Decades before images from J.R.R. Tolkien’s rich imagination were captured on film, at least one exploded to life in the mind of C.S. Lewis. In September 1931, Tolkien and Lewis strolled together over the grounds of Magdalen College. They were conversing about myth and metaphor when the still rationalist Lewis exclaimed, “Myths are lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”
Tolkien countered, “No, they are not lies!” He pointed to the trees and continued, “To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving on a mathematical course; but the first men to talk of ‘trees’ and ‘stars’ saw things very differently. To them the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the skies as a jeweled tent, and earth as the womb whence all living things came. To them the whole universe was ‘myth-woven and elf-patterned.’ ”1
For Tolkien, imaginative inventions originate with God, and as such, are a significant component in our life with God.
While at that point Lewis was prepared to accept the historical fact of the Gospels, they did not move him as the poems of the early bards did. Tolkien confronted Lewis with this inconsistency. How could he be so moved by the early myths and not allow himself to be transformed by Scripture? The reason Lewis was unable to believe in Christ’s death and resurrection, Tolkien conveyed to his friend, was that Lewis still wanted an abstract system of thought. Tolkien suggested to Lewis that he receive these accounts from the Gospels as true myth.
They continued to talk about the mystery of myth, metaphor, and faith until 3 o’clock the next morning. The event must have been significant for Lewis, for he wrote a friend, Arthur Greeves, some twelve days later indicating that “I have just passed on from belief in God to definitely believing in Christ, in Christianity.”2
It appears the power of an imaginary was the midwife to conversion. The rest of Lewis’ story we know.
In this brief essay we will expand on this conversation, proposing that God can use the power of imagination and myth in prayer to transform us. We will suggest that an imaginary—a repository of images, myths, symbols, and metaphors—is an integral element for the transformative power of prayer. Our created psyche seems to be “wired” to work with images, such that we are captivated by stories that reflect archetypal themes. After all, if we can be transfixed by a well-crafted novel or play, why could we not be transformed in prayer by an encounter with the divine?
So you might ask, how do myth and imagination allow us to experience meaning and truth in prayer and the reality of the one we pray to? In the discussion that follows, we will introduce you to the idea of an imaginary and how it acts as a housing place where we can bring our whole selves to God, including the seemingly inaccessible and embarrassing places of our psyches. As beings created for imagination, we contend that some of the themes that appear in prayer are archetypal, ancient.
Some are destructive. We will then suggest that God—who comes to us in Christ—seeks not only obedience in prayer, but also the use of imagination as a way of enlivening our reading of the Scriptures and ultimately leading to union with God. Finally, we will show how the images that emerge in this kind of prayer must be tested so that our imagination comes to reflect our Creator, thus nurturing the believer in profound, lifegiving ways.
As a storehouse of images, the imagination is sometimes referred to as an imaginary. Every culture, community, and person has one. Without it, poets, therapists, and painters—and all those who create—cease to function. We refer to that repository of images which emerges from the history of a people as that which fires the imagination.
For many Americans this imaginary, this stockroom of memories, may well include George Washington at Valley Forge, John F. Kennedy slain in Dallas, the first steps on the moon, and 9/11. For first-century Christians, their social imaginary included stories of feeding five thousand people on five loaves and two fish, changing water into wine, and a life conquering death. And so we speak of a contemporary social imaginary and a Christian imaginary.3
When Tolkien referred to the Celts’ ability to see in nature what was living, he pointed to the powerful effect of their rich heritage of images—something the more literalist Lewis had underestimated. It is this imaginary that can be activated when we pray.
But have certain tributaries of the Christian community become reluctant to acknowledge fully the power of images, in prayer or in everyday life? Would some hues of Christian faith excise all fantasy from our minds? God forbid. What would be left of the Gospels if all the creative analogies, images, and stories emerging from Jesus’ imagination were removed? I (Al) have asked Christians how it is they imagine God loves them and heard only silence. When pressed further, they were able to articulate that God loves them but could not imagine how that occurs.
Perhaps they have learned too well that obedience is valued more than imagination, and precept more than picture.
Perhaps imagination is not revered because we are so word-oriented. We recite the creeds, memorize the scripture, and repeat prayers, but seldom are we encouraged to let our imagination run as we recite, read, and pray. Are words the only medium that will open us to greater faithfulness and change? The word can be idolized and deaden the life to which God has called us. Is it dangerous to think we have had the experience if we “know the words”? Can we forget the transformative potential of a Spirit-infused imaginary with its symbols, stories, and myths to reconnect our normative symbols with the life of the psyche in ways that go beyond understanding, beyond words?
Ann Ulanov says, “In prayer we are constantly driven to use metaphor, especially after the initial noise of talking to God has given way to silence.”4
If we take more seriously the human imaginary and its stimulation, perhaps, in Calvin’s words, we will more truly see the world as the “theater of God’s glory.”
It may also be that our imagination atrophies in a world where facts and objects are prized, while metaphors, images, and fantasy are considered ornamental. In the modern world, facts reign supreme. Myth is a deviation from objective reality and is therefore relegated to the status of mere fantasy. If a myth does not measure up to the standard of what is “true,” what is real, then it is merely a fairy tale like Alice in Wonderland, Iron John, or Pinocchio. Here emerges the modern obsession to demythologize, to get at the “real” story behind the myths, as if CNN has more truth than the stories that fill our libraries and bookstores.
So we have a problem. Myth is a pejorative word in some Christian circles and could hardly be associated with prayer. It is associated with a liberal Christianity that dismisses the Genesis account as mere myth or the healings of Jesus and his resurrection as interesting fables. But we would argue that an imaginary—the images, metaphors, and plots that make up myths—integral to transformative prayer. Do not archetypal themes also emerge in our prayers? For someone to experience God’s love in a world of hate, one must imagine and come to experience a new story infiltrated with God’s love.
The Archetypal Myths
A spate of recent films that have captured our imaginations demonstrate the power of myth and metaphor resident in our imaginaries. We were mesmerized by Star Wars, The Lion King, The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix. Riveting plots, amazing technical effects, and something mystically deeper kept us fixated on the moving images. These were not documentaries but the issuance of human imagination. The creators’ imaginations stirred our imaginary, transported our psyches into a mythic world—a world other than the one in which we live. While the event “seizes us,” this is not mere escapism. This is the power of an imaginary to take possession of our hearts and imaginations. The stories created by imagination expand human consciousness, stimulate our affect, and suggest new practices. Each of the above mythic creations speaks to something deep within, as if something archetypal in the film’s characters reflects an ancient imaginary and draws us out of ourselves to be something more.
Why is imagination so acceptable in film and so absent in prayer? One wonders what would happen in our prayer life if the effect were commensurate with the celluloid imaginary. Metaphor accesses deeper places of our being—places where we only know to groan. Ulanov would say we need not be afraid of any aspect of our imagination, as our imagination is not outside of God. Though there may be some aspects of our imagination that are hard to understand, that does not mean the imagination does not have a place within our experience.
And so myths can affect us as “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7). Plots and images hatch from the human soul as a gift of God. The stories that imagination creates expand human consciousness. Tolkien saw the writing of fairy tales as an act of “subcreation”; i.e., it was an act of entering into God’s own imaginative work in designing a secondary world where the truth might be lived out more consistently than in everyday life.5
In essence, Tolkien’s creative imagination was an act of prayer, providing a place for us to imagine the transformative work of God.
Critical to spiritual transformation is a Christian imaginary—images, metaphors, and plots that make up myths capable of transforming our psyches. If we are not careful, the biblical text can become for us a collection of words and propositions rather than the spring for a transforming prayer life, consisting of images that create a living tradition.
Recently David Ford, Regius professor of theology at Cambridge, commented, “If the church is to remain true to its calling and to respond to new situations adequately, it has to be fed with Scripture and inhabit Scripture.
If the whole imagination of the church is to be able to resist the powerful forces that try to co-opt it or subvert it, then it has to have a scriptural imagination.”6 We seek a marriage of imagination and prayer because without an imaginary shaped by prayerful reading of Scripture and a deep sense of the presence of God, other images fill the vacuum: triumphalist patriotism, religious exclusivism, and therapeutic narcissism.
Brueggemann describes the historical challenge thus:
There was a time, a very long time, when the assumption of God completely dominated Western imagination…In the seventeenth century, it was hard, courageous work to imagine—consequently re-imagine—the world without God. And now, into the twenty-first century, in the face of Enlightenment autonomy issuing in autonomous power and autonomous knowledge, it is hard, courageous work to imagine—consequently re-imagine—the world with God. 7
The Imaginary: Locus of Transformation
Perhaps creativity emerges because we are image-creating creatures, suggests Ann Ulanov.8
Plots and images hatch from the human soul as a gift of God and our spiritual longings. There is an unspeakable part of being human which has a place in our experience with God—our imagination. We are not alone in suggesting this wordless experience of God. There is a long history of what has been called the apophatic tradition dating back to the sixth century with the great mystics of the church.9 This tradition does not come in word-form, readily accessible and understandable to others.
This tradition points to what is difficult to name and label. Much like the experience of an infant or child, the world of imagination comes in the form of play and finds its freedom without being constrained by words. Does not a one-year-old toddler have something to offer her family? Does not the mute woman have a place in a social justice gathering? That which we experience which evokes no words can be critical to our experiences.
Frederick Buechner says, “Words, after all, were invented to deal with a world of space and time, whereas by definition God exists beyond such categories altogether.”10
The best one can do is to speak in the language of symbol and metaphor. We have heard it said that when we meet God face-to-face, we will fall prostrate in awe of him—no words to speak. This is the realm of the imaginary—the housing place of the unspeakable. This is the experience of imaginative prayer.
Prayer as Transformative
The mystics of the church engaged in a process of imaginative prayer that involved purgation, illumination, and union. The purpose of this prayer was to draw nearer to God, as near as humanly possible. However, the mystics were much like depth psychologists of today, knowing that fantasy and images can act as both obstacles and aid to a deeper, clearer, more real experience. It is the work of the Spirit to stir up the images we have of God and ourselves in relation to God, and then to separate us from false images. The purpose is not to obliterate the images and fantasies, but to discern what is consistent with the reality of God’s Kingdom. In this sense, fantasy helps us find what is real. The imaginary is a place of purgation and illumination that allows us to step into a new union with God.
Imaginative prayer reflects our createdness. Myths and images resident in the imaginary and scripted in the imagination are critical to shaping human behavior. Over the past decade, neuropsychologist Antonio Damasio has maintained that the core of consciousness is nonverbal.11
Human reasoning, Damasio suggests, is not a matter of rule-governed manipulation of “pure” propositions but is imagistic. The brain works first with mental representations that are image-like. They resemble maps more than they do propositions. One image-representation stimulates another cortical area such as sensory, emotional, or motor fields. These images are able to move us in ways that thought is unable to do. Descartes had imagined that pure rational thought had its own dynamic, independent of the body. Thought somehow reached out of the mind to grab the body’s controls and make things happen.
Body and mind appear to be much more intertwined, and images much more integral to the living self. We are making room for imagination: moral, prayerful imagination. Mental simulation of a moral issue provides a window on the future by enabling people to envision possibilities and develop plans for bringing those possibilities to life. One can do so by moving oneself in imagination in the presence of God from a current situation toward an envisioned future, by anticipating the management of emotions, and by imagining the steps necessary for problem solving.12
A Christian Imaginary?
We are the children of a birthing God. We, like our God, are invited to be generative, to make the invisible visible. And so, like a woman in travail, we struggle to give birth to what is new. In the Genesis account of creation, to be imaginative is to name the animals, but not according to a revealed taxonomy. This is the beginning of an imaginary. It was Nathan’s imagination that created a scenario in which David finally recognized his own condition, an example of using an imaginary that begets transformation. To make the ordinary sacred by creative imagination is to re-sacralize the world and be changed in the process—an integral part of our prayer life.
As the icon of God, Jesus is the imaginative act of God. And to follow Christ imaginatively is to act in ways faithful to the God who is the father of our Lord. Jesus does not invite us to sacrifice imagination for imitation and obedience. In his teaching he uses that which is critical to transformation—images and metaphors—and he models for us how to bring out of our storehouse of treasures both new and old.13
Jesus’ Spirit-induced imagination enabled him to see something more in the mustard seed, the woman at the well, an impetuous Peter, and the sons of Zebedee. The images and wisdom Jesus brought out of the storehouse are a consequence of his vision of a different culture, the Reign of God.
Only when the seed dies can something new emerge.14
From an artistic perspective, the given is anathema. Jesus qualifies the given, activates the imaginary, and lets the truth of the images transform us. What images would help us see the world as a place where the poor are blessed, the meek inherit the earth, and those who hunger for peace are heard? An active, imaginative prayer life is a place for this to occur.
The call to seek and recognize the Reign of God requires a firing of the imagination. How would the world look where the poor are blessed, the meek inherit the earth, and those who hunger for peace are heard?
Nicodemus’ conversion can be viewed as a paradigm shift from literalism to imagination. His failure is often assumed to be a lack of faith. We would agree but add that his immediate response was literal—how can one be physically born a second time? Jesus, however, was speaking metaphorically, using earthly images to speak of heavenly concerns. For Nicodemus to be born again, he would need to qualify his concreteness and allow his imagination to play. Indeed, this would require transformation. He could not see that what was transpiring before his eyes was the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy, new life being breathed into bones.15
Ezekiel’s imagery was not part of Nicodemus’ imaginary. Those born of the Spirit can imagine a birth by the Spirit. For people with imagination, there is little difficulty in believing in angels and demons, the virgin birth and resurrections. With imagination, our God-given dreams may become reality. We walk by faith, not by sight. Life without imagination is life without faith.
As children, we repeated the prayers of our parents. As adolescents, we made lists of prayer requests and then waited for God to answer. In adult prayer circles, the leader prays for each one present, adding his or her thoughts and desires as they relate to each concern, requesting a desired outcome. We are taught to bring our needs before God so that our needs might be met. French writer Jacques Ellul once suggested that the format of listing prayers and checking those which had been answered is the prayer of the modern individual.16
In this model of prayer, the test of faith is the answered prayer. We think of imaginative prayer as more active than passive.
How could imagination be integral to prayer? We are indebted to Ann Ulanov’s depiction of imaginative prayer as recognizing God’s presence in the flow of images that pass through our souls as we meditate.17
Each moment, whether the image is of a injury and the feeling of anger, the face of a loved one with its arousal, or the yearning to possess the mind of Christ, is allowed simply to be in the presence of God. In this sacred space, what images, desires, thoughts emerge? Without censoring them, the individual may mentally or physically record the flow of images. Then comes the task of patiently waiting for God to transform, honor, or confront the image. If prayer is conversation, then we are not the only ones speaking. The “work” of prayer is then to allow ourselves in this sacred space to imagine God’s response to what our souls have presented. It requires us to assume that in waiting on God, our imaginations will be transformed.
Discernment of Imaginative Prayer
Imaginative prayer poses a new problem. How does one decide which of the emerging images are worth taking seriously? Which images are faithful to God’s vision of life? What insights that emerge in meditation are more truly gifts of God? Ours is a God who is not seen and consequently encourages imagination. So we are invited to create images, but not such that are idolatrous. It is not that imaginative concretions are automatically idolatrous. Rather, some creations are inconsistent with the character of God. It may also be that our creations assume an independent existence if they are not critiqued, interpreted, or discerned. This is the role of the Christian community—to test these images. Imagining God’s presence is a communal task. The dilemma the early Christians faced regarding what was to be included in the canonical scriptures is no different today when we discern whether a given image, myth, or metaphor nurtures the Kingdom of God and our own souls.
Who will help us imagine life that is faith-full in a postmodern world? We need imaginative prayer to connect the first and twenty-first centuries since ours is not the experience of the disciples. We need creative constructions which help the psyche address the problems of secularity, individualism, sexual oppression, racial hatred, and rampant relativism. When men deny the feminine, could transforming images emerge in prayer which would restore the feminine to her God-given place? When we decry darkness and evil but we continue to dream of unmitigated violence, our souls are reminded that the principalities and powers continue to operate. The power of imaginative prayer is to connect us with our deepest and most ancient convictions, and we need the community of believers to test whether the images which emerge are consistent with our Christian tradition.
For some Christians, to think and imagine outside of the exact words of the biblical canon is problematic. If imagination creates what is new, then what is the relationship to the old, the imagined to the given? How does one assess its faithfulness to the received tradition? Because this issue emerges, some would conclude that imagination should therefore not be trusted, as it leads us away from our Christian heritage. We would say the problem lies not with the imagining but the lack of discernment. The church cannot abnegate its responsibility for discernment.
A gift of imaginative prayer is the strain it creates between what is and what could be. But then the question is whether the Church, like the ego, can house the dissonant images of destruction and creation. Ulanov suggests, “The church is a space where people struggle together with all forces, bestial included…The church is a place where every energy can be held and become transformed, made livable, made available, made fully accessible to the world. So the church, like the ego, performs a ministry of housing, a ministry of openness to what made us and still calls us its own.”18
If the church is not afraid, it can be a home for imaginative prayer and the venue for testing the images that emerge.
Assuming we live by them, store them below consciousness, and occasionally rehearse them, how do we judge the myths that inhabit our imaginary? Modernity tests whether the myths are true, and if they do not match reality, they are irrelevant. But that begs the question whether or not they are communally and individually beneficent. That requires the discernment of the Christian community.
There are myths that imaginative prayer could transform because the church has already recognized them as destructive myths in our culture: racial myths of superiority, religious myths that justify crusades, masculine myths that legitimate sexual harassment, and political myths that ascribe to leaders supernatural powers. The scapegoat myth requires some individuals to carry the sins of a people.19
In imaginative prayer, our consciousness and unconscious might be cleansed of such myths. The task of theology, Garrett Green suggests, is better conceived “as the means by which the Christian community carries out the hermeneutical task implicit in a view of the Christian life as faithful imagination.”20
The test in the end is whether the content of the imaginary moves us to greater acts of kindness, Kingdom service, Christlike sacrifice, love of God, and Spirit-filled joy. Like the community that gave rise to our Scriptures, we test the myths that emerge from the broader culture for their relevance to the faithful life in Christian community.
Imaginative Prayer as Christian Art
The metaphor of the Christian as artist is then apt. When God comes to us in mystery, we are invited to imagine. Image, symbol, and myths are ordinary incarnations of our invisible God that make God tangible but not mundane. The task of Christian as artist is to replenish the imaginary, to access the gift of its images, and to stir the imagination.
A parishioner’s faith may be mired in the familiarity of rites and text. You may be stuck in one way of imagining your life, options, and resolutions to a problem. Perhaps spiritual malaise and psychic illness reflect the absence of imagination, the inability to consider and/or generate alternate ways of living. Perhaps if the therapist’s or minister’s imaginal world is captured by the images of Scripture and the Christian tradition, then when a client or parishioner presents a problem, these primary images will surface, fueling a new way of being in and seeing the world. Perhaps in prayerful imagination our world will be seen through an imaginary that is shaped by the Judeo-Christian narrative.
Imaginative prayer may well connect the cognitive and affective, the intellectual and the experiential, but that is not the point of being imaginative in prayer. Imagination by itself does not give us the meaning of life. Imagination is not the dormant energy of the images and myths as archeological shards strewn in the attic of the psyche that enliven the soul in their retelling. That borders on the idolatrous. Imaginative prayer can, however, invite God to help us experience life in new ways, the way an artist reframes a scene. Can we afford the loss of imagination in prayer? We have once more demonstrated such a loss. War demonstrates a failure to imagine an alternative. Anger, hatred, and anxiety limit the imagination. We pray not only that God would bring peace on earth, but that in imaginative prayer we might receive an ineradicable vision for peace.
Tolkien was right. Creating a place in the psyche where imagination and myth are not ornamental, where mystery is accepted as gift, and story is not heresy, begets transformation. Inviting imagination into our prayers invites God to have free reign in every aspect of our lives, even the seemingly whimsical.
When we open ourselves to imaginative prayer, we embrace the unknown fantasies and myths that fuel our souls. We do not do this for God, for God knows every aspect of our lives. You could argue it is for God’s glory, but we would suggest not. We do this so that we can accept the reality of who we are, and thus experience God moving us to walk into the reality of who we were made to be. When we do this, we experience a more authentic encounter with God. Imaginative prayer allows our lives to be transformed so we may then see more clearly and live more freely.