Sanctified Imagination

In the introduction to Heroes of The City of Man Peter Leithart defends his approach to reading ancient epics with typological lenses against the criticisms of Margaret Boerner. If Leithart is anything he’s bold, which makes for terrifically fun reading.

Following medieval sensibilities, Leithart sees the Bible as the epitome of all books, “containing a key to all other books and stories.” In tragedies we see Fall stories that parallel Genesis 3 or 1st Samuel 13-15. Comedies are redemption stories which often roughly follow the grand redemptive narrative arc of Holy Scripture. All heroes may be compared to the true Hero, Jesus Christ. Likewise, damsels in distress can be compared to Christ’s bride, rescues to acts of salvation, weddings to anticipations of the feast of the Lamb, and slithering villains to the ancient serpent.

Leithart offers theological and historical reasons for his approach to literature. First and foremost, the works of Homer and Shakespeare are part of the “all things” of Colossians 1:16-17. But less theologically driven scholars like Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, as well as committed Christians thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Northrop Frye, explore the odd recurrence of plots, patterns, imagery and characters in narratives that originate in vastly different times and places. For example, “the world over, stories with happy endings end with weddings.” “They lived happily ever after” is almost always a follow up to a wedding. Why is this? That weddings are happy occasions doesn’t suffice. There are many such occasions in life. “Explaining this phenomenon in terms of the dynamics of marriage-the union of ‘opposites’, the beginning of a new home, and so on- gets us closer to a real explanation, but we still want to ask why our imaginative search for harmony and new life is so often symbolized in this manner rather than another.” Leithart challenges his readers to imagine a better happy ending than a wedding. He thinks that the reason our imagination finds wedding stories synonymous with happy endings is that we live in a history that will conclude with a wedding feast.

The narrative structure of the story of the redemption of the cosmos is hard wired into our imagination whether we like it or not. This is at least in part because the creativity of the creature is different than that of the Creator. Unlike God, we are incapable of producing something that is “absolutely unprecedented”. This doesn’t so much limit our creativity. If we’re offended by this notion, it’s because we’re uncomfortable with being creatures, with all the ensuing limitations. There’s an ancient narrative about that too, a tragic one.