In Jesus’s final words to his followers, he commanded them to “make disciples of all nations.”[1] This imperative extends to all his followers until his return. Throughout the centuries, we can see those who witnessed through a variety of styles: Paul used logic and persuasion, Peter used fiery conviction, and Dorcas showed the love of Christ through caring for those in need. However, many have followed the example of the Master himself using stories and illustrations to open the minds of the unbelieving and to awaken in them a yearning for the Kingdom of God. It is this final method in which literary apologetics takes its place and spreads the reach of God’s Good News.

As William Lane Craig notes in his comprehensive book on apologetics, Reasonable Faith, “Apologetics (from the Greek apologia: a defense) is that branch of Christian theology which seeks to provide a rational justification for the truth claims of the Christian faith.”[2] However, just as the Christian faith goes beyond the mind and reason and demands a submission of the whole self: mind, body, and soul; so must apologetics engage more than simply the mind.[3] In Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, Holly Ordway advocates for a more fully “integrated approach,” one which engages the hearer and urges them to “come and see” for themselves.[4] It is in this engagement where literary apologetics shines. As Jesus demonstrated with his parables, a good story by a master storyteller seldom fails to gather interest.

An apologetic work is not defined by its overt “Christianness.” It does not depend on espousing established doctrine or incorporating theological terms; in the same way, there are no overt religious overtones in Jesus’s parables about Samaritans, shepherds, and seeds. However, the parables spoke to crowds and were recounted by Jesus’s disciples because, as George MacDonald explains when describing the value of good stories, they serve not “so much to convey a meaning as to wake a meaning.”[5] Literature on any topic can serve an apologetic purpose as long as it reveals truth, goodness, and beauty.[6]

However, literature is more suited to engaging the imagination than either lectures or logic because, unlike other methods of evangelism which only engage the intellect, literature engages the imagination. Unlike logic or lectures, literature tells stories which can touch the heart in a more profound and impactful way. It is this engagement with imagination that is the true power in literary works. Literature engages the imagination by not only exploring the known facts, but also prompting the exploration of the unknown.[7] It is this faculty, the imagination, reaching towards and receiving the unknown that is essential to true Christian faith.

What is Imagination?

Before exploring the role imagination plays in nurturing the Christian faith, we must first examine imagination itself. Macdonald describes imagination as an “imaging or a making of likenesses. The imagination is that faculty which gives form to thought—not necessarily uttered form, but form capable of being uttered in shape.[8] What is more, imagination is “revelations of thought,” and a good imagination is the “presence of the spirit of God,” the end of which is harmony.[9] [10] If something is revealed, it is something that comes from outside of oneself. MacDonald argues that just as man came from the imagination of God, man’s imagination itself is derivative of God’s imagination.[11] [12] J.R.R. Tolkien agreed with this sentiment and added that art is “the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation” and that man is, as God’s ‘Imager’, “Subcreator, the refracted Light.”[13] [14] Although fallen, “Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed. / Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned, / and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned.”[15] A bad imagination is a corruption of that which was once good, an abandoning of God’s law.[16]

If wise imagination is the revelation of God’s thoughts about and towards man, it follows that imagination is one of the primary ways God speaks to man. Our physical bodies are overwhelmed by the world immediately surrounding us. The soul is in bondage to the corrupted world. But the spirit still speaks and the imagination is the language of the spirit. It is, as MacDonald states, “the duty of the imagination to understand God.”[17] To know God, we must have an imagination to receive Him.

Imagination is the language of the spirit

Necessary Beliefs of Christianity

However, it is not enough to simply know God or know about Him. The Christian faith requires not only an acknowledgement of God, but the belief in several very specific things. One of the most succinct statements of the Christian faith is found in Romans 10:9 “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved.” This is a simple formula, yet one that requires belief in several elements that stretch the human imagination: the belief in an all powerful God, that this God came as the man Jesus, and that death was defeated in the resurrection of Christ. Returning the dead back to life is humanly impossible. In order to believe this, one must believe in a God who both could and would do such a thing. This requires imagination.

Believing in the Unseen

The revelation of a God who is willing and able to intervene in the affairs of man is a story He has told since creation, in fact within Creation itself. As G.K. Chesterton muses in Orthodoxy, the very spectacularness of the world, the intense specificness of nature, indicates One who has an intense interest. To Chesterton, this revelation was magical, and what is more, he came to feel as if “magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have someone to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.”[18] MacDonald expresses the same sentiment in a slightly different way saying, “All the processes of the ages are God’s science; all the flow of history is his poetry.”[19] In Nature, we see the stage of God’s story on full display. It is His apologetic work, an inspiration to imagine One whose glory Creation reflects. All of this points to One beyond our world, One unseen yet present. As Tolkien notes, “the human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present.”[20] Nature is part of God’s setting with man as the main character in His story told throughout history.

Discovering the Nature of God

Literary apologetics can aid in facilitating the reader’s understanding of God by highlighting aspects of God’s character. If God is love, what does true love look like? If God is good, how do we recognize what goodness is?[21] What makes a good story? Do people want to read about oppressors oppressing and the corrupt continuing to go free? Who wants to read that sort of story? We see that going on around us every day; it is the natural way of things. We want heroes who fight evil, withstand adversity, and help those in need. The enduring stories throughout culture are those where truth wins, the meek inherit the earth, and the impossible becomes possible. We desire these stories because they are reflections of the overarching story of the Original Author. The “unexpected end” is a recurring characteristic in God’s story. Tolkien describes stories where the unexpected occurs as a eucatastrophe, a “good catastrophe” or a “sudden and joyous turn.”[22] It is these sorts of stories that train the mind and imagination to recognize and believe in a loving, just, and victorious God, the “I AM” of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Paul.

The course of events in human history is, as Louis Markos explains in his work Achilles to Christ, a “sacred story.”[23] There is a plan and a purpose through history which points to a Purposer. Not only does God reveal Himself and his own plan and purpose through the story of human history, but He sends confirmation of that purpose through the imagination of man taking the form of what C. S. Lewis calls the “good dreams” of the pagan.[24] God invades enemy territory, connecting with Man through the imagination by inspiring stories throughout cultures of a dying and rising god, who through his death makes things right. These imaginative stories prepared the way for the Gentile to recognize the Redeemer that had come.

Recognizing the Need for a Savior

Christ has come. The Deliverer is here. Most in today’s culture have heard about Christ; however, many do not understand why they need him. One of the most effective uses of literature as an apologetic engagement of the imagination is Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. The doctrine of atonement has been vigorously debated for two millennia. Councils have given decrees and churches have split over explanations on precisely how atonement works. Lewis clothes the logic of the Atonement in a story and speaks directly to the imagination through his world of Narnia with Aslan, a Christ-like character who offers himself in place of the transgressor. The story is easy to understand: a wrong has been done, a price must be paid, and Love pays the price. We may not understand exactly how substitutionary atonement works, just as most of us do not understand exactly how a combustion engine operates; however, just as we can recognize the operation of that combustion engine every time we drive a car, so we can recognize the operation of substitutionary atonement in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Our imagination allows us to accept in faith that it works even though our intellect cannot explain how it does.

Believing in the Impossible

The other element required by the Christian faith is the ability to believe an event that is impossible through solely natural means. This is often a struggle for those indoctrinated by the dictators of naturalism who would say there is nothing more to see and nothing more that can be known other than what is right in front of us. Chesterton might conclude that the willingly blind were not read enough fairy tales as children to have such a rigid and unaccommodating worldview. The fact that we are who we are in the place where we are at should be evidence to the most hardened skeptic that the impossible and the unexpected can, and does at times, happen. We, humans in particular and the world in general, do not have to be at all. That there is one man is surprising, what Man is as a whole, even more. That we are should be “more vivid to us than any marvel of power, intellect, art or civilization.”[25] When we consider the oddness of human existence, it should be less odd that one particular person rose from the dead.

To believe these things, the unseen God, the God come as man, and the resurrection, we must have the ability to imagine that it might be possible. There is a difference between what is logically impossible and what happens consistently. Improbable is not impossible. However, if we have no stories of the improbable and fantastic to grow and develop our imagination, it may be hard to conceive. Here enters the benefit of story, the “laws of fairyland” as Chesterton calls it, where any number of improbable things may happen and do.[26] Stories where the fantastic occurs build a case for the impossible. Each story paints a picture and prompts the question, “What would happen if . . .?” It instructs and trains the faculty of vision for those who have none. It sparks a train of thought that perhaps what we think we know is not what is, that there is more to the world around us than what we immediately see. “The vision is always a fact,” Chesterton warns; “It is the reality that is often a fraud.”[27] It is this ability to see and imagine beyond that allows us to imagine and look to the unseen. Apologetic literature can build a case for God.

What is Faith?

While the resurrection is the single event upon which all of Christianity stands, faith is the single act on the part of the believer upon which peace with God depends. We receive the grace of God through our faith in the work of Christ on the cross. From the beginning of God’s interaction with man, it has been faith that has made one righteous. Abel, through faith, brought an offering that pleased God.[28] Abraham believed God, and his faith was counted as righteousness.[29] It is impossible to please God without faith.[30] We must have faith, but what is it and how is it developed?

The writer of Hebrews defines the nature of faith in the first verse of the faith chapter, Hebrews 11, “For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”[31] Faith is believing that the unseen is and that the impossible can happen. We have to have the capacity for faith before we can actually have faith.  If we are not able to imagine anything outside of our own reality and conceive of what is unseen and that the naturally impossible can happen, we cannot have faith in the unseen God who performs what is humanly impossible.

As previously noted, MacDonald believed that imagination does not create meaning, but it is waking to meaning.  It is as if a man sits in a garden, completely insensate.  He cannot see, hear, taste, touch, or smell and is ignorant to the paradise surrounding him.  But suddenly, there is a faint whiff of something.  It is a smell of sweetness, a fragrance never before experienced.  As he sits and enjoys, he begins to wonder “What can this be?  From where does this come?”  His mind engaged, he begins to mentally explore the possibilities, attuned to other experiences that might come his way.  He continues to wait for the fragrance to come again, then there is something new, a slight breeze rustles his hair, and comprehension begins to dawn that there is more around him than he previously realized.  His atrophied senses begin to revive to their purpose so long neglected. This awakening of physical senses is comparable to the growth of imagination, which MacDonald describes in this way: “Perceiving truth half hidden and half revealed in the slow and stammering tongue of men who have gone before them, they have taken up the unfinished form and completed it; they have, as it were, rescued the soul of meaning from its prison of uniformed crudity.”[32] MacDonald’s description of imagination parallels the examples of the faithful in Hebrews. They could not see the end, but they believed. They could imagine that God would do what He said and put their trust, their faith, in that word.

We live in a darkened and corrupt world, one with only a remnant of the memory of what we once were. To have the hope that things can be otherwise, that someday “Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know” requires an imagination capable of grounding that hope.[33] Literature with tales of transformation and redemption and accounts of prevailing against “impossible” odds builds a case for faith.

Partnering with God Through Literary Apologetics

We see the supernatural around us every day. The Holy Spirit is ever present, waiting for both an opportunity and a welcome to intervene in our lives. However, we often miss the opportunity to see the works of God that are already happening in our midst because our minds are not prepared to receive it. After his triumphal entry, Jesus foretold of his coming death and questioned if he should ask God to save him from his upcoming trial. A voice from heaven spoke saying, “I have already brought glory to my name, and I will do so again.” People in the crowd heard differently. Some thought it was thunder, while others heard the voice and thought it was an angel who spoke.[34] Each person was present for the same event. Why was their perception so different? Some heard the confirmation from God Himself regarding the identity of Jesus, while others were so closed to the possibility of anything more, anything beyond, that their senses turned this extraordinary event into the most mundane. God spoke directly to them and they missed it. Their imagination had not prepared their eyes to see nor their ears to hear.

One must have an understanding of rightness and goodness, what Lewis refers to as “the Tao” in The Abolition of Man, before one can understand its Author. Before there is a yearning for God and a seeking of His face, there is a yearning for what is not but what yet should be. Lewis describes this Tao as:

It is Nature. It is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.[35]

It is this “great exemplar” towards which literary works can point. In Restoring Beauty, Markos explores the ways that literature and other imaginative works develop or destroy. Markos uses the Ransom Trilogy of Lewis as an example of a literary work that inspires the ascent of the soul, pointing out that in each book the protagonist grows “slowly toward the good, the true, and the beautiful, while the antagonists move increasingly away from all good, all truth, and all beauty.”[36] As the reader identifies with the protagonist, he wages the same mental war along with him on which path to choose: good or evil, illusion or reality, “bent” or straight. The reader may make bad choices in his own life on a regular basis; however, literature that is a “good companion” can suggest an alternate route.[37]   It can give the reader the idea of what it would be like to choose well. If actions begin with a thought, the directed thoughts within apologetic literature can point the reader towards choosing a new path.

Conclusion

We live in a fallen world with a barrage of forces and influences that seek to obscure God. However, each individual has been given the faculty of imagination. The imagination is God’s “back channel” for communication and is necessary to understand and know God. We must have an imagination to believe in the unseen and that the naturally impossible does at times happen. We live in a world that needs to know the God who cares, the One who is there through every circumstance. If people are not prepared to see Him yet, they need stories that can help get them there.

Prophecy is nothing except a spoiler of God’s story, a sneak preview of what is coming down the road, and God’s first apologetic act was his prophecy to Eve that her disgrace was not the end of the story. Although she was the door through which disaster came, not only would justice win but she would be the door through which redemption would come.[38] God told her, “Don’t give up hope. This story isn’t over yet.” The message from the beginning is the same message for today. It is one that needs to continue to be retold. The story is not over. Redemption is waiting to be had. There is hope. Literary “subcreators” who create those “best companions” point a person along the path to God.[39]

  • Buy An Unexpected Journal

    Subscribe

    This work is part of Imagination (Spring 2019). The issue is available in both print and digital format (Kindle, Nook, and epub.)

    You can purchase your own copy of this edition at your favorite online retailer, or subscribe to An Unexpected Journal and save.


Citation Information

C.M. Alvarez. “Imagination and Its Role in Faith.” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 1. (Spring 2019): 9-26.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/the-imagination-and-its-role-in-faith/


Endnotes

[1] Matthew 28:18

[2] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd Edition. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008) 15.

[3] Mark 12:29-30 NASB quoting Deuteronomy 6:5: “Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord;  and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’”

[4] Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2017) 5.

[5] George Macdonald, A Dish of Orts, Chiefly Papers on the Imagination, and on Shakspere (New York, NY: Forgotten Books, 2012) 192.

[6] Ibid., 191.

“Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman, that puts the pieces of them together.”

[7] MacDonald, 9.

“And the heart must open the door to the understanding. It is the far-seeing imagination which beholds what might be a form of things, and says to the intellect: “Try whether that may not be the form of these things.”

[8] Ibid., 20.`

[9] Ibid., 14.

[10] Ibid., 20,.

[11] Ibid., 20,.

[12] Ibid., 4.

““Everything of man must have been of God first; and it will help much towards our understanding of the imagination and its functions in man if we first succeed in regarding aright the imagination of God, in which the imagination of man lives and moves and has its being.”

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14] J.R.R. Tolkien, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories, ed. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson, UK edition. (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2014). 65.

[15] Ibid.

[16] MacDonald, 191.

“The mind of man is the product of live Law.”

[17] Ibid., 9.

[18] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Image Books (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001). 63.

[19] Macdonald. 4.

[20] Tolkien. 59.

[21] Psalm 136:1 NIV “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his love endures forever.”

[22] Tolkien, 75.

[23] Louis Markos, From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2007). 259.

[24] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1952). 50.

[25] Chesterton. 43.

[26] Chesterton, 48.

“There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.”

[27] Ibid., 43.

[28] Hebrews 11:4.

[29] Genesis 15:6

[30] Hebrews 11:6

[31] Hebrews 11:1. KJV.

[32] Macdonald. 16.

[33] Tolkien. 79.

[34]30 John 12:27-29.

[35] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001). 18.

[36] Louis Markos, Restoring Beauty: The Good, The True, and The Beautiful in the Writings of C.S. Lewis (Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica Publishing, 2010). 15.

[37] MacDonald, 26.

[38] Genesis 3:15 NASB

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

The “enmity” is sometimes simplified as a dislike or fear of snakes. However, this word foretells of the particular focus of Satan on the destruction of women. This is the true root of all misogyny. It is the continual revenge for the woman’s role in Christ’s victory.

English translations give this verse as more of a back and forth between the seed of the woman (Christ) and Satan. However, the Septuagint gives it a slightly different gloss. There is a sense of utter victory, one where we might say, “He will step on your head and all you will see is his heel as he grinds you into the dust.”

[39] MacDonald, 26.

Spread the love
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •  
  •   
  •  
  •