G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The function of imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.”
A few nights ago, my wife Christina and I were watching a house-hunting show in which a couple was looking for a historic home on the moors of Yorkshire. These are mysterious, magnificent places that have inspired writers for hundreds of years; old yet growing, untamed yet welcoming. As we drew in our breath at shots of the moors, we found ourselves yearning for a place we've never been; it was a sort of homesickness, and yet at the same time, a strange desire to be enveloped by something so ancient and wild it could make us afraid.
The next day, we were driving through an area at the edge of Black Forest in northern Colorado Springs, on an unusually dark and misty day. We looked out the right side of the car, and Christina observed how the looming trees, sprawling hillsides and fields, old-fashioned fences, and occasional streak of deep, rocky ravines almost reminded her of such places. With help from the right weather, we could nearly feel what we felt looking at aerial shots of those Yorkish moors....if it weren't for the Subway, 7 Eleven, and condos out the left side of the car; the bleak anonymity of the drivers around us; and the modern grownup's tense need to be someplace else before he falls behind that had put us in the car in the first place.
And yet even getting me that close to that feeling hadn't happened organically. It hadn't happened because I read my Bible that morning, or because I'd gone to church that Sunday, or because I believed in saving the trees. There were far too many things overpowering the faded memories of those small moments in the recent past. The familiarity of the sight I'd seen so many times. The relentless banality of the chain stores marring it, which had come into being without love and could have been anywhere in the country. The ways my own day to day, minute to minute life had conditioned me to see and live as a citizen of what Augustine called the kingdom of man, even though I believed as a citizen of the kingdom of God.
No, I had gotten close to that incredible feeling in spite of all that because someone of superior imagination had trained her mind to look out of the right side of the window, rather than the left. To see beyond the settled thing to the strange. To see the fact as a wonder. And crucially, to choose to turn to me and speak.
Yet this is an occurrence all too rare these days. More common is what I experienced on Good Friday a few years ago. The room was lit by candles, the altar was draped in black, and many people were kneeling in prayer. All was in order to mark the bloody murder of our God. Yet, to my utter dismay, half a dozen parents behind me, Christians who had taken the time to be at a Good Friday service, were talking loudly about their kid's soccer practice earlier that day. Their imaginations were utterly impervious to the scene before them, the scene in which they were being invited to take part. Whatever churches had done throughout their lives to tell their mind things, or to get them to feel vaguely enthusiastic on cue during a praise chorus during the 1% of their time they spent in church; it was laughably impotent in the face of the swallowing up of their imagination by the daily influences, images, and habits that had truly shaped who they were.
And yet as my experience in the car showed me, those parents were not uniquely unholy—they were pretty normal, not unlike most of us in this room, and certainly not as unlike me as I would’ve liked to think at the time. Fewer and fewer of us have experienced what it is like to be so thoroughly steeped in the right kind of stories and songs and images and habits that we can look out on the busyness and ugliness almost as a foreigner from a very different land, come to bring the good and beautiful things from that land. And yet it is that land to which Scripture tells us we have been admitted, and it is that quest to which we have been summoned. We know on paper that this is the case, and most of us know in real life that laundry and paperwork have a much greater hold on our loves and our instincts than vestments and Scripture. To continue to have to decide to be Christian every other moment is, as T.S. Eliot warned, an impossible task in the face of everything—unless we allow our imaginations too to be redeemed.
But what does that look like? What does it feel like? How is it to happen?
Well, it cannot happen if our artists remain at the fringes of our churches. It cannot happen if we act as if bad theology, and good theology taught to only half our brains, are the only two options. It cannot happen if we remain cut off from the great stories and songs of the church, or see tradition as cool when it has something to do with coffee or football and threatening when it asserts authority over our desires.
We need a renaissance of the Christian imagination. We need to muster the resources that will open our eyes to see the wildness and beauty on the right side of the car; to weep on Good Friday and party with abandon on Easter. And we need to invest in the lives of our artists present and future, those with a particular gift for seeing; and challenge them with love and understanding to the highest standards of artistic and spiritual excellence, so that they can shape the view on the right side—wrapping our lives and the lives of our children in an all-encloaking tapestry of light and darkness, heroes and villains, pain and joy, so that in the midst of the ordinary, we see no such thing as ordinary—so that our deepest souls know who we are, and Whose we are, and what story we are really in.
Welcome to the Anselm Society. Following in the tradition of St. Anselm of Canterbury, this is our mission, and today is a small step in that journey.
The text above is adapted slightly from Anselm Society director Brian Brown's opening remarks at the Your Imagination Redeemed conference in April 2017.