I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone reading a novel loosely based on real events, and had them lean toward me and say, “This is my kind of book. I don’t get into made-up stories. This, on the other hand, this is a real story. It actually happened!”
I understand what they mean, but really? The inside flap of every novel says, “This book is a work of fiction.”
Here’s a few definitions of the word “fiction”:
- Literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people
- Invention or fabrication as opposed to fact.
- Something feigned, invented, or imagined; a made-up story
If you take a poll asking people if they think a fictional story is better because it’s based on true events, you’ll most likely get an overwhelming response in favor of, “Yes.”
But what is it about the phrase, based on a true story, that somehow makes a made-up story more virtuous or worthwhile?
It’s a human tendency in general, but using my own anecdotal evidence (for whatever that’s worth), it seems that conservative Christians tend to be the most susceptible to the idea that the imagination is a sort of lesser-function, and that the exercise of it promotes immaturity. (Disclaimer: I am a conservative Christian.)
The irony is that Christians, out of any group of people, should most embrace imaginative freedom.
What was Jesus’ favorite way of teaching?
Was it the journalistic retelling of true events? Perhaps a fictionalized account loosely based on true events?
Nope. Jesus preferred using made-up stories.
Let’s look at the parable of the sower (possibly one of the most well-known parables Jesus taught). Jesus did not end it with, “Based on a true story, so remember it, kiddos, because it’s important.” No. Instead, he said, “Let those who have ears, hear.”
Jesus wanted to engage the imagination because he knew that we should never settle for real life (by that I mean the physical reality we slog through day after day). Jesus knew that God is a fantastical mystery we will never fully understand, and he wanted to awaken in our crusty, pharisaical hearts a childlike sense of wonder.
There’s more than a few reasons why he said we would have to become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
After a few years of living real life, we find that it holds little wonder, that real life can be pretty lame. Sure, there’s a couple cool mountains, and some neat animals, but familiarity breeds boredom, and we spend most of our lives familiarizing ourselves with real life.
Jesus came to wake us up to the fact that we were not made for work, taxes, and politics, that instead we were meant for something much more—to worship the almighty, inexplicable, wondrous, supernatural, phenomenal God and creator of the universe, who exists completely outside and above real life, who makes real life seem utterly bland and uninteresting.
If the greatest virtue we hold up in our lives is that of being grounded in real life, our souls are in serious danger of becoming the lukewarm water God said he would spit out of his mouth.
The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus because they wanted their real life. They didn’t want all the symbolic mumbo-jumbo he was spouting about some faraway fantasy Kingdom of Heaven, and being “born again,” and blah blah blah.
Jesus wasn’t concerned with the stuff of real life, the rules and regulations necessary for a proper, upright citizen of Jerusalem. He offered mercy to whores, and didn’t even honor the Sabbath, for crying out loud. Not to mention he claimed to be the son of God, born to a virgin.
Talk about a fantasy.
I get it. There’s an inherent wonder kindled in our hearts when we hear of something we know is true, but that seems too fantastic to believe.
But how sad a state do we live in when we’re too shackled by utilitarian thinking to allow ourselves to experience wonder through God-given gifts like the human imagination?
If the only way we can convince ourselves to feel a sense of wonder is by being surprised by tragedy or freak-occurrences, we’re like the starched businessman who can’t have a friendly conversation without three shots of vodka.
God built our imagination as a step-ladder into worship.
To allow ourselves to enjoy exercising our imagination with purity is to step near the Spirit of God.
If it’s childish to use and enjoy our imaginations, then call me a child and devil take maturity.
I’d rather imagine a kingdom far away or ponder the mysteries of God’s complexity than file my taxes or watch CNN. I’d rather listen to music and let it take me into the throne room of God than work a job in manufacturing.
If that’s escapism, then call me an escape artist.
Because escaping the harshness of the world isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s the reality all our lives are headed toward. I’m just looking forward to it a bit more than others.
Jesus said he came that we might live, and live abundantly.
When we become lost in worship, in a sense of wonder, we become more useful in this world than ever before.
The imagination can be used both for terrible destruction, and for edification and transformation. What I’m talking about isn’t the misuse of imagination, but the free exploration of the imagination within the boundaries of purity.
And honestly? I think we have a moral duty as Christians who consume and create Art to take back the human imagination. Satan may have some creativity, but he’s really only a selfish toddler drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa–forever destroying and never bringing Life.
When we focus our imaginations within God’s boundaries, our imaginations become a catalyst for consecration. God demands that we surrender our whole beings to him. Our body, souls, and spirits. That includes our imagination.
If we stifle the usage of our imagination for God’s glory, we’re robbing ourselves of part of God’s plan for our lives. He gave us legs so we could run toward him. He gave us arms so we could reach for him. He gave us voices so we could sing to him. And he gave us an imagination so we could wonder about him.
It’s about worship.
If someone is sincerely trying to use their imagination to explore God’s truths, who are we to discourage them from doing so? When we make snide comments intended to make the usage of our imaginations seem disgraceful or immature, we’re treating something God made and said was “good,” shamefully.
But is it more shameful to play make-believe with a child who wants to go on an adventure into outer-space, or to sit at the table watching them do so while nursing an image of maturity?
Would Jesus be a journalist, or a fiction author?
Would he play Legos with orphans or take a selfie with an evangelist?
Would he kindle a sense of wonder in your heart, or tell you to finish your mathematics homework?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to stand before God after I die and realize that all my life I struggled against his plan, that I put myself in the way of his transformative designs.
Titus 1:15 says, “To the pure, all things are pure. But to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure. Even their minds and consciences are defiled.”
As Christians, we are called to live in purity and freedom. We’re called to dance like David.