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‘Apologetics and the Christian Imagination’ — A Richer, Deeper approach in connecting Souls With The Faith.

Are stories important for humanity? Is telling a story through books, movies, or the extemporaneous tales of mom and dad delivered to the children at bedtime simply an insignificant means of mere entertainment? In her book Apologetics and the Christian Imagination, Dr. Holly Ordway shows us that in truth stories are powerful tools of conveying meaning, tools that are important for the work of spreading the Faith and forming souls in it.

While showing great understanding of both apologetics and human nature, Dr. Ordway explores the relationship between reason and imagination and how the human person utilizes each to come to know reality. Furthermore, she instructs the reader on the art of Imaginative Apologetics, which is a richer, deeper approach in connecting souls with the Faith. In this entertaining and easy-to-read book, Ordway makes a convincing argument for this method of winning souls.

                  

C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and George MacDonald are but a few of the masters of this technique which Ordway presents. Each figure is a fantastic storyteller with stories that, as she puts it, baptize the imagination that allow the person to find meaning in the Theological world and grow closer to the God hidden beneath the narrative.
Ordway teaches, “Imaginative apologetics seeks to harness the God-given faculty of imagination to work in cooperation with reason, to open a way for the work of the Holy Spirit and guide the will toward a commitment to Christ.” Through the stories told by one practicing this method, the hearers are able to receive more than just a definition to memorize. Instead, the hearers are given a deep descriptive tale that conveys the meaning of the Theological truths that sometime evade the persons being instructed.

The book thoroughly explains how Theological meaning can be lost on some souls who simply misunderstand the words. Dr. Ordway posits that many think poorly of the Christian Faith not because they disagree with what is taught, but because they are without the proper meaning conveyed by what is taught. The author explains, “To those who know Christ, and unfortunately also to many who do, much ‘Christian language’ rings empty. Although words like ‘grace’, ‘sin’, ‘heaven’, and ‘hell’ point to a reality, for many listeners they might as well be empty slogan or the equivalent of the user’s agreement on an upgrade to your phone’s operating system: words that are received without attention, and without grasp of their meaning.”

Being far from one to find the faults and leave us without a solution, Dr. Ordway emphasizes how we apologists can help our listeners create meaning and avoid the sophist misconceptions of our times by way of a good story. She creatively and intelligently instructs the reader by explaining the workings of linguistics and how we understand the various senses of speech that we hear. Furthermore, her understanding and delivery of the meaning of being literal is delightful to read.

With the Church’s call for a New Evangelization, and many faithful Christians responding to bring the Gospel back to the hearts of humanity, this book is an important piece for our times. It instructs the bearer of Good News on how to carry out the work of apologetics as well as doing so in a way that allows the hearer of the Word to better grasp the meaning of the message. Moreover, it leads us to carry out this work in an aesthetic, sometimes even inconspicuous, manner, which would allow for Theological meaning to enter into the hearts and minds of those that might otherwise be opposed to the words delivered in a more outward manner.

Especially in our day, we are witness to many artists, writers, and musicians working to evangelize through beauty. Dr. Ordway’s book is a wonderful companion for those who have heard and answered the call to do this. In fact, it would not be surprising if this book is a catalyst for more talented souls to take on such important work.

Classroom teachers and catechists too can find inspiration to utilize more of Imaginative Apologetics with their students. The way Dr. Ordway presents it, we can see the powerful impact that this method is able to have on the hearts and minds of those being formed, especially the young.

Finally, this book could be greatly beneficial for all people, both within the work of apologetics and without, as we can learn to find Faith and Truth in the stories we hear in our world today, whether these messages are intended or not.

For these reasons I highly recommend Dr. Ordway’s Apologetics and the Christian Imagination to all those working in apologetics and evangelization alike. It is a remarkable manual for leading souls to know and understand the deeply profound truths of our Faith. Hopefully, it will even lead certain souls to become the next C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, or George MacDonald, and enlarge the library of good Christian stories available to mankind today.

Formation in Faery

Imagination is twofold, retentive (reproductive) and creative (productive). The object of the first is a sensible reality, which we have previously perceived as such. The creative forms its object by combining elements which were separately perceived. The analysis of the creative imagination is of considerable importance for the psychology of invention, and of artistic and intellectual initiative.
— “Imagination”, New Advent

The lesson for us, as parents, in this analysis of Tolkien’s Catholic imagination, is that our child’s formed imagination influences how he pictures reality. The Catholic character of their lives, the inclusion of the good, the true, and the beautiful in their environment, is going to have a profound effect on how they imagine what they imagine.
— Laura Berquist, “The Importance of the Imagination”, Catholic Culture

Man’s soul is rational, and that means he has both an intellect and will. The intellect desires truth; the will desires the good. But the imagination is something other. The imagination serves as a database of mental images stored by sensory experiences, and therefore, the intellect recalls images from the imagination which present it to the will as something to be desired. For this reason, it’s important to flood the imagination with the “good, true, and beautiful”, as St. Paul says in Philippians.
— Bryan Gonzalez, “Why We Must Form the Imagination of Our Children”, Those Catholic Men
Edmund Dulac - Cinderella
“Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother” by Edmund Dulac, in Picture Book for the Red Cross

As a child in sunny Singapore, I was brought up on a rich diet of Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Perrault, Joseph Jacobs, Robert Louis Stevenson, Philippa Pearce, Oscar Wilde, Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and many other authors and transmitters of fantasy and mystery. I eagerly imbibed these tales of old (and not so old) which furnished the chambers of my mind, charging the world around me with wonder and beauty. When I wasn’t reading, I was watching Mother Goose videos and Shakespearean stop motion films.

One day, speaking with good friends in school, I realised that not everybody had been taught the nursery rhymes which I took for granted, the rhymes which had formed the foundation of my lifelong addiction to reading and poetry.

Later on, in Australia, I met homeschoolers whose strict parents had eliminated fairytales from their childhoods. One had no idea who Rumpelstiltskin was, and thought Pinocchio was just a character in Shrek. Another had avoided Enid Blyton, thinking her books were just for girls. These homeschoolers had been thoroughly schooled in Catholic teachings, but they struggled to see the point of some lessons in our liberal arts degree, like the philosophical exploration of possible worlds, and the latter woke me up at 3 a.m. one All Saints Day having a meltdown over his Philosophy essay.

I found echoes of this deprivation in an atheist mathematician whom I met admiring the gothic majesty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. As we walked the streets of Melbourne, I inquired as to his favorite stories. He had somehow laid his hands on Dante and Crime and Punishment in his teens, but he never had fairytales in childhood. He said, “I read books about things like jellyfish and dinosaurs.” In high school, he chose to study science and mathematics, because he could not see the point in the humanities. He scoffed at Shakespeare and Chaucer.

I found these young people spiritually malnourished. They lacked a balanced educational diet. On one end, the Catholics had drunk the milk of Christian doctrine; on the other, the atheist had fed well on the meat of hard science and mathematics. But they both had not tasted of the sweet fruits of literature, the leafy vegetables of fairyland (Rapunzel, anyone?), the nourishing mythic roots of their own civilization. They turned their noses up at what they had never been taught to appreciate.

Why are fairytales so important? Many European fairytales have gruesome origins, but over the centuries they have been embedded with Christian virtues, as with Cinderella and Snow White. Even without the Christian content, these stories are important in teaching children basic morals and lessons about the perennial human struggle to triumph over selfishness, cruelty and misfortune. They provide basic human formation, building empathy, rewarding courage, affirming sacrificial love in the face of death. They broaden the mind, enlarging it to admit mysteries and other points of view. When you can place yourself in the shoes of a lowly kitchen maid or a young stowaway, you can begin to appreciate the value in every human life.

Far from useless trifles or evil explorations, fairytales are necessary in training a child to love the true, the good and the beautiful. They open our eyes to see with a sacramental vision, beholding with wonder the magic and mystery in God’s creation, which should not be reduced to mere scientific facts or cast aside with Puritan coldness. The way of faery is the way of virtue, learning how to love ourselves and others as co-pilgrims on the rocky road to the Heavenly City, where we may one day meet the Prince of peace and be welcomed as co-heirs to His Father’s kingdom.

In attempting to understand why intelligent young men and women were occasionally unable to grasp the significant human experiences treated by the Great Books, an American professor by the name of John Senior, who jointly founded and taught in a hugely successful Integrated Humanities Program based on the Great Books, concluded that a man cannot truly comprehend the 100 Great Books if he has not first had the soil of his imagination prepared and nourished by the thousand good books. Only in a mind enriched by the good books, Senior believed, can the significant experiences and truths of the great books take root and grow.
By the “good books”, Senior had in mind everything from the rhymes of Mother Goose, the Fables of Aesop and the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, to works such as Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, Wuthering Heights and The Virginian. Senior recognised that just as in the spiritual life we must become as little children before we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so it is in the intellectual life.
— “Dr Stephen McInerney: fairy dust needed if Great Books are ever to take root”, The Catholic Weekly

“We need to keep being told fairy tales because we need to keep being reminded that fairy tales are always true — more true than mere fact because were this story merely factual, it would apply to one person at one time. But because it is fiction it applies to all of us, all throughout history, before and beyond.”
— Ross Lawhead, “The Truth of Fairy Tales: Gaiman’s Ocean and Chesterton’s Giant”, ABC Religion and Ethics

The most charming fairy tales spring out of the common events of everyday life.
— Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Elder-Tree Mother

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
— Roald Dahl

The Importance of Childhood

A very wise teacher once told me that “good things are hard.” While rich with fulfillment and abounding with joy, parenting is definitely something that fits the bill as a great good while being extremely difficult at the same time (like putting clothes on a toddler who is running away from you difficult). However, it is precisely this degree of difficulty in our parenting that will aid us in the raising and sanctification of our children and ourselves.

St. Theophan said, “What good fortune therefore it is to receive a good, truly Christian upbringing, to enter with it into the years of youth, then in the same spirit to enter into the years of adulthood.” Childhood has a profound impact on a person’s life. If a person’s life is a tree, then childhood is that stage in which the roots of the tree grow in order to establish a person in a life of either joyful abundance or despairing emptiness. However, unlike the house built on a foundation of sand set on a course of irreparable destruction, God’s grace can rescue anyone, regardless of his or her childhood experience. Yet, we can still see that a moral and uplifting childhood mixed with other positive elements can pave the way for a good and fulfilling life.

Three of the most important aspects of childhood that can lead to a good life are: 1. Innocence, 2. Playtime, and 3. Imagination. Each of these can help lead the youth toward truth and grow in virtue, two of the main ingredients for this life of peace and joy. One might say that people can be happy without them, but it seems that it would be easier for people to find happiness and fulfillment if they are allowed to experience these naturally occurring aspects in their early years.

First, Innocence is powerful in childhood as it aids in avoiding sin and assists the child to maintain purity. Innocence is a return to Eden before the Fall when lust and other evils were left unknown. It is that joyful part of life when one almost lives exactly as man was created to be, without the annoyances, stress, fear, and responsibility of knowing the sinfulness of lust, almost free from the chains of brokenness.

While children are still born with Original Sin and it’s effects, there is still much about the world they do not yet know. This is a positive ignorance that should be sustained as long as possible. What true good can come from knowing the ways of sin during one’s childhood, particularly the sins of impurity? Would it not help a person to lead a better life later on in practicing the angelic virtues if he or she is able to more easily practice these as a child without the temptations of immorality?

I have heard that scuba divers learn to dive in swimming pools, firefighters train in difficult yet still controlled environments, and pilots train on flight simulators before climbing into a real cockpit.  Allowing a child to grow up with innocence could be like these various persons training in less dangerous environments, before facing the real danger later on. With a longer experience of innocence, a child could continue growing in grace and virtue in a less dangerous environment before facing the real dangers of sin later on.

Parents can help protect their children’s innocence by screening the movies and tv shows their kids watch to ensure they will not see corrupting images or themes. They can censor the music their child listens to so as to ensure age appropriate material. Furthermore, they could even help their kids find good friends with whom to spend their time.

The next important aspect that helps set a child up for a good life is playtime. A child at play might seem like silliness and nonsense to an adult, however playing helps children learn and prepare for their future. While studies show that playing assists in forming the brain to better handle emotions and practice critical thinking, I think the best benefit of playing is that it prepares the child for a life focused on heaven.

Children at play, whether pretending, participating in a game, putting on musical or theatrical performance, or other traditional modes of play, concentrate only on what is before them. They are essentially living in an eternal moment of joyful satisfaction. This experience is a beautiful image of heaven, in which all the souls of the just will live in an eternal moment of joyful satisfaction. In this way, children’s playtime is also a foretaste of the Liturgy, which itself is a foretaste of heaven that allows us a similar freedom from worries and struggles that childhood play can allow.

In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Romano Guardini compares the playtime of a child to the Church’s Liturgy. While not forgetting the sacred importance of the Object of our worship, Guardini notes that within both playing and Liturgical celebration is found the aspect of meaningful purposeless. To play, for a child, is to simply move, speak, and act in the realm of youthfulness without a cause that one might deem “productive”. So too could we find the same “unproductive” element in the Liturgy as it has not a specific goal in mind as it does not truly exist for the sake of man, but for that of God.

Moreover, just as the play of a child exists in a realm all its own, so too does participation  in the Liturgy. Guardini sates, “The liturgy creates a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life, and allows the soul to wander about in it at will and to develop itself there.” The child truly plays in his or her own realm set apart from the world of adults, which includes stress, worries, and other burdens of life. This is what we should experience within the Liturgy, a time away from these discomforting realities so as to focus on Jesus and our relationship with Him. Therefore, the playtime of a child will help to train him or her for the Liturgy and seek the eternal playtime of heaven.

Finally, the imagination of childhood is of the utmost importance. The continual practice of believing without seeing helps to send the child down a path of Faith. While God is not just real, but the absolute center of reality, I think a child’s act of ‘make-believe’ or ‘pretending’ can lead him or her to understand that this world is not merely material or only validated by what immediately meets the senses.

Furthermore, following in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, I think that Fairy Tales are a great tool to foster imagination in children, first to assist with leading them to the realm of Faith, but also to better instruct them of the great important truths one needs to lead a faithful life. These truths, which are handed down with clever narratives and poetic imagery, can include that evil exists and can be defeated, that we are made to be happy and can be happy, and the true sacrificial character of love.

Tolkien writes of the nature and importance of Fairy Tales in his work entitled, “On Fairy Stories”, concluding that they pass on to us much more than important facts. They give us a slew of values and ways of being, not merely listed for memorization, but delivered beautifully in  a story that is easy to follow and retain. Tolkien expresses this poetically when he quotes George Dasent, a translator of ancient folklore, “’We must be satisfied with the soup that is set before us, and not desire to see the bones of the ox out of which it has been boiled.”

Moreover, the imagination sets the child up for meditative prayer. It is much easier to think about the life of Jesus with a well exercised imagination than without. Even more difficult would it be to read or hear the stories of the Bible for one who cannot imagine the events found within it.

The way we raise and form our children is of utmost importance. In the fabulous journey of life, this is the stage during which we hold their hands and teach them the correct way to travel this road. By concerning ourselves with the three aspects of childhood mentioned above I believe we can set them up for an easier joy-filled life.

Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and the Catholic Imagination

Growing up, I spent most of my childhood reading, writing, and pretending I lived in fantastical stories. As I got older, I wondered how I could return to the wonderful world of fairyland. Now that I am a mama to a brave knight and princess, I find that I never left.

I have come to realize that Catholics never outgrow bedtime stories, because our faith infuses in us a love for the art of storytelling and an imagination that is completely in tune with the fantastical. Catholicism equips the mind to discern truth in story, just as it disposes the imagination to delight in the telling. Through eyes trained by faith, Catholics can see where the Author of life has woven the narrative of salvation into all stories, but these golden threads shine especially bright in fairy stories

Catholicism is steeped in story, birthed from a beautiful oral tradition. For generations, the Hebrew people handed down the stories that explained the world and their place in it, writing on the hearts of their children. From the Creation, where God Himself spoke the history of the universe into existence, to the miraculous lights of the Maccabees; these tales defined them and bound them together.

Christ, the great storyteller, came from this people, and spent His life immersed in this culture.  Christ’s teaching was full of references to the shared narrative of God’s people, the story He himself had come to complete. His disciples then carried the history of His life, death, and resurrection to all the corners of the Earth. The Church became the custodian of what Tolkien and Lewis called “the true myth” of salvation and embraced the redeemed tradition of storytelling.

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The Catholic faith accustoms us to mystery, training us to look at the world with eyes of wonder.  For the Catholic, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” as one of my favorite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, said.  Not only does Creation bear the marks of its Creator, but it also has been transformed by the Incarnation. When God stepped into our story and wrapped Himself in human flesh, He infused the physical world with the potential for Grace.

As Catholics, our faith is built upon mysteries: A man who is God, bread that is flesh, water that cleanses the soul, and words that transform the nature of the universe. Our sacramental imagination makes it second nature to believe that things are not always what they seem. Is it any wonder, then, that we love to hear of other worlds, when our very soul depends on the fact that there is more to this world than what we can see and hear and touch?

In the worlds of heroes and magic, where good struggles against evil and ultimately celebrates its defeat, the Catholic imagination is particularly at home.

In this land of “once upon a time,” evil darkness constantly threatens to overcome what is good and true, which comes as no surprise to the Catholic. For those who acknowledge Original Sin and acquaint themselves with the depths of their own soul, there can be no doubt of this danger.  We have but to look at our culture of death to see that there are still dragons left to slay, and we have only to look within us to see demons still to battle.

Catholics are intimately acquainted with the reality of evil. They dare not laugh off villains, because they know just how fearsome wickedness can be. Yet, as G.K. Chesterton points out:

“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. “

The defeat of the darkness, though it comes at a great cost, is always inevitable in fairyland. Good not only can triumph, it must. Catholics call this belief the virtue of hope. We have not rejected “happily ever after,” because we know that, eternally, the story of the universe has a happy ending.

For those living in the story, the defeat of evil may seem uncertain, even impossible, but they have a choice: to fall before it or stand against it.

It is often the small, the weak, and the unlikely who thwart the mighty by choosing to fight for good. Just as storybook characters, no matter how common they seem at first, become heroes when they take part in a greater battle for good, Catholics believe that we can be the vessels through which the light overcomes the darkness.

The cosmic battle between light and dark does not only take place in the spiritual realm, but here on Earth, in and amongst men. We are not spectators, but participants in the battle for souls.

Catholics have only to look to the pages of history to see how the heroes of our faith — the saints — have fought for God, despite their own weakness and ordinariness. Catholicism celebrates this glorious gift: that God allows us to choose Him, to fight for Him, so that in participating in His suffering we may participate in His triumph.

We love fantastical stories, because history itself, stranger than fiction, is the great ongoing tale of the mystery of redemption in which we — small and simple though we are — play a part. We love heroes because we are called to be them.