Christians and Culture by Dr. Charlie W. Starr
The purpose of art is to be beautiful so that beauty can reach our imaginations. Then, in our imaginations, we can learn what only art and beauty can teach us. Before we define beauty further, let’s consider two kinds of human thinking.
Two Kinds of Thinking
When a lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), Jesus could have answered, “Your neighbor is whomever you see in need.” This is clear and to the point. Instead Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35).
Why? One reason is because the story can teach several lessons at once: about being a good neighbor, prejudice, sacrificial love, and self-righteousness. It also causes an emotional reaction in the audience, tugging at our heartstrings. This is because the difference between hearing or seeing a story and learning statements like, “love sacrificially, don’t be prejudiced, avoid pride, anyone hurting is your neighbor,” is that our imaginations are learning with the story and our reasoning with the statements.
There are at least two kinds of human thinking. Psychologists call them left-brained and right-brained thinking. I call them reason and imagination. Their differences matter.
Reason is discursive. That means it takes time to think things through, like when you were in algebra class and had to reason out difficult math problems. Imagination is intuitive: it sees, or grasps knowledge all at once, like the first time you hear a song and it “blows you away” because it’s so beautiful. It immediately becomes one of your favorite songs, and you love it even if you can’t explain it in words.
Reason tries to explain, describe, or define things in language that is as clear and literal as possible. It wants to explain what things are. Imagination wants to explain what things are like. It uses metaphorical language to express deeper qualities, the kinds of qualities that come not just from thinking about things, but from experiencing them. And imagination expresses the kinds of reactions we have to such experiences. If I say, “I’m cold,” you know what I mean. If I say, “I’m colder than a hairless Chihuahua drinking a Slushy while going swimming with penguins on the South Pole,” you still know what I mean (even though my language is exaggerated, not literal), and you also know my reaction to the cold—what I’ve experienced of it and how I feel about that experience.
Reason is generally abstract—withdrawn from reality—while imagination tends to be more like experience. Have you ever noticed that you can laugh at a joke or think about why it’s funny, but you can’t do both at the same time? Our imagination processes the joke as we experience it, we see that it’s funny, and we laugh. But if we want to step back and analyze the parts of the joke to see why it was funny, the first thing we have to do is stop laughing. Now it sounds strange to say imagination is closer to reality than reason. Aren’t fairies imaginary? Yes, but imaginary fairies are more like reality than a sentence defining fairies. Or try the following example: which is more like a real song: the notes of a song written out on a page, or playing the song in your head (without humming it to yourself)? The song, while being played or sung, is the reality, the music written in note form on a sheet is an abstraction of the reality, and the song playing out in your imagination is much closer to the real song than the sheet music.
What’s the Point?
Jesus spoke in parables because stories appeal to the imagination. Imagination is not better than reason—each is important. But imagination can help us grasp reality at an experiential level. Art is first meant to speak to our imaginations by being beautiful. This can lead to new knowledge, understanding, and, yes, truth. I am convinced that what truth is to reason, beauty is to imagination. And this gets us a little closer to understanding what art is for: art communicates beauty to our imaginations in order to connect us to reality (and ultimately truths about reality) in ways that reason cannot.
Dr. Charlie Starr teaches English, Humanities, and Film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky.