West Dallas Community School: Nourishing the Sanctified Imagination
17th Feb 2017 | Written by: Bentley Craft
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Though written nearly a century ago, these lines by the poet William Butler Yates aptly describe today’s state of affairs. While God’s Kingdom offers meaning, wholeness and integrity, our world advances senselessness, fragmentation and alienation. From Madison Avenue and Wall Street to Hollywood and all points in between, on Facebook and Twitter, and even in America’s schools – the dominant voices propagate a hollowed-out, unsustainable vision of what it means to be human. John Taylor Gatto, a veteran of New York’s public schools for over 25 years and winner of New York State Teacher of the Year, offered the following critique of America’s education system:
The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context. I teach the un-relating of everything. I teach dis-connections…Even in the best of schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions .”
West Dallas Community School (WDCS) is therefore boldly counter-cultural in our mission, because that mission is predicated upon a ‘centre’ in Christ Jesus and commits to an education that promotes wholeness and integration. And yet we are not unaware of the cultural forces at play. As we seek to fulfill our mission statement, namely, that our students will “know, love, and practice that which is true, good, and beautiful” we try to avoid a chief pitfall: the further compartmentalization of the spiritual life. If we fail to make meaningful connections between biblical faith and learning, we run the risk of promoting a faith in Jesus that is largely pietistic, privatized, marginalized, and therefore utterly irrelevant to a student’s experiences in this world and with concrete reality. So how do we connect academics and faith, the head and the heart? We set out to nourish a sanctified imagination.
One might be skeptical about the relevance of the imagination to matters scholastic or spiritual, but great minds, both intellectual and spiritual, have spoken to the necessity of the imagination in matters of learning and faith. Albert Einstein boldly asserted,
“Imagination is more important than knowledge, for while knowledge points to all there is, imagination points to all there will be. ”
The brilliant physicist also wrote,
“The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not, who can no longer wonder, can no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”
C.S. Lewis, echoed these ideas. In his An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis said, “The special gifts of childhood which cannot be quenched are a tireless curiosity, a taste for marvel and adventure, and readiness to wonder, pity, and admire, and an intense imagination.”
I find it remarkable that two towering intellects of the 20th century would both offer the imagination such high praise. Additionally, both men list a certain set of almost childlike affections and dispositions that fuel the imagination. Wonder, Awe, Mystery, Marvel – words that, interestingly enough, could also describe the act of worship. Both Lewis and Einstein get me thinking about what Jesus might have meant when he said, “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I’m certainly not the first to ruminate on this passage, but perhaps Jesus had the imagination in mind when he said we need to be like children—an imagination that promotes wonder, amazement, curiosity, pity, and awe; an imagination that opens the eyes to “all there will be.” Maybe it is this childlike imagination that is the key to faith, for both Romans 8 and Hebrews 11 speak of hoping for “things not seen.”
As we honor the imagination at WDCS, we promote these childlike qualities in our students that schools too often blunt and all but ignore, and we encourage the students to approach their academics with sense of grateful reverence, thankful for the wonders of this world so lovingly provided by our creator God. But in nurturing the imagination we accomplish so much more in the lives of our students. The imagination opens their eyes to the connections between the heart and mind and stokes the fires of their faith.
In her book, The Preaching Life, author Barbara Taylor Brown writes, “The church’s central task is an imaginative one…in which the human capacity to imagine is both engaged and transformed…It is a matter of learning to see the world, each other, and ourselves as God sees us, and to live as if God’s reality were the only one that mattered.”
All that we do at WDCS is filtered through the lens of scripture. In our Nature Studies program, our youngest students are privileged to explore the beauty in our surrounding neighborhood, learning to observe, name, and appreciate God’s imaginative creation – the plants, trees, birds, and insects alike. History, literature, art, music, and mathematics are taught from a biblical perspective. Poetry, literature, and art have a special ability to nurture the imagination. But regardless of the subject matter, we are instructing our students to see the world, themselves, and their neighbors through God’s eyes.
For my money, nobody articulates the power of the imagination better than Eugene Peterson, translator of “The Message”
“A major and too-little-remarked evil in our time is the systematic degradation of the imagination. The imagination is among the chief glories of the human. When it is healthy and energetic, it ushers us into adoration and wonder, into the mysteries of God. When it is neurotic and sluggish, it turns people…into parasites, copycats, and couch-potatoes. The American imagination today is distressingly sluggish. Most of what is served up to us as the fruits of imagination is, in fact, the debasing of it into soap opera and pornography. Right now, one of the essential Christian ministries in and to our ruined world is the recovery and exercise of the imagination. Ages of faith have always been ages rich in imagination. It is easy to see why: the materiality of the gospel (the seen, heard, and touched Jesus) is no less impressive than its spirituality (faith, hope, and love). Imagination is the mental tool we have for connecting material and spiritual, visible and invisible, earth and heaven.”
Connecting heaven and earth—that’s what we do when we nurture the imagination. Connecting—it’s there in our mission statement, tethering together knowledge and love, excellence and service. Our aim is to engender integrity and wholeness in our students, offering them a seamless vision of faith, calling, and vocation in a fallen world, and equipping them with the skills to faithfully serve God and neighbor in that world. This is a vision of education that promotes meaning, not confusion. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” These words might accurately describe much of what passes for education in America, but at WDCS our center is in Christ Jesus, of whom Paul writes in Colossians 1:17, “All things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
For more about West Dallas Community School, go to http://www.wdcschool.org/blog/.