The Art of Telling the Christian Story
by David Mills
Several years ago the founders of a new activist group in the Episcopal Church declared that they represented “dynamic orthodoxy,” by which they intended a not very subtle criticism of a traditional orthodoxy that (they thought) had not moved with the times—with the growth in human knowledge and understanding, and the like.
The group proved to be wholly in favor of the ordination of women, equivocal on homosexuality, and utterly and intentionally silent on abortion. In other words, when orthodoxy as hitherto understood conflicted with the world, especially the academic world from which most of them came, on one matter they sided with the world completely, on another they spoke as if the world might be right, and on a third they did not challenge the world at all.
“Dynamic orthodoxy” meant a limited and circumscribed orthodoxy, which is not really orthodox at all. Orthodoxy must offer the whole truth, and the whole truth said out loud, or it is seriously deformed and defective. The group’s self-advertised dynamism meant that they changed what had before them been considered orthodox Christianity, not that they conveyed it in new ways and with new energy.
Orthodoxy Not Enough
They were, nevertheless, on to something. It is not enough to be orthodox, if that means, as it often does, only an assent to the doctrines of the Creed and such other beliefs as your Church requires, and the willful practice of its disciplines.
Christians need a transformed imagination, an understanding of the world and a vision of the real nature of the cosmos, in which the doctrines find their life and meaning and in which the disciplines find their reason. We need not only to be orthodox, but also to be imaginatively orthodox.
One may know, for example, the Christian teaching on marriage and homosexuality, be able to cite St. Paul and the canons of one’s Church, and may work hard to live chastely and resist temptation. But what animates the belief and the practice, makes them joyful and compelling, is a vision or imagination of romance with its natural limits and risks, of fruitfulness, of the glories of sacrifice and submission, of the pleasures of home, of knowing someone else so well, of being so completely trusted by another.
This vision will better help the Christian resist temptation than the doctrine and the disciplines by themselves. Conveyed to the unbeliever, it will help him understand why the doctrine is true and the disciplines needed. To him, the doctrine alone will appear abstract and the disciplines impractical and unnecessary.
We need to be imaginatively orthodox because we are modern men, living in a Western country marked—whatever high percentage of Americans go to church—by a general commitment to secularism and the assumption that religion is a private, domestic activity of no relevance for public life. In a culture in which nearly every authority, including the Churches themselves, treat Christianity as only one spiritual option among many, believers need a deeply Christian imagination to support and protect their own faith and to show others why it matters.
The medieval peasant may have been able to say the Apostles’ Creed and fast on Fridays and be safe from heresy, but the modern American might do far more than that and still slip unknowingly into heresy at every step, because his imagination has been so corrupted that heresy seems common sense. He will have trouble seeing clearly and may resent having things made clear to him: as Flannery O’Connor wrote, “what is to us [Christians] an extension of sight is to the rest of the world a peculiar and arrogant blindness.”1 Thus our Imaginative Orthodoxy must be an art of unusual excellence.
Discipline & Art
We need to be imaginatively orthodox, but we do not want, like the “dynamically orthodox,” to change the content of the Faith in doing so. Let me begin with a definition of Imaginative Orthodoxy that avoids the problem of changing the content by modifying the noun. Imaginative Orthodoxy is the discipline of seeing the cosmos truly and the art of conveying that vision to people who either cannot or do not want to see it.
Our orthodoxy must be imaginative to reach those whose minds can be opened to the Faith through their imaginations, who do not find the doctrines interesting or important because they do not see how much difference they make to human life. All of us know people who cannot see the point or use of the Church, but who could come to see the Lord and therefore the Church, if we can find some way to reach their imaginations and bring them to a new vision of things.
Imaginative Orthodoxy is therefore both ascetic, a discipline and a training of our minds and souls, and evangelistic, a learning to speak someone else’s language. To be imaginatively orthodox is simply to obey our Lord’s commands to be holy and his demand that we preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. By becoming holier we become better preachers, and by preaching we become holier.
Therefore every Christian must be imaginatively orthodox, not just those—writers, painters, musicians—with obviously imaginative callings and gifts. Every Christian can be imaginatively orthodox because it is a response to grace and not an exercise of a particular (and rare) talent.
I should say a word about the definition of orthodoxy as seeing the world truly. We see the world truly—as truly as fallen creatures can, that is—because we have been let in on the secret of how things really are. The cosmos has a form and an order to which we have partly blinded ourselves by sin, but God has given us back much of our sight. Not all our sight, but we see far more of what is really there and see it far more clearly than we could without God’s help.
That is what orthodoxy is: having been given back our sight, to see what is really there, not just the surface of things, the worldly surface of things, but what is really there, what is at the heart of reality. To see, for example, that God loves us even though children die of leukemia and Serbs and Kosovars torture each other, and to see that even the nicest people are (left on their own) damned. It is to see something about the world that the world does not reveal of itself.
And even more truly, orthodoxy means that having been given back our sight, we see Who is really there at the center and heart of all things. The orthodox Christian sees, still partly and incompletely but truly, the Lord, and through him something of the life of the Holy Trinity. “In St. John’s Gospel, the incarnate Son reveals the Father by ‘glorifying’ Him,” John Saward noted in his book The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty (in which he says in greater depth and subtlety what I am trying to say here), “or, as the Vulgate says, by ‘clarifying’ Him. To see Him clearly is to know Him as He is.”2
The Christian can see better than others, but he does not claim to be a better man than they are. We do not have this special insight into the heart of reality because we are better than those who do not. We have not earned it. The orthodox Christian is taking the same test as everyone else, and without help would fail as badly as everyone else, but the Teacher has given him the answer sheet. He may not even understand the questions, but he knows the answers.
He would be happy to share them with everyone else, but he finds many of his friends intent on answering the questions their own way. They keep failing the exams but they do not care because they do not realize that someday they will fail the course. They walk, St. Paul says, “in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Ephesians 4:17b–18a).
The Christian should not claim to know no more than everyone else, as the manners of a doctrinally pluralistic society demand. We are not all walking in the same fog: we are all nearly blind but some of us have been given glasses and can walk without falling and help others do so as well. “What we suffer today is humility in the wrong place,” G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy.
“The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on,” he continued. “For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”3
Multiple Parallel Universes
What I mean about seeing the cosmos truly might best be illustrated by the words of those who see it wrongly. In the Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey of 1992, Justices O’Connor, Souter, and Kennedy—Republican appointments all—announced brightly that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
In other words, there is no form or order or reality of the universe to which we must conform ourselves, as Christians know and every previous civilization has known. Instead the universe is what we each decide it is. This is what freedom means: that I have my universe and you have yours.
This belief has its advantages. My concept of meaning might include the right to the contents of the safe at the local bank and the rare books in my colleague’s office. Since I have a right to the contents of the safe, I can take what I want by force if the bank will not open it for me when I ask—ask, mind you, with the authority of the Supreme Court to support me. In other words, the justices were not just enjoying a pleasant intellectual exercise. What the cosmos is really like is not an abstract question, because it determines how we treat one another.
The justices’ claim is an instruction for disorder, a tearing apart of things, a refusal to accept the way God has set up the cosmos (how can there be more than one universe?), and disorder uncorrected always leads to chaos, which is another word for evil. Lest you think I am being melodramatic or hysterical, you will remember that they were writing in defense of granting every woman the right to kill her child.
Planned Parenthood v. Casey reasserted a woman’s alleged right to have an abortion at any time before her baby is born. To a majority of the Supreme Court, even a man’s life, if he has not yet been born, is completely subject to someone else’s “right to define [her] own concept of meaning.” (No one ever asks the baby for his concept of meaning.) And that is not all: though O’Connor, Souter, and Kennedy did not (thank God) say so, on their grounds even being born does not save the baby from being killed to satisfy the mother’s concept of existence.
So this question of what the cosmos is really like affects human lives and souls. The only alternative to belief in an order of the cosmos is to make up the truth as you go along and as you feel right, and when people make up truth as they go along and as they feel, people die. Babies already die because of this alternative in the societies of the Western world.
And again, on these assumptions, the born but unwanted baby becomes the mother’s enemy. Only his life keeps the woman from realizing the sort of life, the particular concept of meaning, she (or, as is often the case, her husband or boyfriend) wants, to which she, encouraged by the Supreme Court, believes she has the right.
In the same way, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church speaks often of “pluriform truths.” This phrase seems better than the Supreme Court’s personal “concept of meaning,” because it still speaks of truth, but it is really only another way of saying what the Supreme Court said, that there is no transcendent truth but (there is such pluriformity) only my truth and your truth and his truth and her truth, and even my truth is only true as long as I want it to be. Bishop Griswold is pro-choice, of course. In a world of “pluriform truths,” it is perfectly logical to believe that my truth demands and justifies someone else’s death. He dies or lives, in a world of “pluriform truths,” as the law allows or forbids the mother to have him killed.
This is what is at issue in Imaginative Orthodoxy: what the world is really like, and how we can get others to see what it is really like. And see it before someone else gets killed.
With the possible exception of the occasional saint, the people of whom I’m speaking include every Christian as well as every unbeliever. It is infinitely better to be orthodox in doctrine than not, but it is not enough to be orthodox in doctrine. We do not see and mostly do not want to see various aspects of the Faith. We are all in some ways only partly Christianized: there are realities we can’t see, and there are realities we refuse to see.
This is most obvious in those good-hearted, sacrificial, and biblically serious Christians who cannot understand why women are not called to headship in the Church. They can read the Bible with great subtlety on many subjects, for example homosexuality (which their culture disposes them to oppose), but then make the most pathetically absurd claims and execute the most extraordinary exegetical gymnastics to prove that women ought to be priests.
A couple of years ago I was in a discussion on the question of homosexuality and marriage, and a priest whose wife is ordained argued that St. Paul’s demand in 1 Timothy 3 that the bishop should be the husband of one wife, proved that homosexuality was wrong. Because the bishop had to be the husband of one wife, a married couple clearly had to be of different sexes. As he developed this argument, the men around the table, most of whom believed ardently in ordaining women, cheered him on.
At the end of the discussion I raised my hand and said, “You know, Father, there is one more implication of that verse.” He asked what it was and I said, “That the bishop should be male.” He laughed, and the others laughed, and one even said “touché,” but none changed their minds though I had proved the point on their own grounds. If the priest’s argument was true, mine was true, but I had come to an unacceptable though logically necessary conclusion.
I cannot quite understand this (leaving out those who compromised to advance their careers), except to say that some of them are simply missing some imaginative capacity that would let them understand the nature of order in the Church and family and the differences between the sexes, and so missed what is after all the fairly clear biblical teaching on the matter.
They are like an art historian who is red-green colorblind. He may know vastly more about art than you or I do, but he will not see much that we do. He needs the witness of others to know what he cannot see.
We all suffer these failures of imagination where we do not see something of the Christian revelation. This is one of the reasons the Church must hold firmly to the revelation we have received, because only in doing so, in holding tightly to every jot and tittle, will it protect people from missing the truths they do not naturally see.
Many of these people, did their Church not ordain women, would not believe in it. They would be protected from their own inability to see the nature of order or the differences between the sexes, because the Church was faithful. For the elders who have led the Church astray, and therefore led the children astray, it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their necks and be cast into the sea. As the traditional Anglican rite of ordination put it, “if it shall happen that the same Church, or any Member thereof, do take any hurt or hindrance by reason of your negligence, ye know the greatness of the fault, and also the horrible punishment that will ensue.”4
The Christian Story
“Seeing the cosmos truly” means first and most of all knowing the Christian Story. The Christian Story is of course a wonderful story simply as a story, but it has the infinite advantage over all other stories of being true. As Dorothy Sayers put it, in her short essay “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged”:
That, in very brief form, is the story, the extraordinary Christian Story, we have been given. But wonderful story though it is, some very good people, perfectly nice people, people who are much better people, humanistically speaking, than we are, just do not get it. It either leaves them cold or affects them only in the way a good movie does: it’s a good story that holds your attention for as long as it lasts and then makes you feel warm or sad or happy for an hour or two afterward, and may once in a while teach you something about life. But it’s just a movie.
That is the entire effect hearing the Christian Story has on them. They either look blank or they thank you for sharing such a really touching story and add that they’re glad you’ve found something that works for you. But they do not believe it and they do not rethink their beliefs or change their lives because of it.
Why They Do Not See It
The Christian Story does not reach their imaginative grasp of things. It does not change the way they see the cosmos and therefore what they can believe. I think there are two reasons for this. First, some people do not want Christianity to reach their imaginations. Of them we will speak later.
Second, the Church herself puts some people off. Some people can’t get beyond the cultural trappings, what church looks like, what C. S. Lewis called the Faith’s “stained-glass and Sunday school associations.” These are the “watchful dragons” that keep people from seeing the truths of the Faith in their real power. The trappings can put people off. “An obligation to feel can freeze feelings,” Lewis wrote, speaking of his own childhood. “And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical.”6
Sometimes the person is wrong to be put off by the trappings, like the man I once heard who declared that he would not go to church because the only Scriptures read were from the Bible or those who reject liturgical worship because they object to “thee” and “thou” (which strikes me like objecting to gowns and tuxedos at a wedding). Sometimes he is put off for more understandable reasons, like being embarrassed to park his rusting Honda Civic among the Mercedes and BMWs, or being single in a parish dedicated to families.
And we have to admit that Christians have made the Church unattractive. In the 1940s Dorothy Sayers wrote what she thought the average Englishman of her day would say in answer to a few simple theological questions, his answers being picked up from the Christians around him. To the question “What does the Church think of God the Father?” she thought the average Englishman would respond something like this:
To the question “What was Jesus Christ like in real life?” Sayers thought he would say:
We have this problem today and the opposite problem as well. The mainline Churches drive away some people not because they are too strict but because they are not strict enough. Their laxity and indifference to their own message are a scandal to the world. When the man looking for God asks mainline leaders for bread, they do not give him a stone, they give him a lecture on the irrelevance of bread and appeal to the advances in digestive theory made since man once naively believed he needed bread.
The Aggressively Spiritual
For whatever reasons, many perfectly normal people do not get the Christian Story. And yet many of them are aggressively spiritual. They love religion, they just do not like Christianity. Bishop Terry Kelshaw has told of being taken to lunch at the home of a very well-educated couple in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As they talked before lunch, the man said he just couldn’t believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. He thought the Christian Story absurd.
Then the wife called from the kitchen, “Honey, spin the crystal,” and they went into the dining room where hanging from the light above the table was a multi-faceted crystal. The husband spun it and stood looking into it until it stopped spinning. Then he called to his wife, “It’s okay,” and she brought in lunch.
Bishop Kelshaw asked them about this, and they told him it was their spiritual exercise, that it was a sort of prayer for them, that it put them in touch with the universe, and that sort of thing. He asked them, “Does it ever say ‘no’?” Of course it didn’t, which rather ruined it as a spiritual guide. They went back to discussing religion, and the couple repeated their inability to believe in anything as absurd as a Virgin Birth or a Resurrection, till Bishop Kelshaw said, “But you believe in spinning a crystal.”8
So, as I say, many perfectly nice people who are intently religious simply will not believe in Christianity. They will believe anything, in the most absurd things, rather than believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to us. I do not, myself, understand this. If I didn’t believe that “for us men and for our salvation, he came down from Heaven,” I wouldn’t believe in spinning crystals, I would believe in sleeping in on Sunday mornings.
Modern Man at His Best & Worst
“At its best,” Flannery O’Connor noted, “our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”9 O’Connor’s “searchers and discoverers” are modern man at his best.
I think it is only modern man at his best that we can reach through the imagination, because only at his best is he open to the transfiguring insight, to the “paradigm shift” needed to see the world in a new way and to see truths he didn’t see before. Only the searcher and discoverer will let his eyes be opened, will take the risk to look behind the worldly appearances to see what’s really there.
We see this even in some modern men who think themselves utterly hostile to Christianity, because they still hold much more of the Christian mind and vision than they realize.10 Take the ardent evolutionist, for whom man arose by blind chance out of the elements, which exist he knows not why. He will tell you that God is a human invention, that everything happened by chance, that death is the end of life, that there is no order or plan to the universe except that dictated by the laws of physics and biology.
Yet he almost always thinks that history is going somewhere and going somewhere better—that evolution doesn’t mean random change, it means improvement. He believes that complexity is better than simplicity (that man is more advanced than microbes, for example), that a world filled with creatures is better than a bare rock flying through space. Even the ardent evolutionist who thinks he hates the Faith still believes in good and evil and the eventual triumph of the good.
He has categories in his imagination into which the Christian Story will fit and which need the Christian Story to make sense. This kind of evolutionist has an eschatology, a vision of the direction and end of human history. It is a secularized vision, secular in content, but it has the Christian form. Thus there is a way to reach him. You can present to him the gospel with some chance he will hear it, because he has still got something of the Christian mind and imagination.
Those who have “domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily” are modern man at his worst. They have decided that the world has no meaning but that they do not really care. This man has disconnected himself from meaning and therefore from any real possibility of a transforming encounter with reality.
He has emptied his imagination of those categories into which the Christian Story will fit. Often he is much nicer about religious matters and far more tolerant of our faith than the ardent evolutionist, but he is much farther away from the gospel, because he doesn’t really care either way—as long, of course, as we do not claim that Christianity is true for him as well as for us. If we want to play this game, he is happy to let us. The ardent evolutionist cares enough to want to win the game and therefore is sometimes able to lose it.
We see this domesticated despair in the movement called “postmodernism.” The word has many meanings, and many refinements, but in general the postmodernist asserts that there is no transcendent truth, no universal story, no universal order, but only individual truths, individual stories by which each culture and each individual makes what sense of things he can. If your story works for you, it is true—as true, that is, as anything is—and no one can tell you otherwise.
This is the cheerful yuppie postmodernism of Justices Souter, O’Connor, and Kennedy, and of many of the leading lights in the academy and the media, and of the presiding bishop and all the religious leaders for whom he speaks. To speak of choosing one’s own concept of meaning and of pluriform truths may seem terribly profound and sophisticated and open-minded, but it is essentially a way of justifying one’s having domesticated despair. Our justices and our presiding bishop are saying, in an indirect way, that there is no final, eternal meaning to reality but we’re okay with that.
This assertion that there is no transcendent truth comes in more radical versions. For some postmodernists, the idea of a universal order and any inherited rules—especially moral rules and rules of order—are only methods by which rich white men oppress everyone else. These postmodernists insist on “transgressing” every inherited rule and boundary, smashing every order they feel imposed upon them. To transgress a moral boundary is an act of generalized liberation—one senses, reading these postmodernists, that they think that engaging in an act of sodomy or public obscenity is somehow also a defense of the civil rights of black people or the equality of women.
One of the earliest examples of the praise of transgression is a now famous essay by Susan Sontag titled “The Pornographic Imagination,” published in 1967. She was then and is still at the top of the American intellectual world. Some pornographic works were “interesting and important works of art,” she said, while being careful to speak of readers like herself as “connoisseurs” and not “clients.” The artist, she said, should “fascinate” the viewer, and to do so he “mak[es] forays into and tak[es] up positions on the frontier of consciousness (often very dangerous to the artist as a person) and report[s] back what’s there.”
The artist’s “principal means of fascinating is to advance one step further in the dialectic of outrage. He seeks to make his work repulsive, obscure, inaccessible; . . . the exemplary modern artist is a broker in madness.” She then praised various pornographic works, including those of the Marquis de Sade, the contents of which most of you would not believe, as revealing “something beyond good and evil, beyond love, beyond sanity; . . . a resource for ordeal and for breaking through the limits of consciousness.”11
The postmodernists’ descent into depravity should not surprise us. If there is no transcendent truth, no human nature, no moral code telling men what to do, man, needing some solid ground on which to stand (even when he claims the universe offers no such ground), must find his real self in nature. The most attractive possibility in nature is sexual activity, because it is primal and instinctive and expressive, and enjoyable as well (at least at first, and for the affluent and attractive who can satisfy their desires). As one professor said, sex is “ultimate because [it is] uncontrollable.”12
And sometimes, not surprisingly, the postmodernists descend into absurdity. If you do not live in academia you may find this hard to believe, but there are studies of physics written by tenured professors and published by academic journals that claim that the laws of physics are merely expressions of a “linear,” male way of thinking no more valid than other, supposedly feminine, ways of thinking. One notices that nevertheless these professors get out of the way of moving buses.
Reaching This Modern Man
So, in outline, the man who has domesticated despair. This second kind of modern man cannot, I think, be reached through the imagination. He has no categories to receive the Christian Story and often (I suspect almost always) has purposefully rejected the ideas and images that would let him hear the Christian Story. We must witness to these people when we can, because we can never be sure they cannot be reached, but in most cases God must work in his own mysterious ways to break their resistance to reality and to open their eyes.
I do not mean to judge individual postmodernists, because people will say the most foolish things that they do not really believe, especially if it will get them tenure. The postmodernist may be like the teenage boy who will tell you that he hardly notices a girl he is in fact absolutely besotted with but who doesn’t notice him. He speaks like that to make himself feel better, but even he knows it isn’t true. We should hope, and act as if, the postmodernist is lying.
The real convinced postmodernist has hardened his mind and closed his imagination to the gospel. He is beyond the reach of the most imaginative orthodoxy. We can try to be his friend, but we will usually find it impossible to talk with him, find no way to get him to hear the story as anything other than a pretty story that is true for us but makes no claims whatsoever upon him. All we can do is pray that God will work in him in his own mysterious way.
The world of the yuppie postmodernist is not so attractive, or so rational, a world as they think. It can be believed by tenured professors in Western universities, whose lives are among the easiest in human history, because their ideas have so few real consequences—though even they should see, if only in the lives of their students, the pain of a postmodern life.
In the postmodernist’s world things fall apart and the center does not hold. As G. K. Chesterton wrote in Heretics, suppose some people want to pull down a lamppost and ask a monk, “the spirit of the Middle Ages,” for his opinion. The monk begins, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—”.
As it turned out, they were not in fact practical at all, because they did not begin with principle. Some of them, Chesterton continued,
The postmodernist world is a world in which the light, even the light of reason, has been almost extinguished. The postmodernists do not yet fight much among themselves because they are restrained by the last thin threads of Christian assumptions, and because they still unite against Christianity. They fight it not least, I think, because it is the last defender of reason and reality and insists that they must conform themselves to something greater than they are.
When the postmodernists have finally knocked down the monk, and enjoyed a short time celebrating their liberation from Christianity’s oppressive dogmas, they will fall to blows, because they have no way to settle their differences and divide the spoils other than by fighting. Feminists will demand more money for the women’s studies department, and homosexualists for the gay studies department, both claiming priority as victims and liberators, and neither able to prove it.
All that is true, I think, but I pray that the convinced postmodernists are far fewer than they seem to be, and that even those who have domesticated despair did not want to and will respond to a believable picture of hope—will accept the Christian Story if it is told them in a way they can understand. I hope, in other words, that their apparent despair is only a giving up because the search proved too hard and too long, wrong as giving up was, and not a true and final rejection of reality and of God.
The situation is more as the Catholic writer Walker Percy described it to a group of seminarians at their graduation. The Church, in “a society which is ever more consumer-oriented,” must answer “a view of man which is in subtle ways not so much hostile but rather indifferent to Christ’s radical injunction . . . [T]here is a species of bland indifference which is all but invincible.”
Most Americans, even most Christian Americans, are practicing postmodernists. They seem not to care about seeing what is really there at the heart of reality, but that is not necessarily their final word. It is, I suspect, their corrupted minds speaking and not their hearts, which must long for something their minds tell them cannot be found. “Never in history has modern man been in greater need of you, has been more confused about his identity and the meaning of his life,” Percy said.
It is a very great task, offered on the dominical principle that he who has ears to hear will hear. “My task . . . is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see,” wrote Joseph Conrad.
What Percy calls “authenticity” I have called Imaginative Orthodoxy. It is the only kind of Christian life that can speak to such men as we have been given to speak to, and perhaps bring them to see the truth for which they, caught up in the life of the world, have forgotten to ask.
The Artist’s Vocation
Now to Imaginative Orthodoxy itself. Imaginative Orthodoxy is simply seeing the cosmos truly and conveying what you have seen to people who are either unprepared or unwilling to see it. This raises the question of the specifically imaginative vocation, the calling of the artist.
In Western society, the artist has been given the place the priest and sage and seer once had. He is the one who sees farthest, who feels most deeply, whose sensitivity is most refined; he is the one who has “soul,” who is most attuned to the mystery of life. And so almost everyone wants to be an artist, to be creative and expressive and deep. Everyone wants to feel that he has an artist buried inside himself that needs to be released, even if he cannot draw a decent stick figure or sing “Mary had a little lamb” in tune or write a grammatical sentence.
So let me say that if you suddenly feel the urge to take up painting or poetry . . . take up tennis. There is a specific imaginative vocation, but it is given to relatively few people, which would be obvious if we did not live in a society that impiously worships art and foolishly reveres the artist. To be a painter or a musician or a writer is only a calling in the Body of Christ, no more important to the Kingdom than any other and in some ways rather less important than many.
Few people have the vocation Western society has so exalted. Artistically speaking, some in the Body are glamorous organs like eyes and ears, and some are descending colons. But though indelicate to mention, colons are far more important to the body than eyes and ears. You can live without eyes and ears, but you will die without a colon.
The Body of Christ has different organs, and the artistic vocation is (if such things can be ranked) one of the less important. The artist’s job is to reveal the real nature of things through picture or story or song, to show the rest of us what is really there when we are content with the misleading surface of things. As Pope John Paul II has written, “Artists are constantly in search of the hidden meaning of things, and their torment is to succeed in expressing the world of the ineffable.”16 Through their work, in the words of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, “the knowledge of God can be better revealed and the preaching of the Gospel can become clearer to the human mind.”17 (Can be better revealed, not will: much depends not only on the artist’s skill but also on the clarity of his vision.)
The Nature of the Vocation
This vocation is marked not just by talent, though you must have that, but by a love of the craft, which is much rarer than talent. I have never yet met anyone who said he wrote easily who was a good writer—he may have had some skill in one type of writing, but he was not a writer, one who cared for the precise meaning of words and the balance of sentences and the accuracy of images. The man who enjoys writing may have a gift for clever and striking phrases, but his prose is almost always rambling and imprecise and bloated.18
The vocation is also marked, in most cases, by a certain dislike of the work. As Samuel Johnson said, “Anyone who writes except for money is a blockhead.” People with the imaginative vocation dislike the work because it is hard and because they know how far from perfection their work falls, so that the pleasures of creation are always mixed and qualified by the pains of realized imperfection. The Christian artist will feel this even more intensely. “Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive, and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery,” noted John Paul II.
But (as we shall see) every Christian must strive to be imaginatively orthodox and in this sense to be an artist, though most of us will be artists only by trying to be holy, by making of our lives a work of art, specifically an image or icon of Christ.20 Mother Teresa of Calcutta did not write or paint, but she prayed and fasted and loved the poor, and the image of holiness her life offered the world did far more to show the world what the gospel is than the work of any writer or painter you can think of.
In this pursuit of sanctity every man should have the artist’s love of the craft and his dislike of the work. He must love the craft of sanctity, even when he finds it very hard to do, and he must dislike the work because he sees how his creation always fails to reach the image of holiness he sees in Jesus Christ. He must be an artist who works upon his own life and soul, with all the sacrifices and pain that art requires. He must make art a habit, by working steadily over time to make the work of holiness natural and instinctive. Every Christian ought to do for Jesus what van Gogh or da Vinci or Faulkner did for their art.
The Unimaginative Christian
So what do those without artistic gifts do to be imaginatively orthodox? They do it in two ways. First, they begin to see the cosmos truly and to absorb the Christian Story through the deep and thorough reading of Scripture. Second, they train themselves in the art of conveying that story through the disciplines of the Christian life. In this way, Scripture forms the vision (teaches the orthodoxy) and the disciplines teach us to convey that vision (forms the imagination).
To be an imaginatively orthodox Christian is simply to be an obedient Christian. Being an obedient Christian is hard work and requires that you give up a lot of things you’d like to have and to do. Being an obedient Christian means taking up your cross. Imaginative Orthodoxy as an aspect of taking up your cross isn’t found cheaply or easily.
Many people will get up at some awful hour of the morning and jog five miles and eat bran muffins without butter and give up beer just to keep their bodies in shape, but when asked to read even so simple a book as Mere Christianity to keep their minds in shape, will say that it is too hard and too much trouble.21 Being imaginatively orthodox means making a similar and even greater effort to train the mind and imagination as we expect of anyone who tries to train the body. It means, for example, working to understand the Faith more deeply by reading a book when you’d rather relax in front of the television, and reading a difficult book and underlining the important points and looking up the hard words and asking for help.22
Forming the Imagination
Let me start with the forming of the imagination and the ability to convey that vision through the Christian disciplines. The disciplines, in which I include prayer and ministry and evangelism, help you become imaginatively orthodox because they teach you to see more clearly not only what is there but also what your neighbor sees. Training in charity brings an increase in clarity, and seeing more clearly we can act more charitably. As Jesus “clarifies” the Father, so we, in a very small way, can clarify for ourselves and others the Lord Jesus.
The disciplines help you see the Christian Story better and retell it in ways your neighbor can understand. They do this in two ways, I think.
First, they free you from yourself so that you can love others enough to see things as they see them and therefore speak in a way they will most easily understand. Fasting, giving alms, and tithing, for example, show you very quickly how much you love the perishable things you have, how much the things of this world hold you, how addicted you are to its pleasures. As soon as you give up coffee for Lent, you immediately feel a great desire for coffee, even if you never really liked coffee before. In some ways you would rather have a cup of coffee now than heaven later.
So the disciplines show you the reality of your own depravity, how tied to this world you are and how little you really care about the life of the world to come and the good of others in this world. That alone is a liberation from self for the good of others.
They also teach you something about the redeemed life and encourage you in it, by showing you the fruits of giving back to God things you thought you owned. They give you a taste of the freedom to be had in Christ, when you find yourself saved from an addiction because you’ve fasted. That also is a liberation from self for the good of others.
Second, the disciplines force you to put yourself in the place of others. In praying for others—I mean seriously praying and not just filing their requests by title, as in “Heal Bobby, amen”—you enter imaginatively into their lives and pray for the things they would pray for. In true intercessory prayer you put yourself in their place and begin to pray for them as if you were praying for yourself.
So in praying for others you learn to see the world the way they do. The same is true for any ministry, whether you are handing out sandwiches in a soup kitchen or teaching the seventh grade Sunday school class, because whenever you serve others you will be forced in some way to enter their lives and begin to see the world as they see it.
The same is also true in evangelism, when the people to whom you present the Faith force you to answer their questions and objections. You have to work, sometimes very hard, to see what it is that bothers or confuses them in order to give them the gospel answer.
The Effect of the Disciplines
The Christian disciplines will make you an imaginative Christian, in the sense of one who can convey the Christian Story to others, because you will know how the world looks to them, and therefore be able to translate that story into stories they can hear and understand. All the evangelistic techniques you can master are of very limited use without this training in charity.
What C. S. Lewis wrote at the end of his book An Experiment in Criticism about serious reading applies to the disciplines of the Christian life (of which serious reading is one, and a neglected one). “In love,” he wrote,
Our first impulse, he continued, is to get more for ourselves, but our second impulse
We owe writers an “enormous extension of our being,” he continued a few paragraphs later. We see this
That is what the Christian disciplines do for us: they train us to see with the eyes of others, and to hear with the ears of those to whom we’re called to bring the gospel. In reading great literature (and, again, in the practice of the Christian disciplines), “I become a thousand men and yet remain myself,” Lewis concluded. “Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”23
The Formative Scripture
Thus the disciplines train your imagination. Scripture gives you the vision the imagination has to convey. I am writing to people who believe the Scriptures the reliable source of the Christian Story and who believe that the actual words matter, but they (we) do not always read it with the intensity and depth and effort required. We tend to read Scripture superficially, unsystematically, ignorantly, without studying the words of the Word, without tracking down cross-references and finding the exact meaning of the words and the like, and without looking to the Church’s great expositors for help in understanding it.
Thus our vision of the cosmos, of things as they really are, is much less clear than it could be—and therefore much less easily conveyed to others than it should be. We have not done everything in our power to improve our sight, to remove the blinders and veils we have put up before our eyes. We are less orthodox, because less biblical, than we should be.
To give a good example of reading well, I would have to include a very good sermon, for which we do not have space. Think of the really good biblical teachers and preachers you’ve heard, how they can draw out of what seem to be the driest, most boring, most pointless texts (the “begats,” for example) riches and depth and wisdom you never saw before, because they showed you how the text stands in the whole of Scripture, how it reflects and is reflected in other passages, how it moves the Christian Story along, fills out the background or explains why a hero acts as he does.
Contrast that sort of biblical teaching with the sort of sermon that grows from treating the Bible as a collection of stories (academics like to say “texts”) from which one has to draw one’s own meaning. This assumes that the Bible is a set of myths and tales useful in illustrating whichever one of the “pluriform truths” one chooses. As the preface to the Canadian Book of Alternative Services puts it, Scripture is “the repository of the Church’s symbols,” a sort of grab bag from which one can take any symbol one needs to make one’s point. It has authority not because it tells the truth to which everyone is subject but because it gives us the shared symbols by which we can pursue our differing truths with some semblance of intellectual unity.
I will take as examples the sermons I found on the website of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, perhaps the Anglican institution farthest from anything Christians have ever considered orthodox. I read five or six of them one evening, and perhaps the most surprising thing is that none of the sermons I read were unorthodox. By changing the references a little you could preach most of them in a traditional Episcopal parish.
They were not unorthodox—but they were empty. “Thin” is the kindest judgment I could make. They were thin because the preachers took the Scriptures simply as a vessel into which they had to pour the meaning. They all preached on one of the lessons of the day, but they did not pull anything out of the words themselves. I do not know why anyone would go to church for sermons like these: there was nothing deep, nothing transformative, little that was actually interesting and nothing that was intellectually compelling.
An Easter Sermon
One sermon on the Resurrection, preached on Easter Monday, began by saying that we could find the crucifixion everywhere, giving the hopelessly predictable p.c. examples of Matthew Shepard and Kosovo. It went on about this at some length and then concluded by saying that “the risen Lord,” by which the preacher seemed to mean not a now living person but a symbol of hopefulness, is hard to find in our world, but we’ve just got to keep looking for him and maybe we can even find him in our neighbor. That was the point of the sermon: things certainly look bad, but the risen Lord is out there somewhere and so we’ve just got to keep looking for him.
Nothing in this sermon was unorthodox. The preacher did not deny anything in the Creed. Nothing he said was untrue, but equally nothing he said depended on the reality of the Resurrection as an event in human history and nothing depended on the actual words of the text, on what Scripture has to teach about the Resurrection. At its best, it presented what I call “decorated humanism,” the religious intellectual’s version of Hallmark greeting card emotion.
The sermon offered fine feelings dressed up in a nice story, which may well have been a sort of folktale, about this man who was killed 2,000 years ago and then came back to life. For all I know, the preacher may have believed in the bodily resurrection, but he did not preach as if he did. Though he did not deny any claim in the Creed, the effect of his sermon was to deny the Resurrection by making its historical reality irrelevant. If it happened, one would not use it only as a metaphor.
The sermon was really a sort of pep talk for the religiously inclined but doctrinally agnostic. It was not a communication of the Word and life of God. The preacher saw only the surface of things, not the cosmos as it really is: not the fact that for us men and our salvation the Son of God took on our nature, became man, died, and rose again. There was little or nothing of the gospel in the sermon, and nothing that would help form a Christian imagination.
Imaginative Orthodoxy is the discipline of seeing the cosmos truly and the art of conveying that vision to people who either cannot or do not want to see it. The first—the orthodoxy, the seeing the cosmos truly—is given to us mainly in the Christian Story as revealed in Scripture—and in Scripture read as the coherent and complex and subtle and unchanging but ever revealing Word the Church has always known it to be. The second, the imagination, the art of conveying the vision, is given to us in the disciplines of the Christian life.
Our model for both is our Lady’s “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word.” That is the model for the imaginatively orthodox Christian life: the discipline of submitting her life to God—for bearing a child is far more rigorous than any fast and far more costly than any tithe—and giving her mind and imagination to being formed by his Word.
As you may know, feminists attack Mary for letting herself be the passive tool of an oppressive male God. They declare that admiring her is simply a way to keep women down, of telling them to be submissive and agreeable, and certainly not to get ordained or in any way challenge men. In their view, the great devotion the Church has offered the Mother of God is a sort of double bluff, in which women are led to believe themselves important while being seduced into submission.
But as Christians know, Mary did not passively do what (that male) God told her to do. She made a very costly act of the will: receptive and open to God, she laid down her life in free response to his Word. And her “Be it unto me according to thy word” has changed the world. It has changed every life in this country and perhaps every life in the world today. It has even changed the lives of the feminists who resent her for saying it, for feminism could not have arisen save in a world whose view of women had been transformed by Christianity.24
An Icon of the Gospel
If you have orthodoxy and the imagination together, you will be able to translate the vision to those God has given you to serve. You need not be an artist or a writer or a musician to be imaginatively orthodox, you need not be able to paint a beautiful picture or write graceful English prose or play Bach on the violin.
A story, O’Connor wrote, “is a way to say something that can’t be said in any other way. . . . [T]he meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning.”25 The imaginatively orthodox life says something to the world that cannot be said in any other way. It takes the abstract meaning of our doctrines and disciplines and makes people experience them. It shows through each believer’s story something of the Christian Story. And the better an artist the believer is, the more careful, the more sacrificial, the more dedicated to his art, the more people will listen to him and make the Christian Story theirs.
If you are imaginatively orthodox, your life will be an image or icon of the gospel that might reach even the ardent evolutionist. It will reveal something of what the cosmos is really like. The image you create, or rather that God creates in you, will not hang on a wall, though it may hang on a cross.
If you are imaginatively orthodox, if you say to the Lord “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word,” your life will be an image of the gospel you are trying to live and to convey. You will be something much better than an artist: you will be a godly man or woman, and therefore a witness, and a witness whose words will be true and will be heard.
“Imaginative Orthodoxy” is a revised and expanded version of the address David Mills gave in late May at Forward in Faith’s tenth anniversary meeting.
1. Flannery O’Connor, “Catholic Novelists,” Mystery and Manners (New York: The Noonday Press, 1997) p. 180. These essays offer a wonderful exploration of the Christian artist’s art by a working writer of great theological ability and realism about the work and the workers.
2. John Saward, The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty: Art, Sanctity and the Truth of Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997) p. 45. This is a marvelous book. As O’Connor put it in Mystery and Manners (p. 178), “Dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.”
3. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in G. K. Chesterton: Collected Works, Volume I (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986) pp. 234–235.
4. From the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, p. 540. All this sort of thing disappeared from the 1979 revision, predictably enough.
5. Dorothy Sayers, “The Greatest Drama Ever Staged,” Creed or Chaos? (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1949) p. 7.
6. C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What Needs to Be Said,” On Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982) p. 37.
7. Dorothy Sayers, “The Dogma Is the Drama,” Creed or Chaos?, pp. 22–23.
8. Bishop Kelshaw told the story in his 1999 commencement address for Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.
9. Flannery O’Connor, “Novelist and Believer,” Mystery and Manners, p. 159.
10. For a description of the idea, see C. S. Lewis’s “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Christian Reflections, edited by Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1967) pp. 82–93.
11. Quoted in the superb book by Rochelle Gurstein, The Repeal of Reticence (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996) pp. 278–281.
12. Quoted by Charles Colson, “Earn Credit! Watch Porn!: False Salvations in the Classroom,” the 18 May 1999 Breakpoint commentary. Colson also wrote: “As film professor Laura Kipnis explains, ‘On the cultural left, there’s been a loss of faith in traditional ideologies as a potential agent of social change,’ so the left has turned to ‘inner change’ — defined primarily as discovering the true nature of one’s sexuality. In short, sexual liberation is nothing less than a substitute salvation. It aims at freeing the inner self from the evils of repression and returning to its original wholeness — and then renewing the rest of society.”
13. Heretics in G. K. Chesterton: Collected Works, Volume I, p. 46.
14. Walker Percy, “A ‘Cranky Novelist’ Reflects on the Church,” Signposts in a Strange Land, edited by Patrick Samway (New York: The Noonday Press, 1991) pp. 317, 325. Percy observed that “the one place where the answer [to the problem described in the first quote] is not be found is in the relaxation of the standards of the priesthood,” or, by extension, the standards of belief and practice for the laity.
15. Quoted in Mystery and Manners, p. 80.
16. John Paul II in the 1999 Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, section 13.
17. Gaudium et Spes, 62, quoted in ibid., section 11.
18. Similarly, Flannery O’Connor noted that “A perception is not a story, and no amount of sensitivity can make a story-writer out of you if you just plain don’t have a gift for telling a story.” Ibid., p. 77. For this reason I distrust men who say they “want to be a priest” instead of celebrate the sacraments or preach or care for the dying: they seem too attracted to the role and the status and not the work.
19. 1999 Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, section 6. For a picture of the artistic temptation to value the work more than the vision, see chapter IX of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.
20. The Pope finds this call in the story of creation. To man, “the noblest fruit of his design . . . [God] subjected the visible world as a vast field in which human inventiveness might assert itself. . . . Through his ‘artistic creativity’ man appears more than ever ‘in the image of God,’ and he accomplishes this task above all in shaping the wondrous ‘material’ of his own humanity. . . .” Therefore “all men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” Ibid., sections 1 and 2.
21. I commend the exchange on the watching of television between the religion columnist Terry Mattingly and Touchstone editor S. M. Hutchens, published in Touchstone 11.1 (January/February 1998), pp. 12–15. I agree with Hutchens.
22. For more on this, see my “Writing What Your Readers Will Hear” in Touchstone 12.5 (September/October 1999).
23. C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press/Canto Books, 1992) pp. 138–141.
24. As even Newsweek almost admitted in Kenneth Woodward’s cover story “2000 Years of Jesus.”
25. “Writing Short Stories,” Mystery and Manners, p. 96.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Imaginative Orthodoxy” first appeared in the November/December 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.