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A Three-Hundred Pound Imagination
And why protestants need to fatten up
G.K. Chesterton looms like a cigar-smelling cumulonimbus cloud on the skyscape of history.
Standing two meters tall and weighing nearly three-hundred pounds, he was perhaps the least subtle man in all of Britain; yet time and again his keen insights would manage to find their way between the carapace of the most hardened materialist. Worse — at least for his detractors — was his eminent humour in the midst of it. There are more than a few accounts of Chesterton guffawing his way through debate preliminaries, wiping the floor with his opponent, and then taking them out for a pint afterwards.
Orthodoxy, perhaps his most well-known work, is a strange animal. It has the look and feel of an apologetic, but there are few appeals to empirical evidence and frequent appeals to elves, dragons, and desert islands. There is a curious absence of footnotes, and a curious surplus of hyperboles, puns, thought-experiments, and metaphors that stretch the length of entire chapters.
But perhaps the most endearing part of Chesterton's polemic is his deep love for the common man. The man who perhaps feels there’s something wrong with the world but can’t quite put his finger on it. Except instead of just putting his finger on it, Chesterton drags it out by the ankles and proceeds to beat the living daylights out of it with a tennis racket. Even while wrangling philosophy, we are not left like one of Dickens’ orphan boys, hungrily staring in the window for a scrap of bone or gristle. Instead, we are brought into the great joke and encouraged to view the imbecility for ourselves. If Chesterton couldn’t disown his academic upbringing, he could at least employ it as a court fool for the benefit of his fellow man.
I don’t see eye to eye with Chesterton on many things. Being a true-blue Roman Catholic, his soapbox car tends to get a bit wobbly when it veers too close to theology or ecclesiology. It is also no secret that he viewed the puritans, and their Calvinism, as little wormish creatures that hiss at children and eat galvanized nails for breakfast. But though we may resent Chesterton’s Reformed caricatures, which are certainly incorrect, we have to admit there’s a lot within Reformed circles to caricature. While we in Canada hear far-off tales and rumours of feasting and laughing, much of the Reformed world at home still seems to prefer its dry oats, and them steel-cut thank you very much. C.R. Wiley, sadly, isn’t far off the mark in his own homebrewed caricature:
Often the pedantic Reformed troll is a bore that nobody really wants to hear from, not even in his small circle. He lives to criticize things that other people say, particularly people that he envies and resents [. . .] He is convinced of his own brilliance and is contemptuous of the benighted masses who fail to perceive his greatness. He has an enormous library, has vigorous debates with dead theologians while in the shower, and has a very unsatisfying love life.
Crack a Window, Already!
Part of the problem is that many Reformed folks view imagination like some seniors view left-hand turns: dangerous and much-better addressed by driving seventeen miles around the block. Despite our on-paper critique of enlightenment pedagogy, we are only too happy to employ it in our teaching, liturgy, hymnody, books, and sanctuary architecture, which resembles the inside of a grain silo.
The other part of the problem is that when many Christians hear imagination, all they see are Roxaboxen and wild rumpuses. Isn’t to indulge in imagination to leave the firm ground of objectivity and float into the realm of feelings and impressions?
Well, not entirely. Or even mostly.
At its root, imagination is simply the ability to see that which doesn’t currently exist. It may be a wild rumpus just as much as it may be a Nicene Council; it may be Roxaboxen just as much as it might be the Sistine Chapel; it may be a 1644 Baptist Confession just as much as it might be a 1689 Baptist Confession. There really is no limit to where a sanctified imagination might take us.
One thing is certain. Christians don’t stay safe just by sticking close to their denominational home base. We must have a home base, as sure as we must have a creed. But our living rule must be Scripture; it is Scripture that will keep us fundamental while preserving us from the ditch of fundamentalism. Those who forsake imagination — even under the guise of “the faith once for all delivered” — may soon find themselves irrelevant, and unfaithful, prisoners of the moment.
And arguing in showers not long after that.
An Appeal to the Whole Man
An imaginative ministry, much like Chesterton’s imaginative apologetic, will take into account the full spectrum of humanity. It will accept that we are not simply wills to be coerced, but minds to be compelled and hearts to be captured.
Jesus didn’t preface His parables with a strict warning to listen only to His words and not dare stray into images and feelings. The earthiness of His stories suggests just the opposite — it seems He was counting on their imaginations. The crowd needed to feel the tiny seed pills rolling around their hands; the flick of the wrist to broadcast them properly; the pain of past birds eating past precious stock and the memories of fresh-baked bread after the harvest.
In comparing England to a piece of chalk, Chesterton is counting on his reader’s imagination to supply “the devils and seraphim, and blind old gods that men worshiped before the dawn of right, and saints in robes of angry crimson, and seas of strange green, and all the sacred or monstrous symbols” that chalk, as well as England, is capable of producing. In comparing Himself to a rock of refuge, God is counting on our capacity to imagine the qualities of a rock — its immovability, steadfastness, and permanence — and then transfer those qualities to Him. Without imagination, these transactions are lost before they start.
It is imagination that can look at a piece of marble and see a cathedral, or at a woman and see a family with three children and a golden retriever, or at a bleeding Man and see the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
It's true that imagination may be bastardized as easily as objectivity — all that proves is our fantastic ability to break everything we touch. The ability to see that which doesn’t yet exist isn’t a symptom of folly, but of visionary fire. We may well get lost in our visions — but we will certainly perish without them.
To see only the present moment and nothing else is like seeing the sun or moon and nothing else. It is too quickly become the butt of one of Chesterton’s jokes. When we imagine, plan, create, and hope, we are not engaging in flights of fancy; we are doing that which we were made to do.
Rare indeed are the periods in which Christianity has produced such a devastating amalgam of humour, acumen, and sheer tonnage as it did in Chesterton. May God grant our generation a skyscape full of them.