everyday parables, faith, imagination, scripture

we journey on

Dear Friends,

We’ve been following this star for ages, it seems. When we left you at the city’s western gate, the road was smooth and the sky clear, but I confess that this last year of travel has been difficult.  Many nights cloud or smoke obscures the sky, or some obstacle impedes us.  The camels are a sore trial, and even our elder magi have found it difficult to study or discourse from a saddle. To my shame, many nights I have pined for the silks and scrolls we left behind. And each member of our small company has been lonesome, for we expected so many more companions would join us on this road.

For all that, the journey has graceful, even in its roughness. The landscape is less strange now, and we have come to know some of the language, the names of the flowers and grains. On rare days when the clouds clear, the star seems to shine more brightly than when it first arose. And while the cities have often been uncouth or cold, we could also tell of great hospitality, even from the poorest of houses. Even now, bread and honey—gift of a kind goodwife– sweetens my heart as well as my tongue.

And what of this child-king we have come so far to hail? He was not born to our people—or was he? We left palace and hall because the heavens declared that a light of revelation was coming – a wisdom to baffle all our learning. When we began, I feared that mystery. Now, its promise draws us onward with joy.

We journey on, beloved. May you, too, press on beneath that holy starlight, until the day we meet again in a common house, at the cradle of our king.


Imagination: the power that creates

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about imagination as the power that sees and the power that connects. However, “creativity” is probably the definition most people would offer if asked to define the essential power of the human imagination. We live in a world that values creativity, especially as artificial intelligence, automation, and out-sourcing have many of us wondering what we can offer that a computer cannot.

But what exactly is the imagination doing when it creates? Is it summoning possibilities ex nihilo? Is it the supreme act of self-expression, revealing the individual’s unique and irreplaceable vision of the world? Is it a noble act of defiance, flouting convention and group-think? The poets and philosophers of Romanticism often described the imagination in these terms, and their creative, tortured heroes (Faust, Manfred, Frankenstein, etc.) are the forebears of our cultural instincts–at once ennobling and devastating–about imagination’s creative powers.

All that is to say, we often associated creativity with divergent, individualistic thinking, and we often value creativity precisely because it positions the creative individual against the conventional masses. However, while the isolation or elevation of a creative individual is a common result of creative thinking, it is neither necessary nor even desirable for those who believe imagination can exist for the common good.

The traditions of Christian philosophy, along with contemporary psychology and neuroscience, argue that something far subtle happens when a human mind “creates,” and with their corrective, we can begin to see how creativity is one of the most significant gifts human beings can offer to one another, to creation, and to the creating God whose image we bear.

As I prepared for my recent seminars on imagination, I came upon a number of interesting studies that suggest creativity is far more like expertise than intelligence. In other words, while an intelligent person will be able to manifest his or her smarts in a variety of situations, expertise is much more narrowly cultivated. For example, I am an expert on Victorian fairy tales, a fairly good baker, but less than a novice when it comes to automotive repair, or plumbing, or theoretical physics. Creativity, like expertise, tends to be narrowly focused, and to emerge from sustained work in a field or medium. Thus, if I begin to make bread and realize I am out of wheat flour, I can probably come up with a creative solution (a mix of rye and amaranth, for example) that still produces a palatable loaf. Show me a problem in my car engine, however, and I will have no recourse but to drive to a mechanic and pray for the best.

This research confirms what poets, philosophers, and others have said about creativity for centuries: that is operates according to law. This seems like a paradoxical statement: isn’t creativity valuable precisely because it transcends or transgresses laws? In action, we often see creative thinkers rejecting convention, developing new methods, even defying prohibitions. However, even in these cases, a truly creative act follows law. It may be that the law is deeper than the apparent conventions. Perhaps it is a forgotten, hidden, or undiscovered law, but it is law nonetheless.

What do I mean by law? Consider the laws of the natural world, such as gravity. While we can think of gravity in terms of prohibition and punishment (i.e. “Gravity punished him for trying to fly off the top of the playground), it is also possible, and more just, to say that the law of gravity describes a force without which our world would lack structure or stability. Gravity holds matter together, as music and delight hold two dancers together. Knowing a subject, community, or material well, we know the laws according to which it operates. These laws may be moral or material. For example, while it may seem “creative” to make a pair of pants out of tissue paper (for example), if I know the “laws” of my materials and purpose, I will recognize that tissue paper tears easily, that trousers must withstand rigorous wear, and that my tissue-paper pants are not creative, but rather wasteful and abortive. A writer may create a fantasy world in which people have wings but no legs. That is fine and good, but if after three chapters the characters begin running footraces, the author has forgotten the law of her little world, and her creativity has faltered. Or I may develop a “creative” plan for a new social order, in which children are not allowed to see their parents until the age of twelve, but are instead raised by robots. This plot, violating universal laws about the relations between parents and children, might be original, but it is unlawful, and therefore a perversion of the imagination.

To be truly creative, then, we must acquaint ourselves with the laws of our materials and ends. This does not mean that we must accept human conventions and traditions without question: very often the true laws of our world are hidden beneath layers of corruption, greed, tyranny, or laziness. We may find ourselves creating as a lonely artist, a shunned prophet, or even a celebrated visionary, but such isolation (including the isolation of fame) is not what proves we are creative. Rather, it is when we can turn the powers of our imagination–powers of sight, memory, connection, integration — to the service of some good law that the shoddy veil begins to slip from our eyes, and we can see the world as it was meant to be. And more: if we work hard and long, we may have the privilege of sharing that vision with someone else.

If you’re interested in the relationship between law and creativity, I would encourage you to read some of the thinkers who have shaped my ideas about imagination so profoundly. A good starter set would include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (Chapter 13), George MacDonald’s “The Fantastic Imagination,” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s, “On Fairy Stories.” In the meantime, I will leave you with my two favorite stanzas from Tolkien’s poem, “Mythopoeia.” Both images describe human creativity in all its humility and honor: men and women who take whatever materials are at hand, and work to shape them according to the law of love.

Blessed are the timid hearts that evil hate

that quail in its shadow, and yet shut the gate;

that seek no parley, and in guarded room,

though small and bate, upon a clumsy loom

weave tissues gilded by the far-off day

hoped and believed in under Shadow’s sway.


Blessed are the men of Noah’s race that build

their little arks, though frail and poorly filled,

and steer through winds contrary towards a wraith,

a rumour of a harbour guessed by faith.


Imagination: the power that connects

Connections interest me. As I watch builders secure the roof onto a new porch, I wonder what holds the tiny house together. Nails, joints, staples, glue, and gravity? Later in the morning, I see a formerly homeless man teaching a business executive how to harvest ripe figs, and I ask the same question: what makes them together instead of apart in this moment?

The third component of imagination (which I also reflected upon in my last entry) in my recent seminar is that imagination is the power that connects, drawing disparate images, ideas, and feelings into integral wholes. As the power that mediates what we see and sense, the imagination is a kind of collector, amassing in our minds a wealth of images, ideas, memories, and visions. A weak or immature imagination organizes this array arbitrarily or fancifully, jumbling (for example) our anxieties about tomorrow’s presentation with the smell of coffee, as the wildest of our dreams might do. A disciplined imagination, on the other hand, selects and integrates what it receives according to principles: moral, aesthetic, theological, and so on. Thus, a historian with a well-trained imagination can collate thousands of primary documents and recorded facts, and yet can, in a lecture or a page, give his readers or students a coherent picture of a day in the life of the past.

As I have pondered the imagination’s connective power, I’ve sought for a good metaphor. In this search, I’ve realized there are a number of ways in which two material things can be connected. Most simply, I can mix things together, placing them in proximity to one another but little else, as with a tossed salad. A mixture can be good or ill, according to the principle behind the mixture (e.g. the “lettuce s’mores” I tried to make as a child were a work of botched imagination). Mixtures do not necessarily require much planning or foresight, making them easy to create spontaneously and without much effort. At the same time, these mixes have very little lasting integrity, and will put up little resistance if some force attempts to separate them.

Another category of connections involves taking two (usually similar) things and using both to create a new structure. A knot–in which two threads are looped and pulled in such a way that the resulting structure holds them together–is an easy example. Similar is the interlocking warp-and-weft structure of woven fabric, or the puzzle-piece precision of dovetailed joints. Depending upon the materials and the skill of the maker, these bonds can be both strong and flexible.

At other times, a third element is introduced to bind two things together: thread to stitch together two patches of fabric, glue to bond two pieces of paper, a nail to secure one piece of wood to another. In these cases, the integrity of the bond depends chiefly on the strength and skillful application of the third thing, the connective element or substance.

Finally, things can be combined by melding or melting them together. When I make lotion, I melt beeswax into jojoba oil, for example. Once melted, I can no longer tell with the naked eye where one constituent begins and the other ends. Dissolving one thing into another, or steeping, as I do with tea leaves and water, produces similarly powerful combinations.

My instinct is that each of these processes can serve as metaphors for the various ways imagination can connect the elements of our interior world, as well as connecting us to the world around us and to one another. Imagination can, with dream-like generosity, mix the images and feelings of our day into jumbles of delight or terror. A skillful imagination can weave two things (for example, prayer and cooking) into a strong, flexible union by identifying natural structures for connection (the tedious work of chopping vegetables, for example, can provide the mental freedom necessary for prayer). Imagination can introduce a third thing–a common language or memory, for example–to bind to people together. And perhaps, imagination can create the necessary conditions for two things to meld with one another, no longer simply joined, but participant one with the other. Before I venture more on that mystery, perhaps I should go spend some time with our community blacksmith.

For me, how to discipline and empower my imagination, making it an agent of powerful integration, is a live and tender question. As I walk through the early months of marriage, longing for the mystery of “two-become-one,” we are making our home in a village for the chronically homeless, one that aims to restore their sense of connection by empowering the people of this city to come, know, and love them. Both these works–marriage and ministry–have every chance of failing, for we live in a fallen world. But with each thread I weave and each hammer I hear, I pray for the grace to do this hard and needful work: mix, weave, knit, stir, dovetail, glue, meld, and cleave.


Imagination: the power that weaves

The voices were distinct, each one threading the silence with its own color and texture. The first was a woman’s voice, soft and low, praying that God would send his Spirit to plant a new church in east Austin. She ceased, and another–higher, almost childlike– spoke into the space that followed, this time interceding on behalf of the neighborhood where we would be worshipping. Then a man’s bass, thanking God for the work he was already doing in the city.

As I listened to these prayers, I began to picture each voice as a thread being stretched across the beams of a loom. Anchored in hope, taut with expectation, I saw the varied colors and personalities forming the foundation for a strong and beautiful fabric.

My husband’s voice was the next to pray, and as though reading my mind, he concluded by saying, “And may you weave us, Lord, together in unity.”

The imagination was at work in several ways here. First, as the power that sees, the imagination was creating a picture for me, giving visible form (threads on a loom) to something invisible (prayer). Even more profoundly, imagination was helping me make sense of these voices, coming from men and women I do not know well and praying towards an unknown future.

As I described last week, the imagination is the power that collects and recreates the experiences of our senses, most notably sight. When weak and hungry, the imagination may sputter out scattered pictures, wild or chaotic fancies. But at its best, the imagination is a gathering power. It selects, shapes, and interweaves images, ideas, voices, and experiences that might otherwise seem unrelated. Because it can see beyond surfaces, the imagination can discern hidden similarities and faint resonances.

We live in a desultory age. Our lives often feel anxious with hurry and uncertainty because the parts of our lives–our families, friends, occupations, dreams, desires, recreation–are cut off from one another or, at best, clumsily glued together by social media or passive convenience. If we are going to integrate our personal, much less connect our little lives to some greater good, we must strengthen and exercise the integrating powers of the imagination.

The work can begin humbly. When my husband prayed for God to weave his people together, he was painting a picture he might not have used before he married a girl who loves thread and looms. Countless little conversations, or hours he has seen me work, gave him a new vision for how to pray. And he has done the same for me. His imagination, shaped by years of farming, looks at the world and sees parallels to the health or paucity of the soil. Ours is becoming a marriage of shared metaphors.

In its interweaving power, the imagination gives us far more than a picture; it provides us with a vision that gathers and strengthens our hope.

contemplative life, imagination

Imagination: the power that sees

Milk, pearl, pale, flat, middling, sky, queen’s, turkish, watchet, garter, mazareen, deep, and navy.

These are the thirteen shades of indigo, as described by E. Bemis in his 1806 The Dyer’s Companion. I came across this list in a useful but dry reference book on natural dyes, and these names fascinated me, as though they were a kind of incantation. I have known for years that indigo is the plant that gives our denim and chambray fabrics their blues, but I had never noticed thirteen different shades.

Milk, pearl, pale, flat, middling, sky, queen’s, turkish, watchet, garter, mazareen, deep, and navy.

For the last month, I’ve been teaching a weekly seminar called “Reclaiming Imagination for the Common Good” through a think tank here, The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. During our first week, we talked about what “imagination” actually means.

We often think about the imagination as the faculty that frees us from reality, offering an escape into private fantasies and unbounded visions. Such assumptions, I think, can cause a great deal of harm without being grounded in the more fundamental work of the imagination: it is, first of all, the power that sees.

Scientists have known for years that the raw data we receive from our eyes, ears, nose, and nerves is not identical to what we experience as sight, hearing, smell, and touch. Images from our two eyes must be flipped and collated into the single image we see. Beyond this basic level of perception, our imagination is our image-bearing power. It calls images up from memory when the object of sight is no longer present. It frames our attention, so that instead of lumping all hues of a certain range into the single name of “blue,” we notice subtle shades and distinctions, thirteen varieties from a single dyepot.

More mysteriously, the imagination weaves together these images, noticing connections between something we see here with something we once saw there, providing the foundation for metaphor, and perhaps for language itself. Thus these thirteen names call back a whole world. “Sky,” like “milk,” or “pearl,” evoke the natural world and gives us images of blues that we might have seen on a fine summer day, or in the faint tinge in the cream we pour in our tea. “Mazareen,” on the other hand, probably comes from Hortense Mancini, the Duchesse de Mazarin, a seventeenth-century French noblewoman and mistress of the English King Charles II. Whoever named this deeper, darker blue, might have imagined the rustling of silks in the royal court, the mingling French and English laughter at a decadent feast. A blue that, like night itself, conceals what moves on the earth, even as it reveals the bright courses of the stars.

If we say we wish to be students of wisdom, imagination is one of our most powerful tools. It can do mighty works. but first we sharpen it by seeing, by turning the eyes of our head and heart to the world around us. Noticing not merely, “That is blue,” but realizing that there are thirteen blues–or more–in a single pot of dye, and then giving meaningful, mysterious, clarifying names to each.