A Conversion of the Imagination
With so much troubling stuff going on all around us, why
would we devote an issue of Response to C.S. Lewis
and the tales of Narnia? We might also ask why there is so
much hype and anticipation about the opening of Disney’s
production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?
Try Googling Narnia and you will find some 6 million pops.
Why is this wonder-filled work of the imagination so unbelievably
fascinating to our culture?
In a culture that prides itself on unblinking realism —
our daily look into the heart of all that is wrong and horrifying
— why is there such explosive interest in the realms
of story, mystery, and fantasy? Well, one answer might be
that we need to escape it all from time to time.
But there is something far more important going on here.
I think this deep fascination comes from a pretty profound
hunch that we cannot live meaningfully without the imagination.
A human culture that has lost its imagination has little sense
of overarching meaning, therefore little chance for hope,
ultimately little joy.
As we open that most incredible door of the wardrobe, whether
we are an innocent, curious child or a seasoned, skeptical
adult, we enter into dimensions of our lives and the world
that are in some ways more real than what we think is real.
We feel it. We know it.
In 1939, just as the Nazis had brutally invaded Poland, C.S.
Lewis preached a sermon at Oxford to a packed-out crowd of
students and faculty admitting that “we have to inquire
whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities
of the scholar in a world such as this.” Because of
Lewis’ intense interest in the imagination, both as
a literary scholar and ultimately a writer of tales, I have
to believe he was also asking whether there is any legitimate
place for fantasy and mystery and stories in those times when
fear settles over the civilized world.
The great 20th-century poet Robert Frost, at just about the
time of Lewis’ sermon, talked about poetry as the “stay
against confusion.” William Carlos Williams, another
early-20th-century American poet, says that “it is difficult
to get the news from poems,” yet people “die miserably
every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” The imagination
just may provide the real news in the news.
The Polish American poet Czeslaw Milosz, yet another great
20th-century defender of the imagination, talks about the
cost of exchanging “simplicity of the heart” to
be found in poems and stories for all of the sophisticated,
restless mocking so prevalent in elite culture. Milosz lived
through that bloody Nazi assault on his country and was forced
to endure the subsequent occupation by the Soviets. Through
it all he wrote poems. He was told by other intellectuals
that it was “an abomination to write lyric poetry after
Auschwitz.” It was an intellectual, moral, spiritual
What was it then that drove him to continue to write “idyllic
verses ... in the very center of what was taking place ...
and not by any means out of ignorance”?
Milosz stakes out a principle here. There is absolutely no
justification for escape. We must know and understand what’s
going on in the world. But if there is to be any hope in times
of great darkness and chaos and fear, the imagination must
stay active. The imagination must continue to tell stories,
must continue to tap into that deeper mystery, just beyond
the wardrobe door, where all of what we see and experience
in the world begins to make sense in profoundly new ways.
“Gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare
themselves for life,” says Milosz. “Evil grows
and bears fruit,” he continues, “which is understandable,
because it has logic and probability on its side and also,
of course, strength. The resistance of tiny kernels of good,
to which no one grants the power of causing far-reaching consequences,
is entirely mysterious. ... Such seeming nothingness not only
lasts but contains within itself enormous energy.”
We have bright banners flying all over the campus of Seattle
Pacific this fall asking a big and important question: Can
a university change the world? That’s the subject
of my writing and speaking these days. That’s the question
behind our 2014: A Blueprint for Excellence. And
in some ways I think it’s like asking can a child’s
tale change the world?
Two signature commitments have emerged for us at Seattle
Pacific in all of this rich conversation: We are declaring
that we will be a place that knows and understands what’s
going on in the world, and we will be a place that embraces
the Christian story. For me, something “entirely mysterious”
takes place when these two commitments engage, something,
as Milosz says, with “enormous energy,” some kind
of unanticipated power with “far-reaching consequences.”
And it is the special task of the imagination that can cause
this interface to happen. The New Testament scholar Richard
Hays calls it nothing less than a “conversion of the
imagination.” The remarkable thing that happens
is the imagining of good news right in the midst of the news.
When we tell the Christian story, in winsome and delightful
and surprising ways, the swirling, troubling confusion of
the stories of our world begin to have a bigger meaning. And
that’s a great mystery, full of power.
Can a university change the world? Absolutely. But somehow
the Narnia tales remind us that stories and mystery and the
imagination will be right at the heart of it all.
— BY Philip
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