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Winter 2006 | Volume 29, Number 1 | From the President

A Conversion of the Imagination

With so much troubling stuff going on all around us, why would we devote an issue of Response to C.S. Lewis and the tales of Narnia? We might also ask why there is so much hype and anticipation about the opening of Disney’s production of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Try Googling Narnia and you will find some 6 million pops. Why is this wonder-filled work of the imagination so unbelievably fascinating to our culture?

In a culture that prides itself on unblinking realism — our daily look into the heart of all that is wrong and horrifying — why is there such explosive interest in the realms of story, mystery, and fantasy? Well, one answer might be that we need to escape it all from time to time.

But there is something far more important going on here. I think this deep fascination comes from a pretty profound hunch that we cannot live meaningfully without the imagination. A human culture that has lost its imagination has little sense of overarching meaning, therefore little chance for hope, ultimately little joy.

As we open that most incredible door of the wardrobe, whether we are an innocent, curious child or a seasoned, skeptical adult, we enter into dimensions of our lives and the world that are in some ways more real than what we think is real. We feel it. We know it.

In 1939, just as the Nazis had brutally invaded Poland, C.S. Lewis preached a sermon at Oxford to a packed-out crowd of students and faculty admitting that “we have to inquire whether there is really any legitimate place for the activities of the scholar in a world such as this.” Because of Lewis’ intense interest in the imagination, both as a literary scholar and ultimately a writer of tales, I have to believe he was also asking whether there is any legitimate place for fantasy and mystery and stories in those times when fear settles over the civilized world.

The great 20th-century poet Robert Frost, at just about the time of Lewis’ sermon, talked about poetry as the “stay against confusion.” William Carlos Williams, another early-20th-century American poet, says that “it is difficult to get the news from poems,” yet people “die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.” The imagination just may provide the real news in the news.

The Polish American poet Czeslaw Milosz, yet another great 20th-century defender of the imagination, talks about the cost of exchanging “simplicity of the heart” to be found in poems and stories for all of the sophisticated, restless mocking so prevalent in elite culture. Milosz lived through that bloody Nazi assault on his country and was forced to endure the subsequent occupation by the Soviets. Through it all he wrote poems. He was told by other intellectuals that it was “an abomination to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz.” It was an intellectual, moral, spiritual escape.

What was it then that drove him to continue to write “idyllic verses ... in the very center of what was taking place ... and not by any means out of ignorance”?

Milosz stakes out a principle here. There is absolutely no justification for escape. We must know and understand what’s going on in the world. But if there is to be any hope in times of great darkness and chaos and fear, the imagination must stay active. The imagination must continue to tell stories, must continue to tap into that deeper mystery, just beyond the wardrobe door, where all of what we see and experience in the world begins to make sense in profoundly new ways.

“Gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life,” says Milosz. “Evil grows and bears fruit,” he continues, “which is understandable, because it has logic and probability on its side and also, of course, strength. The resistance of tiny kernels of good, to which no one grants the power of causing far-reaching consequences, is entirely mysterious. ... Such seeming nothingness not only lasts but contains within itself enormous energy.”

We have bright banners flying all over the campus of Seattle Pacific this fall asking a big and important question: Can a university change the world? That’s the subject of my writing and speaking these days. That’s the question behind our 2014: A Blueprint for Excellence. And in some ways I think it’s like asking can a child’s tale change the world?

Two signature commitments have emerged for us at Seattle Pacific in all of this rich conversation: We are declaring that we will be a place that knows and understands what’s going on in the world, and we will be a place that embraces the Christian story. For me, something “entirely mysterious” takes place when these two commitments engage, something, as Milosz says, with “enormous energy,” some kind of unanticipated power with “far-reaching consequences.”

And it is the special task of the imagination that can cause this interface to happen. The New Testament scholar Richard Hays calls it nothing less than a “conversion of the imagination.” The remarkable thing that happens is the imagining of good news right in the midst of the news. When we tell the Christian story, in winsome and delightful and surprising ways, the swirling, troubling confusion of the stories of our world begin to have a bigger meaning. And that’s a great mystery, full of power.

Can a university change the world? Absolutely. But somehow the Narnia tales remind us that stories and mystery and the imagination will be right at the heart of it all.

BY Philip W. Eaton

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