About a year ago, I wrote an article called “ABC’s The River, Magic, and Doug Wilson’s Weird World.” The impetus for that post was a new, and short-lived, series on ABC called “The River.” With all the thinking I’ve been doing on imagination (Jamie Smith’s book should be arriving today!), I wanted to revisit that post by adding some more thoughts to why we are drawn to things such as magic and fantasy.
I mentioned in that post that often, my favorite tv shows are serial dramas. No, not soap operas, which offer a far different form of “drama,” but those shows like Lost, The Walking Dead, and Doctor Who, which offer a compelling multi-episodic narrative arc (laymen’s: cohesive story-line) that also contain elements of mystery, drama, and a touch (or a whole lot) of suspense and horror. And, more often than not, elements of fantasy or magic.
Apparently, I’m not alone.
I also mentioned that whether or not this is simply a fad or something more ingrained, it tells us a lot about our culture and its desires. As in that post, let’s ask again: why are we so drawn to fantasy, magic, and that which is weird? Doug Wilson’s answer, though it was actually to a different question, was that it’s because the world we live in is, in fact, a weird world.
Imagination and a More-Full World
I believe God gave us our imaginations precisely because he created a world in wich there is far more than what is merely perceptible. Thus, we have the faculties needed to perceive that which is not perceivable. These shows, and indeed much other media such as books and music, strike the chord of our need to know a more-full world—a world bigger than what we can touch, taste, see, smell and hear. A more-full world, a world bigger than our sensual experience, are the type of things that these stories tap into and are the things that engage what has largely been lost in our culture of short attention spans and instant gratification. A more-full world demands exploration, not instantaneous results.
It’s funny how frustrating it can be if someone doesn’t return an email or text immediately. Facebook messages now let you know when someone’s read the message you sent, leading several of my friends frustrated, I’m sure, as I don’t typically respond as soon as I read a message. Yet, we are hooked on serial tv shows where we are forced to wait a week to see a cliffhanger resolve, or years to see a story-arc finish out.
One of the most amazing things about LOST was not the episodes themselves (especially in season six!), but the week in-between, when people would get together and talk about the episodes, and what they meant with regards to solving the mysteries of the island. Good shows build communities. When the imagination is exercised, it cannot help but form communities because it cannot be contained in the individual—they have to get it out. Otherwise, what use are blogs, novels, tv shows, and music, but to make something out of nothing and share it. The imagination is a tool for culture-making, but that’s a different essay.
For others, it may be a series of novels, such as Harry Potter—a series that grew up as its audience did. The result is the same. We become gripped by these things, allowing for the uncomfortable slow burn of days, weeks, months, and even years for a conclusion. And in between the times we build functional communities in order to discuss, learn, theorize, and share.
Imagination and Desire
So what of the imaginative desire? Or desires in general? The Bible says a lot about desires. First, desire itself is good and (*ahem*) desirable. For example, the desire to be a pastor is celebrated in 1 Timothy 3. Other desires celebrated in the Bible are desire for food and drink with feasts, sex with sex, and so forth. The desire for money isn’t even condemned in itself—though the love of money is. If you desire money because it means that you can feed your family or that you can bless others, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But, the Bible doesn’t just speak about desire unilaterally.
Second, the Bible commands wisdom with desire, and shows us that no desire should go left unchecked. The problem with desire isn’t desire itself, but allowing that desire rule us. Desire becomes a problem when we’ve allowed a good thing to become an ultimate thing. So, the desire to make money so that your family can eat or so you can bless others is good. But when the desire to make money becomes a purpose, when it dominates your life so that you are crushed if you miss a promotion or take a pay cut, then the desire is unchecked.
Think of it this way: God has given us a desire for food called hunger. This is because such a thing as food exists and exists for our enjoyment. But desire for food left unchecked is called gluttony. God has given us a desire for sex, because a thing called sex exists and is also for our enjoyment. But enjoyment of sex outside of it’s God-ordained purpose and role is called sin. We thirst because there is such a thing as water and wine. We can use it to feast, for communion, or to self-medicate and become drunk.
Imagination, Fantasy, and Escapism
But why is there such a desire for beauty? Follow the paradigm. Fantasy and things weird? Ah, there’s the rub. We desire things that stretch the imagination, that seem beyond nature, because there is such a thing as being beyond nature. There is such a thing as the imperceptible. There’s a need to engage the imagination. But just as with the other desires, there must be a check. Fantasy can often become escapism.
Maybe it’s not the escapism of the made-up worlds of other authors and producers, but your own. If only you married this person instead of that person. If only you had that job instead of this one. If only…
If only is an imaginative phrase, many times betraying the abuse of a good desire. Of course, there’s a vast difference between
if only I married so-and-so and
if only the 49ers played the first three-quarters of this year’s Superbowl like they did the last quarter. And rightfully so, though I would still question you on being a San Fran fan.
The imagination is a gift that we should engage and celebrate. Let us celebrate the victories of the good guys of Middle Earth. Let us cheer Aslan, the good but unsafe lion. Let us see ourselves in the brokenness and hope for redemption of Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Locke. Let us praise good music, and marvel at magic. But let us also condemn the flight of the present where God has sovereignly placed us to conform us to the image of his Son (Romans 8:28-29). And Twilight. Let us condemn Twilight—the gift of imagination can be abused.