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Karen Swallow Prior

Literature can change your life. I know because reading good books changed mine.

Books and the reading of books fill the memories of my early childhood as much as anything else. The ritual of reading encompasses a whole set of complicated ceremonies, rules, and traditions not unlike those associated with other, more conventionally significant, parts of life.

I remember reading Dr. Seuss’s The Foot Book on my own one day when I was just learning to read, using my finger to trace each word as I sounded it out. Nearby, a playmate read another book silently on her own. I remember how indignant I was at being shushed by this girl who was a couple of years older than me and who clearly didn’t appreciate that I hadn’t yet learned to read silently. Geesh.

I remember the titles, pictures, and words of so many favorite books: The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Harriet the Spy, any Nancy Drew, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Black Stallion, Billy and Blaze (and just about every other horse book written). Like many kids, I read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, but my reading it had nothing to do with my being a Christian. Years afterward, I was astounded to learn of the story’s Christian connections. I’d had no idea; I just loved the story.

Later, I read grown-up classics like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, and Madame Bovary, and their words altered the way I understood the world and the way I understood myself. God used all these words to show me more about who he is as the Word, the creator of language, and the author of the one true, good story.

Story Shapes Us

Story shapes us, first of all, because we’re made in the image of a God who created the world through words, and words comprise the stories we tell ourselves every day, all day long.

We narrate our way through our days from the moment we wake up and remember the worry we fell asleep to the night before and the series of things we have to do that day, to the report we give around the dinner table about how it all went.

Furthermore, a life habituated to reading—and reading good books well—will take a different shape. A life formed by seeing different worlds, different experiences, and different perspectives will also see the real world differently. A life practiced in reading, interpreting, analyzing, understanding, and applying words will read, interpret, understand, analyze, and apply the Word better too.

And while we think of interpretation, analysis, and application as activities of the rational mind, dependent upon our ability to reason, the fact is that we rely just as much on the imagination to do these things.

Indeed, the ability of the human mind to imagine—to make images—reflects the marvelous fact that we are made in the image of God.

We’re the product of his imagination in a very literal—as well as a metaphorical—sense. God both “imagined” us and formed us in his image. Our ability to imagine, which seems to be unique to humans, is an echo of the One whose image we are made in.

Shared Understanding

While we each have the individual capacity to imagine, there’s a collective way in which our culture creates and is formed by the imagination. A culture’s shared pool of stories, myths, images, and ideas, a pool that shapes our social existence and collective expectations, is called by philosophers the social imaginary. According to the philosopher Charles Taylor, a social imaginary forms a culture’s shared understanding—an understanding that establishes the norms, expectations, habits, and practices of a given society.

The social imaginary is, admittedly, a heady concept with deep philosophical, theological, and sociological implications. But it isn’t necessary to examine or know all of these implications to grasp the simple and important idea that what we imagine shapes how we interpret, understand, and narrate everything in our lives.

And what we imagine is shaped by the stories we hear, see, and read—the stories we hear in our family circles, the stories we see in the news we watch, the stories we read in books, the stories we participate in during church on Sunday, and the stories we tell one another in every conversation. Even what we see—be it a painting, a sunset, a face, a flower, a scene of suffering—becomes meaningful because of the words we tell ourselves about it. Thus, the imagination can’t ultimately be separated from the power of words.

Gospel-Shaped Imaginations

Of course, the Christian imagination is formed most by the story of the gospel. That grand story—the one reflected by all other good human stories—shows us how we fit into the graceful arc of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. It helps us narrate what is true of each one of us, as well as the story of all that God has made.

If we want to form gospel-shaped imaginations—and a gospel-shaped social imaginary—we need to care about the works of imagination. Whether those works are formed of words, wood, colors, sounds, clay, flour and sugar, blossoms, roads, cloth, or gold, they form and define, not only our culture, but also the people in it and the stories they imagine.


Karen Swallow Prior is research professor of English and Christianity and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life in Great Books.

This article was first published by The Gospel Coalition. For more by Karen Swallow Prior at TGC, see here.


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