Reenchanting the World

Walter Bruggeman, in his book Interpretation and Obedience, said that:

The key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of the imagination, so that we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted to do imaginative work.

We’ve lost our ability to imagine, and the world is flattened for it. The horns of Elfland are silenced, but for those who have heard them there is a hollowness to the sound of this little world, that yearns for something greater.

That yearning, that longing, is the spiritual gift of dissatisfaction, and the ground of joy. Imagination is one of the ways to get to it.

Perhaps you aren’t convinced that we’ve lost our ability to imagine, you can imagine perfectly well, thank you very much! And you can find flights of imaginative fancy cast in glorious technicolour on large and small screens everywhere you go. This is of course, true.

I could point to the two pitfalls of Hollywood at the moment: either the nostalgia trap where we remake old stories again less well or retell the stories of very recent history, or the sequel trap where the films that really make money are just the same story churned out over and over again in different configurations (here’s looking at you MCU).

At the bottom they are of course the same pathology; they’re a lack of new stories to tell. Though, to gently nuance myself, telling the same story in different configurations is an imaginative literary trope that we call ‘typology’ and is all over the Bible. I don’t think the writers of Marvel films are doing this, but you could do something that has repetitive elements with great literary artifice if you are a very skilled writer.

Bruggeman was writing before this was the case in our visual storytelling, though, and you would be able to come up with counterexamples that demonstrate originality, I’m sure. The real way we can tell we’re losing our imagination is that all the fun stuff is now confined to fiction.

I would submit that the fantasy fiction genre, which span itself up into being in the 70s inspired jointly by Tolkien and the 1930s pulp writers like Howard and Lovecraft, is a demonstration of how we’ve lost our imagination. These sorts of stories are especially needed in a world that has lost its sense of surprise and is sure of what lies over the horizon.

When we say that we’ve lost imagination, what I’m saying is that we’re functional materialists, even those of us who because of our Christian faith claim that we are not. We don’t expect that the Powers and Authorities rule over the world because God told them too, even though so many seem to have rebelled against him. We don’t read our Bibles and see a rich spiritual world there that is also reflected wherever you’re sat as you’re reading this.

We could call this disenchantment, this sense that the world is flatter than it used to be, that its edges are less wild. There probably aren’t dragons over the next rise, we assume; then when the Bible suggests that maybe there are actually dragons (Genesis 1.21) and they don’t like you or worship Yahweh, we scoff at the primitive peoples that wrote these texts or just don’t think about it at all.

We become addicted to this flat view of the world, it’s easier to live with I suppose, this dull secular dominion. We would be drunk for Caer Paravel if only we could taste it.

I think this way of thinking matters and has shifted how we understand the world around us and the Biblical text in front of us. It matters greatly to preachers and pastors, but for the average Christian, here’s the bit I think it would help you to get hold of:

What you see is not everything that there is. The world is charged with the grandeur of God, said Gerald Manley Hopkins. Whenever we get a taste of this, realising that the air around us is thick with the spiritual forces we sometimes call angels (the Bible often calls them gods), that the world is at war and we are combatants, and everything speaks with a richer voice than we have ears to hear—whenever we get a taste of it, use it. This should make us long for the cosmos set right and the cosmos seen true.

Those realities are coming, and a rider on a white horse will trample his enemies and marry his bride (Revelation 19-21). In the meantime, allow your heart to long, because longing is the ground of joy, the route we are given for wending our way into the worship of the heavenly temple.

So much of the faith is weirder than we’re used to thinking, not just the sensational stuff like angels and Nephilim, but ‘simple’ concepts like Union with Christ. It’s the heart of the Christian view of salvation, yet I rarely hear it talked about in our churches. It’s weird, it’s enchanted, it makes us much smaller and the world much bigger—there are depths beneath your life that we cannot fathom, ‘full of mystery and hope’ as B. F. Westcott puts it.

Why? Because if you are a Christian you are in Christ. No need to search for identity, and no meaning to be found within yourself, everything is grander and stranger than you know.

And that wild bombshell, dear friends, is as enchanting as it gets.

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

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