Fairy tales are more than true;
not because they tell us that dragons exist,
but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
There is much being discussed and written about the moral imagination. So much so that I'm wondering why I'm entering the conversation, but I believe understanding the importance of this aspect of our children's upbringing can redefine culture in a profound way. I certainly don't have anything new to add. I have read books and blog posts, listened to podcasts and seminar sessions, and so everything I have to say is a conglomeration of all my study. But I'd like to use this space to narrate what I've been learning and hashing out what this might look like in my own home.
First of all, what is this moral imagination that seems to be the buzz word of late? I like Sarah Mackenzie's definition:
"The Moral Imagination is the ordering of the soul rightly toward Truth. It rests entirely on the understanding that humans are reflections of the Divine Image- our value does not rest on our usefulness or utility, but on our very natures. It is, basically, the intrinsic knowing of God’s Truth in our souls."
Notice the capital T in truth. The concept of "truth" is very subjective in today's culture. The person with moral imagination is able to rightly discern Truth...God's absolute, unchangeable Truth. Another way to look at it is virtue vs. society's quest for values. Vigen Guroian, in his not-to-be-missed book, Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination says:
"There are real and very important differences between what we now call values and the virtues as they had traditionally been understood. Let me put it in this way. A value is like a smoke ring. Its shape is initially determined by the smoker, but once it is released there is no telling what shapes it will take. One thing is certain, however. Once a smoke ring has left the smoker's lips it has already begun to evaporate into thin air. Volition and volatility are characteristics of both smoke rings and values. By contrast, a virtue might be compared to a stone whose nature is permanence. We might throw a stone into a pond where it will lie at the bottom with other stones. But if, at some later date, we should want to retrieve that stone from the bottom of the pond, we can be sure that the shape of the stone has not changed and that we will be able to distinguish it from the rest of the stones."
It is comforting to know that Truth is unchanging, that virtues are a constant rock. But how do we equip our children with a rightly ordered moral imagination in today's relativistic world?
Specifically...fairy tales and fantasy stories.
We were made for story. Our lives are connected to the great Story of the universe which begins with, "Once upon a time, a great and benevolent King created a Kingdom full of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. But a wicked dragon, intent upon the destruction of the Kingdom, it's people and the very King Himself, purposed in his villainous heart to crush the Kingdom forever. However, the King, because of His great love for His people, sent His Son to slay the dragon by His own death and defeat of death, releasing the King's grateful servants from their bondage...and they lived happily ever after."
This is our story. And it has been told in countless ways through fairy tales.
How are our moral imaginations fed through these stories of old?
First, fairy tales confirm in a child's imagination that Truth is not relative. Black is black and white is white. The bad guy is obvious and he will be defeated. This is a powerful notion for a child. The enemy will not BE defeated, he IS defeated. The dragon has been slayed, even while we must still fight.
Secondly, enchantment is reality. We live in an enchanted world. The God of the universe spoke the world into existence, parted a sea, made a donkey talk, was born of a virgin, rose from the dead. In our cynical world, where we are bombarded with scoffers who reject any spiritual aspect of our existence, we must instill in our children the fact of enchantment.
And thirdly, imagination is necessary for faith. "For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." (Heb. 11:1). While we have access to so many wonderful books of "real things," we often neglect works of imagination, believing them to be somehow less worthy because we are not learning something "real." Teaching children that the things we hope for, the things we do not see are produced through imagination and grows in us faith, wonder and awe of our great King...what more incredible gift can we offer them?
I can understand a parent's concern of what they perceive as possible dangers of fairy tales and fantasy. We must always be discerning. Many modern renditions and current authors twist the archetypes we've always held as good and evil. Sometimes the clear water is muddied and we can't even tell whom we are to cheer for. I suggest starting with the tried and true. Find a good old version of fairy tales, such as Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book and slay a dragon with a child.
In addition to the resources above I recommend this outstanding sermon which was presented as part of a conference at my former church. Also Sarah Mackenzie hosts the Read-Aloud Revival podcast which also has a membership site. Inside the membership site, there is an excellent video workshop given by Andrew Pudewa entitled How Fairy Tales Shape the Moral Imagination.