Imagination and Creativity

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There are many aspects of creativity that I find fascinating–the relationship between creativity and innovation, the history of creativity, and the definition of creativity, just to name a few. In spite of all the acclaim that surrounds creativity, I believe that the concept of creativity would not be nearly as important if it didn’t connect with people in a meaningful and significant way. I believe this connection is the imagination.

Molly Andrews, a Professor of Political Psychology and the Co-director of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London, has this to say about imagination and creativity:

Imagination is in fact the life blood of one of the most fundamental human inclinations — that of storytelling. We tell stories all the time, about everything, to everyone, including ourselves. What we tell and why and how we tell it are strongly influenced by the contexts in which we as narrators operate. But one only needs to think for a moment of what it would mean to have no story to tell, or to have forgotten one’s story — as depicted in some of the wonderfully rich books by Oliver Sachs — to realize that we organize our relationship to those around us, to the world, and indeed to our very selves via narrative.

Narrative and imagination are integrally tied to one another; that they are so immediately clear to anyone who stops to think about stories — real and imagined, about the past or in a promised, or feared, future. Why and how this is so are questions that direct us to ruminate on what it means to be human. Narrative and imagination are combined, not only in our most elevated thoughts about the world as it might be, but also in the very minutiae of our daily lives. Although we do not often talk about the role of imagination in how we approach each day, carrying out and evading those responsibilities to which we have committed ourselves, and simply being ourselves in the world, negotiating our sometimes troubled paths between competing desires of our own and those of others, its importance cannot be overstated.  (Entire article)

I believe Andrews makes a very good point when she writes that “we organize our relationship to those around us, to the world, and indeed to our very selves via narrative.”  Simple put, we are a people of story. We tell stories. We listen to stories. We identity with or reject the stories in which we are a part of. And these stories are not independent or static–they are dynamic and intersect with other stories like an intricately woven tapestry. In many ways, we tell stories to identify with humanity: our own and others’. Yet the connection between imagination and creativity is not intrinsically clear.

In Mineko Honda’s book The Imaginative World of C.S. Lewis, he explains how Lewis saw the connection between imagination and creativity:

The imagination he thus sees in himself appears to be the same things as the ‘creativity’ that we expect of good writers and artists.  In fact, however, this ‘imagination’ means a lot more than mere creativity.  For Lewis, it is also a power of intuition into the metaphysical reality of this world and heaven, and a power of communication of that reality.  It perceives the meaning of the world, expresses that meaning, and enables us to participate in the metaphysical Reality (Pg. 1). 

Creativity is not the equivalent of imagination, yet the two are not completely separate of one another. Creation without imagination is just the creation of idols—representations of what is true, but themselves are not true.

So, if imagination leads to creativity, and the two are distinct yet cannot be separated from one another, where does that leave us with the question of how the two are connected? I believe the answer to that question lies in the word “metaphor.”

The use of metaphor employs the imagination to give an image to a truth that is difficult or impossible to understand in and of itself.  A word such as “love” is difficult to understand by itself, so artists use metaphors to explain that love is like “a red, red rose.”  Likewise, trying to understand the meaning of words like beauty, honor, and friendship is nearly impossible without using images that are attached to those words.

Words which we could scarcely grasp are expanded and burst into reality through metaphor. Elusive nouns such as “anger” and “joy” are connected to objects like the color red or sunflowers in a field; thus we can continue to communicate these abstract concepts with images.

Whether it is a story, a photograph, or a painting, a powerful image can communicate both meaning and value. In his book Imagination and the Arts in C.S. Lewis, Peter J. Schakel gives a concise explanation of Lewis on this matter:  “Images are seen through imagination, and the moral of the story must be embodied in the images” (Pg. 169). Lewis feels that the use of images and metaphor by the imagination is not only an exercise in critical assessment of a work of art but actually nurtures a person’s “moral imagination.”  The images are metaphors themselves of greater virtues such as loyalty, courage, good vs. evil, and the like.

To quote George Macdonald, “the Intellect must labour, workman-like, under the direction of the architect, Imagination” (“Imagination,” Pg. 11). Creativity is the natural outcome of a working imagination. Creativity that endures hundreds of years and thousands of miles is melded and fired from the metal of Reason and Imagination in the kiln of Diligence and Truth.

But imagination won’t be nailed down. It is like the wind, the rushing river water, and tiny grains of sand.  It manifests differently, and never looks the same way twice—but it does feel the same. It gives a feeling of smallness yet the hope of greatness.  It destroys self, but introduces that self into a world where he/she can grow into something much larger. Thus, creativity is a byproduct of the great architect Imagination.

 

 

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!

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