The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing, edited by Leland Ryken (Shaw Books, 2002)

When asked to define “neighbour,” Jesus refused, telling a story instead (the parable of the Good Samaritan). Our fund of important knowledge is not limited to ideas but includes the characters and events of stories and the metaphors and images of poetry as well. In startling challenge to our customary thinking in this regard, C. S. Lewis claimed that it is “a mistake to think that our experience in general can be communicated by precise and literal language and that there is a special class of experience (say, emotions) which cannot. The truth seems to me the opposite.”
–      Leland Ryken

In The Christian Imagination Ryken brings together a wide range of essays that address reading, writing and the arts from a Christian perspective. Some have been written particularly for this volume, but most have been previously published. They are what Ryken considers ‘the best that has been written on the announced subject’. It includes essays or extracts by C. S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, Francis Schaeffer, Tolkein, Chesterton and many others. Ryken has also interspersed short quotes throughout the book which relate the themes being discussed. This is done with enough care that they aren’t too disruptive to the flow of the essays.

It starts broad, laying the foundations for a Christian philosophy of the arts and the creative impulse, then diverges to address the different areas: reading, writing, getting published, and particular genres. such as realism, fantasy, poetry and hymn-writing. Since most of the contributors are writers themselves, much of it is enjoyable for its style alone. But I also found the content very insightful and I couldn’t help taking notes as I went.

Perhaps one weakness in the anthology (at least to me mind) is the overall harmony. You may not think this a fault, but personally, I would have liked to have read different perspectives that did conflict, forcing the reader to weigh up alternatives.

I doubt The Christian Imagination will change forever the way you approach reading or writing, but anyone who is a reader, writer, poet or artist will surely feel their time has been well-invested.

Late last year when reading Stephen Fry’s book on writing poetry, I started thinking like a poet. Even when I wasn’t reading the book or writing poetry I would think about how images or events around me could be captured, coloured, clarified and contained in a poem, and what form would be most appropriate for them. Similarly, reading The Christian Imagination has had me thinking more like a writer. It didn’t just change what I was thinking about, but how I was thinking. I think that’s pretty cool.

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