“By indirections find directions out.”
Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 1
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies”
Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant”
This runs counter to contemporary thinking. We think that if we can dissect a thing and see it under a microscope, to wrestle it into submission, then we will find out its truth. But, it depends on the nature of the thing we are trying to understand.
Sometimes the best thing is to “stand under” a thing in order to understand it, rather than to stand over it and dominate it.
“He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise”
William Blake, “Eternity”
In the modern Evangelical mind, we have forgotten (at great loss to the sharing of the Gospel) an important skill: artistry.
It is revealed most starkly in our horrible books and films. It is revealed painfully in the trite, boring, off-putting drivel on the shelves of the “Christian Living” sections of our bookstores.
We bemoan the commercialism of the age and yet commercialize ourselves to death. Except our products, by comparison, are shoddy and uninspiring. They are the most basic, the simplest and least stimulating, saccharine, textbook material.
The world, so we reason, has turned from the Cross to Science, and we have thus repositioned ourselves to “fight fire with fire.” In so many cases, our own scientists are brought to the battle with well-reasoned, clinical, antiseptic, logical retorts. We should instead learn to fight fire with water. After all, no one believes our scientists anyway.
Or, if that were not bad enough, we give, as an alternative to our dull Science books, these schmaltzy, sorghum devotional books that smear the cracks like peanut butter for the soul. Meanwhile, we get fat, and happy.
There is no sense of the numinous. There is no adventure.
The Bible so many pretend to love is full of treason and betrayal and war and death and blessed salvation. Our art is full of melodrama and perfect endings.
We lack imagination. And this, while it sucks the saturation from our art into dull monotones, belies a deeper, more sinister problem.
In our endeavors to stand up our well-reasoned scientific apologists against the reasoners of the world, we have bought into a sorrowful lie: that reason and imagination are solo endeavors, running parallel paths that never meet and serve wholly separate functions.
Apologetics is usually defined as “a reasoned defense.” The scripture which is at the heart of apologetics speaks directly to this, “Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15 HCSB)
But reason can only operate if it is first supplied with materials to reason about. It is imagination’s task to supply those materials. Therefore, apologetics is foundationally an imaginative task. The same natural organ that feeds us something simple, like a purple unicorn, also gives us something complex, like empathy or the mechanism which forms letters on the page and binds the pages into books (which a few of us has ever seen, but we imagine how it works). Or what, when the indicator light on your car flashes on and off and on and off, it must mean. A faulty electrical connection? A signal that a turn is coming? Imagination feeds our reasoning brains and provides meaning to the flashing light and the moral dilemma.
And so, if imagination is the organ of meaning (and meaninglessness), then we can reason truth or falsehood. Before something can be true, it must mean. And that is the work of imagination. Meaning is the antecedent condition of truth and falsehood, and imagination supplies the raw materials for reason.
And woe, we have ignored the imagination. We have allowed it to atrophy because of a lack of faith.
We persevere to preserve the Gospel. But it doesn’t need us, except to the extent that God chooses to use us. And when we fail, the rocks will cry out. We ready ourselves for war, but hand over the most effective tool. We have given up on imagination.
God is full of meaning beyond our grasp and we cannot fit into our cold prose exactly what He means. We lack the imagination.
Christianity is meant to be understood as a story – a true, historical, personal, fantastic story – and not merely cold doctrine. In order to “save” Christianity, we start with cold doctrine and try to squeeze out a story. That’s not at all how this works!
We are so afraid of being misunderstood or espousing something doctrinally incorrect that we sap our stories of the nonsensical, and thus the reality.
After all, the real story of Christ’s birth is fantastic and unexplainable and that is what makes it real. We have no sense of the presence of the transcendent (yes, that is a paradox) and thus we are either too mired in the vulgar or too distant in the logical.
The miracle of Christ is that the logos intersected with the vulgar. Find that in our modern Christian art!
“I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.”
William Wordsworth, “The World is Too Much with Us”
Did you ever consider that we have made the Gospel boring? Have we analyein – analyzed – and loosened it into mere doctrine?
For sure, we underscore that doctrine with a kind of popular subculture full of pithy mockeries of the real world. We are isolationist; we hide in the bright shadows of this subculture and pretend it is fun. It is pleasant, but it isn’t fun.
Many a sermon has rigored against “religion” in favor of relationship. But what is relationship without religion? Without the central figure of Christ to religare – to re-ligature – and tie us back together? We have done much loosening. We need to be sewn back together tightly with the thread of ages.
And what of the imagination of the pagan world that captures our attentions and hearts? What do we make of it?
How many atheists howl at the pagan roots of Christmas? Of Easter? How many pagan gods die and resurrect?
How many Christians, having coldly analyzed the Logos, sleep in fear that it is yet another myth? Merely an amalgam of the myths that went before and now, at the fulcrum of history, cast into a golden calf for ages hence?
They lack imagination.
What a surprise it may come to atheists and believers that the atheist is more practical than he believed, and the Christian more imaginative. After all, the atheist purports to not believe in a supreme objective moral standard which exists outside of us, yet he acts much as if there is. And the Christian is often charged with lacking the imagination to see that his beliefs are the practical result of his parentage, yet it is his imagination that has developed his reason for faith.
The apostle Paul shows us what to make of these fractured lights of pagan mythology and sets the record straight. He gives us the freedom from the dubious place of “protecting the Gospel” and also from the fear of loosing bad doctrine.
In paganism, God expresses himself in an unfocused way through man’s imagination. It was God’s direct expression of Himself in His true myth that brought meaning to man’s dim visions.
When Epimenides wrote of Zeus, he saw through a mirror darkly:
“They fashioned a tomb for thee [O Zeus], O holy and high one-
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.”
And dear Paul, breathing new life into this worn old myth of men, imagined a God who might once have been misunderstood by pagan prophets, but now could be known:
“He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’”
Acts 17:27-28 HCSB
And, of Zeus, Aratus wrote:
“From Zeus let us begin; him do we mortals never leave unnamed; full of Zeus are all the streets and all the market-places of men; full is the sea and the havens thereof; always we all have need of Zeus. For we are also his offspring; and he in his kindness unto men giveth favourable signs and wakeneth the people to work, reminding them of livelihood. He tells what time the soil is best for the labour of the ox and for the mattock, and what time the seasons are favourable both for the planting of trees and for casting all manner of seeds. For himself it was who set the signs in heaven, and marked out the constellations, and for the year devised what stars chiefly should give to men right signs of the seasons, to the end that all things might grow unfailingly. Wherefore him do men ever worship first and last.”
Does this scare you? Does it shake the foundations of your well-reasoned faith?
It shouldn’t. It should, instead, teach you how to tell the world how God, in the fullness of time, revealed the truth, once just a whisper, now on the lips of the Heavenly Host, bathed in glory.
That Tantalusian fruit, strained to touch, has been revealed.
That is Christmas.
That is Christmas.
That is now.
“…Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…By His own choice, He gave us a new birth by the message of truth so that we would be the firstfruits of His creatures.”
James 1:17-18 HCSB
All light. Even the fractured light. It all points to God’s revealed truth in Christ.
This is the power of imagination. It is not as cold and heartless as the doctrine that it bears. God loves us in the fullness and richness of stories, and it was that child’s birth that flipped the world on its head and gave us a God in a child, who would, like the old stories, die and rise again.
But this time it’s true.
Unlike the old gods of men, He came to serve and to teach us to serve; to be last, and to teach us to be last; to be humble, even to be misunderstood. And yet, as frail and weak and misunderstood is the Written Word of God, so was the Living Word of God, and still He cannot be conquered.
This is Christmas.
This is Christmas.
This is Christmas.