None of us can deny the power of a good story. From Ferdinand the Bull to Gone with the Wind, from Scheherazade’s Arabian Knights to the Bible’s own Prodigal Son, stories have a staying power that captivates us, the scenes of which are easily played back again on the screens of our imaginations. While the mind thrills at reason, imagination loves story.
Throughout the gospels, we see that Jesus told stories in order to subtly yet seriously display truth and demonstrate to his hearers a better way. He knew already what C.S. Lewis would later pen, that
“Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under the cover of romance [story] without their knowing it.”
Letters of C.S. Lewis, 169 (1939)
Is there any doubt that there is a theology of sorts behind 50 Shades of Grey, the Twilight saga, or even Disney’s Sofia the First? These story tellers know what most of us believers have failed to realize: imagination is gatekeeper to the soul.
There is greater value to showing rather than explaining. Illustrating big ideas makes them more realistic, more tangible. “Show me!” is our way of saying, “Make it real to me.”
A story does that very thing. It paints a picture upon the mind’s canvas so that we can watch, remember, and – with a little imagination – violia! The image becomes real. Since the Gospel is the greatest story there is, we must learn to artfully tell it in a way that taps into the imagination and gains access to a person’s very soul. For ourselves, for our children, the Gospel is a tale that must be illustrated and told until we see the big picture; until it becomes so real that we can replay the scenes and sit around the dinner table quoting our favorite lines.
Imagination is the strongest tool we possess to shape the soul. I believe the soul is the great influencer. It keeps the will in check and can side with either spirit or flesh. According to how we influence our soul we will supply strength of will to either our unregenerate man (flesh) or the regenerate man (spirit). Ironically, imagination (something abstract and almost fairy-dust in substance) can bring truth into reality. If that sounds supernatural it’s because it is! Just as the writer of Hebrews tells us that “Faith is the substance of things hoped for…” I believe we can say that imagination brings to reality the things we fill it with.
Imagination can easily be seen as a part of meditation. Mediation may sound like a word for monks, or those seeking Nirvana, but it is really a tool for any true believer, a “holy leisure” that the church fathers often spoke of – and is also known as daydreaming in kid-speak. So what are these day dreams comprised of?
One day our youngest son had just such a meditation that totally shaped his belief:
Josiah spent the better part of a school day dreaming about a certain Lego set he planned to buy later that afternoon at Wal-Mart. Earlier that morning I had made the mistake of announcing that we would probably be running some errands and stopping by Wal-Mart once school was finished. I never mentioned Legos. Legos weren’t even on my radar.
Unbeknownst to me, Josiah had a Wal-Mart gift card from a recent birthday that was burning a gigantic hole in his pocket, and he began to imagine which Lego set he would purchase with it once the time to go to Wal-Mart finally rolled around. All during math, he visualized perusing the shelves for the latest and greatest set. All throughout spelling, he saw himself paying for the set and bringing it home in his very own bag. While I droned on about sentence diagrams and William the Conqueror, he was building out the new Lego set …all in the arena called imagination.
By the end of the school day, his daydream had become so real that I believe he actually visualized the set sitting in his bedroom floor complete with the most coveted mini-figures, alive with plastic primary colors. His thoughts were intent, his will was determined, and his emotions were about to show themselves completely engaged when I off-handedly remarked after school that I didn’t think the Wal-Mart trip was going to happen that day. There was simply no time between martial arts, youth activities and dinner prep.
I was not prepared for utter devastation.
You see, for me the tip to Wal-Mart was only a possibility… no real substance to my plans. It wasn’t even penciled in on the calendar page for that day. Yet for my daydreaming son, the flimsy substance of suggestion had grown into something very real and tangible, all due to his ability to imagine.
All too often, the Word of God has failed to really sink in and become a valid and tangible substance in our lives today. It is merely something we have penciled in, so to speak, and kept on our life’s agenda as a “definite maybe”- “definite” in the sense that we believe it with a sort of moral acceptance, yet “maybe” due to the fact that we aren’t sure how much of it we can really be expected to live out. Yet to the one who can imagine, to the one who takes the time, to the one who chooses to set their thoughts on things above, the Word of God can quickly move into the realm of real life.
How can we make the word of God more of a reality to our kids and less like the Aesop’s fable we generally read it to be? How can we help to lift the stories of so-called Bible heroes off the Old Testament pages and help our kids to imagine what it might truly have been like to be confronted with miracles and angelic messengers along with moral failures and great fears yet still trust God? We are going to have to engage their understanding and tap into their souls through the God-designed faculty of imagination.