Nos-tal-gia Noun: a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. Something done or presented in order to evoke feelings of nostalgia. Greek Origin: combining the word Nostos [return home] and Algos [pain].
Magic Noun: the power of influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.
Gospel Noun: the teaching or revelation of Christ.
This is possibly going to be a rather long post, so bear with me, or skip it altogether. There’s a lot that’s all connected running circles in my mind, but it might take a while to connect it verbally; sort of like trying to untangle your earbuds when they’ve been in your pocket for too long.
There are two famed writers who sponsored the growth of this continual thought stream of mine these past couple weeks: St. Augustine, and G.K. Chesterton. Two men from different worlds, and yet kindred spirits all the same. I have the joy of attending a church where my pastor is a fan of G.K. Chesterton, and quotes him with regularity. Last Sunday after a beautiful sermon in which Nathan spoke of the magical wonderful nature of life, using one of my favorite concepts written about by G.K., he passed me in the hallway and said “Grace, I put some Chesterton in there for you!” OK, you get it now, I love G.K. Chesterton.
I am a “Chestertonian” because I believe in magic. I believe in wonder. I believe in mystery. I believe that it makes absolutely no sense for an intricate and stunning Red Rose to come from an ugly tiny brownish grey pebbley looking thing. Nor that a feathery, colorful, funny looking Chicken should come from an oval shaped fragile white egg. Nor that the sky should be blue, or the grass green, or that a tree should be covered in LEAVES OF ALL THINGS!
“The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” -G.K.C
Our world is a distinctly unmagical world without the lens of the gospel. The gospel changes everything, and gives explanation to everything. I believe that we are intricately designed creatures made in the image of the true and living God, and therefore we have many of the same attributes that He has: emotions and feelings, intellectual capacity to think and reason, and most importantly, an imagination. Without the emotions and feelings, everything (and I mean everything) else would be useless; they may be true, but why should we care? Without the intellectual capacity to reason, we wouldn’t be able to make any sense of our feelings and emotions. But without imagination we have no reason to feel or to think. I realize that’s quite a claim so hear me out.
It is imagination that connects the unseen to the seen, the soul to the body, the ideas to tangible facts. I’ll never forget a conversation I once had with my “Fearless Banana” (John Hodges, Director of the CWS where I went to school) in which he presented a beautiful explanation of the theological concept of the Trinity. As I’m sure we all can agree, that one is a doozy to wrap our minds around. John told me an analogy he learned from a teacher of his; God placed His fingerprint on EVERYTHING when He created the world. How? What’s the closest object to you? It might be a book, or the cell phone in your hand, or it could even be you yourself. For the sake of the analogy let’s call it a book. It is one book. One individual unique book that is ONLY a book. However, it has 3 interesting characteristics. It has dimensions: height, width, and depth. Without any single one of those dimensions, we could no longer call it a book. Each dimension is crucial to it being the physical object that it is, but each dimension is unique. Width is not the same as height, nor height the same as depth. Yet they are all only one book. Get my drift? I hope so, because I’m afraid that’s the best I can do. So with a little imagination, you can see our creator God represented in EVERY physical object in this universe of ours. Cool, huh?
With imagination we can intellectually process the representation of God in our surroundings, but it doesn’t leave us there, it then spurs on our hearts to feel; to feel the love, beauty, and awesomeness of God; to worship. But this imagination can lead us further than just recognizing God in our surroundings, it can lead us to recognize His gospel as well.
Jesus used metaphors all the time in His teachings, and He did so for a reason. He wasn’t just trying to be mysterious or prove the point that His disciples were a tad thick headed. He wanted us to use our imaginations. Rankin Wilbourne puts it beautifully in his book Union with Christ:
“It is revealing that the writers of scripture, even Jesus Himself, resort to word pictures, similes, and metaphors to capture the mystery of union with Christ. The number of metaphors tells us that this is important; the variety of metaphors tells us that it is far reaching. But the fact that similes and metaphors – the language of poetry – must be used at all tells us there is no way to get at this truth directly. Images are necessary.”
How else are we supposed to know an unseen God if He didn’t give us imaginations to join the intangible to the tangible? Here’s a metaphor found in our material world that with imagination connects our physical experience to the unobservable truth. Every year the nature around us dies, turning brown and dried up, and every year by some inexplicable magic it is renewed to full life and color and beauty, blooming and thriving. Can you imagine that as a metaphor to the new life Jesus gives us? A constant reminder that we were dead in our trespasses and sins, but that Jesus raised us again to life with Himself.
A couple of weeks ago after that sermon I mentioned earlier, David and I saw Wonder Woman at our local $3 theater. I really wasn’t sure what to expect after hearing a lot of mixed reviews. I won’t go into detail about my thoughts on the whole movie, but I do want to share a couple of things. One of the first things I noticed was how much skin was shown, only this time it wasn’t something I found offensive. I think the creators of that film did an excellent job of not sexualizing the female body; instead I found myself innocently and truly admiring the beauty of her body – it caused me to find joy in the creation of our bodies as God intended them to be – which led me to worship. How valuable, to be able to truly admire something for what it was meant to be, instead of having it always twisted and tainted by our sinful hearts! Towards the end of the movie there are a few lines which in progression brought me to tears:
Ares says indignantly to Diana “They do not deserve your protection!” Diana responds: “It’s not about deserve – it’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.” And at the very end, Diana makes a beautiful statement: “I used to want to save the world. To end war and bring peace to mankind. But then, I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their light. I learned that inside every one of them, there will always be both. The choice each must make for themselves – something no hero will ever defeat. I’ve touched the darkness that lives in between the light. Seen the worst of this world, and the best. Seen the terrible things men do to each other in the name of hatred, and the lengths they’ll go to for love. Now I know. Only love can save this world. So I stay. I fight, and I give… for the world I know can be [the world as it should be]. This is my mission, now. Forever.”
Now obviously this was no intentionally Christian movie. If it was, then the end of the story would bring the end of war and the beginning of peace, and the darkness inside of mankind would be conquered once and for all. But I find it interesting how even secular viewpoints always come back to a few key Christian ideals: sacrifice, love, and salvation. The character Steve sacrificed his own life to save the lives of others; Diana sacrificed her own comfort and ease of life to defend truth and morality and speak love into the world. The fact is this film was a picture of the gospel: the admission that mankind is tainted and can’t save themselves; the admission that love always wins; the admission that our Real Savior fights for us when we can’t fight for ourselves.
But Wonder Woman is not the only fictional story that follows this same reflection of the gospel. You can see it in many other places. You can trace the same elements of weakness, sorrow, and pain, followed by a hero who comes in and saves the day through true love (often through sacrifice, or the willingness to be sacrificed) and a happily ever after conclusion. I don’t think I need to point out the similarities here.
As I said earlier, the gospel explains everything. Were I not a believer of the gospel, I wouldn’t be able to grasp the beauty and significance of these stories, or through imagination trace out the metaphor for truth that they are. I wouldn’t be able to explain why it makes my heart ache with an odd sense of joy and pain mixed together.
I’ve been speaking of the concepts of Magic in the world, and the effects of the Gospel on our material world, our hearts, our viewpoints, even on the stories we tell. But there’s more. I titled this post “Nostos, Algos, Magic, and The Gospel.” I mentioned a moment ago that there is a pain that is both joyfull and unsatisfied when I experience these metaphors. The word Nostalgia is usually used in reference to the past, but taking the root of the word back to the Greek which is Nostos: home, and Algos: pain, it allows me to tie together all this concepts into what is an inherent part of being a Christian. It is summed up in a few words.
We are not home yet.
Augustine speaks briefly of how memory and imagination can call to mind and heart something happy, and yet feel pain. Pain from longing. We are surrounded by material images, immaterial concepts, stories, which all tell us of the gospel and of our creation and salvation. So why isn’t that enough? Why is there still pain? Why isn’t there satisfaction in just intellectually knowing the story? When I saw Wonder Woman I was moved to tears at how beautiful and true was the symbolism they were portraying, but why? It’s a beautiful and happy and triumphant story, so why should it hurt? Because of Nostalgia. God created me for Himself, to be in communion with Him. But I’m not fully there yet, which means I’m not fully where I’m meant to be. I am longing for home, and it hurts. I long to see my Savior, the author of all these great stories and metaphors face to face. To feel and know and tangibly experience the satisfaction of all these things that I know far off to be true.
But for now I can be content, even in the pain of nostalgia – the pain of seeing beauty. Because that pain points to a greater truth, a greater finality: that love is the ultimate ending to our story. I can watch movies, read books, walk in nature, relate to my husband, worship at my church, and everyday see the gospel and the character of my God represented, because of the imagination He built in me. I can have peace knowing that there is magic in the world; that Cinderella found her Prince Charming; that Harry Potter beat Voldemort; that Frodo and Sam destroyed the ring; that the stone table cracked and Aslan returned; that Wonder Woman defeated Ares; that spring comes after winter; that the sun will always rise; that there is joy in the morning.
The final result? I can live life fully, with abounding love and joy, even through trials, because of the magic, metaphor, and victory of the gospel found in the every day mundane. Use and pursue imagination; it makes a weary life beautiful.