Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
share post

Hearts Too Big for One World

January 22, 2024

Junius Johnson

The human imagination gazes upon infinite possibilities. In this gaze, it may, if directed upwards, be filled with the vision of God, and so be receptive. Or it may look upon the world and recognize in it the created potential for making, and so actively mold the world. In The Cultivating Imagination, we will explore this nexus. On the one hand, these reflections aim to facilitate our openness to the sweet influence of divine grace raining down upon us. On the other, they are directed at the ways we work the land (of our world, societies, families, and hearts) to create desire paths that allow grace to more effectively water the land. In these two ways, the imagination fulfills the twin duties of love to God and neighbor.

“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” 1 Corinthians 15:19 (NIV)

I have never been a big fan of contemporary realistic fiction. And while I could point to shortcomings in the way it is practiced, my preference is not primarily a statement about the quality of the work being done, which is often excellent. Rather, it is a statement about me. It goes back to why I love stories, and what I look for when I go to them. Simply stated, I want something strange, unusual, or, failing that, different. I engage stories to go to new places and see new things, to encounter a kind of person I am not likely to meet on the streets of my city, or to watch the shape of history unfolding. In short, what I most love and long for in stories is other worlds, however that should be conceived.

There are doubtless multiple reasons for this, but at least one of them developed as something of a defense mechanism: Growing up, I found the material circumstances of my life to be disappointing at best, and soul-crushing at worst. I would describe my general response to the world as one of hopelessness. I had a heart that longed for wonder, magic, and the impossible made suddenly possible. It was suffocating in a world where what happens today is usually the same as what happened yesterday, everything is what it looks like and nothing else, and the impossible only gets more impossible the longer you look at it. In stories I saw the world depicted the way I wanted and even needed it to be: and so I fell in love with the imagination.

You see, the imagination is concerned with worlds: they are its stock in trade. For the imagination is about possibility, and worlds are tightly bundled quanta of possibility. But worlds come in all shapes and sizes: some of them are whole universes, like Narnia or Middle Earth; others are pockets in time, such as 13th century Paris; still others are nothing but the intellectual spaces carved out by a conversation between two people. What makes a world is a system of inter-relations, something that grounds wholeness: a world is a sum total that makes sense, and that therefore has meaning. And meaning is necessarily more than the sum of its parts.

So I am driven to stories because, fundamentally, my heart is too big to live in one world. This is not to say something great about myself, for it is not a result of anything I have done. Nor is it to say something unique about myself, because it is true of you as well. Our hearts are too big for one world because God has not designed them for only one world. How do I know this? Because He has given us imagination, the faculty in which we are most like Him.

But what about escapism? The thing about defenses is that they can be weaponized against us. The very walls built to protect us from harm, if they are built too high and are too impregnably manned, become prisons that shut us out from beauty and glory. The desire for other worlds is all well and good right up to the moment where it begins to erode our ability to live in this one. And since this is where I started (trying to flee this world to get somewhere, anywhere, else), was not the imagination from the beginning a trap I had better have avoided than plunged headlong into?

Here’s the thing: the imagination is not about other worlds, it is about worlds. All worlds are bundles of possibilities, and that includes the one we live in. I definitely ran the danger, in those early days, of despising this world in favor of other worlds. But the reason was because I was losing the ability to see our world as a world. Everywhere I looked, I saw impossibility and determinism. It seemed to me that I could either choose to accept it, or deny it in a wild and reckless allegiance to even just the possibility of possibility. This was no choice for me, being who I was: I am not built to submit to clinical, impersonal mechanism. I will have dragons; and if I cannot have them, I will have the dream of them. I will “live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” [1]

But it does not stop there. When I took my mad flight into the otherness of those worlds, I delighted in their every detail. I memorized their histories, geographies, and laws; I made extensive studies of their biologies; I experimented with their magics and reached great conclusions; I debated their philosophies extensively. And in so doing, I found that my eyes were being rectified: I was learning to see worlds more clearly, to understand what makes them tick, and how they hold together. I was learning what I needed to be able to see our world as a world again.

The final piece would not come until I accepted the truth of the Gospel: for then the story of the world came into focus, and it was possible to see for the first time that the world I was objecting to was not so much the world we live in as the false simulation, the veil of delusion drawn over the world to justify submission to our wayward desires. The world as I thought it was turned out indeed to be full of contradiction, determinism, and impossibility. But this was not the world we actually live in: it is a bad story told about the world we live in.

Once I could see that our world was also a world, the imagination was released from its fetters. If it is only for this world that we have hope, we are to be pitied above all people; but if we should come to have hope in many worlds, then we also will have hope in this one; in this way we become the envy of the nations. Henceforth the imagination will not be constrained only to other worlds, to realms of fiction: now it will become a tool to interpret and engage the world we perceive in our waking lives. The imagination will be freed to at last be that truest imitation of God’s activity it was meant to be. His imagination casts forth a world of delights for himself, a world of seemingly infinite depth and complexity. But before that, His imagination marked out the contours of His own being, decided that He would be of the sort that He is, and gave birth to His own fullness in the mystery of trinitarian procession. In like manner, we turn our imaginations to creating ourselves, and to reshaping our world. The things we see in our flights of fancy are not escapes, they are training, so many exercises designed to drill us in the skills required to act divinely in the world of sense. They are the very tools and weapons we take up as we take our stand alongside the saints and angels in working towards the death of the simulation and the re-creation of the universe that will unite all worlds into one.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), p. 182.

The featured image is courtesy of Steve Moon and is used with his kind permission for Cultivating.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

A Field Guide to Cultivating ~ Essentials to Cultivating a Whole Life, Rooted in Christ, and Flourishing in Fellowship

Enjoy our gift to you as our Welcome to Cultivating! Discover the purpose of The Cultivating Project, and how you might find a "What, you too?" experience here with this fellowship of makers!

Receive your complimentary e-book

Explore the

Editions Archive


organized for ease by author and category.

View Our Editions Archive