A feast day for C.S. Lewis? A feast day for Imagination?
Recently, Andrew Starton of Wheeling Jesuit University published an article praising C.S. Lewis as the patron of imagination. He lauds Lewis’ use of imagination as the pathway to “invit[ing] us into the complexity and mystery of human life in a way little else can.” One might ask, however, isn’t imagination really just for kids?
Now when I speak of imagination, I do not mean unicorns or imaginary friends or other fanciful creatures, though that is an element of imagination that cannot be simply brushed aside. Instead, I mean the ability of our hearts and minds to create images and stories that express truths greater than can be expressed in a philosophical essay.
I believe that imagination is more than a capacity of the human mind, but a necessity of the human heart. Imagination is a shield for the heart from the surrounding environment and practices that might turn it to stone. Imagination is not just a toy, a fanciful thing from the realm of children. It’s more powerful than that. It’s a living fire that tantalizes the human eye to see not only what is possible, but chases away the shadows of false horizons to propose to us that which is truly desired–to be fulfilled, to be loved, to be reunited, to be satisfied, to be holy.
Going deeper, I do not think that the opposite of imagination is reality. Far from it. The opposite of imagination is cynicism and boredom; they are influences that deny reality (cynicism) or escape it (boredom). They blind us to the beauty of human experience or lead us to distract ourselves with shallow, unsatisfying elements of it. We need strong words. We need strong images. We need our minds shaken from time to time, if not all the time, to keep us from drowning in the swamps of cynicism or boredom. And that’s what imagination does.
Having grown up with the stories of Narnia as a kid, and again discovering them anew as an adult, I am more and more touched by the role of imagination as part of my Christian life. I looked at imagination in an earlier article on Calvin and Hobbes. There, I pointed out that “an imagination charged by love retains its child-like ability to transform reality while not running from it.” I still believe that. But I have come to believe even more. Stay with me.
Though not from Lewis himself but from his friend J.R. Tolkein, I have felt the grace-ladeness of imagination in The Lord of the Rings. In it, we see Gandalf rescue Théoden a suffering king, from the shadows of despair, though Théoden continues to doubt his ability to lead his people. It is only later after those who had shown themselves to be leaders–the central protagonists: Boromir, Legolas, and Aragorn–leave the camp and Théoden leads his men courageously into battle that he comes to discover his true worth and can say with his dying breath, “I go to my fathers in whose mighty company I shall now not feel ashamed.”
Looking at my own life, I have often felt surrounded by dark clouds and have constantly been moved to doubt my thoughts or choices or actions. Yet, through the looking glass of imagination, I, with Théoden, grow from a manipulated monarch to a triumphant king. I see his final act of courage and honor and am inspired to say to myself, “That can be my story.” My life is not leading armies of men on horseback into war, but there are enough daily battles that challenge me to live a life worthy of “mighty company.”
It’s imagination’s ability to reach deep into all the facets of human experience–ecstasy, love, pain, sorrow, redemption–and present them to us, again. Imagination puts us on a pathway that leads away from the swamps and toward meadows and mountains and cities and adventures that are signals of hope. A failure to imagine is simply a failure to hope: in myself, in others, in God.
It is from imagination that four children can be transported to another world where they discover their inner nobility. It is from imagination that a young woman can conceive that she is more than a tribute, but can actually start a revolution that will change her post-apocalyptic world. It is from imagination that a man can walk the path of the Dark Side, but, in the moment when it counts, can choose the Light. It is from imagination that we see that God is a loving Father waiting for his son to return home. We do not create from imagination worlds too fantastic to believe. We create from imagination our own world today.
Why do we return to Disney movies or Star Wars, or pick up the Chronicles of Narnia or the Neverending Story? Because our hearts fall victim to amnesia. We have to be reminded over and over again that once we are a king or queen of Narnia, we are always a king or queen of Narnia. Or in my case, that I am a king discovering his self-worth.
We should have a feast day for C.S. Lewis, a feast for our imaginations. It will be a feast day for all men and women of the arts, all those who are brave enough to imagine and inspire us to imagine–and thus have hope.