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Strange, Bold and Rich: Why Imagination Is the Legacy of Christmas

6 years ago written by

A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Luke 6:45)

I’ve been preparing for Christmas bifocally. One lens is aimed at the fabricated miracles of Christian tradition and the other at certified expressions of contemporary faith.

I have spent the last four months researching Nativity legends for a new book while simultaneously editing our first Christmas issue of the FreeMo Journals, a new series of short books that can be used for adult Sunday school curriculum, midweek Bible study or personal daily devotions. Transitioning back and forth between the two projects was exhilarating, but it also confirmed one of my lifelong suspicions: Christians are strange.

You might think I’m lampooning our faith, but, in truth, I am not. There is a surprising amount of science fiction nestled within Christian tradition — a tradition that historically predates science and vilifies fiction. In my work, I discovered stories about monsters being sent to kill the Holy Family, only to fall in adoration at the feet of the Christ. Additionally, there were stories about stone statues coming to life and turning on their pagan worshippers, shaming them for denying the one true God. There are stories about animals speaking, trees uprooting and birds plucking feathers from their own breasts in order to praise Elohim. Some of these stories are loosely based on historical fact — like those that tell us the origins of the Magi. Some of the stories are fabricated entirely — did I mention the Romanian werewolves of Advent? — but all the stories betray a fascination with the fact that God became man.

Our FreeMo Christmas issue also shares some startling stories.

Because this would be our first Christmas issue, I wanted to find an author who could anchor the power and provocation of Christ’s birth in ordinary, accessible terms. I knew my friend Joanna DeWolf was an intelligent woman of remarkable compassion, and I thought her work with refugees would make an excellent frame of reference.

Now, you might think there’s little in common between the two projects — historical legends on the one hand, personal anecdotes on the other — but both books revolve around the same magic ingredient: stories.

Stories educate and inspire us, motivate us to achieve, and harden us so we might endure. True stories do this, but so do fairy tales. Joanna’s stories center around welcoming strangers, advocating for the weak and blessing others. My stories concern fiery flying serpents, reanimated idols and talking panthers. Her stories are autobiographical whereas mine are pseudepigraphal. Yet, as J.R.R. Tolkien was fond of saying, myth and history are largely analogous because they both force us to wrestle with good and evil, love and loss, destiny and grace.

History often resembles myth, because they are both ultimately of the same stuff. — J.R.R. Tolkien in “On Fairy-Stories”

I confess I began my project with a twinkle in my eye, eager to discover new ways in which historical Christianity could be proven folkish and pedestrian. Over time, my attitude softened. Yes, these stories are fanciful, but so are “The Odyssey,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Beowulf” and “The Silver Chair.”

We see truths in fantasy we cannot perceive in reality.

For example, one of my fairy stories is a French legend from the Middle Ages, written to console poor shepherds that their poverty matters less than their piety. In “The Maiden’s Tears,” a young woman is deeply grieved because she cannot afford a gift for the Christ. Her grief bursts forth and an angel has pity on her. With one touch, the angel transforms her tears into a bouquet of flowers. The maiden rejoices that she can now bring a gift, proudly exclaiming, “Tears are the perfect offering for the Christ.”

In another tale, evil sorcerers conjure dragons to eat baby Jesus. But when the dragons stand in the presence of the Christ, His beauty causes them to turn on their former masters.

You might initially scoff that such legends were ever written, but consider how many monsters have been reformed because of Christ’s beauty.

I consider myself among their number.

Stories like these make it easier to distinguish between good and evil, and we are more likely to remain anchored in goodness when evil is obvious and stark.

Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed. — Sabina Dosani and Peter Cross in “Raising Young Children,” paraphrasing a longer passage in G.K. Chesterton’s “Tremendous Trifles”

Our Christian forebears made up some ludicrous assertions about the nature of Christ, but their fantasies weren’t wholly misguided. They believed some things we have neglected — some true things — and though their imaginations began to parse those beliefs into outlandish and incredible manifestations, at the root they were people of faith.

In Joanna’s stories, God is at work just as powerfully and without the benefit of metaphor. And whether her stories concern prisoners or refugees, prayer meetings or food drives, she helps us imagine the full meaning contained within the phrase that “all things are possible” for those who believe.

With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. — Jesus in Matthew 19:26

For example, Joanna shares the true story of a man who sponsors 109 children in a dozen countries through International Child Care Ministries. The man is in his 80s and still works part-time to support the children.

How is the story of this saint any less miraculous than the story of “The Maiden’s Tears”? Has our world become so jaded that his story doesn’t rank? When I shared this story with another parent at an elementary school function, the parent said “aw” as though this man’s heroism was something saccharine — equivalent to an endearing story about a rescued cat. It was a patronizing but also revelatory response. In that moment, I realized we live in a culture that prefers mutants to ministry. We’d rather be X-Men that Xians.

We need to help the people around us rediscover the magic and the mystery that exists in every moment, right before our very eyes. We need to penetrate our fantasy-obsession culture, helping them to see that God still works in surprising ways.

He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted. — C.S. Lewis in “On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature”

This will necessitate that we — the church — stop identifying people as demons and instead authenticate their God-given humanity. It’s time we stop hunting witches and begin inviting the dragons over for dinner.

I began this article by telling you that Christians are strange. I’d like to continue by suggesting that only Christians would be willing to extend hospitality to monsters, because Christians are bold.

Whether writing my book or editing Joanna’s, it felt like every day in front of my laptop was time spent in adventure. Joanna’s Christians took taxi rides to dangerous neighborhoods so they could pray with homeless people. My Christians shared the gospel with pagan priests and bloody brigands. Both kinds of Christians were afraid, and both kinds of Christians obeyed God anyway.

The world is full of terrors, both real and imagined, but true Christians — bold Christians — know that faith overcomes fear. Fear is the prelude to courage, since you cannot be brave if you’re never afraid. And because we know that God’s Spirit in us surpasses any horror in the world, we can advance in power and confidence with Christ.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.
— Moses in Deuteronomy 31:6

Life is much harder and much shabbier than we anticipate. We long for miracle cures and divine intervention, even while realizing that God has called us to move forward without them. Nothing is easy. Nothing is simple.

Life is God’s fertilizer.

And so we move forward knowing we’re not alone, full of the awareness that we cannot pursue our dreams until we stop running from our fears. We progress into the midst of bad people and bad neighborhoods, bad circumstances and bad environments because we know that the line between good and evil is not a line between “us” and “them” but a line that cuts us all in half. We all have good impulses and bad impulses, noble ambitions and selfish conceits. We all struggle with the decision to honor God or please ourselves. That is the crux of our human condition, the nature of our humanity in a broken and fallen world.

This is our context and also our imperative. When we see hurting people, we take a risk and help them. We know there’s a limit to the help we can offer — that deep down we cannot fix their inadequacies and hurts — but we also know that God has called us to take in the strays and see ourselves reflected in their isolation.

This is the world as we have ruined it, and God is empowering us to put it back together. God won’t heal the world without us, and we can’t heal the world without God, so we use our hands to both pray and plow, and our mouths to shout both protestations and praise.

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. — King Lemuel in Proverbs 31:9

In the beginning stories of our Bible, we are told that God made us to be like Him. We are not merely made by Him, but like Him. We are makers. And we are never closer to the nature of God than when we are making things and fixing the things He first made.

The key component in our twin tasks of fixing and making is imagination. Of course, we know imagination by its other moniker: faith.

Faith is the imagination of the godly.

Christians are strange. Christians are bold. But most importantly, Christians are rich in faith.

Like the elderly Magi who watched the destruction of Jerusalem in “Gaspar’s Eulogy,” we realize it takes faith to believe that God sees what is happening on earth and wants to help. It takes faith to believe that our noble efforts in the world can make a difference, and that a collective surge of goodwill can shift history. It takes faith to acknowledge that evil exists and cannot be treated with medication or therapy, just as it cannot be mitigated or appeased. Evil must be vanquished, and the only power sufficient to overcome evil is Christ.

Let’s not keep this conversation in the abstract, however, for Joanna’s book gives us plenty of concrete examples. In one of her chapters, Joanna relays her visitation to a juvenile detention center. That took faith. Once inside, she began to counsel a young man toward the path of Christ and the way of peace. That took faith too. The young man made changes but wasn’t wholly changed. Still, Joanna holds onto the promise of his complete restoration. That takes the most faith of all.

It takes faith to believe that the story isn’t over.

That’s why I think imagination is the great undiscovered resource of Christmas. Think about it. All our pageants and programs, all our crèches and cantatas, feel tired and played out. But God is still working. He’s working in fresh ways through old stories, and He’s working in modern circumstances to create new legends.

Whether fictional or factual, these stories reveal our weaknesses, our desires and our ambitions to shadow God.

The stories I collected in my grand volume of Advent fantasy began just prior to Christ’s birth and conclude just after the fall of Jerusalem. I did that deliberately in order to frame the Nativity as the contrast of two kingdoms. There are the kingdoms of men, presented in all their splendor by the various religious and political organizations vying for power, and there is the kingdom of God — initiated by His Spirit, birthed by Christ and experienced within His Church.

Joanna’s FreeMo issue has a similar emphasis: the deep down recognition that Jesus Christ has to be at the absolute center of everything we do and everything we are — even in our fairy tales.


 

David McDonald, D.Min., is the editor of the FreeMo Journals (fmcusa.org/freemo), the founder of Fossores Global Ministry Development (fossores.com) and the author of the new book “Nativity & Kingdom: Rumors, Myths, and Legends in the Advent of Christ.”

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