How Do We Define Imagination?

"The most profound questions of our existence cannot be answered through a mere collection of concrete evidence; at some point, whether we are theologians, automobile mechanics, dentists or draftsmen each of us reaches a border of the verifiable world, and every one of us leaps. A great deal of what we know, we know only through our imagination--and that knowledge is crucial to our lives."

A great reminder from Peter Turchi in his book Maps of the Imagination that reason can only take us so far, that we rely on our imaginations, often times much more than we realize or want to give credence to. And it is difficult to characterize that type of knowing; how do we define or talk about imaginative knowledge without attempting to concretize it, and so find ourselves back in the realm of reason? And how do we remove the barrier that imagination is simply "make believe," that if it can't be verified, it can't be true? 

Author Sven Birkerts, in Changing the Subject, suggests that digital technologies and our enmeshed reliance on them may be eroding our capacity not only to imagine, but to create works of the imagination. Is it imagination that is truly in jeopardy? Because we all use our imaginations constantly. When you tell me about your workday, I use my imagination to fill in the gaps, since I wasn't there to share it with you. We use this type of imagination all day long and wouldn't be able to function as humans if we lost it. So perhaps what we need is a definition of imagination, a way to categories different types or functions of imagination. If Birkerts is suggesting, as I suspect he is, that what is waning is our ability to synthesize our modern experience and arrive at new and culturally meaningful ways of expressing it in our arts, I think he may be right. That is a different category of imagination, one that would take us into Turchi's definition of imagination as a leap of faith, a knowing nourished by intuition, acute observation and experience, then bashed about in the artists's crucible and repurposed as a work of imagination, of art.

Sven Birkerts: Changing the Subject

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I'm working my way through Sven Birkerts's newest book, Changing the Subject. It's a masterful plea to think about the ways digital technologies are eroding our abilities as humans, particularly how it affects and displaces imagination. 

There's one line I've been intrigued with ever since I read it. Birkerts writes a chapter in defense of idleness, not idleness as we would define it today, charged as it is with the aroma of the ne'er-do-well. But idleness that seeks not to achieve anything, but to simply be, to let the mind drift and wander. "Idleness is the mother of possibility," writes Birkerts. 

I have a friend who shared with me a strategy for jumpstarting the creative process. He calls it "intentional nonlinear search." One begins with something that piques the interest and then proceeds by way of serendipity. One book leads to another; a conversation leads to an exploration, and so forth. The goal is simply to drift, to let whim pull you where it will. There is no other goal; one does not know where one will end up. And Birkerts affirms this. But the question must be asked: is such a way of being still possible in our frenzied yet concomitantly enervated culture? Have we gone too far, passed some watershed beyond which there is no returning?

Wabi-Sabi: A Way to Think About the Digital Age


I've been fascinated recently by the idea of wabi sabi, a Japanese cultural concept. This idea, typically difficult to explain, is an aesthetic that finds beauty in things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. Its qualities are mysterious and elusive, pertaining to things that are neither here nor there, to things fading and disappearing like mist or sunsets. I picked up this slim book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren. The author writes:

"Wabi-sabi seemed to me a nature-based aesthetic paradigm that restored a measure of sanity and proportion to the art of living. Wabi-sabi resolved my artistic dilemma about how to create beautiful things without getting caught up in the dispiriting materialism that usually surrounds such creative acts. Wabi-sabi--deep, multi-dimensional, elusive--appeared the perfect antidote to the pervasively slick, saccharine, corporate style of beauty that I felt was desensitizing American society."

It's something I want to think more about as I consider my place in a world increasingly controlled by digital technologies but without the desire or will to think about what these technologies are doing.

The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis: Interview Part 2

The following is part two of an excerpt from my part of an interview conducted by Lancia E. Smith. The interview is about the writing of The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, co-authored with Jerry Root. Text content used with permission of Lancia E. Smith, publisher: Cultivating the Good, the True and the Beautiful: From the original interview at

LES: So much of what defines Lewis is his lifelong capacity at passing back and forth across the borderlands of imagination for himself.  In the forward written by Steven Beebe, Steven talks about the recurring image of doors and portals with Lewis and what those represent across Lewis’s canon.  In the midst of that, Steve makes this intriguing statement: “Lewis understood our lives are a series of simultaneous comings and goings as we daily cross thresholds and transoms, even when we are not aware we are between rooms.” What anchored Lewis in truth so deeply that it gave him the permission and the freedom to move so fluidly ‘between rooms’ and ‘across thresholds’ of imagination without becoming lost in his faith or his reason? Is that something we can learn to do also or was that something that was simply unique to Lewis and others among the Inklings?

MN: For Lewis, crossing the borderlands into imagination was not a way to lose faith or reason, but to gain it. Everywhere we look in Lewis’s writings, we see this theme repeated: the longing for the hidden country, the stab of joy, the longings of our heart that we search to fulfill. For Lewis, these all pointed to something beyond them, to the far green country described in the closing chapter of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

As I previously mentioned, Lewis fought to reconcile reason and imagination and was able to do so through the person of Christ. For him, the imagination was a source of truth often giving glimpses of realities that couldn’t be seen in any other way.  Literature was his doorway into the imagination. And Lewis was a proponent of a very particular type of reading experience, one that allowed a deep immersion in the text so that truths could simply be experienced at the level of the imagination without the reason kicking in.  In this place, Lewis believed that we could most effectively receive truths into our soul. 

But he was also aware that we lose the effectiveness of these mediated truths when we attempt to analyze them. And we excel at analysis, because we live in a culture that values the reason far beyond the imagination. Lewis also describes this experience in an essay on seeing a beam of light in a toolshed. He realized that there was a distinction between ‘looking at’ versus ‘looking along.’ When we look at something we are using our reason. When we look along, we are entering into the experience so that the experience itself vanishes. We are not objective observers; we are participators.

LES: Your closing conclusion is one of the most compelling pieces I have read in a long time. Talk with me about Lewis’s use of imagination as a vehicle of reconciliation.  How does Lewis use imagination as a method of reconciling the broken but still beautiful world for his readers?

MN: At the end of An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis makes an interesting comment.  He writes, “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality.” For Lewis literature and imaginative experience were so closely connected it’s hard to speak of one without the other. Lewis’s first volume of poetry, Spirits in Bondage, was an attempt to reconcile the horrors of war and a broken world with the beauty he saw in the midst of this. This was prior to his conversion experience and he didn’t have an answer to the question. 

If you remember back to The Horse and His Boy, Aravis and Shasta are discussing how Shasta came to be separated from his twin brother at birth.  Through all the series of events that led up to the moment of being reunited with his true family, Shasta realizes that Aslan is the one that is “at the back of all the stories.” Again, at the end of Till We Have Faces, Orual writes these words: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You yourself are the answer. Before your face questions die away.” These recognitions are behind every imaginative experience for Lewis, and his best imaginative embodiments point us to the one before whose face all questions die away. We may not recognize that this is happening, but once we experience the longing that an imaginative depiction provokes in us, we have a sense that it is a longing that cannot be fulfilled in this world. I think Lewis excels at this type of depiction. I’ve experienced it again and again when I read through the Chronicles and as well as his other fiction.

LES: One of my favorite quotes from Lewis is, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.” (Mere Christianity)  How is a reader best able to cultivate a wholesome imagination and develop its strength as an organ of meaning?

MN: First, by understanding that the function of the imagination is so much more than simply “make believe.” Too many people define it in this limited way and so believe it to be false. How many times have we heard the imagination denigrated? “You just imagined it” is not a cry of affirmation. Understanding the imagination as a whole of nuanced parts is the first step. Then trusting that it can be a reliable source of truth about reality and detaching negative connotations.

Of course, much of Lewis’s imaginative development was the result of extensive reading, so we mustn’t neglect wide reading that will stock our minds with plenty of images. Lewis expressed that his own eyes weren’t enough for him, that he wished to see with others’ eyes.

I believe Lewis teaches us to think out of the box; I’ve always felt fresh air blowing from him. I would simply add that reading his work is itself an education in developing the imagination.

LES: Mark, who would benefit from reading this book? Where can readers learn more about Lewis’s imagination?

MN: Anyone with an interest in Lewis would benefit, but I think it will reach those who are most interested in his imaginative development and how this is manifested in his work. I think it will also benefit those who sense the larger role that imagination can play in our lives.

Again, I would point people to Lewis’s lesser-known books, his literary critical works especially. You will find that he is eminently consistent in developing his ideas across all his work.  If it shows up in one place, you’ll find it in several other places, guaranteed. Take the time to really digest the ideas and literature Lewis was passionate about. It will not only expand your own imaginative development, but it will give you a whole new level of appreciation when you read Lewis, especially his fiction. As Jerry has stated, Lewis will also lead you, through his own passion, to the enjoyment of many other authors.

LES: Gentlemen, what was your favorite chapter to write and why?

MN: The absorbing imagination as reflected through Lewis’s poetry, for many of the reasons listed in my answer to the previous question.  There was a thrill in knowing that though scholars have largely ignored Lewis’s poetry, I found it deeply meaningful anyway, despite its avowed flaws, which I think are likely over-exaggerated. Lewis himself wrote that “The poet’s route to our emotions lies through our imaginations.” I think this is true of Lewis’s poetry.

LES: What did you learn in the writing process and how do you perceive your own imagination differently from having spent so much time working with this material?

MN: One of the most important things we can do in life is to remember, to find ways to continually and deeply inscribe the important things of life on the slate of our consciousness. We so easily forget and fall away. So really, the most profound change my work with this material has had is to continually place it before my attention, to force me to wake up from the status quo and perceive reality differently.

I am amazed at how Lewis is so proficient at the apt word or metaphor; he gets just the right one to make his point and clarify our vision. And he has the rare ability to help us see beyond the words, to enter into the experience with our imagination, not our reason. I sensed this most strongly in Lewis’s poetry, where evocation became longing, where I encountered a sense of veiled mystery, something just beyond reach, as seen through a glass darkly. Having a language that can help us make sense of that experience was a major takeaway, even though Lewis would discourage us from thinking about these things and rather have us simply experience them. I think, at some level, we need to think about these things, if for no other reason than to cultivate awareness and be given the chance to change our approach to imagination.

The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis: Interview Part 1

The following is an excerpt of an interview with me conducted by Lancia E. Smith about the writing of The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, written with my co-author, Jerry Root. Text content used with permission of Lancia E. Smith, publisher: Cultivating the Good, the True and the Beautiful: From the original interview at

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LES: Did writing this book collaboratively serve the work better than if it had been written by one of you as a solo author? What was the collaborative process for writing a book over the length of time it took to bring this book into being?  How long a time frame was there from inception of this book’s generative idea to holding the book in your hands?

MN: Absolutely. Jerry has a much deeper understanding of C.S. Lewis than I do, and his feedback for my ideas was critical. Though I suspect I did a lot more groundwork in reading and researching just to bring myself a few notches closer to Jerry’s expertise and to better prepare me to help write this book!

Over the three plus years it took to write the book, I think we had a good understanding of expectations, both for the quality of each other’s work as well as for being able to meet deadlines. We did spend long hours reading the manuscript aloud and critiquing each other’s chapters as well as sharing them with others who offered feedback. For me, the process, though long, was fairly seamless. We have similar writing styles and this certainly helped to make the job easier.

Abingdon Press had asked that we divide the work into twelve chapters, examining twelve of Lewis’s books through the lens of twelve different types of imagination that he identified. We built a structure that just about every chapter follows and after that it was simply a matter of splitting them up and getting to work.

LES: One of the issues that is often difficult to overcome in a collaborative work is developing a consistent “voice”. This is something that the two you have been exceptionally successful in doing in this work. The voice in this book is virtually seamless. How did you manage that?

MN: Believe it or not, we didn’t intentionally try to blend our styles or voices. It just so happens that our writing styles are fairly similar. We did, as I mentioned earlier, spend a lot of time reading aloud to each other, searching for flaws in reasoning and syntax; perhaps this helped.

LES: Mark, Why do you suppose that this approach to Lewis as a whole – his range and foundation of imagination – has not been given a fuller treatment before?  What other works influenced you most in developing the premise that you are presenting in this book?

MN: Well, the types of imagination Lewis identified are scattered throughout his works and at times only the barest reference is given to a particular type.  So to begin with, they remain fairly well hidden. It took Jerry’s sharp eye and deep familiarity with the Lewis corpus to begin seeing the pattern that Lewis was nuancing the imagination in this way. Once you know he’s doing it, you know to look for it in everything else you’re reading. So we discovered a bunch more. I fully expect that we have missed some.

The other reason is reflected, I think, in the fact that, by and large, readers of Lewis are neglecting his literary/critical works, where most of these types of imagination are defined. To me, these are Lewis’s most important, albeit his most abstruse works. Works like The Discarded ImageThe Allegory of LoveA Preface to Paradise LostStudies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Studies in Words and so on. To me, these books are where Lewis works out many of the imaginative ideas that show up in his fiction. To read The Discarded Image and Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature is to have a far deeper and richer understanding of the space trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. I think the things he found imaginatively viable and that excited his imagination have been largely overlooked.

It requires concentration to read through Lewis’s most robust academic work. He is unique in that while encountering difficulty in his works, I have found pleasure in the toil. You have to read them over and over again and take notes and draw pictures and clutter up your copy with arrows and underlining and margin notes. If you’re me, you pore over individual sentences until they flash forth their meaning and you write tons of margin notes in tiny, crabbed handwriting in an attempt to decipher Latin or Greek phrases or clarify Lewis’s thought. And if you’re Jerry, all of your marginalia and underlining is color-coded. The point is, not many people have the patience or attention to read these works. But I have found that when I persevere, the text begins to glimmer with meaning and I make connections I couldn’t have made before. Lewis has a lot more to offer than people might realize.

LES: Mark, would you explain for my readers what the essential premise is in The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis and why you and Jerry use the paradigm that you do of the twelve types of imagination as seen through seven genres of his work?

MN: Since this book is an introduction to Lewis and the imagination, we wanted to cover as much ground as we could while respecting word count limits. So while we’ve identified more than 30 ways Lewis nuanced the imagination, we only had room for twelve. The rest can be found in the appendix of the book. We divided the twelve up into seven genres so that we could give readers a good sense of Lewis’s breadth as a writer as well as his proficiency in each genre. We examine autobiography, religious writing, literary criticism, fairy stories, science fiction, satire and poetry.

The premise of the book is really that the imagination is not just an entity of make-believe. Just as airline pilots nuance their understanding of air currents and ship captains nuance their understanding of water currents, and must do so for survival’s sake, Lewis nuanced the imagination. He spent years of his life trying to understand how the imagination could ever be a source of truth that could compare with reason, which to him was supreme. He even wrote a poem about this very thing entitled “Reason.” He ultimately reconciled these divided parts of his mind in Christ. I suppose the fundamental point of the book is to help people understand that the imagination can be a reliable source of truth, that it can enable us to perceive and experience in ways that the reason cannot. It helps to widen our understanding of the world. There’s a great quote from author Wendell Berry that perfectly illustrates this point:

Worst of all, the fundamentalists of both science and religion do not adequately understand or respect imagination. Is imagination merely a talent, such as a good singing voice, the ability to “make things up” or “think things up” or “get ideas”? Or is it, like science, a way of knowing things that can be known in no other way? We have much reason to think that it is a way of knowing things not otherwise knowable. As the word itself suggests, it is the power to make us see, and to see, moreover, things that without it would be unseeable. In one of its aspects it is the power by which we sympathize. By its means we may see what it was to be Odysseus or Penelope, David or Ruth, or what it is to be one’s neighbor or one’s enemy. By it, we may “see ourselves as others see us.” It is also the power by which we see the place, the predicament, or the story we are in.[1]

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[1] Berry, Wendell. Imagination in Place. p. 186-187