Sunday, 27 April 2014

Imaginary Landscapes and the art of escaping

A couple of weeks ago I had the fortune of spending a week at Word Alive in Prestatyn for work, manning the Christians in Science exhibition stand. We really enjoyed ourselves, were set up between two brilliant organisations (Changing Lanes and Adventure Plus) who were incredibly entertaining, and also had a great time talking to people about who we are and what we do. It was a genuine delight! 

An added bonus of being there was that we weren't chained to our stands all day, so there were odd slots where we could attend the meetings and seminars with the rest of the punters.

'Popologetics' by Ted Turnau
One particular seminar stream we managed to attend was taken by Ted Turnau, a brilliant communicator and teacher in cultural and religious studies, on what he calls 'Popologetics': doing apologetics by engaging with popular culture. For those of you not fluent in Christianese, 'apologetics' is the discipline of defending your faith in the face of criticism. For those of you who rarely leave the Christian bubble, 'popular culture' is what the rest of the world around us is engaging in while we're listening to Rend Collective albums: music, film, tv, books, comics...etc., etc. 

The series of seminars was to encourage and equip Christians not to just shun things in popular culture that don't at face-value seem to line up with Christian teaching and thinking, but to engage with why people are so won-over by particular stories and worlds. What is it in them that engages and resonates with people? How can you see truths of the gospel in those worlds? What do they say about good and evil?

I found the seminars such an inspiration: not because the concept was entirely new to me - I hope I already engage in that sort of way in this blog, for a start - but because he had so many great ways of looking at things I thought I already knew. He re-inspired the creative bit of my brain, that has lay dormant for some time, to re-engage with the power of story. I have found myself using examples and thoughts from his seminars in almost every real conversation I've had since I came back.

Perhaps my favourite of the concepts he explained was under the heading of 'imagination', in the idea of an imaginary landscape. He explained that everyone has an engaged imagination, whether we think ourselves imaginative in the creative sense or not, because all of how we perceive the world comes from the interpretation of our imaginations. It's why we mis-see and mis-hear, and how we're able to predict how things are able to play out before they do. We have an imaginary landscape in our own minds onto which we project, and therefore interpret, all the sensory information we receive from the world. 

Map from
There is also the sense in which we can enter other people's imaginary landscapes, when we get sucked into stories and worlds of the tv/books/films we're engaged in. The reign of the fandom, and extended fanfics, etc., is testament to this: people enter into stories and worlds that they then don't want to leave, so they extend and extrapolate them as far as they can beyond what the author or creator had originally laid out. It's not just the fantasy worlds either - chick flicks and sitcoms are as much able to do this as Middle Earth and Hogwarts - and they capture us, somehow.

When we spend time in these other imaginary landscapes they automatically begin to overlay and mesh with our own imaginary landscapes. While we know they are fictional, they infiltrate our own landscapes and give us scripts or expectations for how particular situations play out. Their infiltration shows when we start to make the analogies in our own lives ('it's just like in [x] where [y]!') or predict what might (or what we might like to) happen in our own lives based on the influence of those stories. In its crudest form, it is why Mr Darcy has created ridiculous romantic expectations for women globally - he's managed to infiltrate the romantic area of the imaginary landscape and has unwittingly given scripts to millions of women of what the 'ideal' romantic relationship looks like. I write as if it's his fault: somehow it seems easier than blaming Jane...

It got me thinking about what landscapes have infiltrated my own, and what it is about certain worlds and stories that sucks us in so much. I've had many conversations with my friend Emma, who's an English graduate, about the joy of living in a book you don't want to end. But it's not just literature geeks (sorry, Em! I love that you're a literature geek) who do it  - you only have to look at the Big Bang Theory-esque science-comicon-nerd thing to see its Star Trek-y influence there, or at any other person who's just a bit addicted to that soap or that drama. 

I must admit, I am the worst for it. Once I'm in another world I am *IN* - and its influence on my thinking is almost embarrassing. I would love there to be a Pottermore equivalent for every other story and world I've engaged in. I find it hard to unpeel that imaginary landscape from my own, and so I temporarily (or not so temporarily) interpret the world through the mesh of the two, the fictional and the real. Even once I've left it, it often leaves indelible marks on my landscape, sometimes without me knowing. And even now, sometimes I find something on my  landscape that's making me interpret or predict something in a particular way that I didn't realise wasn't my own, but a fragment of someone else's that stuck there when I was a child or a teenager before I'd really landscaped my own mind in that bit of thinking. 

The other thing it got me thinking about was how far we go into other worlds to escape. This week I have been on annual leave, and apart from doing odd jobs I have essentially spent four days wrapped up in Harry Potter world (I know, I am that cool), re-reading all the books. It's hold is obsessive, even though I know what happens. It is escapist to let yourself be taken along in another world. (I even just allowed myself to get wholly distracted by gifs from the films for about 15 minutes instead of writing this...)

Sometimes the joy is that it lets you not be in your own world.

This week ahead I've got an annoying amount of doctors appointments where I will variously be prodded, poked and scanned. If I'm honest, it's been a lot easier to live in a different world than in my own world that anticipates that impending discomfort. I've never liked doctors surgeries or hospitals. It allows me to have imaginary thoughts as I go to sleep, rather than anxious ones about what might hurt and what results might be. It lets me disengage from my own reality and hide.

What it also does, is lets me disengage from God, and His reality. And I guess that highlights the whole idea of the seminar series in the first place, to enter into these imaginary landscapes with God, and see what he had to say about them; not to enter into them to get lost. I'm not at all saying we shouldn't let ourselves get into these things, there's so much goodness and imagination there; but, I went to church this morning fully reluctant to engage with God and the real world. I was pretty sure that if I escaped far enough into a different world, and could feel someone else's feelings I could distance myself from my own and cope with being tired and unsure until it had passed. 

Turns out, that isn't how the world works, and it especially isn't how God works. Even through my reluctance He still somehow managed to muscle in and tell me to stop being an eejit. I'm ever grateful of how often I'm welcomed back when I've been being an eejit. It happens more often than I'd care to admit to.

Anyway - a light note to leave you on...One of the things that pleases me about the HP-world is that I know I'd have a profession in that realm too: I'd definitely either be a herbologist or a magizoologist. And what would be more fun than flying a Hippogriff? 

And with that glorious moment settled on, I'm back to my kindle for the last precious hours of annual leave, before I re-enter the real world of offices, meetings and doctors appointments tomorrow. Maybe I'll hum Hedwig's tune every so often if it all gets a bit much...


  1. As usual a laugh out loud yet poignant blog.

    It brings to mind the passage in Philippians 4:8-9 (NIV) where we are told:-

    "8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you."

    These are the attributes against which to measure what we read/view/hear which ,in turn,inform our imaginative landscape and keep it on a level with God's intentions for our walk with Him.

    Also v6-7 are very helpful in weeks filled with medical stuff.
    "6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

  2. You never cease to amaze me with your thought provoking blogs ; very interesting this one. If only the last 5 weeks were an imaginary landscape and my tomorrow was back to the way things had been before...