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As a Child-Artist into Mystery

Heidi & Arie Burbidge

Editor's Note: This is the second post in a series of posts titled, "The Image of God in the Drama of God." If you haven't read the first post, read it now: "Dying to Tell Your Story: Anyone Willing to Listen?"


I left off last discussion with the need we have to tell our stories, and, more importantly, with the encouragement to let others tell their stories. I joined a friend on his podcast last week to talk about storytelling. He asked me a great question: How do we get better at telling stories? What immediately came to mind was this: ask more questions. The Great Storytellers were curious about their neighbors and the vast Cosmos around them. So, they disciplined themselves into letting others talk, while they listened. This is how they dove into the mystery of the human being.

Now, I’m not saying that these Writers, no matter how great, have solved the mystery of what it means to be human. Even the greatest works of storytelling leave us with questions. Actually, as a teacher, I find the presence of nagging questions an indication that the work may very well be a significant one.

I’ve also learned American Christians are not terribly comfortable with mystery, especially in our understanding of the Christian faith. There is a balance here, though: God has made himself known: we see his hand in creation, know what he’s like through Scripture, and know him personally through his Son, but we will never fully grasp his complexities. There will always be mystery wrapped up in God and his works.

Some of us naturally see the world as mysterious, though. We don’t have to be taught or encouraged. Artists, and children, generally look at the world in wonder and think, “I can imitate the world, but I can’t fully understand it.”

As a young child, G.K. Chesterton had difficulty sympathizing with his modern understanding of science: that the world was governed by laws -- laws that could be understood; that we were on the way to fully understanding the universe. No, as Chesterton records in Orthodoxy, he felt that the world had not unveiled its mysteries. And so, instead of speaking of laws that work in the universe, he spoke of magic: a literary figure that expresses a powerful force that is not fully explained. This is what I believe stands behind the magic in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It is not an attempt to commit witchcraft as forbidden in Leviticus, but a way of speaking about that which is beyond our senses -- the supernatural.

While at times throughout history men and women have painted the world as a mechanical machine that is predictable and straightforward, G.K. Chesterton always felt “life first as a story” (219), something that is full of twists and turns, joy and delight. And if there’s a story, he reasoned, there must be a storyteller (219).

Of course, we cannot prove these things with the scientific method, because we cannot fully experience them, and certainly not test them under a microscope or in test tubes. These supernatural realities and truths are held by faith and imagination, in accordance with reason.

Flannery O’Connor, the celebrated American and Catholic fiction writer, explains in her important work Mystery and Manners, that “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery” (79).

So, there is a cyclical process that takes place if we are ready for it: this world that we touch and smell can be much like a doorway, a wardrobe, a railway station to the world beyond us. And time in the world beyond us doesn’t diminish the world we live in, but enhances it, clarifies it. I do believe this is why the imagination is so vitally important.

I’ve lived in Lake Arrowhead for a year and a half now, run all the trails nearby, and thought I’d discovered all its hidden beauty...until Arie and Heidi (my lovely nieces) joined us for a weekend. (Is it just me...or are wardrobes and railway stations and vast woods opened when children arrive?)

Heidi & Arie Exploring

Led by their equally adventurous and imaginative mother, the girls ventured into the woods to return with a discovery, bigger than pine cones and walking sticks. So, a few days later, I jogged along my usual path and then veered sharply off of it into the woods. A hundred yards in, I paused in disbelief: standing in front of me were a series of grand boulders, hugging one another, as they gazed over the city of San Bernardino. I can only guess how long they’d been at it. So, I hugged them back...peered as they did. And tried to recapture my breath.

(Click on images below to enlarge.)

I don’t know about you, but sometimes our routines and hectic lives keep us from gazing into the mysteries of God and his Cosmos. We’re too busy or “productive” to stop and listen, gaze and wonder.

So, I say: Arie and Heidi, come on up again to the mountains, anytime you’d like: help reignite my imagination and ponder what Jesus meant when he said, “[U]nless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3).

As a child and artist, may we gaze in awe upon Jesus and his Story once again.

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