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From the Jan/Feb, 2014 issue of Touchstone


It's a Wonderful World by Ken Myers


It's a Wonderful World

For many years, I have seen references to C. S. Lewis's story about how his imagination was "baptized" upon a chance reading of George MacDonald's Phantastes. The episode is often cited to affirm a vague Christianizing of Lewis's inner life. Recently, while re-reading an essay by MacDonald about the nature of the imagination, I finally understood the fittingness of Lewis's use of sacramental language to describe this conversion.

Lewis's recounting of this event is at the end of Chapter XI of Surprised by Joy, "Check," in which he recalls that before reading MacDonald, his imaginative life stood "over against" the life of his intellect. "Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless." Some quality in MacDonald's story revealed to Lewis that this dualism was not inevitable, that the real world could be worthy of love, could in fact evoke love. It was a quality Lewis describes as "Holiness," and it connected the realm of the imagination—where Lewis had fixed Joy—with the stuff of everyday life known by reason.

Up till now, each visitation of Joy had left the common world momentarily a desert. . . . [N]ow I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow.

Just as the common things of water, bread, and wine are means whereby God meets us, just as the disciples beheld God's glory in the common form of a man of flesh and blood, so a rightly focused imagination could perceive wonders actually present in clouds and trees and coals in the grate.

Following & Finding

In an 1867 essay called "The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture," George MacDonald explains why Lewis's new recognition of the presence of the Holy in the common was the fulfillment of the very purpose of human imagination. "The imagination of man," MacDonald asserted, "is made in the image of the imagination of God." It is "the imagination of God in which the imagination of man lives and moves and has its being." Since "imagination is that faculty which gives form to thought," all that God has made is most fully an act of divine imagination. Therefore, "to inquire into what God has made is the main function of the imagination."

[W]hile the imagination of man has thus the divine function of putting thought into form, it has a duty altogether human, which is paramount to that function—the duty, namely, which springs from his immediate relation to the Father, that of following and finding out the divine imagination in whose image it was made. To do this, the man must watch its signs, its manifestations. He must contemplate what the Hebrew poets call the works of His hands.

"Following and finding" is a phrase that keeps coming up in MacDonald's essay, since he understands the imagination to be primarily an organ of recognition more than invention. It is initially an act of imagination by which we perceive the glory of God in the proclamations of the heavens. It is by means of a faithful (baptized) imagination that invisible attributes of God are rightly perceived within the tangible, visible, audible, and edible things he has made (Rom. 1:20).

MacDonald describes how imagination enables the intelligible use of metaphor in the commonest of speech and the subtlest of poetry. God has made the world to serve communication by stocking it with ready likenesses to our thoughts and feelings. Painters and tunesmiths join the poets and storytellers in recognizing and highlighting the imaginative order of Creation. MacDonald even anticipates the insights of Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn in describing how science must rely on imagination for its work of discovery, which requires the recognition of incomplete patterns of knowledge and the invention of descriptive models to explain invisible attributes of Creation.

The Need for Training

The most compelling aspect of this essay is the importance MacDonald gives to the responsibility of teachers, parents, and other mentors to train the imaginations of the young. Those elders who believe that teaching children how to reason well is enough to preserve healthy imaginations are deeply mistaken. Latter-day Gradgrinds will be sorry to learn too late that

the imagination will yet work; and if not for good, then for evil; if not for truth, then for falsehood; if not for life, then for death; the evil alternative becoming the more likely from the unnatural treatment she has experienced from those who ought to have fostered her.

The alternative to vain imagination is not no imagination, but a rich and well-stocked imagination. "Seek not that your sons and your daughters should not see visions, should not dream dreams; seek that they should see true visions, that they should dream noble dreams."

This essay is one of fourteen short pieces in the 1894 anthology of essays and reviews by MacDonald called A Dish of Orts. In addition to the lead essay on imagination, there are pieces on Shakespeare, Browning, Wordsworth, and Shelley, as well as "The Fantastic Imagination," MacDonald's seminal essay on why fairy tales are a vital and morally significant genre. "Orts" is an archaic term for scraps or leftovers, but these essays are more filling fare than that humble designation suggests. If they do not baptize their readers' imaginations, they will surely help catechize them. • 

Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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“It's a Wonderful World” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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