“Inspiration is for amateurs…the rest of us just show up and get to work.”1
– Chuck Close
Quite a bit has been written lately about the need for Christians to improve our imaginations, often labeled as Christian or moral imagination. For example, I recently came across an article James K.A. Smith wrote about how Christians need to change hearts and minds “from the imagination up.” As someone who likes to write about the importance of Christian creativity as an expression of the imago Dei, I resonate with this type of argument.
Yet, I find that students often do not know how to improve their imaginations. I once had a doctoral student ask me after her defense how I think of so many articles and essay ideas. I told her that when I had just finished my dissertation, I also had a more limited set of future ideas. Yet, I found that three things helped expand my imagination.
First, it is important to recognize that improving one’s imagination requires starting within the right story. It does not involve recovering the random imagination we had in childhood when we naturally created delightful and imaginative narratives for play or school. For example, we still possess my oldest son’s delightful second grade story about how Santa Clause forgot Christmas because he was too busy playing Mario Brothers. Although this childhood imagination is wonderful and inspirational, in most of our academic realms, we do not move the discipline forward with this kind of child-like imagination. Nor does developing imagination involve the other kind of problematic intellectual imagination from political or economic ideologues who propose utopian solutions to persistent problems (e.g., class or racial differences) that often are derived from reductive understandings of the human condition.
In contrast, Christians take a different approach to imagination that requires building upon the key Christian concepts found within the biblical narrative. For instance, imagine a world without slavery. How do you get there? Well, you might start similarly to the first known anti-slavery argument. Here is the Church Father, Gregory of Nyssa’s argument:
If a man makes that which truly belongs to God into his own private property, by allotting himself sovereignty over his own race, and thinks himself the master of men and women, what could follow but an arrogance exceeding all nature from the one who sees himself as something other than the ones who are ruled?… How many obols [i.e., $] for the image of God? How many staters did you get for selling the God-formed man?2
To grow in imagination, we must have an accurate understanding of who we are in God’s story—image bearers of God who are made to create just like God creates.
To no surprise, this insight results in the imagination of wonderful new things. The educational reformer John Amos Comenius imagined universal education for all (including the poor and women), because he reasoned in a similar manner to Gregory of Nyssa, “God produces an image of himself so that every creature stands in a definite relation to its creator.”3
Consequently, he reasoned we must seek
for the full power of development into full humanity not of one particular person or a few or even many, but of every single individual, young and old, rich and poor, noble and ignoble, men and women—in a word, of every human born on earth, with the ultimate aim of providing education to the entire human race regardless of age, class, sex and nationality.4
Today, we assume that everyone should receive education due to Comenius’ divinely informed imaginative ideas.
This creative, God-given imagination, however, gets even better when you engage in the second important element—learning from experts. Of course, this process starts with the basics. When I was in tenth grade, I was playing an informal summer game of two on two basketball. My partner was our 6’5’’ center who was guarded by my 5’10’’ older brother. I kept trying to feed our center using bounce passes. Bounce passes are a key skill of the game I had learned through practice until it became a habit. They are also obviously not against the rules. Yet, as my quick brother continually stole my bounce passes, my coach finally came over and told me to start feeding the ball to my playing partner at the highest point of his out-stretched arm where my brother could not reach it. This advice communicated a rather simple insight regarding how to imagine a different way of passing, but I still needed to hear it, since my continual errors were making us lose the game. Under the guidance of my coach, I soon gained expertise in lob passes to our big men down low, so they could catch the ball and shoot in one motion because I had placed the ball in the exact place that allowed them to shoot in rhythm.
Similarly, studies of the most successful basketball coach in college history, John Wooden, found that most of his instruction involved imparting this kind of specific wisdom.5 He rarely gave praise or said, “good job” (the common approach today). He advised. We expect coaches or mentors to possess this type of wisdom. If one examines the autobiographies of great athletes, one finds that even at the pinnacle of success in their sport, the greatest athletes in the world still needed coaches to provide them with the wisdom to perfect their practice. This wisdom is the feedback that may help a person get outside their comfort zone. Receiving feedback is uncomfortable because it often requires us to change our habits, but when we get outside our comfort zone, we have the capacity to practice and play at another level.
Thus, I tell my doctoral students, when your imagination is stuck, start reading the other experts. There is something about soaking yourself in the work of other experts that suddenly gives you new ways of seeing things. Sometimes it also makes you realize that you think an expert got something wrong. When the students’ imagination is stuck again, I advise them to read excellent work outside their field. Once again, the insights of experts from other disciplines often give them new ways of seeing things.
This reality is also precisely why knowing a diversity of experts is so important. When I learned new games such as basketball, tennis, ping-pong, racquetball, or most recently, pickleball, I tended to follow the one expert I knew. I began to improve as I understood the expert’s particular approach to strategy. Yet, as I grew and interacted with other experts, I learned new strategies for how to play. Suddenly, I saw the game differently. I would see new shots. I learned to venture out of my previously narrow confines of expertise and experimentation. Soon, in games I could then beat the previous expert who had mentored me because I not only knew his strategy but different strategies. Of course, today, one can now watch experts in virtually any field online, so no one has any excuse about lack of access to experts.
Finally, we need to learn from experts about how they schedule their day for maximum imaginative creativity. In his book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey provides over a hundred one-to-three-page descriptions of the work routines of authors, composers, musicians, poets, scholars, and other creative types. Some clear patterns emerge. In fact, the composer John Adams noted, “My experience has been that most really serious creative people I know have very, very routine and not particularly glamourous work habits.”6 Indeed, their creative work is usually accomplished in the morning between 8-12 when their mind is fresh. The afternoons are spent on less demanding work such as editing or teaching. Their evenings rarely involve work and usually involve separation from it. For instance, the composer John Adams did not listen to music in the evening. He noted, “At the end of the day I’m more apt to want to cook a nice meal or read a book or watch a movie with my wife.”7
I find too many students and colleagues who expect creativity and imagination to come at them when they are sleep-deprived and running themselves ragged. That’s not how the creative process works. To acquire Christian imagination, you need to start with the Christian story, learn from experts, and follow the schedules of creative experts. Only then will one find the imagination for which one hopes and dreams.
- Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 64.
- Gregory of Nyssa, In Ecclesiasten, 4.1. In Sources chrétiennes no. 416; Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery, 81–82.
- Jon Amos Comenius, The Great Didactic, trans. M. W. Keatinge (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1907), 34.
- Jon Amos Comenius, Comenius’s Pampaedia or Universal Education, trans. A.M.O. Dobbie (Dover: Buckland Publications, 1986), 19.
- Ronald Gallimore and Roland Tharp, “What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and Reanlysis of John Wooden’s Teaching Practices,” The Sports Psychologist 19, no. 2 (2004): 119-137.
- Currey, Daily Rituals, 65.
- Currey, Daily Rituals, 66.
Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Perry. It made me think of a headline I saw this morning about George R. R. Martin; that he still has 500 pages left to complete the last book of his Song of Fire and Ice series. He’s been working on the final installment for more than 10 years. Because of the popularity of the HBO adaptation, Game of Thrones, it’s become well-known that Martin conceived of the story in juxtaposition to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Instead of building a fantasy world grounded in the Christian worldview, Martin wanted to create a world in which truth is relative, where there is no good and evil, where will to power is all that matters. My thought this morning on reading the headline was: that’s what happens when imagination is ungrounded in eternal Truth. You can’t resolve that kind of story; you can pretend to resolve it, but it never works. Maybe one reason why the final season of GOT was universally decried; there’s no good ending to stories that imagine a world without God, just perpetual floundering.
Yes, I think Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series suffers from the same problem. Both are pagans hoping to scrounge off Tolkien and Lewis’ Christian creativity.
What is particularly amazing is how beginning with “imago dei” can take our imagination to beautiful heights impossible in the minds of those who view us as a mere animal and/or the universe as being devoid an any universal meaning and universal standard beyond ourselves.