What is imagination good for? And why do we need imaginative stories?
The real world is full of beauty. Normal lives are full of drama. And beneath it all is Truth; bright, hard, sharp as the point of a spear.
So why make stuff up? Why read (or play at) things that aren’t real?
Because a healthy imagination is necessary for love.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 7 & Luke 6)
The sum of the Law and the Prophets! And it requires putting yourself in place of someone you have never been, imagining how you would want to be treated. If you think this is easy, you have:
1. never been married
2. not worked with many people
3. perhaps not yet been born
It’s not just the sacrifice of love that’s hard. It is getting far enough outside ourselves to remember that other people experience the world differently, and have needs, desires, and insecurities apart from ours.
The less imagination we have, the less we are able to empathize with those in need. And the less we empathize, the more likely we are to miss the deeper issues. (Issues in the old sense, that of waters which seep up from subterranean deposits, poisoning clear streams with the alkalines of rejection or fear.)
If we cannot imagine, we are likely to see others’ sin as alien (and worse!) than ours. To say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” depends on a vibrant imagination. It needs the ability to see similarities between ourselves and the fallen, and to understand by imagination what our sinful natures would do without divine mercy. Without imagination, this saying becomes the prayer of a Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.”
I have heard imaginative work rejected because it “has nothing to do with my life.” In other words, including swords, dwarfs, and orcs makes a story irrelevant because they are outside our personal experiences. But this is a false distinction, as C.S. Lewis shows in An Experiment In Criticism:
The most unliterary reader of all sticks to ‘the news’. He reads daily, with unwearied relish, how, in some place he has never seen, under circumstances which never become quite clear, someone he doesn’t know has married, rescued, robbed, raped or murdered someone else he doesn’t know. But this makes no essential difference between him and…those who read… fiction. He wants to read about the same sorts of events as they. The difference is that, like Shakespeare’s Mopsa, he wants to ‘be sure they are true’. This is because… he can hardly think of invention as a legitimate, or even a possible, activity.
Rejecting imaginative stories (and play) atrophies the “muscles” we need to love each other, by refusing to see the world from a different perspective. It encourages the assumption that our perspective, our way of life, is most important.
Only after surrendering to a story, walking in someone else’s shoes, can we recognize their triumphs, struggles and sins as fundamentally human, and therefore akin to ours. But if approached with humility, this discovery of kinship can uniquely encourage and convict us.
Remember that Jesus taught with stories. By compelling us to identify with his characters, He provided a relational knowledge of God that transcends facts. We teach that God is merciful. Jesus told a story about a Master who paid slackers a full day’s wage (Matthew 20:1-13). If we enter His story with our imaginations, we find ourselves responding emotionally, and are challenged by finding with whom in the story we most identify.
The object of faith is not what we should learn, but who we should become. Answering it takes imagination. And imaginations should be exercised.
He occasionally blogs at jamesdwitmer.com or @jamesdwitmer, spends his free time digging in the garden with his wife, and is pleasantly surprised to find that loving his family makes meaningful change in the world.