Imagination (King, Kingdom, and Kingdom People Series #7)

The first three areas (“Formation vs. Information,” “The Value of History,” and “The Good, the True, and the Beautiful”) discussed foundational aspects of education and the approach of the educator. We must focus on formation in addition to information, we should utilize history and the old books to build up stock responses and help correct errors of our day, and we should point students to the true, the good, and the beautiful. We now move to the final two areas, each of which relate to the mindset and attitude of the student in the learning endeavor. If we are to bring about formation, reading old books and telling them to love the true, the good, and the beautiful is simply not going to be enough. Since we are loving beings, we are motivated most often by desire. In order to bring about Christian formation, we need to awaken the right kind of desire in students, and awakening desire requires an awakening of the imagination.

I am not sure that I exaggerate when I say that the most significant negative effects of the Enlightenment were convincing people that serious learning meant that science was more fundamentally academic than science fiction; that fairies were meant only for fairy tales and fairy tales meant only for children; and that fiction and myth meant untrue. G. K. Chesterton is right when he says that we have “sinned and grown old” and that fairyland (or elfland) is a good deal more real than the scientific naturalism espoused today.[1] In Heretics he writes: “People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are.”[2] So long as we maintain a cold, scientific rationalism that rejects the ability of literature and the arts to awaken our imagination to wonder and truth, we will fail to educate students from a Christian worldview. Caldecott agrees, arguing that imagination is necessary to the Christian story: “When Adam fell from grace, the whole creation was somehow dis-graced, or put out of joint. The healing of the world therefore cannot be envisaged without a reordering and a healing of the inner world of imagination, intelligence, and will.”[3] Daniel Russ and Mark Sargent argue similarly. “As heirs to the great tradition of Christian witness, we are called to consider how the teachings of Christ and the apostles can edify the church, shape ethics and behavior, and transform modern culture. Such faithfulness requires imagination, not simple prescription of routine.”[4] In short, redemption requires the re-awakening of the imagination.

In an age of scientific rationalism, it is often difficult to get students excited about learning. Too often education, even from its earliest stages, is simply preparation for a career. Elementary school must be completed to advance to middle school, then middle school to junior high and high school, then high school leads to college, and college is where the student gets the vocational training necessary to get a job. In this conveyor belt, industrialized educational system, we see teachers excising the dreams of the dreamers and programming all students to do the work, get the grade, and move on. True, there are some students who lack discipline as a result of their wild imagination, but C. S. Lewis answers this well. “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”[5] Indeed, as Christian educators our job is to irrigate deserts, to feed the malnourished mind, and we can do so through the re-awakening of the imagination. We must awaken students to the beauty around them, to the wonders of the search for truth, to the joy of living in accordance with the good. Imagination comes in many forms, but perhaps none better than through stories. We must rekindle a love for reading, particularly fiction, so that students can see truth in a new and exciting way. Reading about Narnia, for example, is not an escape from reality but an invitation to a truer picture of reality, for in many ways Narnia is what we are meant to be.[6]

In The Confessions, Saint Augustine has an interesting comment about education. He writes, “It is evident that the free play of curiosity is a more powerful spur to learning these things than is fear-ridden coercion; yet in accordance with your laws, O God, coercion checks the free play of curiosity.”[7] After considering why he hated learning some subjects but loved others, Augustine realized that a free curiosity was a more powerful spur to learning; nevertheless, discipline (or coercion) was in place to provide proper parameters. We, too, must revive this understanding of learning for classical Christian education. While we as educators must put in place the proper parameters, must teach some subjects or lessons that they may not enjoy but we know are necessary, we must awaken their imagination and provide freedom for imagination and curiosity to take hold, for in this students will not only learn more in the present, but they will more likely love learning, for in it they see its ability to lead us to what is true, good, and beautiful.

[1]Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 51.

[2]G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville: Sam Torode Book Arts, 2011), 82.

[3]Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake, 108.

[4]Daniel Russ and Mark L. Sargent, “Moral Imagination at a Christian Institution,” in Christianity and the Soul of the University: Faith as a Foundation for Intellectual Community, eds. Douglas V. Henry and Micahel D. Beaty, 145-162 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 145.

[5]C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 12-13.

[6]Markos says it well when he says “Narnia is what our world would be if it were worthy of itself.” Markos, Restoring Beauty, 30.

[7]Saint Augustine, Confessions, Vintage Spiritual Classics, trans. Maria Boulding (New York: Vintage, 1998), 18. I reflect on this quote also in “Curiosity Killed the Cat, but It Worked Pretty Well for a Monkey.”

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