Imagine That

Educators, parents, grandparents and grandfriends alike have something to offer children–sweets. I know that children are supposed to be intrinsically motivated to learn, but really a sugary incentive can be a useful tool on a Friday afternoon in class. I don’t recall much about my first years at school, but I do remember Mrs. Crow in Grade 1 treating us to Popsicles after a particularly good behavior week, and in Grade 2 putting a penny in the a jar every time I was “caught” doing something good. When the jar was full–class party!

As adults I think we can miss an important step while teaching the children in our lives. We can expect intrinsic behavior without really explaining the extrinsic rewards. In other words, we want them to buy into a system without explaining the incentives. I’m not advocating for teaching children by rewarding with gifts or candy; instead, I believe we should teach children to do what is right by showing them a picture of goodness–by showing them the benefits of doing what is right–and this takes imagination.

In his book Education of Character, the philosopher Martin Buber recalls an interesting development in some of his classes.

“[I tried] to explain that lying destroys life, and something frightening happen[ed]: the worst habitual liar of the class produce[d] a brilliant essay on the destructive power of lying.”

Buber offers an alternative to “explaining” or “teaching” good character through a sermonizing or didactic manner:

“Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. 

One of the greatest attractions of art is that it has the ability to stir the imagination without being heavy-handed (this isn’t to say that some art isn’t heavy-handed and preachy). This is one of the reasons that I believe that stories are such a magnificent tool in teaching children moral strength.

“For a story to truly hold the child’s attention it must entertain him and arouse his curiosity.  But to enrich his life, it must stimulate the imagination,” writes the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim.

If imagination is the faculty by which we form our understanding of the world, then Story is one vehicle by which that information is delivered. This is supported by taking a closer look at a few foundation components of Story found in the Christian faith.


The term logos is a Greek word that originally meant the foundation of an opinion, but later came to be a term used by the Greeks to mean the principle of order and knowledge. One of the derivatives of logos is word, which comes from the root of legō, which means “to say, speak, or tell.” We get our word myth from two Greek words: muthos and logos. Muthos was the telling of truth through the account of a story (used to communicate emotions and feelings of a moment), while logos was the telling of truth through the use of reason or facts. To the Greeks, the two words were interchangeable, and even when muthos came to mean “fictionalized,” it was still used as a trusted form of communicating.


Imagination plays an important role in talking about logos. One of the easiest ways to make the connection between the two is to think of the word logo which has obvious connections to logos. A logo is generally a symbol or sign that doesn’t contain words yet carries with it symbolic meaning. Thus, pictures come to represent words or phrases in our minds which then combine with our personal experiences to give meaning through our imaginations.

One of the reasons the imagination and logos are so important to the Christian faith is because Jesus claims to be the Logos of the whole world–the principal order and knowledge of ALL things.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”(John 1:1-5) 

Here Word is translated from the word logos. This means that John is claiming that Jesus is the symbol of God! That is quite the claim. The theologian Frank Stagg writes,  “The Logos is God active in creation, revelation, and redemption.”

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

So what does this have to do with imagination?

If  John’s claim is true, and Jesus is the incarnate symbol of God, then Jesus is the embodiment of Story. In essence, God is telling His people that they don’t have to imagine what He is like–they just have to look at Jesus. This is one of the reasons why the Ten Commandments is deadly clear in communicating that “you shall not make any graven images” or have “any other gods before me.” Really, the only symbol that can completely embody God is one that God creates Himself. And if the incarnate Son of God chooses to be described as the Logos–the embodiment of the Great Story–then I’m ready to hitch my bandwagon to that art form.

Instead of only having prophets and angels tell of God’s greatness, God sends Jesus–the embodiment of God in flesh –in order for humanity to see goodness and just hear about it.


In all of the gospels, there are a combined total of 32 parables of Jesus (interestingly, there are no parables in the Gospel of John). In fact, the writing of Psalms prophecies that Jesus will use parables to communicate with people.

Psalm 78:1-3 

 3 Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us.

The Bible scholar Madeline Boucher writes this about Jesus and his parables: 

The importance of the parables can hardly be overestimated. They comprise a substantial part of the recorded preaching of Jesus. The parables are generally regarded by scholars as among the sayings which we can confidently ascribe to the historical Jesus; they are, for the most part, authentic words of Jesus. Moreover, all of the great themes of Jesus’ preaching are struck in the parables. 

Likewise, the author Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan writes that Jesus was the master of teaching in parables. His parables often have an unexpected twist or surprise ending that catches the reader’s attention. They are also cleverly designed to draw listeners into new ways of thinking, new attitudes and new ways of acting. 

It really should be no surprise that the great Word himself should use stories to communicate his greatest truths. Imagination is so important in understanding parables because these stories are highly symbolic and invite readers to imagine these scenes so they can “experience” their meanings. In essence, parables are stories that guide the imagination through certain situations, for a particular outcome, without needing to be heavy-handed. 


There is such a rich history of story in the Bible as well as the Jewish and Christian traditions, but I believe that this history culminates in the Gospel. The word Gospel is in and of itself very simple yet incredible complex. Tim Keller defines the gospel as:

The good news that through Christ the power of God’s kingdom has entered history to renew the whole world. When we believe and rely on Jesus’ work and record (rather than ours) for our relationship to God, that kingdom power comes upon us and begins to work through us.”

“Through the person and work of Jesus Christ, God fully accomplishes salvation for us, rescuing us from judgment for sin into fellowship with him, and then restores the creation in which we can enjoy our new life together with him forever.” from Christianity Today

 Trevor Wax, a writer on the Gospel Coalition website, rightly identifies the multifaceted nature of such a dynamic word, yet he sees a consistent theme:  Jesus enters humanities story in order to help people imagine a life that is greater than themselves. In other words, Jesus broke into the story of humanity to remind us that we are part of a bigger story.

This is not just a story we hear–we are enveloped by this story and live it out each and every day.

Although the Christian debate over magic and Harry Potter has come and gone, one of the most ironic twists of the whole ordeal is found in the traditional meaning of the word Gospel.

Gospel: Middle English, from Old English gōdspel (translation of Late Latin evangelium), from gōd good                    + spell tale

The traditional meaning tale (spell) was meant to evoke images of the spoken word having power to hold people in a magically state of enchantment–the story was so attractive that it would strongly influence people as if they were under someone else’s power. This is the power of the Gospel.

All in all, children (and adults for that matter) need to have their imaginations stimulated in such a way that they are shown what is right by being drawn into a story that encourages them to imagine what is right–to be engulfed by eudaimonism. This isn’t some relativistic cease pool; instead, like the parables of Jesus, we are given images in a story and then lead to experience what is right instead of just being told what is right.

I believe this is the elevated faculty that George MacDonald was talking about. This is the intrinsic motivation: when our imagination is baptized with goodness, and then we are lead to that goodness by the images in our minds.


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