“Up, up, and away!” A gracious call for playful thinkers

When I was a little kid my favorite movie was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I was mildly obsessed.  I watched—and re-watched—the movie countless times, rewinding the VHS tape (yes; I grew up in the era of VHS) at least a thousand times.

But of course I was never content to simply watch the movie.  I wanted to live the movie.  I imagined that the entire house was a submarine, and I was its captain.  I’m pretty sure I decided that my mother was the ship’s cook, so I don’t know that I was the most progressive captain in the world, but I guess when you’re four you gotta start somewhere.

Now that I’m older I’ve come to recognize just how important it is for children to participate in the things they love, the way that my nephew loves to emulate the action heroes from Big Hero Six or the rescuers from Paw Patrol or whatever.  Children don costumes and capes, clamoring “up, up, and away!” as they rush off in search of adventure, to say nothing of the diverse ways that girls emulate their own heroines ranging from Disney princesses to  the bold Rey from Star Wars. 

Imagination, then, isn’t just about creating fanciful worlds and mental pictures.  Imagination has to do with giving life to these stories and crafting ways that we inhabit these stories, allow them to become us, and to give ourselves to these stories that we might find meaning.


Our focus this week has been on learning, which we defined yesterday as the process of allowing God’s story to shape our character.  We need to challenge the deeply-held assumption that learning is about the assimilation of information rather than the formation of character.

In David Brooks’ bestselling The Social Animal, the journalist explores the ways that contemporary brain research helps us understand the learning process.  He points out that we often assume that the learning process is like pouring liquid into a container.  In reality, he says, quoting from one psychologist, “the process is ‘like a blender left running with the lid off.  The information is literally sliced into discrete pieces as it enters the brain and splattered all over the insides of the mind.’”[1]  The learning process is about connecting those “splattered” pieces into something meaningful.  Brooks points out that this means that you don’t have a part of your brain devoted to remembering things like the distinction between the letter “P” and the letter “B.”  In fact, this simple distinction involves something like 22 different sections of the human brain.

That’s interesting enough, I guess, but what does this have to do with children playing?  When children use their imaginations, they are forming connections between various pieces of information.  Play helps children develop social skills and moral centers—it’s the way that children first learn to make sense of the world around them.

But this also means something for adults as well.  The learning process, as we just said, isn’t about getting more information into our heads.  It’s about learning to take that information and make it a part of our character and skill set.

Medical schools already know this.  In an article for Spin.com, Brian Ledsworth tells us that medical schools emphasize three crucial steps to learning:[2]

  • Seeing
  • Doing
  • Teaching

In Christianity, we often stop at the first step.  We do a lot of “seeing” or passive listening—to sermons, to books, to podcasts, even to Bible study—but we rarely move on from there and incorporate what we’re learning into our daily practices, let alone passing it on to others.


The people of the Bible would have probably found this threefold approach (see, do, teach) really weird.  Or at least unnecessary.  When we read the pages of Scripture, we don’t find a division between these three categories.  Rather, we can point out that seeing, doing, teaching are all part of a learning process that engaged the whole person—not just his or her mind.

In the pages of Deuteronomy, we find a celebration between God and his people, a celebration that resembled the proceedings of many ancient treaties, but would today be most similar to the “big tent revival” services of Christianity’s recent past. Here we find God issuing a paradigm of learning that would define much of Israelite community for generations to come:

“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:1-9)

It may be helpful to unpack verse 5 a bit, because the terms “heart,” “soul,” and “might” mean something a bit different to us than the people for whom this passage was written:

  • “Heart” (from the Hebrew lebab): Our understanding of “heart” has unfortunately been shaped by things ranging from Greek philosophy to Hallmark commercials. But the Hebrews would have understood lebab as meaning something a bit more like “mind” or “intellect,” the center of thought, not emotion.
  • “Soul” (from the Hebrew nephesh): The term nephesh literally means “life,” and refers to the innermost part of a person—his will, his motivations, his identity.
  • “Might/strength” (from the Hebrew me’od): This term relates to “obedience” and practices—it’s the active, physical dimension of things, the way we embody God’s story in our world.

We’ll unpack some of this further in the days ahead, but what I want us all to really be aware of is that God’s plan for “Christian education” engages the whole person.  I know it doesn’t quite overlap with the “see, do, teach” of today’s medical school, but surely we can see some parallels.

Here’s the larger point: we too easily fall into the trap of assuming that Christian teaching—its theology, its doctrines—is something you absorb by listening to a sermon or participating in a Bible study.  It’s not.  Sure, it may start there.  After all, there’s value in hearing God’s word taught to you on a regular basis.  But Christianity isn’t about learning a story as much as living a story.  It’s less about the intellect but the imagination—that is, the part of our brains that leads us to inhabit God’s story and see it unfold in all its gracious possibilities.  Theology should challenge us, but it should also excite us, it should move us and animate us like children at play.  We will never flourish until we see the ways that God’s story intersects with all of life, and learn our own place in the webbing together of truth and practice.  Christianity needs thinkers, yes, but more than that it needs playful thinkers, men and women who participate in God’s story in every moment of their lives.  We need poets, we need artists, we need mothers, we need fathers, we need sportsmen, we need hunters, we need mechanics and scientists and musicians and most of all we need men and women whose hearts and homes and jobs overflow with the goodness of God in the everyday, and see God’s story as not confined to a book (as precious as that book is!) but taking shape in the everyday moments that make up our lives.

So grab your cape.  Let your imagination run wild.


[1] John Medina, quoted in David Brooks, The Social Animal, p. 81.

[2] Brian Ledsworth, “See one, do one, teach one: Not just for the medical profession,” April 29, 2011 http://spin.atomicobject.com/2011/04/29/see-one-do-one-teach-one-not-just-for-the-medical-profession/

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