Room for Imagination in Christianity?

Loving the Lord with all your imagination

Photo by Prettysleepy on Pixabay

As a child, I was always daydreaming. I spent most days privately being Princess Ozma or Hermione Granger or Eilonwy-Of-The-Red-Gold-Hair in my head, transforming the playground into a marvellous kingdom or my cheery classroom into a gloomy dungeon. I had imaginary friends (and even an imaginary daughter), and I made up stories about everything. I lay awake at night carefully filling in the next sequence in my running daydream, or mapping out fictional locations in my head, almost believing that if I did this carefully enough, I would wake up in the fantastical worlds I wanted to visit.

But although I was a religious child, I never daydreamed about Christianity. I remember once, perhaps after encountering some material suggesting I treat Jesus as a friend, faulting myself for spending more time with my imaginary daughter in our little overgrown cabin than I did with Jesus Christ (you’ve got to have priorities). So I resolved to bring Jesus along on one of my walks through the forest, treating him as if He were, in fact, an imaginary friend. I imagined him as a boy a little older than me, and his most discernible trait was correcting my moral lapses. You shouldn’t have cut that corner! That wasn’t a very charitable thought! Are you being humble enough right now?

At best, I’d personified my conscience; at worst, obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Definitely not the Risen Lord. Anyways, Jesus was pretty exhausting to hang out with, and felt much less solid than my usual imaginary companions to boot. I didn’t invite him on any more walks.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a particularly creative person — I struggle with originality and my mental workings tend to be pretty dry and repetitive. I’m more of a chronicler than an artist, in short. But I’ve always accessed the world through my imagination first.

If you’ll excuse a bit of pop psychology, I’m an ENFP, which means that my go-to device for interpreting reality is ‘extroverted intuition’ — possibilities, connections, potentials. The moment I’ve processed a fact, I’ve also processed what it reminds me of and what it could be, like vibrato drawing out the sonority of a note, zeroing in on the exact pitch. In the MBTI system, about an eighth of all people are like me; for others it’s slightly less valued, and for others it’s a definite weak point. With or without the theory, there are certainly people who are patently uncomfortable with any kind of flights of fancy, and others who indulge in them automatically.

But I never used my imagination with Christianity. And I think that this is one reason it never felt very present to me. Without melisma, it was hard to reach the true note.

Part of the reason, I suspect, was a fear of being wrong, of blasphemy. It can be dangerous to say even the simplest things about religion— somehow it seems that there’s always some amateur philosopher within earshot who happens to have the Summa Theologica memorized and can tell me ex-act-ly why I’m wrong and which ancient heresy I’ve fallen into by saying ‘made’ instead of ‘created’. Christianity is a religion about infinity, but often it feels like walking a tightrope just to get the philosophy right. It’s exhausting just to try to express a basic thought without blasphemy. How could I ever be sure enough of the ins and outs to be comfortable giving my mind free rein? Better to sit mentally still, to parse and repeat.

To some extent, I think this fear of blasphemy goes back to my childhood. I didn’t want to treat Jesus like an imaginary friend because Jesus wasn’t supposed to be imaginary. I didn’t want to invent stories because those stories might not have happened.

But I didn’t imagine anything. So I didn’t connect. When I read The Hobbit, I’d conjured an image of a hobbit-hole so clearly that I could have walked through it in the dark. When I heard a story about a woodcutter and his daughter who lived in the forest, I’d be able to find where they kept the linens. But when I heard that Gabriel visited Mary in her house — nothing. No image, no idea of a house, no idea of Mary. Just words. Part of the problem is certainly the cultural distance. I know what an 18th century European peasant’s cottage is supposed to look like, roughly, but not a 1st century Palestinian house. But even if I did, I’d know the specific house my brain conjured for me would be wrong. So I never really tried — never without supreme effort.

When I send a text, I imagine the recipient’s internal reaction, what they are doing as they get it, what they think to themselves. I imagine long dialogues between people I know, and the fact that these imagined conversations are my invention doesn’t bother me or make me feel like I’m taking something away from them. I know the difference between daydream and reality. I’m comfortable imagining scenes in the life of historical figures, and I do so without mental strain or a feeling of falseness, even knowing that my scenes are unlikely to correspond very closely with historical fact. So why don’t I do the same for Biblical figures?

Is it perhaps right that imagination should not come into contact with religion? Reading novels used to be forbidden on Sundays, drawing a firm line between fiction and holiness. Islamic art avoids any depictions of holy things, and is instead marked by stupendous geometric, floral designs. Some Protestant churches take ‘thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images’ to heart, and their buildings are left austere and bare.

But Catholicism has a long tradition of depicting Biblical figures, from paintings by Giotto and Raphael to Christmas pageants and Passion plays. We don’t consider our representations idols. They’re symbols, reminding us of these higher things.

But they’re illustrations, not fictions. Fictions probably run a greater risk of idolization because they involve ideas: it’s one thing to dress Biblical figures in modern clothes, but if you imagine Mary’s conversations with St. Anne, you will inevitably start to put some of your own preconceptions into the mouth of the Queen of Heaven. Her goodness becomes defined by your idea of goodness. To be fair, centuries of theological interpretation have the same effect, but at least the results are shaped by academic rigor and not whimsy or wishful thinking.

I don’t know if I never found Bible stories interesting because I never imagined them, or if I never imagined them because I never found them interesting. What exactly was I supposed to do with the tale of thirteen men walking around the desert; what was meant to feed my daydreams? And yet I never had trouble with the stories of the Knights of the Round Table, which shares many of the same themes. I pressed these stories close to my heart, catalogued names, let my mind roam free through the Forest Perilous and the halls of Camelot. When I visited Tintagel, it was something like a religious experience; I memorized every stone, I could have spent weeks on end exploring. But I suspect I wouldn’t feel anything at all if I went to the Mount of Olives.

King Arthur is, of course, pure folklore. The versions of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Thomas Malory, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Alexandre Astier, and your grandfather are all a little different. No one is afraid to use their imagination; there’s no wrong answer. Perhaps there was a real King Arthur, perhaps a scrappy Welsh chieftain or a sober continental Celtic general — he would be unlikely to recognize his life in stories of knights in chainmail, an unfaithful queen, damosels locked in enchanted towers, great green ogres, holy grails. But no one is trying to bring a real historical figure to life; no one fears wronging the memory of a real man. Indeed, every cycle of storytelling, despite factual variations, animates and deepens the mythical figure a little more, makes him a little realer, a little more present. The stories are all different and they’re all the same, like aspects of a god.

Why did King Arthur speak to my heart and not the Gospel story? I suspect there are a few reasons. The sense of romance and adventure is strong, the time and place is closer, the tropes more familiar, the feelings more relatable. But I also suspect that it is because one welcomed my imagination, and the other quietly forbad it.

It’s clear that we can’t treat Jesus Christ the same way as we do King Arthur. He isn’t meant to be folklore. I don’t add to his vitality by rewriting him. We’re meant to relive him.

But what about the rest? I think of the medieval hagiographers who included fantastical stories that were almost certainly the stuff of legend and not historical fact. What did Christianity feel like to an illiterate villager of the pious 14th century? Was there a marked separation between the Church and its narrative accoutrements and stories of fairies and old gods, King Lear and distant dog-headed men and other mysteries, or did they form part of the same beating imagination — was the tale of St. Lucy told with the same gasp of pleasure and horror and awe as the story of the babes in the woods or the Green Man, and riffed on the same way? That is, did religion pervade legend, and not just belief?

Or what about the Old Testament, some of which is explicitly fictional? As far as I know, Christianity doesn’t have a tradition similar to the Jewish Aggadah — rabbinic interpretative narratives that explore the Torah through folklore and symbols, which is the closest I can come to an example of devotional imagination.

There is of course intentionally Christian fiction — most effective, probably, are the books that explore Christian morality in entirely new context, like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia or the stunningly beautiful, outwardly pagan Till We Have Faces, stories about religious life like A Diary of a Country Priest, books pervaded with Christian themes like Crime and Punishment, even saint stories like The Song of Bernadette (actually by a Jewish writer). Of all the writers I can think of, G.K. Chesterton is the one who seems most aware of the need to inspire religious imagination; his short stories are theological and his non-fiction waxes poetical, daring the reader to see Christianity as romantic, as beautiful. I expect this accounts for his popular appeal. And this may be entirely a personal preference, but I find that his exhortations fall flat. It feels like he’s trying too hard; like he’s trying to do something that he only wishes can be done.

The moral of the story is that I don’t know. Is there room for imagination in Christianity — is it a human capacity that we neglect in the quest for God, a room left empty? Or is it a temptation better to avoid, lest it lead us into whimsy, wishy-washiness, inaccuracy, blasphemy? What do you think?

I wish I daydreamed about my religion; I wish I found myself thinking about it throughout the day, I wish it was part of the storytelling, narrative, imaginative part of my mind that’s always been my first filter for the world. Is your religion part of your daydreams? Part of your imagination? Where do you find it? What does it mean?

je suis souvent victime des colibris et je voudrais bien qu’on me considère en tant que tel

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