Imagination Is a Gift From God

May 28th, 2011

I attended an international gathering and I must confess that I was mildly disturbed by the  T-shirt selection. All of the shirts were heavyweight, 100% cotton tees, and each was well-designed. However, most of the shirts were simply Christian parodies of pop culture standards. One copied The Matrix logo, replacing “Matrix” with “Messiah.” Another would be mistaken for a SpongeBob T-shirt by anyone who saw it from a distance. Still another mimicked the rustic-looking Abercrombie and Fitch T-shirts that have enjoyed continued popularity among a new generation of mall kids.

As I was discussing this trend in Christian retailing with a colleague over dinner, he remarked, “It makes people think that we can’t come up with ideas of our own.” Such T-shirt slogans are nothing new. Remember “God’s Gym” (Gold’s Gym)? “Life is Short. Pray Hard.” (Nike’s “Life is Short. Play Hard.”)? This trend also carries over into Christian music as well.

Aside from working in the store, I had another role. I led a workshop entitled, “Harry Potter Goes to Confirmation,” which explored the Harry Potter series (by J.K. Rowling) and other works of fiction from a Christian perspective. The emphasis was on discovering Christian themes in these works of fantasy and imagination. I focused on three major Christian themes that are central to the Harry Potter stories: the power of sacrificial love, befriending the poor and marginalized, and the hope that justice will ultimately prevail.

The night after my first round of workshops, I sat in my hotel room reflecting on my presentation, the comments I’d received, and the T-shirt slogans that were still bothering me. One word kept coming to mind: “imagination.” Then it came to me, “Imagination is a gift from God.” (I immediately added this statement to my presentation.)

I realized that I found spiritual meaning in the Harry Potter books not just because of the pervasive Christian themes, but because of the depth of J.K. Rowling’s imagination. Sure, Harry Potter borrows a great deal from western literature’s rich tradition of fantasy and fairy tales. Yet many of the books’ most memorable elements come straight from Rowling’s mind. Consider quidditch, Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, or Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and its four houses. The relationship between full-blooded wizards and muggle-borns, the role of house elves, and the plight of misunderstood half-giants and werewolves are all clever metaphors for the prejudices and injustices that have plagued much of human history. Amid the creatures and peculiarities that populate the wizarding world, Rowling also manages to tell convincing tales of adolescence. With the Harry Potter series, Rowling masterfully uses one of God’s greatest gifts.

Of course, the Harry Potter books were not written as Christian literature (although the only two holidays recognized at Hogwarts are Christmas and Easter). The fact that these books are about “witchcraft and wizardry” and that they refer to “sorcery” and “divination” makes some Christians nervous. Nonetheless, the books, with their memorable characters and rich imagery, have communicated positive messages to countless youth. (C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia are an excellent example of highly imaginative works of Christian literature, although they were never a phenomenon quite on the level of Harry Potter.)

There’s a lesson to be learned from the Harry Potter series (or from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or other masterpieces of human imagination): People, especially youth, respond to creativity and have always been drawn to extraordinary and imaginative works of art, music, literature, and drama. The most celebrated and appreciated artists are those who truly understand the human condition, who can express their thoughts in a truly original manner, and whom we can relate to emotionally. As Christians, we must recognize the divine nature of imagination and must nurture this gift in our youth. We must find creative ways to communicate our faith, and we must help our youth to do likewise.

Challenge your Christian youth not to respond to culture, but to create culture; to explore their faith—the joy and the suffering, the assurance and the doubt, the comfort and the confusion, the extraordinary love; to find new ways of expressing and communicating their relationship with God; and to be an example of God’s ongoing creative work.

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