London’s upcoming Literature Festival at the Southbank Centre is packed with events to inspire creative thinking and imaginative engagement for all ages. The Festival offers a collection of events aimed specifically at children, who will be encouraged to read, participate and create, inspired by a plethora of children’s authors.
Children’s ability to wholeheartedly enter fantastical worlds through exercising the power of their imaginations is a skill worth cultivating, because entering fictional worlds and scenarios that are different from our immediate situations enhances our inner experiences, our beliefs, and our identities. Imagination is also a key component of faith. But do we, when becoming adults, lose the essence of engaging imaginatively with the world on a deep level in the way we did as children?
In order to trust in something we cannot see, we have to be able to visualise it in our minds to some extent. Hebrews tells us ‘to have faith is to be sure of things we hope for, certain of things we can’t see’ (Hebrews 11.1). Therefore, in addition to logic and reason, we must also apply, to some extent, creative conceptualisation which is beyond the material world in order to maintain that belief in what is unseen. CS Lewis’s claim in Mere Christianity that ‘reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning’ argues how important the imagination is in making sense of the world.
Jesus told his followers: ‘unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 18.3 NIV). I’d like to suggest that Jesus was referring, at least in part, to children’s ability to believe, trust and imagine. Although children ask many questions, these usually come from a place of curiosity, rather than cynicism, from a desire to learn and understand more, and from an openness to believing in whatever the answer may be so as to enhance their comprehension of the world.
Children are often able to switch between fantasy and reality with much more fluidity and conviction than adults. Authors who create fantasy worlds for children to enjoy are feeding and encouraging children’s propensity for vivid imaginings of that which is beyond their immediate environment. While I’m certainly not arguing that the Bible is fictional or fantasy, the events of the Bible, whether they were 2,000 years ago, or are still yet to come, are also often beyond our immediate environment, and therefore require from us a similar ability to engage in a creative, visual level within our minds.
Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is an intriguing example of a children’s fantasy world, taking the reader on a wander through a fictional universe, approached from a different perspective (literally, since Saint-Exupery himself was an airman) and, as a result, uncovering a new understanding. Although it is a book mostly enjoyed by children, not least for its beautiful illustrations, its messages are nevertheless complex and philosophical. Indeed, Saint-Exupery points out that there is more depth to the material than may be visible at first sight when he comments: ‘and now here is my secret, a very simple secret: it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye’. Christians might define these ‘essentials’ as faith, love and hope, and in order to experience and share these with others, we must be able to allow ourselves to think and feel beyond the confines of the rational and concrete.
The word ‘imagination’ comes from the Latin imaginari which means ‘to picture oneself’. Whilst we might naturally focus on ourselves when letting our minds follow creative visual streams, I want to challenge us to think beyond ourselves and to imagine - and empathise with - people in the Bible who existed around 2,000 years ago, and then use this insight as a basis on which to empathise with those around us today. It’s widely agreed among literature scholars that reading fiction can make us better people, including being more empathetic towards others, and that we can apply what we learn from stories to the ‘real world’. How much more, then, can we do this with the Bible, if we invest in understanding the people and messages it contains on a deeper and more empathic level?
We can apply this thinking to our own lives through the Holy Spirit, who is a significant creator and guide of our internal experiences, including our imaginations. Let us use this insight to help us navigate towards the direction that God is leading us, visualising how the Holy Spirit might be working in our lives, our community and our world so as to bring all of this closer to his good plans and purposes.
Let your focus shift from the material moment you are in right now, and flex your imaginative muscles again so that you can engage with what lies beyond the here and now: go deeper into understanding, experiencing and sharing the faith, love and hope that God gives.
Becca Purton works in Research at Bible Society, where her focus is on families, young people and children. Prior to this, she studied for a Master's degree in Children's Literature.
This is a post by a guest contributor. The views expressed by guest writers are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Jubilee Centre.