"If you want to learn about ethics," said a tutor of mine, "you should read novels". Today the Church of England celebrates John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrims Progress and a dissenter imprisoned for preaching without a license (from the Anglican authorities). Bunyan's rather pious tale of Christian who makes his pilgrimage through life has captured the imagination of Christians and become a work to which they have frequently returned. And it has not just captured the imagination, it has shaped and encouraged the imagination of generation after generation of pilgrims.
Imagination is a key, if often neglected, area of our identity. Danny Boyle's inclusion of a celebration of children's literature in the Olympic opening ceremony, and the equally wonderful story of Miranda in last night's Paralympic opening ceremony bear witness to that. I'm also reminded of Philip Pullman's defense of children's literature because it deals with big themes of love, death, good and evil, life and so on whilst most adult fiction merely deals with fashion, romance and the petty concerns of individuals. (Although Jo Ind's thoughtful review of 50 Shades of Grey in Third Way would suggest that there is more to even non-literary adult fiction that Pullman might think.)
Bunyan stands in a line of great Christian imaginations, that includes (in no order whatsoever) C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Milton, Dante, Rowling, Shakespeare, and so on. What they do for and with us is to bring the great issues into the lives of people and see what happens. Our imaginations are vital to our learning to live lives that are full and generous and which embody Christian responses to what life throws at us. We need our imaginations in order to live fully and deeply. We need our imaginations to help us change and adapt whilst being faithful to what has gone before.
The reason my tutor said that studying ethics meant reading novels was that novels attempt to describe the messiness and complexity of human lives as they combine and interact with the huge variety of situations and circumstances that make up life. In that way novels serve part of the function that the lives of the saints serve in inspiring and questioning our own lives and faith.
Christianity is founded on stories. Stories of God's people. Stories of Jesus. Whilst these have important historical connections, they are not simply works of history. There are four different Gospels and at least two versions of Israel's history in the Bible. They are there to engage us in the telling and re-telling of the stories. They are there to engage our imagination. Perhaps that helps explain why Jesus did much of his teaching in stories. If Tom Wright is right, it is how we should read scripture - seeing ourselves as inhabiting the final act in the scriptural play.
We need to feed our imaginations. To read, to listen, to watch. Read Bunyan. Read Tolkien, Lewis, Dante, Milton, Rowland, Shakespeare and, yes, read Pullman. Read the Biblical stories and the parables of Jesus. And feed your imagination in the service of life.