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Volume 13, Issue 3: Childer

Boyish Imagination

Douglas Wilson

Part of the legacy we have (if you want to call it that) from the Romantic movement is the idea that discipline and imagination go ill together. Creativity and imagination must burble forth spontaneously from the artistic heart, we think. However, the more we have encouraged this notion, the uglier our surroundings get. Something is wrong somewhere.

Because we think that discipline and imagination cannot be friends, we therefore choose between them. We opt for discipline, as most Christians do, rejecting imagination, or we embrace imagination, saying farewell to the discipline. It rarely occurs to us to consider the possibility of feeding, nourishing and disciplining the imagination in the light of Scripture. C.S. Lewis observed this tendency when he said of much modern art and literature that it was "mere puddles of spilled sensibility or reflection." He saw that it is often the case that greater care and work goes into low-brow art. But, he warned, "Do not misunderstand. The high-brow productions may, of course, reveal a finer sensibility and profounder thought. But a puddle is not a work, whatever rich wines or oils or medicines may have gone into it."
Boys have a vivid imaginative life. Boys also require a good bit of discipline. It should not be surprising that one of the boyish attributes needing discipline is consequently the imagination. When this is done right, our sons will grow up into very effective culture warriors. But when this is neglected, boys drift into dangerous territory. Without instruction and discipline, a vivid imagination becomes a hothouse for all kinds of sin. A hunger for easy glory can become an excuse for indolent daydreaming, and of course, when a boy is sexually undisciplined, having a vivid imagination is the last thing he needs.
Because of this, many Christian parents have simply opted to suppress or starve the imaginative life, apparently on the theory that if there is no imagination there will be no imaginative sinning. This is quite true, but it is true in the same sense as when children aren't given any food, they will escape eating disorders—because they are dead. When discipline is chosen over imagination, the result is a disciplined life, what is left of it.
Discipline of the imagination is positive, not negative. It is not applied by spanking unimaginative bottoms. Rather, boys are taught to discipline this aspect of their hearts and minds through being taught the beauty of the gospel, the power of the gospel, and how far God intends the effects of the gospel to extend.
The story of the gospel is a glorious story. We do not tell our children about it because we think of the gospel as a set of propositions in the sky, not a series of great deliverances fought and accomplished on Earth.
We start where Christians must always start, with the story about the seed of the woman triumphing over the seed of the serpent. We tell the story of Jesus Christ, as Scripture does, with our Lord in the role of the dragon slayer. The serpent in the first book of the Bible is also found in the last book, where he is described as that ancient serpent. He is the devil, the murderer from the beginning, crushed under the heel of the great son of Eve. God destroyed him who had the power of death, that is, the devil. Christ triumphed over the principalities and powers, humiliating them deeply. Christ is the archtype of all dragon-slayers, the archtype of all giant killers. As He put it, when He bound the strong man, He stripped him of all his panoply. Christ defeated the devil and made off with his armor.
But He did not do this so that we could sit and watch. We are to watch, consider, imitate, and then take care to tell our sons the stories about the wars. We always begin with the war as won by Christ, but we remember that He commanded us, in our turn, to preach the gospel to every creature, to disciple all the nations, and throw down every enemy that sets himself against the course of the gospel.
The saints have been doing this for a long time. And this is why we tell our sons the story of Beowulf and how he killed the twisted descendents of Cain, and then how he gave his life killing the dragon. This is why we tell stories about St. George and the dragon. This is why we are to talk about great King Alfred, fighting off heathen invaders. And this is even why we read to wide-eyed boys the wonderful story of Jim, who allowed that he would blow Israel Hand's brains out. We tell the great story of Shasta, who turned back to face the lion. We must read The Lord of the Rings to our sons, more than once.
But our lack of imagination has us by the throat. We fuss and bother about this. Treasure Island is a work of fiction, we mutter. The Horse and His Boy is a work of fiction about a nonexistent world, for crying out loud. St. George is probably not a historically verifiable incident. And Gandalf is a wizard.
I can think of no better or truer reply to all this than to paraphrase that of Puddleglum when he was confronted with a similar argument. Fine. These are all works of fiction. But they tell a truer story—and far more real—than the empty, cavernous, and very dark world in which many parents want their hollow-souled children to live.

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