In Praise of Fiction

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While skirting the headlines of the local paper last week, I was delighted at a little gem tucked away at the bottom the front page. The article chronicled a London theater group’s attempts to determine if being exposed to Shakespeare would increase milk production in a herd of dairy cows. The Changeling Theatre Company performed scenes from The Merry Wives of Windsor for Friesian cows at a Kent dairy farm.

“We selected scenes from the play we felt to be lyrical and relaxing,” said Rob Forknall, artistic director for the group.

Milk production was found to increase by four percent. It is believed that exposure to the Bard’s work relaxed the cows, therefore boosting milk production. I’ve never read Shakespeare to bovines, but I can vouch for the relaxation effect of a good piece of literature. Stories soothe the wild beast. And, um, the more placid, cud-chewing, lactating one (apparently).

When I was a girl, there were no books in my home. When money is tight and the library too far away, Dr. Seuss takes a backseat. There was no toddler lap time with eyes focused on colorful pages. No picture books with single words to jump start my reading skills. No sing-songy poems to capture my attention. No books. But there were plenty of stories.

At night when my mother tucked us in, she would always give us a bedtime story. Mostly, she offered well-known fairy tales—Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs—but sometimes she would spin her own. These were always the favorites. She was an animated storyteller—changing her voice with each character, giving sound effects where indicated. My brothers and sister and I would cocoon together in the dark, eyes wide with the wonder of pages of pictures turning in our heads.

That is where my love for story began. I learned to read with Dick and Jane in the first grade. But the decaying school I attended those first years of grammar school had no library. Still no books. Then, the summer before my third grade year, that old school building was condemned and the kids from our hollow were transferred. The first time I entered the library at Adamston Elementary, I was astounded. The walls were made of books and books and books and I had never seen anything like it. That library is where I found Nancy Drew, traveled to Narnia and The Island of the Blue Dolphins. It’s where I first experienced A Wrinkle in Time and spied my first Little.

That library was a place for a shy girl from an impoverished family to find new friends. Reading opened up the world for me. I learned about other cultures and other ways of life while nestled in  a small country lane in West Virginia. It connected me to the world in ways that simply were not available to me at the time. Reading showed me possibility.

I have carried my love of a good story with me through the years. There are few things I enjoy more than spending a free afternoon  with a well-written novel. But a good story is more than a warm fuzzy feeling. It is widely regarded that reading fiction helps develop imagination in young children (and probably adults … know anyone who can use some improving in this area?). Some maintain that reading novels is a more engaging way to improve vocabulary and thus improve scores on standardized tests. There is much documentation of the benefits of reading fiction for stress relief and improved mental health. Research by psychologist Raymond Mar found that fiction readers have better social skills and more empathy than those who purport to only read nonfiction. One study even suggests that reading fiction can change our personalities.

A well-crafted story reminds us that we are part of something larger than ourselves. It’s the reason humans have been telling stories since the beginning of time. Stories help us make sense of the world and understand who we are. As researcher Keith Oatley says, … fiction is about possible selves in possible worlds. Anyone who has ever been swept into an imaginary world and emerged to find himself changed in some way understands this very well.

Reading fiction enriches the way we experience life. We are, after all, each writing our own story in the way we live our lives. As for me, I plan on bringing some Shakespeare along the next time my phobic son has an orthodontist appointment. I just won’t make it MacBeth.

This article first appeared in variation at The High Calling.

Under a Different Sky: The Ministry of Imagination

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Yesterday morning when I walked the dog around the house the moon was a crooked smile in the sky. I saw Orion tipped over above me, candling the dark. The cicadas were in full strum and I listened to their morning song as we bended around back. The day began soft, sweet, and I felt summer thin on the edge. Autumn lurked—scent of wood fire on my skin.

This morning the sky is white with unshed rain and Bonnie and I hurry with her business. The air is wet against my skin, heavy. Without the stars to capture my eye, I lose my center. My mind flits through one thousand things I am doing or need to do or want to do. I feel like a mist-person—half here and half somewhere else.

Some days I long to be under a different sky. This place I toil in feels tired and I can’t help but agree with Solomon, “Nothing is new under the sun.” The days blur together and moments lose meaning. Time dissolves like sugar in water, but leaves behind no sweetness.

I’ve been reading Run with the Horses by Eugene Peterson. It’s a book about the prophet Jeremiah, the one we know as the weeping prophet. Peterson talks of Jeremiah’s creativity, seeming to describe him as a performance artist. This prophet went to alarming extremes to communicate the message of the Lord to his people. Yesterday, I read this:

 The great masters of the imagination do not make things up out of thin air, they direct our attention to what is right before our eyes. They then train us to see it whole—not in fragments but in context, with all the connections. They connect the visible and the invisible, the this with the that. They assist us in seeing what is around us all the time but which we regularly overlook. With their help we see it not as commonplace but as awesome, not as banal but as wondrous. For this reason the imagination is one of the essential ministries in nurturing the life of faith. For faith is not a leap out of the everyday but a plunge into its depths.”

For faith is not a leap out of the everyday but a plunge into its depths.

When life gets busy, this is what I tend to do: compartmentalize. I put my everyday life in one box and my spiritual life in another. Don’t we all do this? Our minds need to simplify for efficiency. Compartmentalizing is one way of doing this. But this can lead to a smaller life and narrow vision. Psychologist Ellen Langer, Ph.D. tells us this is one reason why adults lose their ability to stay present in the here-and-now—therefore losing that sense of wonder that so captivates children. We compartmentalize. We label. We oversimplify.

This is good, this is bad. This is sacred, this is secular. This is black, this is white. This is necessary, this is beautiful.

“But there have been times in history,” Peterson tells us, “when these things were done better, when the necessary and the beautiful were integrated, when, in fact, it was impossible to think of separating them.”

What if everything that is beautiful is useful? What if it inspires and unveils and pulls us deeper into relationship with God and each other? And what if everything that is useful was beautiful too? What if crafters of the utilitarian began to see their work as art? As a way to leave a mark on this world? What if?

I am working on my imagination, dipping into some of those great masters Peterson describes. I read poetry out loud every day—rub the lines between the fingers of my mind like prayer beads. I’m listening to music more, letting stories carry me away. I have found these do not take me under a new sky, but they open my eyes to the beauty of the one I am living under. Imagination opens up the sky and reveals the holy beyond.

 

The Sanctified Imagination

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I recently read the story of the Laetoli footprints. In 1976, archaeologist Mary Leakey was digging in the Tanzanian plain when she made an amazing discovery: a single footprint preserved in what was once volcanic ash. Further exploration yielded more footprints—an eighty-foot swath made by three people, fifty-four in all—all that was left of companions walking together, 3.6 million years ago. Leakey’s team studied the footprints for three years and when finished, reburied them for preservation.

As I read that story I began to wonder how much of the sacred is buried under the soil of the visible in this world. In our day-to-day lives, we pile on layer after layer of things we can see, things we can touch, mistakenly thinking this is the way to happiness and security … all the while losing sight of a priceless treasure as we bury it deeper and deeper under the soil of excess. How easy to lose sight of an unseen God when so many visible, lesser gods clamor for our attention.

Will you join me over at The High Calling for the rest of this reflection today? We’re finishing up a series on Imagination over there. If your curious, I think you’ll enjoy the other articles too.