The Christian Imagination

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Dorothy Sayers:

This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero. If this is dull, then what, in Heaven’s name, is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore; on the contrary, they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left to later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him “meek and mild,” and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. (Sayers, 6)

It would not perhaps be altogether surprising if…there were a number of people who knew all about Christian doctrine and disliked it. It is more startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine: that would be understandable enough, since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting, and so dramatic can be the orthodox Creed of the Church. (Sayers, 20)

These words from Sayers are part of a collection called Creed or Chaos published in 1949. She outlined the drama before the first quote above. I want to highlight her main point though, that “The Dogma is the Drama.” The doctrine, or teaching, centers around the story of Christ, which as Sayers says, is anything but boring.

Now, there is a bit of a straw man here. Doctrine can be boring. Dogma can be boring. However, if we’re actually teaching our creed without taming it first, it isn’t boring. It’s kindof like primary and secondary school history textbooks, in a way. When we tame history to the point where it isn’t offensive to anyone, it’s boring. History isn’t boring.

Further, the Christian creed contains a historical claim of a supernatural event involving a God. If we try to make it too rational so it’s believable, we rob it of the drama. Now, one can make a rational case for the existence of Jesus and the resurrection, but the proof is insufficient. I personally believe in the resurrection as a historical event while also recognizing there is an element of faith to it. But not faith purely. I believe in the supernatural based on experience and stories I’ve heard from others.

And this is part of it: we are a community of people who are part of a story which is absurd based on our current understanding of what is rationally possible. We need to embrace that and embody that. We can’t expect everyone to believe a supernatural story is true. We can’t expect people to believe in a moral code based on the supposed inspirations of a superior being. But we can present the supernatural drama as the story we are part of, and we can be changed by it. Besides, based on the movies people watch, we seem to like the unbelievable, don’t we?

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A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully. Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. I mean that we always begin with what has an eminent possibility of truth about it. Even when one writes a fantasy, reality is the proper basis of it. A thing is fantasy because it is so real, so real that it is fantastic.
-Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners

What O’Connor says about fiction can apply to any story, and that’s the way I’m going to look at it here, though I do happen to agree with what she said about fiction. Feature articles, which are technically nonfiction, are written using story elements. Biographies are also driven by story.

The New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) are said to be in a format that was used for biographies during that historical period. One could quote Jesus, “I am the bread of life,” or one could quote words written about Jesus, “Jesus wept.” Sometimes, this is enough, but there is more experienced meaning in the whole story, is there not?

Jesus often told parables. Summarizing the parable of “The Good Samaritan” isn’t the same as hearing Jesus tell the story, and some of the experienced meaning isn’t the same because Jesus told that story to a specific man at a certain place in time. Still, he knew others were listening.

God could have inspired a collection of books of facts. He did give us some of those, but the Bible is mostly written in poetry and narrative, and thus it’s more than just cognitive. This isn’t about modernistic rationalism vs postmodern experience. Both are inadequate. It’s that the story is more than the summary at the beginning or the description on the back of the cover. For visual mediums, like movies, experience also applies. Reading a review of a movie, such as The Hobbit, is not the same as watching the movie.

I agree with O’Connor that truth and story are not on opposite sides. Good stories are not so abstract as to have no relevance. They have an element of truth that we experience.

As Madeleine L’Engle says in Walking in Water:

When the powers of this world denigrate and deny the value of story, life loses much of its meaning; and for many people in the world today, life has lost its meaning, one reason why every other hospital bed is for someone with a mental, not a physical illness…The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, is inimical to the secular world, and in total opposition to it, for it is interested not in limited laboratory proofs, but in truth… We are to be in this world as healers, as listeners, and as servants. In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars. We write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing.

When L’Engle references the secular world, she is talking about the modernistic side of it that puts too much emphasis on facts and propositions. Now, facts are important, but we are more than simply rational beings. And thus, we offer the world more than principles and perceived facts. We tell and live stories. We show and create stories. We give flesh to truth.

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One of my friends just published a book called The Slaves Have Names. Andi gives her reasons for writing the book on her website, “The book tells the stories of the people who were enslaved on the plantation where I was raised in Central Virginia.  It’s the story of my journey to get to know these extraordinary people and to understand my debt to them as well as our nation’s continued struggles around race and the legacy of slavery.”

Slavery is part of the American story, our story. Yet, there are so many stories untold. There are moments where I’ve thought further back in history to the stories told, and how many of those stories are of the elite, of the victors, or of the warriors. That’s not surprising. Written literacy has often been limited, writings may not have preserved, and printing was expensive. Also, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that victors tend to write the dominant historical accounts and that people at the bottom of the social ladder, such as slaves, don’t have much social capital to have their personal stories be recorded.  No doubt there are exceptions in history.

There are just so many untold stories in the world, and it makes me curious. Today, many of those stories are recorded in some fashion, but there are still stories we’ll never know. It’s hard to foresee what our stories will look like in the future with the advent of social media and the ability to publish our ongoing stories. That is only part of the narrative though. For we are more than what we represent in snippets online. We’re also more than long journal entries, though they may tell a more complete tale. Maybe we’ll be able to construct a virtual persona of a past person based on what he or she said and did, but that still won’t be all of that individual, and it won’t be that person.

We have one of the ironies of today, that we can be so known, yet still be not known. People can read my posts, and still not know me. It’s hard to fully know a person though, save my creator who knows my past and knows my present thoughts. I can be more known than my public persona though, through long time friends and relationships. I’m thankful for that, but I still wonder about all the people in history who we know almost nothing about.

What of all the commoners? What of all the surfs? What about the various slaves? We know much of the Greeks who wrote philosophy. What of all the slaves whose labor allowed them to focus on democracy? Even that can be too melodramatic though, because I can forget that the person I pass by on the street has a story. Once I was talking to people who lived on the streets of Harrisburg. I heard them weave their tales. One woman told her told her story with a poise and wisdom that awed me.

We can be enamored with the stories of the famous storytellers in our society: people like actors, athletes, anchors and politicians. We are storytelling creatures, after all. Yet, there are stories all around us that can be told in first person. That makes me realize that perhaps the stories untold to my eyes are not entirely untold. Slaves and surfs and commoners and everyone else may have told their stories around a campfire or to a friend. And before writing, there was oral history that carried them on.

For my friend Andi who wrote The Slaves Have Names, stories were hard to find, so she imagined for us what they may have been. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s those stories that help us empathize. Maybe we can even find a piece of ourselves in someone else’s story. I don’t know most of your stories, but we all have them, and they are part of what connects us with each other. They are part of who we are.

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word-picturesI ordered Brian Godawa’s book, Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story and Imagination, on my Kindle last year while overseas. It’s good for a number of reasons, including who the author is. Godawa is a screenwriter, designer, author, and a Christian. He wrote the screenplay for a feature film called To End All Wars. His book starts off with a history of how he approached Christianity, and life, intellectually and rationally. That gives him a lot of credibility as he then shows his journey towards appreciated image and imagination, and discusses it over several chapters.

Among his first thoughts: Every part of man is affected by sin, this includes both imagination and reason. At the same time, while peoples’ rational minds are fallen, the “Bible uses reason and logic all over the place.” He then expounds on the value of reason to know God, since God does talk about himself uses propositional reason. While admitting that he was too focused on reason, he doesn’t then focus too much on imagination. They are both important, and both necessary.

He gives a brief history of modernity and it’s effect on Biblical interpretation. He also gives a number of Biblical examples of figurative language and of the arts. I may highlight some of these in future posts. Here’s some of his thoughts on literalism:

In my fear of becoming “liberal,” and in my overemphasis on the rational, I discovered that I had been interpreting the Bible in a way that is was not intended to be interpreted. Literalism has become a code word for reducing Biblical language to raw physical description or rational timeless truths, rather than allowing the imaginative poetic language of a Jew situated within the ancient Middle East. Yes, there is much in the Bible that is historical realism, much that is literally true, but it is mixed in with so much imagery, hyperbole and symbol that I simply can no longer claim to read the Bible literally. Instead, Iv’e come to read the Book “literarily.”

I highly recommend the book if you have any interest in imagination’s place in the Christian life.

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