The Christian Imagination and Imaginal

A while back, Joseph Hutchison posted a blog explaining the Imaginal. I’ve been meaning to add my thoughts to the discussion for quite some time, but February is a black hole for me–whether it’s blogging, writing, teaching, relating, whatever. I come through it every year, and this year the black hole stretched me into March, thanks to state-required standardized testing. Regardless, my blogging sabbatical is over. Happy New Year!

The Christian Imagination CoverSeveral years ago, my father-in-law gave me a book titled The Christian Imagination. This book is a collection of essays on Christianity and literature by a variety of writers and authors (C.S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, Donald T Williams, T.S. Eliot, Luci Shaw, Jeanne Murray Walker, Denise Levertov, Flannery O’Connor, G.K. Chesteron, and J.R.R. Tolkien to name a few). While many of the articles challenge Christians to view literature, writing, and art outside of the stereotypical Christian view, there are some entries (and an entire section) devoted to creativity. Traditionally, imagination has been used to describe creativity and the process of “making something up.” But creativity isn’t always just making something up, especially when writing a poem about a dream or some other sensation that seems to have taken place outside of our (5) sensory perceptions.

In his essay “Mundus Imaginalis“, Henry Corbin uses the word imaginal to describe a world outside of our five senses, and outside our physical bodies, a world to which every human is connected. While I completely disagree with Corbin’s use of the imaginal in terms of salvation, it’s a good word to create a common ground for discussion. Some might ask why not just say physical and spiritual. Well, labeling something as spiritual is dangerous business these days. There are prominent contemporary thinkers that view anything outside of our sensory realm to be superstitious, ridiculous, and unnecessary. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those that see spiritual as nothing but a place where angels and demons are always fighting, where Satan and Christ are at war, were God is ruling from his throne in heaven. This idea comes from Ephesians 6:12, where the Apostle Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (NIV). Anyone identifying his/her entire view of the spiritual world from this verse is guilty of taking Paul’s thought way out of context. He’s writing about living a Godly life and instructing how to go about accomplishing that. Neither one of these viewpoints really deals with the human ability to create. All of that to say that many people (most?) see a disconnect between the physical and the spiritual, that the two are not related (or that one doesn’t even exist).  So when discussing creativity, I do believe there is a collision between the spiritual and the physical, regardless of spirituality (another potential misnomer), and a good way to describe that collision is to use the word imaginal. The artist’s job then is to find a way to make that “spiritual” or “unseen” world/experience/perception concrete. And many Christian artists fail miserably at this.

There are several themes found throughout The Christian Imagination that, when considered, impact the artist’s ability to communicate the imaginal:

  1. God created, and we are made in God’s image. Therefore, creating art (literary, musical, visual, dance, etc.) is a natural response to existence. Christians then should be responsible for creating the best art on the planet. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, but it remains a point of aspiration.
  2. As humans, we have the unique ability to create something from nothing. Some would argue that it’s impossible to create something from nothing (see scientists and energy) but is it really creating if it already exists? (I could go on a rant about Christian artists simply copying the greater (as in popular or larger, not better or more important), secular culture around them instead of bringing their own tea to the party, but this aside should probably suffice).
  3. There should be joy in both creating and reading literature.
  4. Christians have reduced literature to moral instruction. Now, even Aristotle believed that stories (for him, drama) should educate, but when you look merely at lessons and ignore the experience, you’ve already put the literature in a box. I think this may be one reason why Christian educators are looked upon so negatively in academia because there becomes so much focus on right and wrong that the actual story becomes lost.
  5. The Bible is an excellent example of creative literature because it has stories, poems, and dreams.
  6. Writers take great care in creating, revising, and revising. Too many Christian products need more time invested in polishing. (The Shack is a great example of this–an awesome story that presents great talking points on the character of God, but some simple editing and rewriting would grow the artistry of the novel by leaps and bounds)

These ideas impact the imaginal because the poet (artists in general, actually) should be paying attention to the details. This includes impressions and perceptions we have while reading, watching people at the zoo, taking a hike, watching a movie, dreaming, studying, meditating, and conversing.  Popular Christian art (in my mind) fails to address so many of these details. In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer writes, “The experiential heart-theology of a grand army of fragrant saints is rejected in favor of a smug interpretation of Scripture.” I wonder if Christians are treating art the same way they (we?) treat people–the answer is Jesus and I see it so only you need to see and then everything will be better. What other response should we expect than a sarcastic, “Hmm, yes, please let me join you in your heartless consumption of rat poison.”

I don’t know why Christian culture is so afraid of the imagination, the imaginal, and originality. I believe Paul when he writes that Christ casts off the old and creates a new in the process of salvation. So in that newness, why aren’t we Christians making our lives appealing and flavorful to the world around us? One major reason is a faltering theology that the Christian journey ends at the cross. Towzer writes, “How tragic that we in this dark day have had our seeking done for us by our teachers. Everything is made to center upon the initial act of ‘accepting’ Christ . . . and we are not expected thereafter to crave any further revelation of God to our souls.” While Tozer is discussing the heart of Christianity, I think this applies to creativity as well. Salvation, that moment where you believe that Christ died for your sins and resurrected in order to grant you forgiveness and the gift of grace, is only the beginning of the Christian journey. If you can stomach it, listen to the local Christian music radio station for 30 minutes, and I would bet that 95% of the songs are about the cross or a new life or happiness or God-makes-it-all-better-ness. What about that personal journey? What about that sense of doubt nobody wants to talk about for fear of being labeled…well…a doubter? What about telling stories that make readers think rather than spoon-feeding religion jargon? What about dealing with those dreams, however disturbing or creepy?

Maybe to answer my own question, too many people may find, for lack of a better term, mystery. Maybe they don’t know what they’ll find, and that’s dreadfully scary. Maybe too many Christians want answers, or want to provide the answer instead of pursuing God with reckless, humble abandon.

There is a distinct difference between imagination (making something up or creative decisions) and the imaginal (perceiving something not quite explainable), but both are important for the artist to remember. In fact, I view my pursuit of artistic excellence as a parallel to my pursuit of God–there’s always something more to learn, to discover, to realize, to mystify, to make, to reveal, to experience.


2 thoughts on “The Christian Imagination and Imaginal

  1. What a thoughtful piece, Joel! I feel flattered to find my name mentioned in it, but feel I don’t have much to say about the core of it, any more than I had to say about Corbin’s view of Islamic revelation. I do wonder about your ex nihilo notion as a realistic account of poetic creation. All poetry occurs in a received language governed by rules the poet can bend, occasionally break–but not annihilate. There’s no going back to the singularity! However it all began we’re in the midst of it now, and creation (for me, at least) is like (ahem) evolution: recombinations, conscious and unconscious, planned and accidental, that produce incremental gains–in form, in awareness, maybe even in consciousness itself.

  2. I can’t help but to think of Ecclesiastes–there’s nothing new under the sun. I agree that within creativity there exists recombinations, but I think that’s only part of it. I think the poet needs to leave his/her fingerprint on the recombination–add a new voice to the choir. Somehow, I think the greatest art comes from those who find a way to honor the traditions of their field, but find a way to make it new (and honor doesn’t have to mean redo, regurgitate, drag out, etc). I can’t help but wonder about those accidental discoveries. I look back to things I’ve written and say, “How did I come up with that?” Or in the revision process, I realize something that’s there that I never thought of, attempted, or even knew I was capable of creating. (Hello imaginal in full effect). Sometimes, I think they truly are accidental. But how many of those accidents are the enactment of our ability to make something from nothing?

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