Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Imagination and Moral Character - Edith Reitsema

How Imagination Engages your Heart and Moral Character   

by Edith M. Reitsema

Recently I read Alister McGrath’s new biography of C.S. Lewis.  I found it interesting to see that for C.S. Lewis as a deist before he came to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, rationality wasn’t enough to get him over the threshold into believing in God. It took the use of his imagination for him to come to faith. The issue was not only one of truth, but also of meaning and grasping its significance through using his imagination.  And it was through the influence of his friend Tolkien that he was helped to see this missing link. Alister McGrath described it like this:

“Tolkien helped C.S. Lewis realize that the problem lay not in C.S. Lewis’ rational failure to understand the theory, but in his imaginative failure to grasp its significance […] Tolkien thus helped C.S. Lewis realize that a “rational faith” was not necessarily imaginatively and emotionally barren.”[1]

In this discussion on the value of the imagination it is important to note however that C.S. Lewis’ shift to writing fictional works did not mean that he thought rational argument could not support the Christian faith. McGrath continues by stating that

“C.S. Lewis’ writings continue to show a strong sense of the rational coherency of the Christian faith and of the importance of apologetics in the contemporary cultural context.”[2]

But it was the next comment which really caught my attention:

“C.S. Lewis was persuaded of the importance of the use of narrative and the appeal to the imagination in apologetics.”[3]

There are many who think purely rational apologetics is what will win the argument and convince somebody of the truth of Christianity. And while truth is definitely central to the Christian faith, with our need to understand it for what it is, I think that it is also important to acknowledge the role of imagination for each of us in coming to faith. As we enter into relationship it is crucial to recognize that our imagination has to be at work.

While reading this biography of C.S. Lewis I realized afresh that apologetics not only abstractly gives reasons for the hope you have (1 Peter 3:15), but has also to include the use of the imagination to be apologetics in the way the text continues, which is “with gentleness and respect.” This is only possible if you imagine what it must be like for the other to hear this “good news”. For apologetics, involving the imagination, also includes sharing the mystery, the wonder and awe of truth and the greatness of this world.

What also fascinated me while reading about C.S. Lewis, was how the influence of Tolkien on C.S.Lewis enabled him to write his fictional story Narnia. C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnia series to be enjoyed, but also to enlarge our visions of reality. In writing these stories he made an important distinction between the “imaginary” and “imaginative.” For C.S. Lewis the “imaginary” is something that has been falsely imagined, having no counterpart in reality – opening the way to delusion. While C.S. Lewis understands “imaginative” to be something produced by the human mind as it tries to respond to something greater than itself – opening the door to a deeper apprehension of reality.[4] This idea intrigued me – for what is it that enables us to engage more with reality around us? Could it be that the real is enhanced through meaning which comes in context and in relationship? Isn’t this what we are all searching for? Alister McGrath described the results of C.S. Lewis’ distinction as follows:

“It is impossible to understand the deep appeal of Narnia without appreciating the place of stories in shaping our understanding of reality, and our own place within that reality […] that our own story is part of something grander […] Like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis was deeply aware of the imaginative power of “myths” – stories that tried to make sense of who we are, where we find ourselves, what has gone wrong with things, and what can be done about it.  Tolkien was able to use myth to saturate The Lord of the Rings with a mysterious “otherness”, a sense of mystery and magic which hints at a reality beyond that which human reason can fathom. C.S. Lewis realized that good and evil, danger, anguish and joy can all be seen more clearly when “dipped in a story.” Through their “presentational realism” these narratives provide a way of grasping the deeper structures of our world at both imaginative and rational levels.”[5]

This led me to thinking about how imagination and reason are both functions of the human mind. It is impossible to separate them fully from each other, though somebody like Immanuel Kant would have liked to almost fuse the two together.  But they definitely fulfil different roles.

I found it interesting to try to grasp how C.S. Lewis saw reason and imagination complementing each other.  He saw the Narnia stories as a “supposal” – an invitation to try and see things in another way and imagine how things could work out if this way were true.[6] Having thoroughly enjoyed the Narnia series myself since my childhood, I could see how this had actually enlarged my understanding of reality.  However, I had never really read Tolkien. Realizing that this wisdom indirectly all came from him, I was left feeling somewhat deficient. So, by the time I had finished reading the C.S. Lewis biography I was entirely convicted that I needed to try and read some Tolkien again. For if Tolkien’s use of imagination had convicted C.S. Lewis of the truth of God – I’m missing out if I haven’t really read Tolkien. I have savoured the joy of reading all of The Lord of the Rings during this past break and wallowed in it!

All of this “imaginative” reading has made me interested in what the role of the imagination is and how it is my imagination which engages my heart. For whether something is appealing to me depends on whether my imagination is engaged or not.  I won’t start on something unless it appeals and it only appeals if it catches my attention, and I can flesh out the possibilities of it with my own imagination. When I can envision different desires and possibilities for my own circumstances, I get hope.  And it is the process of discovering that this hope is true hope which engages my heart and gives meaning to my human experience.  This has made me think of how I grew up.  I always enjoyed seeing how much my father (who is a missionary in South Africa amongst the Zulu people) loved telling the stories from the Bible to people to bring a theological truth home to them. It was his passionate telling of the story and their use of imagination in hearing the story that lured their hearts to be convicted of the truth, that opened them to the work of the Holy Spirit.

In this lecture I would like to look at some of the historical reasons for why we lost appreciation for the mystery of this world.  I would then like to look at the difference between moralism and developing a moral imagination.  Because morality involves our interactions with God and with people, it is important to realize how we need moral imagination for our hearts to be engaged in relationship if relationship is to flourish. I would like to conclude by looking at how we need an imagination enlightened by the Holy Sprit for our hearts to be convicted of the truth.

  1. Historically, how did we as people lose appreciation for the mystery of our world?

If we look back in recent Western history to the period known as Modernism, we see a Secular Humanism which insisted that we do not need God to speak to us through his Revelation or his Word.  Nor do we need his Word to understand the world we live in or the society in which we find ourselves. We do not need his help or instruction to better our lives. We can adequately understand the purpose of life, the origin of life, by ourselves. We can build a better and lasting civilization by ourselves.  And we can fathom the mystery of human existence through our own ability to reason. Hume, a renowned philosopher of the period of Modernism, said that:

“Reason first appears in possession of the throne, prescribing laws and imposing maxims, with an absolute sway and authority.”[7]

The governing philosophy of Modernity was that human reason had the ability, the authority and moral awareness to create a better life for us. This is in fact the idea that drove the French Revolution.

With this emphasis in Modernity on reason as the ultimate evaluative instrument for all of life came the ratification of facts as the only authority in life.  The answer when one would ask, “What is true?” was then met with, “Pure Reason says it’s a fact.”  With rationality standing so central in Modernity, reasoning became very abstract and autonomous. Reason was now in control, which meant that in the end one said, “I have discovered.” I am in control and decide which questions to ask about life, what tests to apply. I analyze and dissect. I formulate hypotheses. I force the world to answer the questions I put to it, because we have only what my eye can see and these are the “facts”. I am sovereign. This view of Modernism that that which I can see is all there is, that everything is as it must always have been, is a kind of “scientific fatalism.”[8] In Modernism I do my experiments and the result is either x or y, since the universe is closed, driven by cause and effect. A kind of determinism (which thrived especially in the 19th century) started to drive life. Modernism tried to live this fact-driven existence out through many ideologies. 

The consequence of the scientific fatalism of Modernity is that in moving on to Post Modernism we reduced truth to our own experience. By the time we arrived in the 20th century, ironically still using reason as our ultimate evaluative instrument, the Post Modernists decided reason didn’t work. There couldn’t be an over arching reason.  They subsequently decided it didn’t exist. 

It is interesting to note that in reaction to Modernity there was a short interim period in which the Romantics tried to use emotions and sentiment as the ultimate evaluative instruments for life – placing emotions as central to life. Nevertheless emotional reasons are still reasons, and their solution didn’t last long either.

Now if one looks at our current culture, I think that by this time we are coming to realize that there is some value in durability, in an over arching reality.  We long for environmental sustainability.  It is just a gut feeling we have that this must be necessary.  We’ve lost what could drive our evaluation.  The truth has to be larger than individual subjectivity. 

Today we are left with the consequences of this history. The craze for facts in Modernity seems to have wiped out the place of mystery and the value of wonder and awe of our world – which to be understood at all needs the use of the imagination.  For a tree actually grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs down hill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because there is more to life than my eye can see or my abstract reason can fathom. We’ve lost the wonder of life. The sun doesn’t just rise because it’s a dead piece of lifeless clockwork.  The sun rises regularly, because it never gets tired of rising, because the ultimate life giver, God, never tires of saying, “Do it again!” Just like I never cease to be amazed at the endless enthusiasm for life that some of my nieces and nephews have – who when I read a story to them, ask me to read it again.  And as soon as I have finished reading it, with boundless vitality they plead with me to “Do it again!” They seem to have gotten this energy from somewhere.

It is also remarkable to note that Albert Einstein (1879-1955), a renowned German physicist, realized that we need more than abstract reasonable knowledge.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all there will be to know and understand.”

We need to use our imagination to engage more fully with life around us.  I think that Einstein must have understood that there is more to life than the knowledge of facts.  For facts are not just the results of my wilful desires. Facts are actually miracles, in the sense that they are wonderful and we need to use our imagination to see this.  They are wonderful because facts actually have a purpose. And if they have a purpose, there has to be a person behind them. Life is first and foremost a story – a real story. And if there is a story, there has to be a story teller.[9]

Because life is not only precious, but also puzzling, there has to be room for more – for the enchanted, the charming, and the praiseworthy. G.K. Chesterton in his book, Orthodoxy said:

“I have explained that the fairy tales founded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wilderness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations [of ourselves] of so queer a kindness [of God].”[10]

G.K. Chesterton went on to criticize Modernity with its endless materialism and its ideas of expansion and largeness, as actually having got stuck in the prison of thought of abstract reasoning. He said:

“The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will […] It’s a prison of long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human […] and divine.”[11]

G.K. Chesterton was pleading for the fact that through our emphasis on abstract reasoning we’ve lost what it means to be human. Even stronger: we’ve lost that which gives meaning to life – to be able to choose to forgive. There has to be meaning in life.  If we hope to live in full awareness of our existence, then our greatest need is to find meaning in our lives, which requires the use of our imagination. And meaning has to have someone mean it. There is something personal in this world, like a work of art. And whatever it meant, it meant it passionately and violently. And the appropriate response needs to be more than just abstract reasoning. It needs to include gratitude in humility – recognizing the privilege of being alive, with all my limitations as a human being, in awe and praise of this wonderful world created by our Creator! – which we can only grasp more fully with our imagination.

  1. Moralism versus developing a Moral Imagination

When considering life, abstract rationalism on its own, without really taking relationship into account, easily just ends up in some kind of moralism, without meaning. People end up referring to moral principles as if they are some kind of practical instruments for achieving success. The question is whether this results in an admirable kind of success?  Such moralism is unlikely to transform the mind or heart, and will struggle to have lasting effects on our behaviour. The only effect it might have is to shame. Moralism alone is about ideas without people. It is abstract reasoning which doesn’t get personalized or fleshed out relationally and isn’t imaginative. Such moralism then tends to come across as manipulative, meaningless and dead.

And with the effect of Post Modernism vocabulary regarding morality has changed too. Whereas before we used to talk about “moral virtues” as defining the character of a person and their enduring relationship to the world, now we speak of “moral values” as the components or instruments of moral living that we can choose from for ourselves. The term “values” here is a relatively new term in our moral vocabulary.  We used to only use the term “value” in the singular form, as a verb meaning to value and esteem something or as a singular noun referring to the measurement of a thing (such as the value of money or property). However, now we have come to use the plural form “values” to stand for moral beliefs and attitudes of a society or an individual. Friedrich Nietzsche, a German Post Modern philosopher, was the inventor of our current use of this term “values” as a moral category.  In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche used “values” in the following way. He said,

“The noble type of man regards himself as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of, he passes the judgement […] he knows that it is he himself only who confers honour on things; he is a creator of values. He honours whatever he recognizes in himself: such morality equals self-glorification”.[12]

“Values” now bring with them the assumption that all moral ideas are subjective and relative. They are not much different than the groceries we place in our basket at the supermarket or the building supplies we choose to buy from the DIY home improvement shop down the road. Such “values” are relative to the self’s own autonomy.  They are only subordinate to the self’s personal desires. They are a matter of taste. They are little more than a consumerist commodity.  They are merely ways of doing things, customs or conventions which are purely instrumental and utilitarian in purpose.

But where does this leave us? Is there no alternative to such meaningless moralism with personally chosen values that have no lasting effect or enduring significance?  Moralism is putting forth values disconnected from relationship. It is like saying something is good or important, just because – without the framework of a relationship with God.  In contrast to moralism I would like to explore the role of the moral imagination, and whether applying our imagination in this regard can enable us to engage our hearts and live more meaningfully. Moral imagination is using your imagination to understand the difference between good and evil more fully, because of your relationship with God, who is ultimately good.

George MacDonald, who had a large influence on C.S. Lewis said that:

“Imagination is a power of discovery, not a power to create [...]  Imagination is a power of perception, a light that illumines the mystery that is hidden beneath visible reality […] Imagination takes reason to the threshold of mystery and moral truth and reveals them as such.”[13]

An imaginative story lures me into engaging with my own reality more. It has the ability to jolt me into considering myself, my own situation and my responses to life, and whether I am taking enough responsibility towards those around me. Tolkien refers to fantasy stories as having the advantage of “arresting strangeness.”[14] He remarks in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” that it is interesting to notice the semantic similarity between the word “fantasy” and “fantastic”.  For it is exactly in the awe, the strangeness and wonder of being enchanted into the life of a story that my own sense of reality is enhanced. It makes me ask questions about my own experiences. About reading an imaginative story C.S. Lewis says in his essay called “Myth became Fact” that:

“You were not knowing, but tasting, but what you were tasting turns out to be a universal principle.”[15]

Reading a story can be entertaining and arouse curiosity. But to enrich life, it must capture our moral imagination. And when I refer here to moral imagination I mean that when the story captures us, it often furthers the development of our intellect and helps clarify our emotions about our own lives, making it possible to name the significance of this imaginative story for our own lives. It enables us to be attuned to our desires, our anxieties and aspirations, admitting our own struggles. In good stories (and what I mean here by that is: reflecting God’s story), the virtues of the character glimmer as if you were looking at yourself in a mirror – with the wickedness and deception of the characters unmasked for what they are. Good stories make us face the unvarnished, not so glamorous truth about ourselves. They can give us a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth of our own circumstances. A good story reminds us that when love is freely given it is more real than when one has to be coerced into obedience. A good story shows us that there is dignity in having the courage to rescue the innocent, while cowardice that betrays those around us for our own benefit is to be disdained. A good story shows that virtue and vice are opposites, and not just a matter of preference or degree. A good story stimulates thought about the meaning of morality through vividly depicting the struggle between good and evil, in which characters are placed before difficult choices between right and wrong.  Tolkien shows this in The Lord of the Rings when Aragorn says to Éomer:

“Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear, nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them.”[16]

Reading such stories engages your heart, for you have to make a moral decision – do I agree or don’t I? How many times have you read a story to a child and enthralled in the story, the child stops you, and won’t let you carry on unless you answer their question: “Is the main character in the story a good guy or a baddy?” A compelling vision of goodness told in an attractive way stirs the moral imagination. It portrays courage, honesty and humility as esteemable qualities. It is not for nothing that the Greek word for “character” means impression. Bruno Bettelheim in his book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales says that:

“It is not the fact that virtue wins out at the end which promotes morality, but that the hero is most attractive to the child, who identifies with the hero in all his struggles. Because of this identification the child imagines that he suffers with the hero his trials and triumphs with him […] the inner and outer struggles of the hero imprint morality on him.”[17]

Moral character makes an impression which gets stamped on us. I enjoyed reading a book by Vigen Guroian called, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination which is all about the importance of developing a moral imagination. He goes through various fairy tales showing how one can vicariously live along side the characters to learn from their mistakes, without having to experience the consequences of them ourselves. He says:

“Fairy tales and fantasy stories transport the reader into other worlds that are fresh with wonder, surprise and danger. They challenge the reader to make sense out of those other worlds and to imagine himself in the place of the heroes and heroines. The safety and assurance of those imaginative adventures is that risks can be taken without having to endure all of the consequences of failure and the joy is in discovering how these risky adventures might eventuate in satisfactory and happy outcomes.”[18]

For example, if one looks at the fairy tale called Pinocchio written by Carlo Collodi, it is remarkable to see how the story is about Pinocchio’s heart stance changing as he grows into wanting to become a good boy. The whole story is about the trials and tribulations that Pinocchio gets himself into because he can’t resist the temptation of being disobedient and in idleness running away from school. He tells lies and has his nose grow because of it. Not sticking to his promises, being carefree at the expense of everybody else, he starts to grow donkey’s ears and a tail. But slowly Pinocchio realizes what matters more to him. He turns into an accountable compassionate boy who does everything he can to help his father. It is because of this that the fairy awards him by turning him into a real boy. When Pinocchio finally succumbs to the need to attend school the fairy says to him:

“I saw from the sincerity of your grief that you had a good heart; and when boys have good hearts, even if they are scamps and have got bad habits, there is always something to hope for: there is always hope that they will turn to better ways.”[19]

And further along in the story when a policeman sends a dog to catch Pinocchio and he runs after him into the sea and almost drowns, yelling, “Help me, dear Pinocchio! … save me from death! …,” it is not surprising to read Pinocchio’s response:

“At the agonising cry the puppet, who had in reality an excellent heart, was moved with compassion […] and brought the dog to safety.”[20]

It is clear that throughout the fairy tale Collodi longs to lure the readers into having their own hearts challenged by Pinocchio’s moral choices – to live vicariously alongside him and feel the consequences of telling lies and being carefree, without personally having to experience the consequences in real life and “have their noses grow” as it were. When you use your imagination your heart gets engaged, because you try to identify with the story. Through doing so, you can look at your own situation more clearly and your sense of reality and truth can be heightened.

It is sad to see what Walt Disney made of this fairy story in their movie of “Pinocchio”. In the film Gepetto, Pinocchio’s father who made the wooden puppet, has the desire to change him into a boy, and his wish magically happens. As I watched the movie I found that it came across as manipulatively having your wish fulfilled.  In contrast Collodi had clearly meant for his fairy tale to be compelling as Pinocchio grows in longing to be good, so that he can become a real boy. It is not through some magical action that Pinocchio is transformed into a real boy, as Disney has it, but by the inner workings that convert the heart and move the self towards acts of real love.  Because Pinocchio makes the wish and not Geppetto, you’re drawn imaginatively to reconsidering your own heart felt moral choices in life. The moral imagination in the fairy tale is sadly replaced with a kind of utilitarian rationality in the Disney movie – with the talking cricket acting as Pinocchio’s conscience rather than Pinocchio’s own conscience prompting him to change. In contrast Collodi must have realized something of the truth that the heart represents all that is potential in us, all that is wholly human, as we are created in the very image and likeness of God.

  1. The Need for Moral Imagination in Relationship

Children identify with a good hero not because of the character’s goodness, but because of how the character’s resulting condition has a desiring appeal and makes a positive impression. The question we ask usually is not, “Do I want to be good?”, but much rather: “Who do I want to be like?”  

One’s heart is engaged much more in a captivating story than in a list of virtues presented as dry and lifeless facts or moral theories. I appreciate how Flannery O’Connor said in her book Mystery and Manners:

“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way […] You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.”[21]

Martin Buber, in his essay on “The Education of Character” talks about the mistakes he made when he first taught ethics. He made the mistake of giving instruction in ethics by presenting ethics as formal rules and principles. He came to realize that “Nothing of it was transformed into character-building substance.” Instead he found that while he was trying to explain that envy is despicable he could feel the shame of those who were poorer than their comrades. When he tried to explain that it is wicked to bully the weak, at once he could see a suppressed smile on the lips of the strong guys in the class. And when he tried to explain that lying destroys life, the terrible thing happened – the worst habitual liar in the class wrote a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying.[22]

It can be so tempting to reduce morals to a legalistic list of do’s and don’ts that you can check off and which make you feel good about yourself. However, legalism is merely duty bound and doesn’t engage your heart and is not relational. Legalism doesn’t involve the use of your imagination as you struggle with behaviour.  Considering faith is about relationship – relationship with your Creator and with those around you – it is important to realize the role of moral imagination necessary in relationship. God longs for more from us than just legalism. For in relationship you need imagination to be able to live yourself into what the other desires or feels. It takes the ability to imagine yourself into someone else’s shoes, to live into their situation, to be able to have compassion. To imagine what they must be going through you have to put yourself in their position and imagine what it must be like, to be able to give an appropriate response. Even in relationship with God, I need to use my imagination to be able to imagine how I can apply the stories he has given me in my own life. Moral imagination is using your imagination to understand the difference between good and evil more fully, because of your relationship with God, who is ultimately good.

An example of this struck me when I was in Italy this past summer looking at some of Caravaggio’s paintings. I am very moved by the way Caravaggio manages to live into the emotions of the characters of biblical stories when he paints them. I was clearly so excited about him that my parents ended up buying me a gift of The Complete Works of Caravaggio. I find the comparison between his painting of David and Goliath (which he painted early on in his career) in contrast to his second version of it, David with the head of Goliath, fascinating. The second one is much more penitent in character, since he painted this one after having murdered someone himself. Both paintings have Goliath’s face as a self portrait of Caravaggio.  The first painting sheds the light on David’s muscles, emphasizing how God gave him the strength.  While the expression that Caravaggio puts on David’s face in the second painting is much more striking – living into how it must have been emotionally for David, understanding how he felt. The painting of David here drips with compassion, having killed a person, Goliath.  Even though Caravaggio had a dubious past and I don’t know where he was in his faith, the story he painted is personalized and I found this compelling, drawing the viewer to think.

  1. The need for Imagination Enlightened by the Holy Spirit

Imagination and truth need to be linked for them to have any significance for us in reality. It struck me how often the images that Tolkien depicted in The Lord of the Rings reminded me of incidents in Scripture. This made me go back and imagine what the story in the Bible was trying to convey. My copy of the book is riddled with stickers where I noted which story I was reminded of. One of those moments was in the middle of Sam and Frodo’s endless travels, crawling along a precarious precipice to be able finally to deliver the ring. When Gollum (that annoying untrustworthy goblinlike character who had the ring before Bilbo) tries to attack Sam and Frodo has the chance to kill him with his sword called “Sting”, he doesn’t. Instead he just tells him to get off of Sam. Sam has clearly had enough when he gets out from under the clenching fists of Gollum:

“Gollum collapsed and went as loose as wet string. Sam got up, fingering his shoulder. His eyes smouldered with anger, but he could not avenge himself: his miserable enemy lay grovelling on the stones whimpering […] “Well, what’s to be done with it?” said Sam. “Tie it up, so as it can’t come sneaking after us no more, I say.” […] “No”, said Frodo.  “If we kill him, we must kill him outright. But we can’t do that, not as things are. Poor wretch! He has done us no harm.”[23]

This story reminded me of how even after Saul had attempted to kill David, David spared Saul’s life in 1 Samuel 26, although he had a royal chance to kill him. To show how he spared him, David took the water jug and spear that lay close to Saul’s head.  Something of David’s character gets revealed in this story. He could have taken revenge, instead he left it to the Lord. How many times have we been willing to do this in our own lives?  My heart was engaged as I imagined this story once again. We need the Holy Spirit to allow us to be appropriately challenged at such times.

It is important though to note that Scripture does not only communicate to us in story form, but also through truth statements. We need to be able to apply the stories, as well as meaningfully live out the truths that are given to us in the form of the Ten Commandments, for example. Martin Buber had a helpful analogy in his essay on “Education” in this regard. He said that in learning we sometimes need to be drawn to the truth of something as through a funnel (gradually having the truth of it dawn on us by ourselves as we listen to a story) and other times we need a pump as it were, in which the truth can be primed and we are recharged with truth statements.[24]

My former colleague, Jeff Dryden, in his lecture “Reading the Bible in the Postmodern Age: integrating Narrative and Proposition” used the example of 2 Samuel 12 to show how Scripture is filled with both narrative as well as propositional truth statements (which are basically just statements of truth). Here Nathan tells David a story, so that by engaging imaginatively with the gist of the story he can understand the truth of what he did to Uriah by running off with Bathsheba. The biblical story of David and Bathsheba is not about the beauty of sexual attraction, but about its ugliness out of context. Imagination helps us to understand this. Nathan tells a story of how a traveller came to a rich man and instead of feeding him his own sheep, he used the one little ewe lamb of a poor man. It was only once David burned with anger against the rich man, that the penny dropped for him in his own life.[25] What was happening here? David’s heart was engaged as he identified with the story through the use of his imagination. Through doing so, he came to see his own situation more clearly and gained a real sense of reality and truth. This made it possible for the Holy Spirit to work in him, to help change his heart. And his heart became more engaged as he subsequently related to God. 

And if one thinks about it, nobody understood the connection between truth and imaginative story telling better than Jesus himself.  His whole teaching ministry was based on this as he told parables – stories which make us think about the truth ourselves. He knows that the truth is better understood when it is enlightened by the imaginative use of our minds as the Holy Spirit works in us.

In pondering on the miraculous escape of Peter from prison in Acts 12 it is remarkable to see how Mary, Mark and the other disciples reacted in contrast to the servant girl. Rhoda went to the door and recognized Peter’s voice.  Instead of opening the door, she ran to the others to tell them Peter had arrived.  But rather than believing her, they said “You are out of your mind.” And when she kept on insisting that it was him, they said “It must be his angel.” They were just using their abstract reasoning.  But Rhoda, enlightened by the Holy Spirit and believing in the power of what God could do, used her imagination as she recognized Peter’s voice. And so she could exclaim, “Peter is at the door!”

In conclusion, it’s obvious that reading or hearing a story, has something very special about it. Because if it is a good story, it captures your imagination in a way that few other things do. Whether the story is fantasy or realistic it can have a very special power, for if it engages your heart, it can be harnessed for good.  When a story invites you into it, there is a tremendous imaginative activity going on. If your imagination is tickled, your mind fills in the space where the story is, as well how it must be to live the life of the characters with their particular challenges. And then it can give a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth of your own circumstances and help you face choices in your life that you might not have otherwise.

Compassion, for example, is one of the chief emotions awakened in us as we ‘live into’ a story with our imagination. Compassion binds us to the suffering of others in that we can imaginatively live into how their suffering must feel, and are drawn to want to do something to alleviate it. But compassion not only awakens you to the suffering of others, the Holy Spirit moves your heart to see how you could be responsible for having brought some of that suffering about yourself or what you could do about it. This movement of compassion and the dynamic of forgiveness are at the heart of the story of the two thieves crucified beside Jesus in Luke 23. One thief heaps scorn on Jesus. The other thief rebukes him, “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Not a parable, nor a ‘once upon a time’ story, but a really truly happened moment in His-story saved for us in the Bible so that we can better understand where we stand ourselves.

To summarize, when you use your imagination your heart gets engaged, because you try to identify with the story. Through doing so you can look at your own situation more clearly, and your sense of reality and truth can be heightened. This makes it possible for the Holy Spirit to work in you, to help change your heart. And this can engage your heart more fully as you relate to God.

Your imagination helps you live more fully – enjoy using it!


Edith Reitsema is a worker at English L’Abri. She grew up in South Africa and is trained in philosophy and theology.


[1] 2013:149-151.

[2] 2013:254.

[3] 2013:254.

[4] 2013:263.

[5] 2013:279.

[6] C.S.Lewis: A Life, Alister McGrath, 2013:278.

[7] From: David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Section I, Pg 186.

[8] G.K.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1999:79.

[9] G.K.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1999:83.

[10] 1999:79.

[11] 1999:85.

[12] 1997:127.

[13] Introduction to The Princess and the Goblin & The Princess and Curdie, p. xxii.

[14] FROM: “On Fairy-Stories” IN: Tales from the Perilous Realm, 1997:362.

[15] IN: Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church, 2002:141.

[16] The Lord of the Rings Part Two: The TwoTowers,1982:48

[17] 1991:9.

[18] 1998:26.

[19] 1995:116.

[20] 1995:129.

[21] 1990:96.

[22] FROM: Between Man and Man, 2002:124.

[23] The Lord of the Rings Part Two, 1982:261.

[24] FROM: Between Man and Man, 2002:105.

[25] Another example of this can be found in Judges 9.