How George MacDonald Has Affected Our Lives by Teresa Churcher

There are few moments in life which we remember with acute clarity.  There are even fewer moments in our life where we experience a frozen moment of time.  Some moments like this are pivotal for obvious reasons such as holding a new born baby or a first kiss.  When you are a child these moments can be anything from a loving embrace to a surprise A on a school paper.  For me, I only remember one as a child.  I was at the school library and I saw a book with an intriguing title that caught my attention: The Princess and The Goblin.   I was eight years old and I loved fairy tales but hadn’t yet attempted to read a volume as large as this.  Still I remembered the moment of reaching for the volume, taking it down from the shelf and feeling a sense of awe for THIS looked like a book really worth reading!  I borrowed the book (needless to say) and took it home and read it.  I don’t remember how long it took me to read it but I remember two things clearly.  I remember beginning the book and loving the illustration of Princess Irene in her starry bedroom and I remember the moment I finished it because I did something I had never done before or since.  Immediately after finishing the last page in the book, I turned back to the first page to begin reading it again.  I remember after that looking in my basement for a secret door which would lead me to a secret staircase but I never found it although I had dreams that I did.

Two years later at the same school library, I came across The Princess and Curdie.  I never found any other books by GM until I was in my early twenties and came across two paperback books with interesting covers at a book store.  I didn’t realize who the author was until I was sitting on the train on my way back home looking at my purchases and discovered it was the same author I had loved as a child.  So I then read Phantastes and Lillith.

Years later, I discovered more books by GM through a catalogue I received.  After that, when I had the internet, I decided to do a search on George MacDonald.  I found two websites (yup, only two then), one of them mentioned an email list to join to discuss his works.  I joined the community and gained so much more knowledge and insight into GM and his faith.  I eventually began corresponding with one of the other email subscribers.  One day, he told me of a dream he had where we were in a dark cave along with a bunch of children searching for Princess Irene’s ring.  He found it first and then tossed it to me.  Three years later I had moved from the US to the UK and married him.  Together we visited GM’s birthplace in Huntley.

Last year, I read George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons and felt as if I have really come home to my faith.  I read all three volumes slowly and took notes and felt my spirit soar to new heights.  His views on God resonated and added new depths to my faith.  I consider George MacDonald to be a 19th century Christian mystic with a huge heart and a wonderfully wild imagination.

Read more by Teresa at:

https://homeandspirit.wordpress.com

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C.S. Lewis on the Power of Good Literature

As a teacher, there is one universal piece of advice that I give to almost all parents: give your children time and space to read good books–guide them to good books, discuss good books, and read good books for yourself. And while reading books help a student’s reading comprehension, writing ability, critical thought, and myriad of other academic abilities, when I suggest to parents to promote reading, this is what I really mean to say:

cslewis1“Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

From Lewis’s book An Experiment in Criticism 

Fairy Tales are a Practical Way to Get Kids to Talk About Virtue

I don’t know how many of you are teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or just generally have children that you care about in your lives, but if you fall into one of those categories, then you probably have struggled at some point with starting a meaningful conversation with children. And if you don’t have a problem starting the conversation, then you probably have had some issues with sustaining a meaningful conversation. The answer to this dilemma is simple–you have to trick them.

One of the reasons I love fairy tales, fantasy, and good fiction stories in general, is because they can be used to till up the moral imaginative soil in child. Most kids–and let’s be honest, most people–don’t respond well when people are didactic about “how you should act.” I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for this style, but in my experience, this heavy-handed style of teaching is often either rejected completely or forgotten rather quickly–even if the content it good.

Fairy tales on the other hand provide a framework for talking about virtue without initially talking about virtue. In essence, your job as a teacher of virtue becomes that of a moderator rather than a speaker. A question-asker rather than an answer-giver.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not suggesting that virtue is relative, but guiding the discussion with questions in the framework of a story usually yields a much greater harvest. Here are a few examples of questions that I ask in my class after reading a fairy tale:

1. Is there a clear good/bad person?

2. Why are they good/bad?

3. Is the good person rewarded? Is the bad person punished? Why?

Even if you have to ask a more directed questions like “What do you think about how Snow White’s step-mother gets punished?” “Does that seem fair?”

Children intuitively have a strong moral compass of what is right and wrong, so don’t be surprised if children have less of an issue with justice being served to “bad” characters than adults. Help them explore these feelings.

In his book, Tending the Heart of Virtue, Vigen Guroian writes, “Children are vitally concerned with distinguishing good from evil and truth from falsehood…and “children need guidance and moral road maps and they benefit immensely with the example of adults who speak truthfully and act from moral strength.”

So go ahead, ask questions. Explore with them. Be a moral road map!

The Discipline of Rest

The word “success” is a blotted, fat, dead fish of a word. It used to be the prize Steelhead of words. Now–it’s just the floating carp bobbing on the surface of a giant lake of words. The funny thing is, like a catchy song on the radio, the word just won’t go away. It once got noticed, but now it’s just another annoying synthpop line in a Rebecca Black song–not taken seriously but evokes very strong emotions. You get the point.

Truth is, the word is practically useless because the meaning has become so relative. William James once wrote to H.G. Wells complaining of the “moral flabbiness” of the word “success”. “The squalid interpretation put on the word,” James writes, “is our national disease.” Amazingly enough, this was written in 1906.

Success does have vernacular–“achievement, profit, accomplishment, gain, fame, progress”and a whole host of other bedfellows. Unfortunately, most of these words have strong connections to or evoke strong images of money. This, of course, isn’t inherently bad, unless a person defines his/her entire success on hoarding the stuff. This kind of definition is also toxic when it comes to include words like “power,” “fame,” and “TOTAL WORLD DOMINATION!” Okay, maybe not the last one…then again.

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Okay, here’s the point: Success is not dictated by the amount of money a person has. Yada, yada, yada. We have all heard this, and it has unfortunately become rhetoric just like the word success itself. Images of progress and winning have become so embedded into the understanding of the word, that it is has become difficult to stop and ask the question, “what am I progressing towards or succeeding at?” It reminds me of the number of people who are famous for being famous. In essence, “success” has become a kind of grand social tautology that seems to be growing larger by the day. If you see this as true, then I have one word for you: Sabbath.

Not the black, Ozzy Osborn kind (although we all board the crazy train at one time or another). No–the biblical 5th commandment kind:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11

Rest? Set apart a day not to work? God obviously doesn’t know what will happen to my YouTube subscribers if I don’t publish a video everyday.

If we define success by the amount of work that we generate to maintain our success, then this command sounds like pure poppycock. In a digital age where marketing one’s self involves a continual stream of posting and reposting (of which I am doing right now…so yes, I get the irony), this discipline of rest is very difficult. Not necessarily because work is hard (although it can be), but because work bleeds into every area of our lives on every day. It’s hard because we never really stop working. I’m not saying that everyone is slaving away seven days a week, but most people subject themselves to all the aspects of work on all seven days of the week (phone calls, e-mails, meetings, reading for work, etc.).

Maybe success is the ability to work our butts off six days a week so we do the really hard thing of NOT working on a seventh day. Maybe success is reorganizing our lives so we can work diligently during six days in order that we can be diligent in our rest on the seventh. I realize that the words diligent and rest seldom appear together, but really they should. I believe that our digital culture thrives on the notion of continual motion. Even the idea of creating a passive income online isn’t really passive–you must be always posting, and writing, and marketing. Maybe real success is understanding that there is something more important than our physical movement. 

Maybe success comes from the discipline of resisting the grind for one day a week. Resisting the phone calls. Resisting the e-mails. Resisting the desire to check to see how many people are now following our blog. Resisting the ability to move in the same direction as the other six days. Really, to make the seventh day “holy” or set apart from the other days. Now that’s real work!

I’m not writing this because I’m great at it. In fact, sometimes I’m just flat out awful at resisting movement. But my challenge, along with yours, is to follow the guidelines that God has set. Pick a day and rest. Sleep. Unplug. Play hide-and-seek with your kids. Kiss your wife. Read a fiction book. Listen to an entire music album without multitasking. Pray. Take a walk. Write a poem. Simply sit on your porch with a hot cup of tea and enjoy the Sabbath.

Don’t get caught in the minutia of defining what day is the Sabbath and what is acceptable to do on the Sabbath. These are important, but starting this discipline is more important. You will figure it out as you go.

I promise you will find life and success in the discipline of rest. It’s almost like it was designed to be this way.

The Discipline of Beauty

Colossians 1:16-17 (ESV)

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

In light of not posting for awhile, I wanted to write about something that I have been personally convicted of lately: not practicing the discipline of looking for beauty. 

Unfortunately, I have been overwhelmed of late with the common scourge of the “tyranny of the urgent.” It is the pestilence that drains my energy while I actively “get things done.” This affliction isn’t about making lists, for a list naturally means forethought, and forethought at the very least has a rudimentary understanding of prioritization. Instead, tyranny of the urgent is the antithesis of forethought–it is living moment to moment without any context. It is performing the actions without understanding the purpose. It is like walking head-down in a dark tunnel without understanding that you are actually walking towards a light at the end. This kind of life breads hopelessness and ultimately anesthetizes our ability to see beauty. We devolve into creatures of task like oxen driven hard in the field without enjoying the harvest. And as far as I’m concerned, this is no way to live. 

TunnelI also believe that this is not the way that God designed us to live either. As the verse in Colossians says, all things were created through God to bring Him glory. In fact, all of these things are held together by Him. I believe that when we look into that which God has created then we are also looking into an aspect of God Himself. When we see the beauty of that which God has created, namely Nature and Humanity, then we see the beauty of God. Along with this, there is an aspect of beauty that does not come directly from the hand of God; it is that divine piece of Imago Dei (Image of God–Genesis 1:27) that lives in humanity, but it is also the beauty of creation that comes from the human hand. According to Dorothy L. Sayer’s fantastic book Mind of the Maker, the human desire to create is actually a characteristic that we share with God.

How then can he be said to resemble God? Is it his immortal soul, his rationality, his self-consciousness, his free will, or what, that gives him a claim to this rather startling distinction? A case may be argued for all these elements in the complex nature of man. But had the author of Genesis anything particular in his mind when he wrote? It is observable that in the passage leading up to the statement about man, he has given no detailed information about God. Looking at man, he sees in him something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created”. The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.

This isn’t to say that humanity is divine as much as it consciously or subconsciously values the very part of our humanity that is made possible through the divine imprint left on us. Similar to the Fruits of the Spirit, we share certain qualities of goodness that are only perfected in God. With this said, there are aspects of this world both natural and constructed that point to a divine. These are symbols that should direct our gaze to the glory of God, and thus these symbols can be both beautiful and led to Beauty. This is the great act of Art that sets the human apart from the beast. For as G.K. Chesterton points out, animals may make homes like humans make homes, but animals don’t aspire to make architecture. Thus, Art can portray a certain beauty that draws us back to balance or harmony with God. This is not to say that all art is pleasing to the eye, or even effective in truth-telling, but the fact remains that the work of the hand when creating art is in a rude form trying to mimic our Creator. Like a son grabbing his plastic hammer to assist dad in building a tree house. 

Seeing this kind of beauty does not come easily or naturally, at least it doesn’t to me; instead, I believe we must cultivate our senses and practice the discipline of experiencing beauty. I believe we have the deep desire to be connected to beauty, but often don’t have the time or the discipline to experience that beauty. C.S. Lewis puts it well when he writes:

 “We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words- to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.

While I am by no means the poster boy for “stopping and smelling the roses” (remember, the tyranny of the urgent led me to this place), this process has helped me refocus my energies in an effort to lift my head up from the darkness in the tunnel and experience the beautiful light. After some thought, here are a activities that help me “bathe” in beauty. 

Study the Bible… instead of just reading it devotionally

Read poetry…and try to understand it

Write…but not about myself

Listen to the stories of the elderly…and ask them how they see the world

Ask good questions to children…and notice how they see the world 

Listen to music…without doing anything else

Read good fantasy…and allow yourself to escape

Read books that make me think…really, really hard

Climb a mountain…a big one with a good view

Take a walk early in the morning…when birds instead of cars are heard

Serve others…because Christ has served us

Sketch the small details of something that I see…even if it turns out horribly

Look at a good piece of art…for a really long time

Pray…and then be silent

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I would enjoy hearing about what others do to see Beauty.

 

 

We Are Not the Heroes of Our Story

P1000827It was nearly four years ago that I had the astounding experience of whitewater rafting on the Nile River in Jinja, Uganda. It was an exhausting 6-hour journey that took our group over 12 Class 4 & 5 rapids. I fell out or the raft flipped over 4 of those 12 rapids. Whether it was paddling through an intense rapid or floating on my back in the middle of the river, the whole experience continues to be surreal to me. Yet, even though I can’t fully express my adventure that day with words, I did learn a very valuable lesson that I doubt will ever forget: I am not in control.

The story goes like this. When I climbed into that raft with my wife and her family, my wife expressed anxiety about the trip. Now, she is a fantastic swimmer, and she is no stranger to adventure, but the prospect of being thrown from the raft over and over again made her nervous. Of course, being an understanding husband I gathered all my eloquent wisdom and responded by saying, “You don’t need to worry–everything will be okay.” Hard to believe, but her nervousness wasn’t exactly squelched by my little pep talk. Seeing that she was still unsure, I pulled the husband card by saying, “It’s going to be okay. If something happens, I will be sitting right behind you, and I will take care of you. I will protect you.” This worked only slightly better than the first comment, but like the brave-spirit that she is, she focused on having a good time.

Now, I was sincere in what I said to her. I really did want her to feel safe by knowing that I would look out for her, and I really was prepared to do whatever I could to make sure she was safe. Unfortunately, I greatly overestimated myself.

During the second rapid, our raft jettisoned everyone into the river. Although I had been sitting directly behind my wife in the raft, she was nowhere to be seen when I surfaced. I desperately looked around for her while I started to swim for the raft. Very strong men in little one man kayaks skimmed across the water to collect the people who were now bobbing up and down in the river like wine corks. It wasn’t until I was back in the raft that I saw my wife being pulled in by one of these helpers. As we pulled her into the raft, she handed me her paddle–which had been broken into two pieces. Once everyone was safely back in the boat, a devastating realization overcame me. There was no way that I could possibly begin to protect her from the river that so easily dragged us around like helpless children. My courage and good intentions were no match for the force of the Nile. It is hard to convey the utter fragility that I felt at that moment–the realization that I was of no use to my wife (and later on to find out that I was of almost no use to save myself) was heartbreaking. No personal willpower, collective positive thinking, or inspirational speeches could change the fact that I was at the mercy of the river. I was not in control.

This frightened me.

I could no longer assure my wife that it was “going to be okay” because I really wasn’t sure it was going to be okay.

Then, like a escaping balloon that is snatched from the air by the string and drug back down to earth, I realized something: The large Ugandan man who was steering out raft was yelling at me. “Paddle hard!” he shouted.

I broke out of my self-indulgent stupor just in time to see the next rapid in front us. Of course, this event continued to reinforce the fact that I was not in control…even to the point that I had to stop thinking about how I wasn’t in control so I could paddle and attempt to keep from being thrown in the river again. It was at this point that I decided to hang navel gazing and actually enjoy the ride.

This isn’t Nihilism–this is simply giving in to the fact that I didn’t hold the power in the situation.

Years later, as I reflect on my rafting journey on the Nile, I am reminded of Gandalf’s words to Bilbo at the end of The Hobbit.

“Then the prophecies of the old songs have turned out to be true, after a fashion!” said Bilbo.

“Of course!” said Gandalf. “And why should not they prove true? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies, because you had a hand in bringing them about yourself? You don’t really suppose, do you, that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!”

“Thank goodness!” said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco-jar.

After all of the adventures that Bilbo endured, Gandalf reminds Bilbo that while he is the hero of his journey that he is in fact not the hero of The Journey. Interestingly enough, Bilbo plays a small and insignificant role in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And while Bilbo’s adventures are remembered and his heroism rewarded, Tolkien reminds his readers that the hero of one day is not the hero of a lifetime.

In affect, Gandalf is reminding Bilbo that he is not the centre of the story. “You are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all,” Gandalf reminds Bilbo. Even at the end of a story in which Bilbo is legitimately the hero, Bilbo is reminded that his story isn’t the The Story.

Throughout The Hobbit, Tolkien writes of Bilbo’s heroic journey–not heroic because Bilbo overcomes trolls, or spiders, or orcs, or even Smaug–heroic because Bilbo overcomes his fear of being out of control. Bilbo begins by hating adventures–“nasty things, make you late for dinner”–to accepting them.

My experience on the Nile River was so memorable to me because I learned something about my identity. I learned that despite my best efforts and intentions, I was not in control. Sure, I could assist in guiding the boat to the right or left in order to avoid rocks or other dangers, but there was no way I could defy the current on my own. Positive thought and pure will could not have kept me from being swept down the river. But that proved to be okay. In fact, that proved to be fantastic!

For some people, the story ends here: accept fate and enjoy life. Once again, I am not preaching Nihilism. I am not promoting a gospel of hopelessness or helplessness. I am speaking of having abundant life.

My experience on the river is one that is too familiar to me. I have far too often found myself trying to take control of my life in a way where I arrange the events and situations of my life to be conducive to staying in control (then I had kids, and blew that whole experiment up). I sometimes limit my experiences based on whether I can control the outcome, and if I’m not careful, I turn away the adventures that come knocking on my door because they might cause discomfort. Yes, adventures are nasty things that make you late for dinner. They cause disorder. They sometimes even create disdain within friends and family, but if we are not careful, our fear of discomfort will actually become our identity. We seek to keep our identities safe, but we in fact lose them. We seek to have an ordered and controlled life, but we are in fact destroying life.

This dichotomy rings the most true for me when I think about my own identity in Christ, and no more true than when I read the words of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.

Matthew 10:39 records Jesus saying,Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Luke 17:33 echoes the same words when it says, Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it.”

Like Bilbo, I am often so concerned for my own reputation and identity that I hold it closely, not realizing that all the while I am actually losing that thing I hold so dear. I jockey for position at my work, church, and even home while Christ beckons me to be called up from the slavery of my sin and become a child of God.

I am not the hero of my life; in fact, sometimes I’m the villain. I thrash and grasp for control and worth from things that are either temporary or unobtainable, all the while I am rejecting a position much higher position than my own. I may not be the hero, but when my identity is rooted in Christ’s ability instead of my own, then I find an abundance of joy in the great adventure of the Christian faith.

I am indeed just a little fellow in a wide world.

 

 

Shut your mouth and your mind

“An open mind is really a mark of foolishness, like an open mouth. Mouths and minds were made to shut; they were made to open only in order to shut.” G.K. Chesterton

In the first year of University I recall one of my professors starting his class with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay The Crack-Up“Let me make a general observation — the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” 

I remember feeling unsure about the statement. Being a Christian in a secular university, I wasn’t sure if this was truth or just propaganda from the pagan left  (at least that’s how I felt back in my zealot days). Years later, and with a little more maturity, I can say that I agree with the statement but disagree with the outcome.

I’ve learned the importance of looking at both sides of an argument and examining an opposing point of view with honesty and respect. Yet, like Chesterton, I have come to believe that “mouths and minds were made to be shut.” It sounds very progressive to approach all thoughts with an open-mind, but like a car at an intersection, a decision must be made for progress to continue.

In reality, all our actions are based on conclusions–conscious and subconscious. We all have conclusions by which we order our lives. And while we may function, as Mr. Fitzgerald suggests, by being able to hold two opposing ideas, I  sincerely doubt that we are being truthful when we say that open-minds are actually “open.”

Recently, I was listening to a sermon series on the Gospel of John from Tim Keller, the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Keller spent the majority of the sermon explaining the concept of Logos, and then giving it a modern context. There were a number of gems in the sermon–all of which I can’t expound on here–but I appreciated his explanation of Logos.

chi rhoLogos = Meaning for life

Keller acknowledged that the Greek term does not mean pure logic  as much as it means logic to give order and meaning to our lives. Logos was the central point for the Greeks by which they get their sense of worth, their sense of accomplishment, and their belonging. It answered questions like: “What is my purpose?” and “What is life all about?” As you might imagine, people back then had a few disagreements about the answers to those questions, but Logos was most heavily debated by two major Greek schools of thought: the Epicureans and the Stoics.

Now wait! Don’t zone out, skip out, or close out…

Although these are Greek concepts, I think you might recognize some similarities in our modern thinking.

Epicureans: Pleasure is the greatest good. Enjoy life!  Live modestly, gain knowledge of how the world works, and understand your own personal limitations. God either doesn’t exist or is greatly limited by our own free will…akin to  modern day spirituality.

Stoicism: Science is the greatest good. Logic, self-control and fortitude provide a clear understanding of the world. Emotions are destructive to reason.  God is dead. Virtue is a matter of will power…akin to the new atheism.

Epicureans argued that there was no greater good than our own emotions. Take one day at a time. Enjoy your walk to the car. Sing along to the radio. Smile. Fall in love again and again. Feel good about life and help other people feel good about their lives. This is all we have, so don’t squander a single moment.

On the other side, the Stoics believed that our own emotions were detrimental to understanding the logical and scientific order of the world. We belong to Nature. Everything has an order and place in the universe. Beauty and happiness come from finding that order and fitting into its creases. We are rational beings, capable of great thoughts and great influence. We can be known and remembered.

Keller refers to these two ways of thinking as “New Ageistic” (look inside yourself to find order) and “Scientistic” (look to the facts to find order– facts but no truth). Although these two ways of thinking seem opposed to one another, they are in fact preaching the same message: There is no authority and no truth outside of what we feel or know…We are our own masters!

To be master denotes having authority over. To rule. To dominate and determine. If we are answering the same questions about life as the Epicureans and the Stoics, then we must understand that these are questions of authority (who or what is ruling you? What is your Logos?)

Being closed-minded and dogmatic are derogatory terms in our culture; people like this are painted as arrogant, rude ignoramuses. But in my experience, it is the “open-minded” person who is less courteous to objections. The truth is, we are all closed-minded. We all have a Logos in our lives, but only some of us know it. Coming to a decisive conclusion allows a person to order his or her life from those conclusions.

I think our culture promotes open-mindedness because it is ultimately is a rejection of authority. Evasiveness to difficult questions affords a false sense of autonomy, and it allows a person to avoid being nailed down to any particular set of standards. I may disagree with the Epicureans and the Stoics, but at least they were courageous enough to define their beliefs.

I think Chesterton sums it all up well:

“The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. It may be said even that the modern world, as a corporate body, holds certain dogmas so strongly that it does not know that they are dogmas. It may be thought ‘dogmatic,’ for instance, in some circles accounted progressive, to assume the perfection or improvement of man in another world. But it is not thought “dogmatic” to assume the perfection or improvement of man in this world; though that idea of progress is quite as unproved as the idea of immortality, and from a rationalistic point of view quite as improbable. Progress happens to be one of our dogmas, and a dogma means a thing which is not thought dogmatic.”

What is our Logos? What are we driven by and what do we hope to accomplish in this life? These are some of the questions in the vast expanse of what it means to live. Regardless of whether we admit it or not, we all have answers to these questions by which we order our lives. Explore, question, search and research, and then let your mind clamp down on something. This isn’t to say that it will always and forever remain closed on the matter, but at least there will be solid ground under your feet for the time being.

May our minds be closed on truth and our hearts be open to those who seek it.

 

Imagine That

Educators, parents, grandparents and grandfriends alike have something to offer children–sweets. I know that children are supposed to be intrinsically motivated to learn, but really a sugary incentive can be a useful tool on a Friday afternoon in class. I don’t recall much about my first years at school, but I do remember Mrs. Crow in Grade 1 treating us to Popsicles after a particularly good behavior week, and in Grade 2 putting a penny in the a jar every time I was “caught” doing something good. When the jar was full–class party!

As adults I think we can miss an important step while teaching the children in our lives. We can expect intrinsic behavior without really explaining the extrinsic rewards. In other words, we want them to buy into a system without explaining the incentives. I’m not advocating for teaching children by rewarding with gifts or candy; instead, I believe we should teach children to do what is right by showing them a picture of goodness–by showing them the benefits of doing what is right–and this takes imagination.

In his book Education of Character, the philosopher Martin Buber recalls an interesting development in some of his classes.

“[I tried] to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightening happen[ed]: the worst habitual liar of the class produce[d] a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying.”

Buber offers an alternative to “explaining” or “teaching” good character through a sermonizing or didactic manner:

“Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. 

One of the greatest attractions of art is that it has the ability to stir the imagination without being heavy-handed (this isn’t to say that some art isn’t heavy-handed and preachy). This is one of the reasons that I believe that stories are such a magnificent tool in teaching children moral strength.

“For a story to truly hold the child’s attention it must entertain him and arouse his curiosity.  But to enrich his life, it must stimulate the imagination,” writes the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim.

If imagination is the faculty by which we form our understanding of the world, then Story is one vehicle by which that information is delivered. This is supported by taking a closer look at a few foundation components of Story found in the Christian faith.

Logos

The term logos is a Greek word that originally meant the foundation of an opinion, but later came to be a term used by the Greeks to mean the principle of order and knowledge. One of the derivatives of logos is word, which comes from the root of legō, which means “to say, speak, or tell.” We get our word myth from two Greek words: muthos and logos. Muthos was the telling of truth through the account of a story (used to communicate emotions and feelings of a moment), while logos was the telling of truth through the use of reason or facts. To the Greeks, the two words were interchangeable, and even when muthos came to mean “fictionalized,” it was still used as a trusted form of communicating.

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Imagination plays an important role in talking about logos. One of the easiest ways to make the connection between the two is to think of the word logo which has obvious connections to logos. A logo is generally a symbol or sign that doesn’t contain words yet carries with it symbolic meaning. Thus, pictures come to represent words or phrases in our minds which then combine with our personal experiences to give meaning through our imaginations.

One of the reasons the imagination and logos are so important to the Christian faith is because Jesus claims to be the Logos of the whole world–the principal order and knowledge of ALL things.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”(John 1:1-5) 

Here Word is translated from the word logos. This means that John is claiming that Jesus is the symbol of God! That is quite the claim. The theologian Frank Stagg writes,  “The Logos is God active in creation, revelation, and redemption.”

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

So what does this have to do with imagination?

If  John’s claim is true, and Jesus is the incarnate symbol of God, then Jesus is the embodiment of Story. In essence, God is telling His people that they don’t have to imagine what He is like–they just have to look at Jesus. This is one of the reasons why the Ten Commandments is deadly clear in communicating that “you shall not make any graven images” or have “any other gods before me.” Really, the only symbol that can completely embody God is one that God creates Himself. And if the incarnate Son of God chooses to be described as the Logos–the embodiment of the Great Story–then I’m ready to hitch my bandwagon to that art form.

Instead of only having prophets and angels tell of God’s greatness, God sends Jesus–the embodiment of God in flesh –in order for humanity to see goodness and just hear about it.

Parables

In all of the gospels, there are a combined total of 32 parables of Jesus (interestingly, there are no parables in the Gospel of John). In fact, the writing of Psalms prophecies that Jesus will use parables to communicate with people.

Psalm 78:1-3 

 3 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us.

The Bible scholar Madeline Boucher writes this about Jesus and his parables: 

The importance of the parables can hardly be overestimated. They comprise a substantial part of the recorded preaching of Jesus. The parables are generally regarded by scholars as among the sayings which we can confidently ascribe to the historical Jesus; they are, for the most part, authentic words of Jesus. Moreover, all of the great themes of Jesus’ preaching are struck in the parables. 

Likewise, the author Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan writes that Jesus was the master of teaching in parables. His parables often have an unexpected twist or surprise ending that catches the reader’s attention. They are also cleverly designed to draw listeners into new ways of thinking, new attitudes and new ways of acting. 

It really should be no surprise that the great Word himself should use stories to communicate his greatest truths. Imagination is so important in understanding parables because these stories are highly symbolic and invite readers to imagine these scenes so they can “experience” their meanings. In essence, parables are stories that guide the imagination through certain situations, for a particular outcome, without needing to be heavy-handed. 

Gospel

There is such a rich history of story in the Bible as well as the Jewish and Christian traditions, but I believe that this history culminates in the Gospel. The word Gospel is in and of itself very simple yet incredible complex. Tim Keller defines the gospel as:

The good news that through Christ the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us.”

“Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” from Christianity Today

 Trevor Wax, a writer on the Gospel Coalition website, rightly identifies the multifaceted nature of such a dynamic word, yet he sees a consistent theme:  Jesus enters humanities story in order to help people imagine a life that is greater than themselves. In other words, Jesus broke into the story of humanity to remind us that we are part of a bigger story.

This is not just a story we hear–we are enveloped by this story and live it out each and every day.

Although the Christian debate over magic and Harry Potter has come and gone, one of the most ironic twists of the whole ordeal is found in the traditional meaning of the word Gospel.

Gospel: Middle English, from Old English gōdspel (translation of Late Latin evangelium), from gōd good                    + spell tale

The traditional meaning tale (spell) was meant to evoke images of the spoken word having power to hold people in a magically state of enchantment–the story was so attractive that it would strongly influence people as if they were under someone else’s power. This is the power of the Gospel.

All in all, children (and adults for that matter) need to have their imaginations stimulated in such a way that they are shown what is right by being drawn into a story that encourages them to imagine what is right–to be engulfed by eudaimonism. This isn’t some relativistic cease pool; instead, like the parables of Jesus, we are given images in a story and then lead to experience what is right instead of just being told what is right.

I believe this is the elevated faculty that George MacDonald was talking about. This is the intrinsic motivation: when our imagination is baptized with goodness, and then we are lead to that goodness by the images in our minds.

 

Imagine This

Reading Anthony Esolen’s book about children and imagination reminds me of a story that happened during my first year of my Master’s degree program. I was just starting to get over my “deer in the headlights” feeling of being a student in a Master’s program, and I was really enjoying my new class on some fantasy author named George MacDonald. At the time I didn’t know who he was, but I heard something about how he wrote fantasy (which I liked) and was admired by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (whom I also liked). So, I thought I would give him a shot. Little did I know that three years later I would be putting the finishing touches on my Major Essay on George MacDonald’s writing–but that’s a story for another time.

When I started the class, I was one of two Master’s students in a class full of undergraduates. The class read many wonderful and enchanting stories by MacDonald; none that I liked more than his fairy tales and The Princess and the Goblin. The class assignments were pretty straight forward: one presentation and one essay. Now there is one thing that is for certain when it comes to undergraduates and presentations: they will be over-the-top to the point of silly in their performances (wear costumes, turn off the lights and light candles, play dramatic music, etc), and they will bring snacks for the class. Of course, I never minded the later distinction, but walking into a dark candle-lit room to watch a group of 4 undergrads fumble through an 20 minute explanation of Lilith (in costume of course), grew old. Now, this may sound fine and well–and indeed, the groups obviously spent a good amount of time organizing lines and gathering costumes–but there was nothing that was terribly imaginative about how the students interacted with the text.

I don’t want to sound pompous. I could insert a story here about how I totally botched my first presentation about Owen Barfield, especially after I rambled on for 5 minutes trying to answer another student’s question only to later have to stop and say, “actually, I don’t really know.” Trust me, I really wanted candles and cookies at that moment.

What I started to understand during those candle-lit moments on the second floor of classroom 233, is what I would later hear my advising professor tell me: “one of the worse things you can do as a teacher is teach a creative novel without any creativity.” In essence, it wasn’t good enough to be creative in how I taught, I needed to be creative in what I taught. This would require a good amount of imagination on my part, which of course leads me to the second thing I learned in that class:

It’s important to define terms: in this case the word “imagination.”

My presentation to the George MacDonald class went well enough. Although, truth be told, I’m not sure they understood what I was saying because I had the lights on and I wasn’t wearing a cape. Plus, I didn’t bring any cookies (academia can sometimes make teachers stingy with their pastries).

After my presentation I cornered the professor on her way back to her office and politely asked her if I could do my essay for the class on “imagination.”

“What do you mean?” she responded.

“You know–imagination. Like, the way George MacDonald uses imagination,” I nervously answered.

After a long pause, she gently and politely told me that the topic was a little too big for a 20 page paper. It didn’t take me long to figure out how right she was.

After completing my George MacDonald class, I was thoroughly entrenched in uncovering the meaning of imagination. Here is what I found…

Imagination

 

In other words–it’s complicated.

The problem with the word “imagination” is that it has as many different definitions as the number of people that you ask. Imagination is anything from The Last Unicorn to Clockwork Orange–from drawing architectural blueprints to cloud gazing. It’s no wonder we are somewhat skeptical of imagination while whole heartily nodding in agreement with its promotion. A person using his/her imagination can be anything from a “daydreamer” to a “visionary.”

When I ask my students to define imagination they often describe something that sounds like a hidden power in their minds that they can access when they need to write stories or read books. To this I respond, “yes.” Indeed, that is imagination, but how can we reconcile the unicorns of imagination with George MacDonald’s definition that says imagination “is the faculty which gives form to thought.” I would like to present what I think is a practical working definition of “imagination.”

Imagination–from Latin imaginationem, noun of action from imaginari (“to form a mental picture of, to form an image of, to represent”)…Old French imaginer means to “sculpt, carve, paint; decorate, embellish.”

       In other words….

Imagination is the activity of a person creating mental images that her/she then refers back to in order to make sense of or give meaning to a situation.

     Which means….

Imagination isn’t some mystical enchantment that some people have and some people don’t (although, like a muscle, imagination can be built stronger), but it’s a set of images that we recall when we think of someone or something. It is the process of logging images, recalling those imaging, and acting according to those images.

      Why it matters….

When I say the word “tree” you recall some type of tree in your mind. Congratulations, you just used your imagination! The League of Justice for Equal Treatment for Imagined Trees might be the only people who care about what kind of tree that pops into your mind, but what if I say words like “racism, goodness, and evil.” The images that pop into your head suddenly become much more important. A person’s imagination regarding topics like humanity and God are incredibly important if we believe that what we imagine in our minds has great influence over how we act. Thus, if we want to change how we act, we must first change how we imagine something. In essence, a “reimaging” must occur for there to be long-lasting change.

      How does this happen….

“Reimaging” takes place in a variety of ways, but personal experience and emotion are always present in the most powerful memories and images of our minds. Yet, our personal experiences are limited by time and money and ability (among other things). I believe that there is a exceptional tool that can help “re”shape our imaginations, and that is Art.

If the Old French definition imaginer means to “sculpt, carve, paint; decorate, embellish,” then isn’t an artist simply one who shapes our imagination in a way that gives us images about the world?

I believe that one of the most effective tools for guiding or reshaping a person’s imagination is Story. This is why C.S. Lewis claimed in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, that the fantasy of George MacDonald baptized his imagination. Story is powerful. We wield a great sword of imagination when we write, and we submit to the great process when we read.

I don’t miss all of the undergrad presentations, but I do miss engaging in meaning conversation about George MacDonald and the benefits of fantasy. And of course, I miss the cookies too.

“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”–1 Corinthians 13:12

 

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