Imagination as a Discipline

by Guest Blogger August 18, 2016

By Brie Stoltzfus


Since my husband is an oil painter, I’m privy on an almost-daily basis to the rigor involved with creating an image. By rigor I mean the kind of resolve that it takes to paint something that matters, even when he doesn’t feel like it. What often surprises me is the discipline involved with a pursuit that I, somewhat unconsciously, associated with a dependency on flashes of inspiration. Discipline, and not a whim, gets the piece completed, brings out the fullest capacity of the image to the eye of the beholder.

I’ve been coming to understand the relationship between image-making and discipline oftentimes must be a tight-knit one. Recently I listened to a chapel talk given at my alma mater by Tim Keller. In the course of discussing the topic of identity, he introduced a concept that completely took me by surprise.

He explained that in order to develop a foundational belief that Christ has died for us, the truth of it has got to “enter our imagination”—that God must be “the aesthetic core” of our lives.

Though this struck me as a wholly new idea, I let that question go—but not for long. A few weeks later I attended my church’s Lent service; in the bulletin it asked, “What has captured your imagination more than Christ?”

And here are some thoughts I’ve had on the subject, fresh and untested. I should add that by “imagination” I’m referring to the “art form” of conjuring up a scene in our minds in which either God’s Truth or our “truths”/desires determine the subject and story arc.

It’s an art form because it involves the composition of imagery and narrative involved with the art-making process. I’ve come to realize that we utilize our imaginations when we consider what makes us who we are, what we want the future to look like, how we want people to view us, how we interpret what has already happened.

Too often, we associate imagination with fancy, missing the fact that imagination is a realm of the mind the creativity of which can be used for good purpose.

But, like my husband’s art-making, imagination—from the Latin “to picture to oneself”—is a discipline of setting up images in front of oneself that reflects true things, even, or especially, when we don’t want to. If uncontrolled, our imaginations are inclined to run free, galloping across our minds throughout the day. Permitting it to do so usually doesn’t produce much fruit; for me, many a time has it led to grumpiness or tears as my pessimistic self envisions the possible disasters approaching my relationships, my finances, my health, my professional life.

My imagination replays past footage of failure, or darkness, or friendships gone sour. On the screen of my mind loom future scenes of similar disappointments. And this is the power and peril of images, that we humans need them and use them to make sense of life in our “aesthetic core”: how it was, is, and will be.

As Greg Wolfe put it, “Art’s method is precisely to search out a new form to help us see the content we already know as if for the first time.” Art reorganizes content so that we see it afresh.

Why not, then, use the art-making of our mind’s eye to enforce what we know to be true, lovely, worthy of praise? Since imagination can be so powerful to us, why not utilize it for healing?

In this way, imagination becomes a discipline in which one intentionally dwells on Truth. In Psalm 63, the Psalmist is desperate. He lies awake at night, but instead of allowing his thoughts to take a hold of him, he takes a hold of his thoughts—he meditates (which I see as a kind of disciplined imagining):

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh  faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory….when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.

The Psalmist doesn’t stop at “for you have been my help.” No, he remembers this fact, his mind translating it into a picture: God taking him in as a mother bird does for her baby birds, folding them under warm, strong wings, a shield of feathers a delicate barricade from the wind howling just outside. Setting up such an image in front of his mind and heart, the Psalmist is joyful and calm and closer to sleep.

 Brie Stoltzfus graduated in 2015 from the Masters in the Humanities Program at University of Chicago, focusing on art history. Currently, she resides in Indianapolis as a writer and research assistant at the Sagamore Institute, moonlighting as the Managing Editor and Co-Founder of an arts criticism journal called LEAP! Review. She regularly blogs for the Harrison Center for the Arts.

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