Artists as caretakers of the imagination: six thoughts

As I look forward to our Laity Lodge retreat this coming Thursday, here are six thoughts I hope to explore on our given topic. Thankfully I'll not be exploring alone. Along with Jamie Smith and Isaac Wardell (see here for Part I of this post, as it were), we'll be joined by a group of artists (of all sorts, including special guest artists Roger Feldman, Jay Walker, and Jim Janknegt), worship leaders, senior pastors, academics, directors of professional societies, and counselors, all of whom will contribute to a very rich experience. It's a full retreat this time and I'm excited to see what God will bring about during our four days together.

1. It is far from self-evident what the phrase "artists as caretakers of the imagination" actually means.

While at first glance it may seem like an persuasive or desirable notion, the moment we begin to tease out what exactly we mean by "imagination" and by "artists" and by "caretakers," it is at that moment that we begin to encounter significantly disparate ideas about each. It is at that moment that we need to slow down and to commit ourselves to careful, deliberative and self-critical thought. While I agree with the phrase, because I coined it, I confess that I've yet to figure out what I really mean by it.

The fact that historians and scientists and stay-at-home moms are also to be regarded as caretakers of the imagination only complicates--er, enriches--the discussion.

2. The imagination makes present through "models" or "patterns," not necessarily through "images," what is inaccessible to direct experience.

This is an idea I get from Garrett Green in his book Imagining God: Theology and the Religious Imagination. It's one of the best books I've yet read exploring the imagination from a theological standpoint. (Hans Frei and George Lindbeck feature prominently in his argument, if that means something to you.) Green phrases the idea this way more precisely:

"Imagination is the means by which we are able to represent anything not directly accessible, including both the world of the imaginary and recalcitrant aspects of the real world; it is a medium of fiction as well as fact."

Throughout the course of the book he unpacks, in theologically specific language that he hopes is also accessible to a public readership, how this idea relates to things real and illusory, imaginative and imaginary, fantastic and deceitful. It is an idea that is essential, he argues, to the domain of scientific projection as well as that of science fiction.

3. The imagination enables us to live beyond the givens of the world; or alternatively, echoing Sam Wells, the imagination enables us to take the right givens for granted.

Trevor Hart and Richard Bauckham in Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology at the Turn of the Millenium put the same point this way:

“The capacity to imagine otherwise is basic to our ability to deconstruct the dominant, ideologically generated accounts of who and how and what we are, and to insist on an alternative way of seeing things in our present. Meaning and significance are rendered as we locate particular objects, events and experiences within wider networks of relationships which are not given in experience itself…. ‘Imagining otherwise’ is precisely a matter of exchanging one such imaginative framework for another, and thereby seeing the present itself quite differently. The present is transfigured by being configured differently.”

4. There is a dynamic relationship between the imagination and the notion of imitation.

We become what we imagine repeatedly, and it is the very stuff of our lives that constitutes the repository of our imaginative activity, that is, what we imagine possible or impossible, probable and improbable.

Our family systems, our personal experiences (now engrained in our memories), our daily and weekly customs, the media we regularly imbibe, the friends we gather around us, the spaces we frequently inhabit and the meaning we vest in these spaces--outdoor and indoor, public and private, civic and religious--the sources of our instruction, whether the literature we read regularly or the authority figures we choose to admire and submit to, the art and entertainment we enjoy, the rural or urban living conditions that mark our lives, the people we choose to associate with on a consistent basis--all these things together forge the stuff of our imaginations. They form the inertial patterns of what we imagine plausible or implausible. They tell us, though largely in subconscious fashion, what we believe conceivable or desirable at the boundary lines of our imaginations.

Stanley Hauerwas over the course of his career has given repeated attention to this dynamic between imagination and imitation. A passage from The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics is illustrative of his standard argument:

“We acquire character through the expectations of others. The ‘otherness’ of another’s character not only invites me to an always imperfect imitation, but challenges me to recognize the way my vision is restricted by my own self-preoccupation…. From this perspective we are not the creators of our character; rather, our character is a gift from others which we learn to claim as our own by recognizing it as a gift.”

5. The different media of the arts, each in its own language or way of being, disclose things about God and our world that escape both (merely) analytical and (merely) empirical observation, which is another way of saying that they activate our imaginations in their own way and we should not suppose that they do so otherwise (generically, predictably, hierarchically, etc).

This point needs stressing, because it is far from clear how Margaret Atwood's novel Oryx and Crake informs our imagination similarly or differently to a MARVEL graphic novel.

How do a piece of music by Edgard Varèse and the choreography of Pina Bausch underscore what we imagine as a "given" in this world?

In what way are both the author of a congregational hymn and Barnett Newman's "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?' shaping what we imagine possible?

How do the movie "Bernie" and the design of my Apple computer enable me to imagine the kingdom of heaven?

In order to answer these questions we need to attend carefully to the manner in which each medium, in any given context, operates.

6. To cultivate a right imagination requires the adoption of right practices and habits. 

Another way of saying that is that we do not rightly imagine the world by doing what comes most "easily" or "naturally" to us. It takes considerable effort to cultivate an imagination that enables us to imagine the world as the triune God does. Thankfully, though, God has provided us with good traveling companions to enable us to imagine the world through the lens of the kingdom of heaven, and it is with, not despite, our traveling companions that we discern the daily, weekly, monthly and annual practices that are necessary to form fitting habits which conform to Christ's image, which in turn, by the Spirit, equips us to see our surroundings as God sees them.

It also goes without saying that if we wish to encourage others to become good caretakers of the imagination, we must first choose to be careful caretakers ourselves, and this applies not only to our work with art but also to our personal, relational and spiritual lives.

All of this is to say, in conclusion, that we are going to have a heck of a retreat on our hands and I'm eagerly looking forward to learning from everybody there.

Poster by PhaedraJeanArtMachine

PS: This poster will be up in the pjeanartmachine shop this coming week, and my wife tells me that all these "Make" actions are things that she wishes to fold into our common life these days. I think it's wonderful.


Daren Redekopp said…
What a striking idea for a pastor beginning his week, thinking forward to Sunday's sermon: to live as a caretaker of the imagination. Never have I heard this role described in such terms, but now that I do, wow, it fits well.
Daren, happy to hear this, and it might be fair or at least honest to confess that the general idea for this phrase owes as much to Eugene Peterson's essays on the topic as to any other source. He actually talks about it a bit in the essay that he contributed to the book, *For the Beauty of the Church*.
Daren Redekopp said…
Ah, Eugene: poetic, pastoral manhood in a bottle. Anyhow, thanks for your posting––it's unlike anything else I've seen. Happy that your former classmate, Blake R. turned me on to it!
Daren, please tell Blake I say hello and was just in fact mentioning his name in conversation during a visit to Calgary this past week. A small world indeed.
Daren Redekopp said…
Done and done.
wow. I just found your blog. I love it. I love it a lot. I'm gonna go read some more.
Glad to hear you found us. Hope it serves what you're doing in some way.
Hansito said…
An inspirational post to be sure. I'm glad that I was brought here by research that I am doing on a paper. I love this idea that "our character is a gift from others which we learn to claim as our own by recognizing it as a gift." Thank you. And nice to find a blog I can bookmark.
Glad to hear it!

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