Building The Bridge

They took turns swinging across the gully on the rope. It was a glorious autumn day, and if you looked up as you swung, it gave you the feeling of floating. Jess leaned back and drank in the rich, clear color of the sky. He was drifting, drifting like a fat white lazy cloud back and forth across the blue.
“Do you know what we need?” Leslie called to him. Intoxicated as he was with the heavens, he couldn’t imagine needing anything anything on earth.
“We need a place,” she said, “just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it.” Jess came swinging back and dragged his feet to stop. She lowered her voice almost to a whisper. “It might be a whole secret country,” she continued, “and you and I would be the rulers of it.”

Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia

Imagination is a wonderful thing and the imagination of a child is the most wonderful of all. Unencumbered by the encroaching walls of adult society, a child is free to experience anything in the universe. Before he or she is told what does not exist and what is not possible, a child can create anything imaginable.

The Lord God created the world and all its wonders from His own imagination. He made air and water, darkness and light, plants and animals, men and women, and then He called it “Good”. He infused mankind with the ability to think, to imagine, to commune with Him.

They say that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. How then can we humans imitate our Creator? We use the imaginations inherent in the souls of mankind. J.R.R. Tolkien, the great author, called this process “subcreation”. We cannot create out of nothing, as God has, but we can create our own worlds within His.

An artist uses colors to create magnificent pictures that evoke wondrous feelings. An author uses words to create worlds that cannot exist outside of human imagination. Songwriters take simple sounds and weave them into a musical mosaic that pleases the ears and moves the heart. Movie directors put them together to show us things we never thought possible. Video game designers open the door to magnificent new places, allowing us to take part in the subcreation of another.

At the heart of all subcreation is the imagination, and imagination comes from the mind of a child. In Surprised By Joy, C.S. Lewis speaks of a make-believe land populated by talking animals in which he played as a child. Had any adults known of these flights of fancy at the time they would likely have brushed them off as the idle imaginings of childhood, soon to be forgotten. Yet how many people, children and adults alike, have been touched by the wonder of the Chronicles of Narnia. The wonder grows deeper when one sees the reality of Christ mirrored in the story. The Creator is revealed in the subcreation.

Imagination is a joyful experience. A child who is lost in another world of their own making may be called absent-minded and a slacker, but who could ever say he was dour? Subcreation is the highest calling of we the created. In Paterson’s novel, Jess finds joy in his imaginary kingdom of Terabithia that gives him the strength to endure the rest of his life.

In his autobiographical treatise, Lewis writes of a feeling I know dearly. He recalls the later years of his childhood being bereft of joy, full of boarding schools and few friends. Yet there was a moment when he remembered joy itself, and it came with the stirrings of imagination.

This long winter broke up in a single moment… Spring is the inevitable image, but this was not gradual like Nature’s springs. It was as if the Arctic itself, all the deep layers of secular ice, should change not in a week nor in an hour, but instantly, into a landscape of grass and primroses and orchards in bloom, deafened with bird songs and astir with running water. I can lay my hand on the very moment; there is hardly any fact I know so well, though I cannot date it. Someone must have left in the schoolroom a literary periodical: The Bookman, perhaps, or the Times Literary Supplement. My eye fell upon a headline and a picture, carelessly, expecting nothing. A moment later, as the poet says, ‘The sky had turned round.’
What I had read was the words Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. What I had seen was one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to that volume. I had never heard of Wagner, nor of Siegfried. I thought the Twilight of the Gods means the twilight in which the gods lived. How did I know, at once and beyond question, that this was no Celtic, or silvan, or terrestrial twilight? But so it was. Pure ‘Northerness’ engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the loss of the whole experience, which, as I now stared round that dusty schoolroom like a man recovering from unconsciousness, had already vanished, had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say It is. And at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to ‘have it again’ was the supreme and only important object of desire.

C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy

Lewis spent the rest of his life in the process of subcreation, for it is there that joy is found. It is not the minute details of publishing a crafted work but in the opening of your mind to the wonders of imagination that finds joy. Adults are often concerned about the things of this world – rent, work, groceries, car payments – to close their eyes and open their minds. Sure, these things are important to life. However, if this is all there is to life, then life is not worth living.

Life is a journey, and our imagination can take us much further than our feet. Who can not feel a shiver upon hearing Captain Kirk, flying into the unknown, “…to boldly go where no man has gone before!” What is there in a simple song that makes “…the road goes ever on and on…” so magnetic when spoken by Gandalf the Wizard? What motivated explorers such as Magellan, Columbus, Lewis and Clark? They had to see what was out there. It is the same thing that motivates authors and artists, songwriters and moviemakers. There are infinite worlds out there, waiting to be discovered!

Here then is the answer to the questions begged by my previous post. Where do we go when we realize that modern life is lived in a small box, whose walls close in like a collapsing cave? When the whole world is mapped and civilized and paved and there are no more new worlds? Our imagination can take us anywhere. Like a child who does not know the cynicism of life, we can reach beyond ourselves. Narnia and Terabithia are only the beginning. There is a secret country for each of us, a country that can at once take us beyond ourselves and reveal an aspect of our True Country.

Plato spoke of ideals. Everything that exists is merely a reflection of the real thing, as best as we can see it. All the horses we see are imperfect reflections of the ideal horse, much like a shimmering visage of a mountain turns out to be a reflection of the real mountain on the water. Life is like this. Our existence is merely a reflection of what eternity holds for the children of God. This existence is finite and solid, while eternity will be infinite and perfect.

Our God-given imagination gives us a peek through the keyhole of eternity. Until he is used to the world, a child can conceive of wonderful and fantastic things. Yet we cannot remain children forever. John Timmerman writes here about his first-hand experience with subcreation.

I learned… that the world badly wanted me to grow up. And to grow up is to strip yourself of gauzy clouds of wonder and put on heavier garb — woolens and cottons that protect you from winter’s cold or summer’s heat.

John H. Timmerman, Tolkien’s Crucible of Faith: The Sub-Creation

Growing out of childhood does not have to mean the death of imagination. Indeed, the examples of Tolkien, Lewis, and many other subcreators shows us that we can hold on to our infinite imaginations forever, no matter how hard the world tries to bring us back down to earth.

The great literary character Don Quixote de la Mancha was ridiculed for attacking windmills as if they were giants. To everyone else, they were obviously plain old windmills. But to Quixote, they were clearly evil giants that must be defeated. To the subcreator, well, they might be giants after all.

Of course, he carried it a bit too far. He thought that every windmill was a giant. That’s insane. But, thinking that they might be… Well, all the best minds used to think the world was flat. But, what if it isn’t? It might be round. And bread mold might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what they might be, why, we’d all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes.

Justin Playfair (George C. Scott), They Might Be Giants (Source)

People grow up and grow out of their own imaginations. They enter an adult world, a world of taxes and mortgages and politics. They do their best to pull children and childlike adults back to the so-called ‘real world.’ The satirical newspaper The Onion reportson the safety hazard that a child’s imagination poses and makes a more logical point than perhaps it should.

According to McMillan, children can suffer broken bones, head trauma, and even fatal injuries from unsupervised exposure to childlike awe. “If your children are allowed to unlock their imaginations, anything from a backyard swing set to a child’s own bedroom can be transformed into a dangerous undersea castle or dragon’s lair,” McMillan said. “But by encouraging your kids to think linearly and literally, and constantly reminding them they can never be anything but human children with no extraordinary characteristics, you can better ensure that they will lead prolonged lives.”

An imagination is a powerful and dangerous thing. It makes life worth living, and opens our minds to the wonders of the universe. With just a thought, the mundane becomes extraordinary. We use our imaginations in imitation of our God, and we look forward to the day when all is made perfect and this world passes away. You could say that imagination is a bridge to eternity.

For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

1 Corinthians 13:9-12

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