Thursday, December 17, 2009


This WSJ article prompted me to organize some disparate thoughts about imagination: Children's Imagination Important for Cognitive Development -

Between my blog and catechism class, I frequently look for images to amplify Bible stories. I'm surprised at how long I sometimes have to search to find an online image that sheds light on what I think the point of the story is. Sometimes I find an image that's better than what I imagine, one that actually deepens the meaning, and those are the best. But to do so I have to cull through lots of well-done pictures that lack compelling content. It matters because the kids use the pictures to refine and expand their imagination and understanding of faith. God necessarily exceeds human imagination; but the bigger the imagination, the more God can be understood, the closer he can be approached. Let's look at a couple of examples.

Two of my favorite classroom stories are the Healing of the Paralytic, and the Prodigal Son. Because the perfect picture is worth at least a thousand words, I seek....The Perfect Picture; in the first case, the Perfect Paralytic Picture. I've looked at a hundred images or more, seeking not an illustration of a paralyzed man being made to walk, but the mystery, the miracle, the hushed wonder of a sin-wracked body and soul being healed together. Here are two Paralytic pix that are fine paintings, but neither of them wins my prize:

This is a lovely one:

Got it? Me too. And this next one as well. It's by James Tissot, who made 350 watercolors in the late 19th century of the Life of Christ; this is one of them. Wiki says: "The merits of Tissot's Bible illustrations lay rather in the care with which he studied the details of scenery than in any quality of religious emotion. He seemed to aim, above all, at accuracy, and, in his figures, at a vivid realism, which was far removed from the conventional treatment of sacred types."

Great composition, it. Thanks.
And now, the pearl of great price by John Armstrong:

Got it? Umm...ehhh...I gotta think about it for a while. Even now, at the hundredth viewing, this one is about more than the first two. It's not all that concerned with the event, per se, but rather the meaning of the event, the truth beyond the facts. As a question I heard in a Sola Scriptura debate put it, what's more important: the text, or the message? Yeah, ok, so in this picture that I love, what's the message?

I have to digress. In the summer of '08, my family took an Alaska cruise, courtesy of My Wife The Energizer Bunny. Among other stops, we visited Hubbard Glacier:

The glacier face is about 300 feet tall, 6 miles wide, and beguilingly blue. It's not the usual.

Cruise ships are alive with sound. People chat, music plays, wind blows, water splashes, tableware clinks, the ship itself hums and thrums. When the glacier first came into view from miles away, people got very excited, the sound level went right up. But over the next couple of hours as the ship carefully crept up close to that weird blue wall, all 2,000 people Just Shut Up. Hardly a sound except the clunk of ice against the hull. No-one spoke above a murmur, and briefly. Total hush at the wonder.

This is how I imagine the moment of the Healing of the Paralytic: a hush at the wonder. The hubbub "we've never seen anything like this before" would come later, as it did on the ship when it eased back out of the fjord. But at the moment when the people realized that Jesus had healed both soul and body, my God, who would have made a peep? That's the meaning I take from the Armstrong image. A sinful wretch floating on a sea of sinners, at the moment of healing. The utter, preposterous wonder of that moment. It's beyond one's grasp. Just shut up.

Speaking of images and meaning, Aristotle formulated the concept of Accidents and Substance as a way of organizing reality. Take, oh, glaciers for example: if water is frozen, we call it ice. The ice-ness is an accident; sometimes water is a liquid, other times a vapor, still other times a solid. But it's all water, regardless of the accidents. Water is the substance. This seems obvious to us, but in 19th-century subtropical India, e.g., people were confused by the product delivered by New England's ice merchants. They didn't understand it was water with a different accident than they were used to. Some referred to ice as "blocks of Yankee coldness." Even observing ice melt didn't change their perception of ice being something quite different from water. It must have taken a huge shift, not just of knowledge, but also imagination, to accept ice as just another form of water.

The influence of imagination on understanding is underestimated.

Some Catholics will be familiar at least in passing with the fact that Aquinas referred to Aristotle's accidents and substances in explaining Transubstantiation. Catholics are used to the idea that while the bread and wine are Accidents, the Substance of the Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. To put it in sacramental terms, there's Form, and there's Matter (to digress again, most Orthodox aren't comfortable with such a technical analysis, referring to the Sacraments as Mysteries).

What's this post about? Oh yeah, images. Religious images. More to the point, Bible story images. Why so many are workmanlike, yet some select few are profound, and deepen our understanding of a story. Ehhh...let's consider the second story I mentioned, the Prodigal Son.
Here's a serviceable illustration of the Prodigal Son by Murillo:

Boy howdy, it sure is scriptural: the plea for forgiveness, the ring, the robes, the fatted calf about to be axed.... and a little Fido symbolizing faithful devotion. But I know all that already. I don't need an illustration. I need a portrait.

Here we go, the one that makes the point, by Rembrandt (I saw the original at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, during a Baltic cruise. It's big.):

My Number One work of visual art, Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son doesn't even show a scene that's especially scriptural. No plot, no talking, no rings, no time. Instead there is stressless patience, love, and peace. Mmmmm....aaaaahhhh. If we repent, God will forgive us, embrace us and love us forever. Forget the rings and robes. The forgiven son floats in an eternal ocean of love before the father has mentioned baubles or dinner. At last he can rest. This is the meaning of the story. I knew the Facts. Rembrandt shows the Truth.

Aristotle might say Rembrandt has seen past the Accidents and given us the Substance, as does Armstrong in his Paralytic. He might go so far as to say both artists showed us God.

Now where ice, stuff, is concerned, we can get at the substance which lies beyond the accidents pretty easily. But it's harder to get at the substance of truth: one has to have an imagination, like Rembrandt and Armstrong. Ideally a nimble imagination, well-trained by the habits of Christian faith to see God in a man; to see water become wine. Or maybe a Catholic imagination also trained to see water wash away sin; or wine become blood; or bread become flesh.

I want my 6th graders to learn and love the Bible. To know the Substance as well as the Accidents; the Form and the Matter; the Stories and the Truth.

Their eyes can look; they need imaginations to see.