In a Hole in the Ground…

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows my tastes to know hear that Rowan and I went to see the last instalment of The Hobbit trilogy of movies over Christmas. This was one of the books that got me into reading big time as a child, that magical opening line, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’. Straight away that had me hooked. I wanted to know what a hobbit was, what they were like and why they lived in holes. I wanted to know about this particular hobbit and this particular hole. Fortunately for me JRR Tolkien answered these questions over the next couple of paragraphs, but the damage was already done, I was drawn in and obsessed with the tale and the world the Professor had created. A world which in a roundabout way was responsible for me becoming a Christian, and hence being here at Wormley! But that, as they say, is another story… (but I will ask a related question regardless, how can we present the Christian story in such a way as to draw people in and capture their imagination?)

So what did I think of the film? Like the Lord of the Rings movies before it, it was visually stunning. The New Zealand countryside with its sweeping vistas and rugged mountains made the perfect backdrop. The sets, costumes, and creatures were just as the book painted them in my imagination. The action scenes were incredible, a level of realism that only a decade ago would have been unimaginable. We came away having thoroughly enjoyed it, and sad that at last that Peter Jackson’s endeavours in Middle Earth were finally over.

But (did you sense that ‘but’ coming?) as much as I enjoyed it, I was left with that nagging feeling that it wasn’t the story I’d read all those years before. It called itself The Hobbit, it had the characters from the book in it and was about the same events, but despite these similarities, there was something about it that simply didn’t ring true. New bits had been introduced, new characters and new plotlines. Some of these made sense and fitted, but others left me scratching my head and asking why. More fundamental to my dissatisfaction, however, was that somehow in the transition from book to screen the focal point had changed. The trilogy of films seemed to be all about the action scenes and combat, whereas the books were about a journey, ethical decisions and grappling with what to do when the right course of action seems to be to go against your friends, and the discovery that the hero of the adventure was not one of the powerful, strong or magical characters but the unassuming, timid Hobbit, who represents in many ways us, normal folk.

In a conversation with one of my colleagues this week, the way we live out the Christian faith today was questioned. I disagreed with his conclusions, but was left with the challenge of the discussion to ponder on – are we serious about living out the Christian life, following the call and example of Christ, or do we sometimes play at it, living out a life that that we call ‘Christian’ but actually if we look hard at it, its focus is not on Christ but elsewhere, a bit like The Hobbit movie compared to the book?

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Only recently got around to watching the first of The Hobbit films. I fell in love with the Lord of the Rings films, and made an annual pilgrimage to the cinema to see them upon release. Somehow I wasn’t quite as fussed about getting to see The Hobbit when it came out, perhaps worried that it would make it just like a second LOTR film, when the book is quite different, a children’s book rather than a dark adult fantasy. I think the idea that this single book was being turned into three films also bemused me! In the end I needn’t have worried, I loved it, and having seen the trailer of the second, can’t wait.

Holy Imagination

Notes from a talk I presented this week at a Lenten Lunch on behalf of Churches Together

I wonder, do you remember when under every bridge hid a lurking troll? Do you remember when storks delivered babies? Do you remember when there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? I remember when I was a child, everything was magical. I remember playing on the climbing frame at school. One day I was a rocket man zooming into space, the next day a pirate on the seven seas, every day an adventure, after an adventure, after an adventure. Even a simple walk in the woods was to wander where the goblins lived.

But we’re older now, sadly, and we don’t believe in fairy tales anymore. We’ve crossed many bridges and we’ve never had our ankles grabbed by a snarling beast. We’ve checked under the bed, and there’s nothing there but lost socks and hankies! And although Disney may protest, we’ve learnt that not every story has a happy ending.

But I believe that in growing up, we’ve thrown away the baby with the bathwater. We’ve thrown away the ability to see things unseen, as well as throwing away superstition and fairy tale. Remember Peter Pan?  Remember the scene where Tinkerbell begins to fade. The children ask Peter what’s going on. He explains that Tink’ is dying because somewhere in the world someone has just said they don’t believe in fairies anymore. Dare I say it, there may not be such a thing as fairies, but I wonder if in growing up we’ve left no room for mystery, for wonder and imagination and in doing so, something has gone out, something in us has died.

I want to talk about the art of imagination today. Often the modern world has dismissed imagination – we don’t deal with dreams, we deal with facts and figures, the real world, the world that we can see and touch. But I believe that there is so much more to imagination than playing ‘let’s pretend’. Imagination is the creative art of seeing things that can’t be seen, of seeing the world differently, of understanding things in another way.

Let me give you some examples. I’m a Liverpool Football Club fan – have followed them for most of my life. I was watching the Carling Cup final on Sunday, although with our evening service I had to record half of it. There was a great example of the importance of imagination. Cardiff City had the imagination to believe that although they aren’t a Premier League side that they could match Liverpool, and that imagination gave them the belief and passion to do so. It made a real difference. When Liverpool went behind, they didn’t give up either, but had the imagination to believe that they could still win it, and much to my joy they did.

I’m a Biochemist by training. Often I hear that there is a division between the sciences and arts. Artists are the creative ones whilst scientists deal with what can be observed and proved (running joke at Imperial College where I trained that if you looked up Boring in the Yellow Pages it says see Civil Engineers!) Ask any scientist, however, about this split, and they’ll tell you it’s a load of nonsense. To be a good scientist you need to have imagination, the ability when looking at what you’ve researched to ask if there is a different way of interpreting things to what has been done before. Take Galileo who was able to see beyond accepted facts and say that the Earth circled the Sun rather than the other way around – that was a leap of imagination – or Einstein who came up with theories that turned the way physicists thought the world worked on its head! To be a great scientist, you need to be able to think outside the box as they say.

Another example can be seen in those activists who have given their lives to trying to change the world for the better. One of my heroes is Martin Luther King Jr.; now there was a man with a powerful imagination – the ability to see that the world didn’t have to be the way it was, the ability to see that it could be different and to strive to live up to and create the better world he could see in his imagination.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

There is imagination powerfully at work, making a real and important difference.

As a Christian, I believe that imagination is a God given gift. The Bible tells us that he made us in his image – as this is written in the context of God creating the world, I believe this means that he made us to be creative like him, to be people of imagination. J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was a Catholic, and he talked about in his writing being a sub-creator, reflecting the creativity of God as he invented the stories and worlds of his books.

The New Testament book of Hebrews says that faith is an act of imagination, ‘Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see…’ (Heb. 11:1)Faith is about seeing this world as God sees it and as God wants to make it, and then, having seen it, working out that vision in how we live.

How do we gain that vision? Through prayer and reflection on the Bible, through reading it and asking God to make it shape our understanding of God, ourselves and the world we live in, to make it inform our imagination. Over Lent we remember Jesus going into the wilderness for 40 days to prepare himself for his work to come. I believe this was his way of putting aside time to enable his imagination to be shaped and nourished in this way.

Another example a ‘holy imagination’ if you like is Abraham in the Old Testament. God spoke to him, gave him a wonderful promise, ‘You’re going to have a land, I’m going to take you to this land, this far place and create from you a vast nation of descendants that will bless the world’. Abraham was an old man when he heard this; he must have thought he was going mad. This couldn’t happen, he was too old, he didn’t know where he was going, none of these things made sense. And yet, he used his holy imagination to see what God’s promise could look like. No doubt that picture fuelled his determination during the lean days, the troublesome days, the days when everything God said seemed like a pack of lies. The days when he didn’t know where he was going he went, because in his mind he could see where he was going to get to. The days when he felt like a stranger in a foreign land, living in a tent, surrounded by people he didn’t know, who didn’t like him, he put up with it because he could see a different scene. He could see not tents filled with strangers, but a holy city with firm foundations filled with his children and their descendents. He could see what was coming, what God had promised and he hung onto that. He had looked ahead and saw what God was going to do, and so lived his life based on that promise.

We might not be Abraham or Jesus, but this kind of imagination can make a difference for us too. Think about the homeless guy selling the Big Issue or the pictures of hungry children on the TV that you’re asked to help or that lonely neighbour? It’s easy isn’t it to get used to this, to become dulled to it. Maybe if you’ve read Jesus saying in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 that when you feed the hungry you feed him, when you see these pictures your imagination might kick in and you’ll find yourself seeing them quite differently!

Jesus was a fantastic storyteller. As he taught and told his stories, he painted a picture of a world where everyone was included, where the hungry were fed, where the lonely were befriended, where the sick were healed. He told stories such as the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep to communicate the love of God for us and his longing for a relationship with us. A God who was at work restoring his Creation, putting right that which had gone wrong; had been spoilt.

I have a set of blue John Lennon sunglasses at home. When I put them on the world becomes a very strange place! You see it in a very different way! I want to encourage you this Lent to put on the glasses of imagination and see with me a better world, the world as God sees it, and to have the courage to be part of it.