Aiming for Truth with the Imagination

The basis of art is truth, both in matter and mode. The person who aims after art in his work aims after truth, in an imaginative sense, no more and no less. St. Thomas said that the artist is concerned with the good of that which is made…

-Flannery O’Connor, The Nature and Aim of Fiction, from Mystery and Manners, p.65

This is pretty much in line with C.S. Lewis’ famous line that the imagination is the ‘organ of meaning.’ The imagination seeks to grasp for, and embody, truth through metaphors and story. The good stories still deal with the age-old issues relating to the truth of reality. This is a good quote to keep right next to Lewis.’

Are you cultivating an imagination bent on grappling with truth? Are you a metaphor-maker? Are you content to live with abstractions? The word, says Dorothy Sayers, always needs to become flesh.

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Top Ten Posts in 2014

This will likely be my last post of the year (with the holidays and all), so I want to wish you all a Merry Christmas.

In the meantime, I give you the mandatory ‘top posts’ post. If there’s anything on the list you haven’t read before, why not give it a look? Here are the most read posts from the blog for the year:

1. Myths About the Bible: Noah Was Mocked? The Fight Against Apathy
This marks the second year in a row that this post is number one. It had about 1,800 views for the year.

2. A List of Benedictions
In the top 3 for the third straight year. Everybody needs a good list of benedictions.

3. C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton: Reading, Fairy Tales, and Mental Health
The same top 3 as last year. I still think that reading fairy tales is a balm for the soul.

4. God Is Love, But Love Is Not God
This one’s the first newcomer to the list. Here I take on not only modern culture, but no less a giant than St. Augustine.

5. Recent Reading: The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy Sayers: Part 1 – Summary of the Argument for a Trinity in Creative Art
This marks the second year in the top 5. I go back to this post fairly regularly to brush up on Sayers’ points.

6. The Misused Passages: 1 Corinthians 2:9, Eye Hath Not Seen, Nor Ear Heard
This is my take on how people misuse the famous words, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the mind of man, what God hath prepared for them that love Him.’

7. Charlotte’s Web: Dr. Dorian, Miraculous Webs, Animals Talking
I share a favorite quote from Charlotte’s Web.

8. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ Method of Pastoral Counseling and Diagnosis
I am glad this one cracked the top 10. I worked very hard on this post in an attempt to distill the basics of the pastoral counseling method of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I work harder to actually try to put his wisdom into practice. I still highly recommend the book on which this post is based: Healing and the Scriptures.

9. Recent Reading: Leaf by Niggle, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Here’s a taste: “Christian lawyers work for justice, and the world remains unjust. Christian doctors, nurses, and pharmacists (and others of course) work for the health and well-being of people – all of whom eventually die…”

10. Him that is Unjust, Let Him be Unjust Still: What does it mean? (Revelation 22:11)
It’s a line from the Book of Revelation that has entered into the modern consciousness via Johnny Cash’s The Man Comes Around. I remember early in the season there was an SEC football commercial that used this song. I thought there was an ironically fitting display of southern culture as I saw images of Les Miles and Nick Saban as this song played in the background.

The Cosmos in an Apple

I can think of another instance in which a piece of fruit had cosmological significance, but this time we’ll focus on Newton’s apple:

Now, when Isaac Newton observed a certain relationship between and likeness between the behavior of the falling apple and that of the circling planets, it might be said with equal plausibility either that he argued by analogy from the apple to a theory of astronomy, or that while evolving a theory of astronomical mathematics he suddenly perceived its application to the apple. But it would scarcely be exact to say that, in the former case, he absurdly supposed the planets to be but apples of a larger growth, with seeds in them; or that, in the latter case, he had spun out a purely abstract piece of isolated cerebration that, oddly enough, turned out to be true about apples, though the movements of the planets themselves had no existence outside Newton’s mathematics. Newton, being a rational man, concluded that the two kinds of behavior resembled each other – not because the planets had copied the apples or the apples copied the planets, but because both were examples of the working of one and the same principle.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Whimsical Christian, pp. 124-125

Doesn’t it seem like this story could have come out of a fairy tale? This is one of the reasons I am glad I was encouraged to read Polanyi: he reminds us that science and imagination cannot be, and therefore are never, separated. Newton’s articulation of the law of gravity was a massive act of the imagination which saw an explanation of the workings of the cosmos in a falling apple.

It almost sounds as if he were a poet. Keats heard a nightingale and thought of ‘Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.’ Newton saw a falling apple and thought of the workings of the galaxy. Chesterton’s idea that everything is poetic really isn’t that far fetched.

The story also reminds us of the importance of analogies. As a preacher it reminds me that analogies are important for engaging the imagination, which in turn can lead to a better grasp of the truth. Call it a reminder of the need for ‘whimsical’ preaching.

Creation as Story: A Narrative Wrench in Mechanistic Gears

The Whimsical Christian, by Dorothy Sayers, is an intriguing book to say the least. I have written about a couple of her books, The Mind of the Maker and Creed or Chaos?, in the past. My posts on The Mind of the Maker (HERE, HERE, and HERE) still rank among the most read on this blog.

Creed or Chaos? was a bit of a let down, but for good reason. The Mind of the Maker is hands-down one of the best books I have ever read. I read the book almost by sheer accident, having found it in a thrift store and knowing nothing about it other than the fact that I had come across the name of Dorothy Sayers in relation to C.S. Lewis.

The book was tough sledding. I felt as though I slogged through it. There were times when I just wanted to stop reading it, but I just never stopped. And the end result was life-changing. Sayers’ analogy of God and the creative mind of man is a game changer. I will not get into specifics at the moment, but I use things I learned from that book almost every week in one way or another.

There have been two game changers in The Whimsical Christian: the essays Toward a Christian Esthetic and Creative Mind. I will deal with both in due time, but for now I want to record one particular line of thought from Creative Mind.

In my defense of God as creator, I have often pointed out that the biblical record is that God created man and woman, along with the earliest plants and animals, along with every rock and grain of sand, in mature form. We do not know precisely what that ‘mature form’ looked like, but we know that the earliest apple tree did not spring from a seed; rather, it sprung, in maturity, wholly from the creative decree of God. If you looked at Adam, you might have said, ‘He’s probably 20 or 30 or 180 years old, who knows?’I do not have a strict opinion on the age of the universe, but I have sometimes joked that God may have just created the world the way he did to mess with our scientists. Again, that’s a joke. But Sayers actually gives winsome teeth to a similar idea – if the world is younger than it appears, it is simply a part of his craft as an artist:

It was scarcely possible to suppose any longer that God had created each species – to quote the test of Paradise Lost – ‘perfect forms, limb’d, and full grown,’ except on what seemed the extravagant assumption that, when creating the universe, he had at the same time provided it with evidence of a  purely imaginary past that had never had any actual existence. Now, the first thing to be said about this famous quarrel is that the churchmen need never have been perturbed at all about the method of creation, if they had remembered that the Book of Genesis was a book of poetical truth, and not intended as a scientific handbook of geology. They got into their difficulty, to a large extent, through having unwittingly slipped into accepting the scientist’s concept of the use of language, and supposing that a thing could not be true unless it was amenable to quantitative methods of proof. Eventually, and with many slips by the way, they contrived to clamber out of this false position; and today no reasonable theologian is at all perturbed by the idea  that created was effected by evolutionary methods. But, if the theologians had not lost touch with the nature of language; if they had not insensibly fallen into the eighteenth-century conception of the universe as a mechanism and God as the great engineer; if, instead they had chosen to think of God as a great, imaginative artist – then they might have offered a quite different kind of interpretation of the facts, with rather entertaining consequences. They might, in fact have seriously put forward the explanation I mentioned just now: that God had at some moment or other created the universe complete with all the vestiges of an imaginary past.

I have said that this seemed an extravagant assumption; so it does, if one thinks of God as a mechanician. But if one thinks of him as working in the same sort of way as a creative artist, then it no longer seems extravagant, but the most natural thing in the world. It is the way every novel in the world is written.

Every serious novelist starts with some or all of his characters ‘in perfect form and fully grown,’ complete with their pasts. Their present is conditioned by a past that exists, not fully on paper, but fully or partially in the creator’s imagination…

-Dorothy Sayers, Creative Mind, from The Whimsical Christian, pp. 106-107

The argument is simple: Every novel contains a story. Every story exists as a complete ‘creation’ within itself. Nothing outside of that creation can be said to truly exist within the story. Yet for every story there is a back story: it could be the exposition, or it could simply be things the author is presupposing in order to create the story. The bottom line is that the novel often begins with a fully mature character who appears in complete maturity. This maturity may include many warts and flaws, but those warts and flaws are purely a result of the imagination of the author and their cause may or may not be part of the narrative. They may exist purely in the mind of the author and therefore never enter into the actual ‘revelation’ or into the ‘creation’ itself.

Notice also that Sayers uses a ‘poetical’ reading of Genesis to actually argue against the scientists. When folks today attempt to postulate Genesis 1-3 as poetic, it is usually for the opposite reason. Interesting.

Sayers says that applying this type of thinking to our ideas about creation could be entertaining. Indeed.

She pins down most of our problems as ‘creationists’ to our assimilation of modern scientific categories. We, like so much secular Scientism, tend to view the creation as mechanistic. We have taken the watchmaker argument and reasoned that God actually made a watch. Instead, we should be more concerned with the fact that God has made an artistic story. We should consider the words of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, whom she quotes: “God created the world by imagination.” He imagines and speaks; and things imagined become reality. “…Even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17).

In this framework, of God as Creator in the sense of God as Artist, doctrines like predestination and divine providence are no longer abstract philosophical notions, but essential elements of his art. Of course an author predestines his characters; of course he causes circumstances to develop in a certain way in order to accomplish certain preordained ends. Of course he allows the drama of evil to enter the story, how else could there be a story? And of course he creates mature worlds with the appearance of age. That’s what artists do. He just gets to do it with real dirt, whereas we can only put ink on paper that comes from the real trees he has created.

Throw a narrative wrench into the mechanistic gears. The results could be entertaining.

A Religion for Adult Minds

In her essay entitled Strong Meat, Dorothy Sayers quotes Augustine speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ (Confessions, 7.10):

I am the food of the full-grown; become a man, and thou shalt feed on me.

She comments,

Here is a robust assertion of the claim of Christianity to be a religion for adult minds (Creed or Chaos?, p. 14).

It has often been said that the basics of the gospel – Christ living the life that we couldn’t live and dying the death that we deserve – are simple enough for a small child to understand, while the complexities of Scripture are profound enough that the aged genius can’t even begin to plumb the depths. I think that statement is true. And one end of it shouldn’t take away from the other. We should not let the simplicity of the basic message fool us into thinking that this isn’t hearty food, that this isn’t a religion for adult minds.

This past week I spent a good deal of time re-studying the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son of God. The church fathers took great effort, essentially exhausting their resources formulating this doctrine, and still they leave us with only a hint of what this doctrine is, and might entail. This is ‘strong meat.’ One of the great things about Christianity is that it never stops challenging the mind.

John Piper once commented on the brilliance of John Owen, and the application of his life and work to us, that the Christian life is like cliff-climbing. You spend time, perhaps years, climbing one intellectual cliff. You look at a doctrine from every angle possible, and ultimately you come to place where you think you have understanding. You get to the top of the cliff and you think you’ve made it. Then you look up – and there’s another cliff to climb. Maybe this one is a smaller cliff, so you climb it more quickly, only to find another, and another. You never stop climbing.

This is why the authors of Scripture speak of the attributes of God in such broad, grand ways:

  • Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Rom. 11:33).

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep (Ps. 35:6-7).

The Apostle Paul realized that this was no easy matter, plumbing the depths of Jesus Christ, and so he recorded his own prayer for Christians:

  • …that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:17-19).

This is knowledge so great, and so demanding, that it takes the very presence of the food, already in you, to help you digest the food to come. You might say that Jesus, in Paul’s picture, is like the mother bird who must chew the babies’ food before them, and for them. If we were to eat it on our power we could never digest it. And it is only through this process that we grow intellectually. In other words, it is only through approaching the truth like a child, knowing that it is not something we can fully comprehend,  that we attain adult minds.

I will ‘bottom line’ this post in this way: Don’t be deceived into thinking that Christianity is a shallow religion. Our God is not shallow. We come as children to a Father, but we do not check our minds at the door. We come as children longing to eat grown-up food. And there is food in abundance to be found.

The Sons of this World are More Shrewd

Austin wanted me to expound a bit on a Dorothy Sayers quote I posted. This is my stream-of-consciousness-style attempt.

The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light (Luke 16:8).

Jesus tells the story of a man on his way out of power. He is about to get the oust from his boss, so on his way out the door he decides to give his boss’ clients some special favors so that he can be in their good graces when he is left unemployed. And his boss finds out, and thinks it’s brilliant. Hence Jesus lauds the ability of worldly wisemen to make friends through business and hang on to their jobs in the process.

Dorothy Sayers makes a passing comment on this passage:

The children of this world are not only (as Christ so caustically observed) wiser in their generation than the children of light; they are also more energetic, more stimulating and bolder’ (Creed or Chaos?, p. 8).

The energy, stimulation, and boldness Sayers mentions are implicit in the world ‘shrewd.’ In fact they make a decent definition of the term.

I mentioned NPR (National Public Radio) as an example of this fact in a previous post. The thoughtfulness displayed on many NPR programs really puts most of Christian radio to shame. Whether they are right or wrong, they are generally more energetic, certainly more stimulating, and perhaps more bold than anything we hear on Christian radio.

But that is just one small example. I recently watched a 12-year-old episode of PBS Frontline called The Merchants of Cool. You can watch it HERE. In less than an hour, the program takes you on a tour de force of pop culture marketing. The shrewdness of the sons of this world is on full display. Their energy and boldness is on full display, all for the purpose of stimulating teenagers to buy their products. Executives making millions of dollars a year are going to the houses of random teenagers to see what they’re in to. They’re taking what they learn and analyzing it, and trying to put it into the magic bottle of plasma screens in order to shape culture and fill their wallets. I wonder how many pastors are checking in with their youth from time to time to see what they’re in to? I wonder if we are asking ourselves how we can shape the culture of our youth? Notice I did not say, ‘how we can cater to our youth.’ Rather, are we as shrewd in considering how we will work to shape them as citizens of the Kingdom of God and his Christ?

Are we on the cutting edge of anything? Yes. We are on the cutting edge of the rock of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, the rock that will fill the whole earth. Yet we tend to stay so far behind the wisemen of the world that it’s hard to imagine that we are filling up anything but the wake of their ever forward moving steam-liner. Being on the cutting edge does not mean that we conform to whatever is new or hip. It means that we must cut. We must cut the path that will allow culture to thrive, rather than simply following the leaders. This calls for wisdom.

Jesus calls us to be ‘as shrewd as serpents’ and ‘as harmless as doves.’ A serpent seeks prey. A dove is prey. We must be both the hunter and the hunted. We must be the hunter seeking out ways to shape our age – to be more energetic than worldly culture, to be more stimulating, to be bolder. If we were actually that shrewd, we might find a bit more resistance, and actually be able to respond as harmless doves. The snakes of the world bite in order to kill. We should bite in order to give life. The snakes of this world bite with venom and hatred. We are called to act as doves.

I said all of that to say this: my early experience in Christianity was mainly doctrinal (in a stuffy, academic sort of way). I wasn’t exposed to Christian shrewdness that often. Shrewdness involves ‘sharp powers of judgment’ (that’s the dictionary idea). Christian shrewdness is not the sharp power of calling beer bad or church good. Christian shrewdness involves being able to cut sharply against the grain of this world and do what we do better than they do what they do.

They reach young folks by getting to know what they like, through sensational marketing and constant advertising. That’s what they do, and they do it well. We have, or at least certainly should have, another way of reaching the same people. Our intentions are certainly better, but are we more wise, more discerning, more proactive? They reach culture at large through basically the same means. Do we have a vision for enculturating our people and shaping their view of the world? Or are we just doing what we do without any thought or concrete intention?

I watch wordly wisemen every day. I observe and I learn. I see a man who knows that people will like him if he is generous. I see a man who knows that people will pay attention if he raises his voice. I see a man who knows that people will take him seriously if he knows his subject better than most. The question is, can I be as energetic, bold, and stimulating by doing what I do in a different way, and doing my way better than them?

Dramatic Doctrine

We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine – ‘dull dogma,’ as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man – and the dogma is the drama.

Dorothy Sayers, The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, from Creed or Chaos?, p. 3

A Paradoxical Humour

In her essay The Greatest Drama Ever Staged, Dorothy Sayers makes this passing comment about  Jesus Christ:

…When confronted with neat dialectical traps, He displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and He retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by a rule of thumb.

– From Creed or Chaos?, p. 6

I don’t think I have ever read a better summary of the subversive character of Jesus as a man of conversation. He confounded men with the head-side of a coin, and with heads of grain. He asked trick questions. He told the educated that they knew nothing. He could take any man and make him a character in a story that inevitably demonstrated that he (the man) was a real-life bad guy (Imagine if Jesus were to turn your life into a parable). He would tell people that the way up was the way down, that strength was actually weakness, and weakness strength. He promised life through his own death. And he was not afraid to be misunderstood – for our misunderstandings of him do not harm him, rather they only reveal us to be what he said we were in his parables.

By ‘humour,’ Sayers does not mean that Jesus was a comedian. She speaks of his mood or state of mind. He spoke in paradoxes, which means that he thought in paradoxes. Chesterton said that a paradox is the truth standing on its head. I’ve added to that that a parable is the truth rolling around in the dirt, and irony (another favorite of Jesus) is the truth doing a back-flip. What fun it must be, therefore, to have the mind of Christ. His mind is doing gymnastics. Therefore his speech comes out like cartwheels – which is a lot more fun (and of course true) than the vast majority of speech we hear these days, which seems to only walk (slowly) in zigzagged lines and backpedal from time to time.

Jesus’ opponents often considered his speech to be blasphemous. They also likely considered him to be flippant. He wasn’t flippant, he was only flipping – the truth on its head. That was his mood, and it should be ours as well. Call it subversiveness. Call him the greater Jacob – the Usurper – he grabs ahold of the truth’s ankle, picks it up, and lets it dangle upside down as a spectacle. And men still don’t want to look – or more precisely, they don’t want to listen.

Blogging Through ‘Creed or Chaos?’ by Dorothy Sayers

Though I have finished the book, I am still writing my way through In Defense of Sanity (a collection of essays by G.K. Chesterton). In addition to that, starting tomorrow I will begin a series of posts on another collection of essays. This time I will be posting on Creed or Chaos? by Dorothy Sayers.

Dorothy Sayers is special to me because of her book The Mind of the Maker. Quite frankly, that book changed my life, and I find myself referencing it all the time in various contexts. She is a great writer, full of insight and clarity, and I look forward to thinking, and writing, about her essays.

In the meantime, you can read my summaries of The Mind of the Maker HERE , HERE , and HERE.

Light Before Sun, Idea Before Incarnation

In an essay on Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton picks up an interesting line of thought. He notes the fact that the Book of Genesis records the creation of light occurring before the creation of the sun (Gen. 1:3-19).

To many modern people it would sound like saying that foliage existed before the first leaf; it would sound like saying that childhood existed before a baby was born. The idea is, as I have said, alien to most modern thought, and like so many other ideas which are alien to most modern thought, it is a very subtle and very sound idea.

Chesterton then delivers this sound meditation on the creation narrative:

Whatever be the meaning of the passage in the actual primeval poem, there is a very real metaphysical meaning in the idea that light existed before the sun and stars. It is not barbaric; it is rather Platonic. The idea existed before any of the machinery which made manifest the idea. Justice existed when there was no need of judges, and mercy existed before any man was oppressed.

Like Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker, he relates the idea to literature:

The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists, as a mother can love the unborn child. In creative art the essence of a book exists before the book or before even the details or main features of the book; the author enjoys it and lives in it with a kind of prophetic rapture. He wishes to write a comic story before he has thought of a single comic incident. He desires to write a sad story before he has thought of anything sad. He knows the atmosphere before he knows anything. There is a low priggish maxim sometimes uttered by men so frivolous as to take humour seriously – a maxim that a man should not laugh at his own jokes. But the great artist not only laughs at his own jokes; he laughs at his own jokes before he has made them.

He continues,

The last page comes before the first; before his romance has begun, he knows that it has ended well. He sees the wedding before the wooing; he sees the death before the dual. But most of all he sees the colour and character of the whole story prior to any possible events in it.

(G.K. Chesterton on The Pickwick Papers, from In Defense of Sanity, pp. 127-128)

I do not know if there is a better illustration for the foreknowledge of God than the mind of the writer, the mind of the maker. I saw an interview with J.K. Rowling a while back in which she discussed how she first created the Harry Potter character. As she rode in a train, he essentially just appeared in her imagination, and she knew his destiny right away. C.S. Lewis wrote of his recurring vision of a fawn with an umbrella carrying parcels in the snow. They knew their own characters before they ever set pen to paper. God did too.

  • For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…(Rom. 8:29).

Or as one translation puts it:

  • For those on whom he set his heart beforehand, he did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son.