Faith and Imagination

[This post is cross-posted at By Common Consent.]

I have taught some unimaginably good writers — though I’ll probably have to revise that modifier at the end of this essay. I have taught poets who had far greater gifts than I, essayists who invited me into new paradigms or experiences, and fiction writers who took me on unanticipated journeys.

This past semester, I taught a young man who I also knew as a missionary. He was in the MTC branch my husband and I served in two years ago. He went to Africa, and I wrote to him (and to several others) while he served.

Though my letters to the other missionaries were primarily faith-building, my letters to him were often pure fiction. He knew that every fictional claim I made required him to match or beat it — and it made “p” day extra fun for him. (That was my intent, of course). We had an ongoing story about his chimpanzee companion, Mr. Stompsalot, and I reported on the missionary project which was abandoned in 1973. The MMP (Monkey Missionary Program) trained chimps in the various discussions, which were scripted and memorized at the time. However, if the investigator gave an off-script answer, the monkeys reacted unpredictably, and sometimes violently. Of course, the program was dropped — immediately after one of the chimps threw a pitcher of water at an Argentine ambassador who said, “What’s in it for me?” rather than “You mean there was a pre-existence?”

And thus we played with elements of IMAGINATION throughout his mission.

Of course, my letters to him were not exclusively fiction. There were some serious, maternal ones as he faced the challenges most missionaries face, and some challenges unique to those serving in Africa. In these exchanges, I soon saw that this imaginative young man also had remarkable spiritual gifts: faith and healing. He reported some miracles I’ll allude to only vaguely here, and described them as “cool.” I contemplated his spiritual gifts as extensions of his imagination — meaning that because he was capable of imagining all sorts of possibilities, he did not limit his faith to what might be “reasonably expected.” Could he lay his hands on somebody’s head and, by virtue of the priesthood and faith, heal him when the doctors had pronounced the case hopeless?

Yes. He could. He did.

In 1 Nephi 11, Nephi wants to understand his father’s dream, and is provided the ultimate instructor: the Spirit of the Lord. Before any teaching can happen, however, Nephi must declare his “willing suspension of disbelief.” (That’s Coleridge. The scriptures [1 Nephi 11: 4-5] state that Nephi is asked if he believes his father’s words, and answers “Thou knowest I believe…”). No unfolding of the plot can happen unless the seeker (or reader) first believes.

We can come up with all sorts of scriptural examples of disbelief stopping the plot of a miracle, and of belief unfolding wonders.

Peter, do you believe you can walk on water?

Blind man, wilt thou be made whole?

Peter, whom say ye that I am?

As this young man became my student, I trained him in some of the elements of fiction, all of which require a fertile imagination and a generous, loving heart. Yes, I believe that love is a part of good writing just as it is the FOUNDATION of faith. (Faith, says Paul in Galatians 5:6, “worketh by love.”)

A good writer must love her characters and honor their complexity and quirks. She must love words and images, her tools. She must love writing itself, because she will be required to re-write and re-write if she is ever to become good.

I demanded a lot of my RM student. I had FAITH in his ability to create excellent writing. I insisted on revisions and never let him get away with coasting through an assignment. I believed in him far too much to do him such a disservice.

By the end of the semester, I knew not only this young man, but all of my students pretty well. I loved them, and I wanted them to love each other. I wanted them to feel that we were a family, exploring a brave new world and reporting our findings, continually surprised by joy. I demanded that they look at their surroundings more carefully, and often opened class with the question, “What have you seen with your poetic eyes?”

I wanted them to find mentors among the fine writers in the established canon and in contemporary literature. I also frequently asked, “Who have you fallen in love with lately?” — referring to the authors just waiting to be given a chance, a first date, maybe even a little NCMO session (which is only a problem if you leave lipstick stains on the pages).

In the fiction unit, I asked relentlessly “Why should I care?” as I urged my students to deepen their characters and plots.

All three of these questions have spiritual elements and urge the imagination to “enlarge thy borders forever” (Moroni 10:31).

What have I seen with my poetic eyes? Have I let metaphor move me from the mundane to the magnificent? Have I marveled at something and given thanks? (Jesus gave thanks for the seemingly paltry offering of five loaves and two fishes, before the miracle multiplied them.)

Who have I fallen in love with lately? Well, in the literary world, I am having a fictional affair with Ethan Canin. In my literal life, I fell in love with my husband again yesterday when he took me for a romantic getaway to Homestead, Utah, and we sat in our pajamas in a dimly lit gazebo just after dusk. Tufts of daffodils surrounded us, and we simply held hands.

Why should I care about any of this? Because I believe in THE WORD as a transformative power. I believe that a young man or woman can speak certain words with faith and love and begin a miracle — whether those words command sightless eyes to see, or whether they open someone’s mind to a new world , or a previously uncontemplated paradigm. Our words can instruct, delight, and heal. They can enlarge the soul.

Can we have faith without imagination?

I don’t think we can. In the LDS religion, we imagine ourselves as priests, priestesses, even gods. We imagine ourselves in a garden, and in a wilderness. We imagine ourselves entering Heaven. If we are living the gospel as we should, we imagine everyone else as limitless, and we refrain from boxing them into a finite identity which would shrink their possibilities.

I have seen my children reveal themselves as resplendant beings, and I imagine that there is more revelation to come. I have faith in that. I am glad to be associated with LDS writers and film makers who imagine amazing things and learn how to share them vividly. I am honored that I get to teach a few of them — those I have known in other contexts, and those who I meet on the first day of class. Their gifts are ALMOST unimaginable.

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8 Responses to Faith and Imagination

  1. Very insightful post. Thank you for the opportunity to read it.

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    It’s always a challenge to comment on a piece that 1) is complete within itself; 2) is well conceptualized, written, and presented; and 3) contains nothing to argue with. I hate to offer nothing more relevant but a “yeah…what she said,” but sometimes it’s hard to come with anything more.

    So…

    Yeah; what she…you…said.

    This idea of imagining possibilities as an expression of faith seems so obvious, and yet as a culture we seem afraid to wonder or imagine or hope. Which is odd because it’s so ingrained in modern culture. We “think and grow rich,” or we visualize success, or we “see the ball; be the ball” before following through with the putt.

    Yet somehow we feel nervous about doing the same with our place in an eternally progressing plan. Which is odd to me because that feels like foundation doctrine, which should lead directly to foundation behavior.

    Isn’t that precisely what pondering is? What searching is? What applying the Word to ourselves is? Only by imagining an ideal can we begin the more mundane work of figuring out how to build up (or move toward) that ideal? The blueprint comes first, the imagination soars as preparation for moving earth and working stone and raising pillars.

    Like the Utopian novelists, Nephi Anderson imagined a more perfect society (in his case, a literal kingdom of God). Unlike many of those novelists Brother Anderson saw this society as not only a vaguely hopeful concept, but as an accessibly possible goal that was the inevitable result of today’s (and tomorrow’s) actions. By imagining the end, we can compare it to the present and change our program of personal action to lead more directly to that end.

    You speak of love as the foundation of faith. I think the familiar phrase (faith, hope, and charity) is not only a set of complementary practices, but also a developmental series. If you know something of love, then you have faith that God does indeed love us and that today’s pain can be understood as a potentially useful tool that is to our eventual benefit—not merely as evidence if His lack of concern (or lack of existence).

    If we have faith that today’s pain can lead to a useful end, then we can imagine a future where that pain has been productive, and hope that the result is worth the cost (and even imagine what benefit is possible from this suffering). If we can imagine even a small part of that benefit, it gives us strength to endure toward that end.

    If we have even a modicum of empathy (love of others), then we can understand if they struggle to hope—and act on that hope—so it becomes not only possible, but necessary to reach out and offer what assistance we can as they seek to find (or even imagine) a guidepost (or iron rod) leading toward that hope. This charity—the pure application of love—exists entirely because of the faith and hope that preceded it.

    But imagining that hope is the key. Without imagination there can be no hope. Without hope, charity has no direction. Without charity, how can we understand the pure love of our creator and god toward all mankind?

    Literature can be a powerful expression of that imagination, whether grand stories told to many or simple stories told only to ourselves or close family and friends. Not only is imagination fun and even useful, but it’s arguably necessary for the hope that directs faith and makes charity real.

    Thank you for this musing. I love and admire everything you write even if I find it consistently difficult to comment meaningfully on it, and nearly impossible to add meaningfully to it.

  3. Darlene says:

    Woah, Margaret, this is beautiful, and true, and praiseworthy.

    You’ve nailed one of the things I love best about the gospel (and which I love best about fiction/poetry): the infinite possibility, the lack of end to possibility. And, related to that, is that there is no end to compassion. Art enables us to imagine what someone else is experiencing. The gospel is designed to unite us in love. I can’t imagine a life of hope without either one (art and the gospel) (nor, for that matter, possibility and compassion). Thanks.

    The one thing I do despair of is my great loss at never having had you for a teacher. It’s so cruel how impossible it is to get into a BYU class as a non-student!

  4. Mark Brown says:

    First of all, I’d like to say that I love this post because it employs the term NCMO. It is both hilarious and appropriate. (Perhaps the only time NCMO will ever be described as “appropriate.”)

    Beyond that, the link between spiritual faith and creative imagination is, I think, inextricable. I forget that sometimes but this post reminds me that the two things are connected. Sometimes it’s easier for me to think of using my imagination than exercising my faith. This teaches me (or reminds me) that they are the same thing in many ways.

  5. Thanks! I really appreciate the comments. And Scott, that was a truly eloquent development of “Yeah, what she said.” :)

  6. I love the idea of the MMP, but wouldn’t the companion be Elder Stompsalot? And how many returned missionaries can honestly say that at least one of their companions might have, at one time or another, qualified as candidates for if not graduates of said MMP?

    Also, I have to say that I wish I’d had your post when I was younger and my grandmother tried to tell me that novels were tools of the devil. Faith and imagination can be applied in more than one way, and her imagination about the faithfulness of certain things didn’t fit with my imagination about some of them at all.

  7. Kathleen, you would have to ask the missionary I didn’t name why he called his comp MISTER. (Mr. Stompsalot wasn’t his regular companion. They just went on splits with him.)

  8. Mahonri Stewart says:

    Margaret, I love this. I remember reading this article in the Mormon Times once http://www.mormontimes.com/article/10524/Imagination and just being angry when I read this, “The word imagination is almost always used in scripture in a pejorative sense. For example, in Lehi’s dream the great and spacious building he saw ‘is vain imaginations.’ It is the imagination of mankind in distinction to the concrete reality of God and his creations. It is when we turn to the made-up reality of our imagination that we find ourselves moving away from God’s reality.” I see his point in one light, but to make imagination a dirty word in the religious sense miffed me. Imagination has always allowed me to envision myself closer to God, and it’s only when it’s been used in the wrong context that it has ever brought me farther away from Him.

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