Anticipating The Right-Side-Up World Through Imagination

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An old man kneels by a fire, telling imaginative tales to eager children. They hang on his every word, transported from their world to another. Their world is beautiful, but broken. He speaks into their hearts words that string together to form new worlds, anticipating the one which will surely come. These are the seeds of the unseen world.

N.T. Wright, in a lecture on the impact of the Resurrection of Jesus, has said this:

“Art is love creating new worlds; justice is love rolling up its sleeves to heal the old one.”

This is the hope of the artist with holy imagination. To work, and by her work, to serve. To plant a seed that may, in time, grow into a new world. A world that reflects, with eager anticipation, the bursting resurrection of the life to come.

Is our art truthful? I don’t mean ‘Is it a vehicle to carry truthful sayings?’ But is it truthful? J.R.R. Tolkien famously described The Lord of the Rings as a true story. But how can it be true? It didn’t really happen. Tolkien argued that it need not have happened to be true. The parable of the prodigal son almost certainly didn’t happen, but it is nonetheless true. Penetrating and true.

Likewise, the Prophet Nathan’s tale to the adulterer, King David, is a true one. It was not something that happened, but it first moved David to anger by it’s power, then entirely undid him in its climax. “You are that man.”

Are our tales true? This need not mean they will be safe and never bother us. This is not a call to create more bright and shiny “Christian” shlock. The world is broken, so our tales must deal with this. There is darkness to be contrasted against. But there is an important point to be made about reveling in the gritty, depraved, and horrific. I’ll try to make it this way.

There is goodness in, having discovered that your beloved wife’s wedding ring is lost in the septic tank, digging through it to find your treasure. On the other hand, going for a swim in the septic tank because it’s so “real” and “edgy,” would constitute a sort of perversion. A delight in wickedness. Both men swam in the septic tank, but their stories are different.

No. We need not bathe in excrement for delight. We need construction, not elaborate and artful celebrations of destruction. But you will say we must be honest about the fallen world. Yes, I agree. We need to depict and represent the destructive, broken, wounded world as it is. But let us wince at it.

Rebellion is the story of our era and the sad, selfish theme of so much art. To celebrate rebellion is to cheer on cancer, to send money to human traffickers, to inspire racism. Christians—and this includes Christians in the arts, even with electric guitars—are, by definition, submissive followers of King Jesus. How do we rebel against rebellion?

“Construction is the best way to rebel against the established rebellion.”
Zach Franzen

We must construct. There are people constructing and many more who would love to. Do you feel called to construction? Maybe you feel called to support people who have their hard hats on and are going to work. That’s good. Do it.

Children see everywhere an upside-down world. Holy imagination is a crucial capacity to help them see it right-side-up. To help them appreciate the wonder and magic of the world that is and anticipate the almost entirely unimaginable glory of the world as it shall be.

Sometimes artful work can be that window into wonder, that little seed of unseen worlds.

Let’s warm our hands and start building.

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This post first appeared at Story Warren. Image by Gina G. Smith.


13 Comments

  1. Josh Bishop

    Thanks for this, S.D. Good stuff. We so often need to be reminded that a truthful story is not “a vehicle to carry truthful sayings,” don’t we? Yesterday I read an essay, “In Praise of Stories,” by Daniel Taylor. In it, he writes of the incarnational truth of stories:

    “A composer once played a very difficult piano piece and was asked what it meant. His answer was to sit down and play the piece again. Similarly, stories are incarnational. They say to us, ‘Do you want to know what love is, or courage or greed or petulance or laughter or compassion. Let me tell you a story.’ And the truth of that story will be found in every sentence, but in no one sentence by itself.”

    Incarnational, rather than propositional, truth. This is the beauty of stories—and of Christ.

  2. Lindsey Murphy

    I love this- as the mother of little ones who see monkeys waving to them in the trees at the park and hear bears and dragons in parking garages, this is music to my heart. I’ve wondered what to do with our cultural obsession with darkness- without denying that it’s part of life. I love the septic tank metaphor. It’s necessary and at times heroic to deal in such things, but not to revel in them. Wonderful thoughts!

  3. Dan

    For more musing on this, read Tim O’Brien’s TERRIFFIC novel “The Things They Carried.” In it, he argues that “story-truth” is truer than “happening-truth.” I was just paging through the book trying to pick another quote to add here, but there are simply too many…it’s a beautiful book.

  4. Renie Moss

    You put into words so beautifully what I have painfully grappled with for several years now as a mother, wife, just as a human being. How to sow beauty and imagination into a broken world to show hope for the future? How to show and encourage in our little boy hope and joy in the face of a potentially life threatening illness? How to be real, honest, but show that we are set apart, different, chosen, and in that there is such grace joy?

    Thank you for the encouragement to surround myself and my family with intentional living to seek out ways to wince at the brokenness in the world and in our own souls, and to focus our lives and hearts on holy imagination of what is promised to us.

  5. Jaclyn

    Thank you! Ever since I graduated from a secular liberal arts college, and was struck between the eyes by my Maker, I’ve been struggling to rediscover my identity as an artist. You cup the light of Truth here beautifully, and you make me want to get my hands busy making something.

  6. Holly

    Thank you for that encouragement to grow those artful seeds as we work towards that right-side-up world

  7. Profile photo of S. D. Smith

    S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Anjew Pooterson (my 3yo son’s pronunciation): I’m happy to hear that. Thank you.

    Josh Bishop: I love that. Dan Taylor has been a guide for which I am very grateful. Thank you.

    Russ: Thank you, brother.

    Lindsey: Thanks. I like how your kids see. I’m working through that dilemma all the time. I know people disagree on level of toxicity one should expose oneself to (and no one wants to be the prude), but I find constant exposure to grotesque violence etc. has a deadening impact on my soul.

    Dan: Thanks for the recommendation.

    Caleb: Thanks. I speak of that which I know. Note: It’s tough to manage a septic tank on land with rock just below the grass. 🙂

    Renie: I appreciate you saying that and I’m glad to hear about others struggling to see through the dim gloom to the bright horizon.

    Bonnie: Great. Thank you.

    Jaclyn: Thank you. That’s pretty exciting. God bless you in your work.

    Holly: God bless you as you do. Thanks!

  8. Peter B

    Thank you yet again, sir.

    “Construction is the best way to rebel against the established rebellion.”
    How appropriate that this was posted on a Thursday.

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