Strange, Bold, and Rich: why imagination is the legacy of Christmas
The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
Luke 6.45 ESV
I’ve been preparing for Christmas bi-focally. One lens is aimed at the fabricated miracles of Christian tradition and the other at certified expressions of contemporary faith.
Allow me to explain:
I have spent the last four months researching Nativity legends for a new book while simultaneously editing our first ever Christmas issue of the FreeMo Journal. 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, and 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—and 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 shares some startling stories, also.
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 in point-of-fact both books revolve around the same magic ingredient.
Stories educate and inspire us, motivate us to achieve, and harden us so we might endure. True stories do this, but so do faerie 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, where mine are pseudepigraphal. And yet, as J.R.R. Tolkien was fond of saying, myth and history are largely analogous since 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, Tolkien 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 and 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 faerie 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.
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.
But here’s the thing—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 that believe.
With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
Jesus, as quoted in Matthew 19.26, ESV
For example, Joanna shares the true story of a man reported in International Child Care Ministries who sponsors 109 children scattered across a dozen countries. That man is in his eighties and still works part time to support his charity habit.
How is the story of this elderly 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, they “awwed”, as though this man’s heroism was something saccharine—equivalent to an endearing story about a rescued cat. It was a patronizing response, but also revelatory. 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.
We do not despise real woods because we have read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.
C.S. Lewis, 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 in my book or Joanna’s, it felt like every day in front of my laptop—both writing and editing—was time spent in adventure. Joanna’s Christians took taxi rides to dangerous neighborhoods so they could pray with hobos. 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 fear or be in dread, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.
Deuteronomy 31.6, ESV
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 pleasure 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.
Because 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.
Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Proverbs 31.9, ESV
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 issue of the FreeMo 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 our faerie tales.
Dr. David McDonald is the editor of the FreeMo Journals, the founder of Fossores Global Ministry Development, and Lead Pastor at Westwinds Community Church (www.westwinds.org). You can follow him online at www.fossores.com (@fossores). His new book, Nativity & Kingdom: rumors, myths, and legends in the Advent of Christ, will be available Christmas 2015.
 If you’re unfamiliar with FreeMo, they’re short books (20,000 words) designed for lay people in the local church. They can be used as Adult Sunday School curriculum, midweek Bible study, or for personal daily devotions.