects with eager anticipation, the bursting resurrection of the life to come.
Is our art truthful? I don’t mean ‘Is it a vehicle to carry truthful sayings?’ But is it truthful? J.R.R. Tolkien famously described The Lord of the Rings as a true story. But how can it be true? It didn’t really happen. Tolkien argued that it need not have happened to be true. The parable of the prodigal son almost certainly didn’t happen, but it is nonetheless true. Penetrating and true.
Likewise, the Prophet Nathan’s tale to the adulterer, King David, is a true one. It was likely not something that actually happened, but it first moved David to anger by its power, then entirely undid him in its climax. “You are that man.” It was true.
Are our tales true? This need not mean they will be safe and never bother us. This is not a call to create more bright and shiny “Christian” shlock. The world is broken, so our tales must deal with this. There is dark to be contrasted against. But there is an important point to be made about reveling in the gritty, depraved, and horrific. I’ll try to make it this way.
There is goodness in, having discovered that your beloved wife’s wedding ring is lost in the septic tank, digging through it to find your treasure. On the other hand, going for a swim in the septic tank because it’s so “real” and “edgy” would constitute a sort of perversion. A delight in wickedness. Both men swam in the septic tank, but their stories are different.
No. We need not bathe in excrement for delight. We need construction, not elaborate and artful celebrations of destruction. But you will say we must be honest about the fallen world. Yes, I agree. We need to depict and represent the destructive, broken, wounded world as it is. But let us wince at it.
Rebellion is the story of our era and the sad, selfish theme of so much art. To celebrate rebellion is to cheer on cancer, to send money to human traffickers, to inspire racism. Christians –and this includes Christians in the arts, even with electric guitars– are, by definition, submissive followers of King Jesus. How do we rebel against rebellion?
Construction is the best way to rebel against the established rebellion.”
We must construct. There are people constructing and many more who would love to. Do you feel called to construction? Maybe you feel called to support people who have their hard hats on and are going to work. That’s good. Do it.
Children see everywhere an upside-down world. Holy imagination is a crucial capacity to help them see it right-side-up. To help them appreciate the wonder and magic of the world that is and anticipate the almost entirely unimaginable glory of the world as it shall be.
Sometimes artful work can be that window into wonder, that little seed of unseen worlds.
Let’s warm our hands and start building.