Anglicanism and the Imagination Deficit

J.R.R. Tolkien tells a short story about an ordinary fellow who just wants to finish a painting. Over time, he is constantly distracted by the requests of his neighbors, and eventually he grows sick and dies, leaving his painting unfinished. As he navigates the afterlife, he finds that much of his character is judged by how he navigated the “distractions,” which were not really distractions at all. But in both the world he left behind and the world ahead, the portion of the painting he did complete (a single leaf) had greater significance than he realized.

More than once, I’ve discussed this story, “Leaf, by Niggle,” with friends who nodded sagely and observed: “Yes, the moral of the story is that the ordinary things—the ‘distractions’—are what really matters in life.” But I don’t think that’s what Tolkien hoped his readers would glean. I think what Tolkien wanted to explore was something deeper: that there are no ordinary things.

To the modern mind, such a claim takes some very serious unpacking—and I think Anglicans are particularly well placed to meet that need.

I lead an organization called the Anselm Society, whose mission is a renaissance of the Christian imagination. It started almost by accident nearly 10 years ago. My rector and I organized some lectures at our small Colorado Springs church—by the likes of Michael Ward, Peter Leithart, and Malcolm Guite—and both “nones” and Christians from surrounding churches flocked to them.

Many were writers and artists who in a healthier world might have been creating new stories and songs for the Body of Christ; many were just ordinary people with a hunger for the transcendent. Most had lived their whole lives in a two-chapter story that begins with a sinner and ends with a trip to heaven; a story in which the here and now hardly matters.

Nobody had hatched a plot to strangle the Christian imagination. But both laymen and pastors had long been crippled by the absence from their cultural awareness of the rich body of stories, songs, poems, images, and architecture that would once have initiated them into the deep magic of the faith. And even in our Anglican church, the rich beauty of hymnody and the prayer book and the liturgy was missing the surrounding tapestry of meaning that could have made it come alive to the uninitiated.

In fact, what we were learning was that “the uninitiated” was almost everyone. The people who came to the Anselm Society were exactly the sort of people any pastor would want. They were dying for a faith that bridged heaven and earth, and one that gave significance to their lives in the here and now. They want to be invited further up and further in. But they were conspicuously missing (and their churches were usually unequipped to provide) a full-story theology that begins with Creation and ends with Restoration; the one Tolkien had in mind when he wrote “Leaf, by Niggle.”

They had a knowledge deficit they were often unaware of, and which their past pastors had underestimated—the Story was bigger than they realized. But beyond that, they had a pervasively secular imagination that struggled to convert itself to Christianity, where heaven was present in the things of earth, eternity in the things of time, and the world was charged with the grandeur of God.

Let’s take creation theology as an example. In our work with artists and churches, we’ve noticed that when people don’t have a grounding in the nature, purpose, and origins of the created order, their own stories don’t make much sense to them. They are plagued by anxiety, impeded creativity, clouded vocational direction, bitterness toward the Church, susceptibility to trendy ideologies wrapped in favorite Bible verses, and the lie that goodness, truth, and beauty are separate menu options rather than a trinity. Why am I here? they wonder.

But when they spend time with the Creation chapter of the story, answers to so many of the hardest questions—about purpose and identity, the relationship between “Christian” activities and everything else, about how to navigate that whole “in the world but not of it” conundrum—start to fall into place. The resources for such formation are well known in the Church, at least historically; our spiritual ancestors had many hundreds of years to figure them out. But in our particular time, some shared cultural memory that once could be assumed must be creatively re-taught.

At a conference last year, I bravely and perhaps foolishly attempted to retell the creation narrative in a way that folded in insights from the rest of Scripture and tradition, drawing out mythological, theological, and poetic meaning. I asked my listeners to make a note any time they had an “aha” moment (“if that’s true, that’s really important,” “I’ve never heard that before,” or “I’m pretty sure he’s crazy”). You can read it here; it’s not long.

I spoke of the role of the Son in the Creation, the nature and duties of the imago Dei, and the restoration and empowerment of that calling in the Body of Christ—connecting our stories to the Great Story, so that questions like What am I for? started to feel like they might have answers. I described a created order that was both symbolic and sacramental. And I spoke of the Eucharistic life, in which God makes grapes and wheat, we grow them and learn to make bread and wine, and when we offer them back to Him rightly in thanksgiving, He meets us in that creative work.

Some listeners that day noted 40 (forty) “aha” moments in those five minutes. Forty standard-issue Christian doctrines that no one had ever given them, which collectively added up to a vision of a transcendent order that was absent from their lives.

If we do not underestimate this knowledge and imagination deficit, Anglican churches have a great opportunity: to offer our tradition to people who badly need a grander metanarrative, an embodied faith, and sacramental worship. But we need to rebuild our muscles, institutionally, to offer storytelling and music and visual art that not only preserves the great traditions of the past, but builds on them.

This piece is adapted from Brian’s Brown’s introduction to Why We Create: Reflections on the Creator, the Creation, and Creating (Square Halo Books, Winter 2022-23, which features chapters by teachers like Hans Boersma, Jessica Hooten Wilson, and Peter Leithart.

Brian Brown

Brian Brown is the executive director of the Anselm Society, an organization dedicated to a renaissance of the Christian imagination that was founded by Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Colorado Springs.

'Anglicanism and the Imagination Deficit' has 1 comment

  1. October 26, 2022 @ 1:07 pm Cynthia Erlandson

    This is very insightful, and sounds like an excellent work.


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