A Missional Imagination
“The term ‘imagination’ in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb ‘to see.’ To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with ‘the mind’s eye.’ It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with ‘dreaming up.’ It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.”
In this paragraph from his NEH Jefferson Lecture on the “economic arts,” Wendell Berry offers an interesting angle on imagination that also makes a lot of sense if turned toward cinema. In “Ontology and the Photographic Image,” André Bazin talked about how the photographic image can “surpass art in creative power” because it can satisfy our need to battle the burden of time and mortality with realistic representations of who we are and what we look like. Photographs essentially “embalm” us. Similarly, realist and naturalist films are like hallucinations of reality or traces of reality, the painterly line between us or things as they are and our cinema counterparts fading in Bazin’s theory. That thing you see on the screen is a material trace of reality, inscribed in light upon exposed film. It is the “fingerprint” of the actual living finger; the image and reality not neatly divisible.
I think Berry and Bazin would have gotten along very well, the classic legend of Bazin smuggling censored films beneath his coat through occupied Paris, for example, a very Berryan image of culture-making. But this above concept of imagination as seeing with “visionary force,” or imagination as an active and generative act rather than a passive fancy, is also precisely how I read Bazin.
His theory is steeped in art history, psychology, and whiffs of personalist theology. We often see him groping critically for ways to describe what is happening in cinema, which he spoke of as a new and revolutionary language. Many of his key concepts still feel abstract even if they are the historical soil for much future film criticism. He is, frankly, periodically difficult to read.
But what Berry describes here as seeing with “visionary force” happens to be a good entry point to Bazin. Imagination is not just a matter of engineering fictions, but an act of “grasping” things as they are through the static of inclination and ideology. For both Berry and Bazin, imagination offers us a space in which we can see things rightly. It is a sort of rescue mission. Because it contains “traces” and “hallucinations” of reality, it is not something that can be thought of as distinct from reality.
So Berry is talking here of world-building and unbuilding. He is talking about the curative effect of our incurably storied natures. Likewise for Bazin, cinema is something that happens; it is an activity. It emerges from a re-representation of our economic, political, and social experiences that by virtue of film’s complex connection to “life as it is” are not capable of being reduced to these same narrow channels of description.
“I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.”
For Berry, imagination has a collective and charitable scope. The internet is rife with tiresome discussions of the “death of cinema” and the correlative “death of criticism.” None of this chicken little business is true. I could easily point you to a dozen critics that offer globally-informed, technically adept, passionate conversation about our thriving film culture (not to mention Filmwell…).
But if we want to really talk about the future shape or identity of film criticism, Berry offers us a fairly prophetic template here for discussion. At Filmwell, we are interested in criticism that emerges from an curious exploration of film, personal biography, and a sense of theological wonder – fostering a “responsible” relationship to the world because we are interested in imagining “our places in it.” Given Berry’s coordination between art, imagination, and charity above, I think we could call this vibe a “missional imagination,” a criticism that enables sympathy.
After more than a decade of this term “missional” dominating Christian theological dialogue, it is now nearly devoid of meaning. The wide clutter of definitions the term denotes has all but devastated its utility. But going back to the basics, “missional” as an adjective refers to a way of gospel being. It embraces Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy as a recognition of and participation in God’s holistic redemptive movement toward us – toward the world and its systems and embedded injustices – through Christ and Spirit. It is the act of being on board with the harrowing, reconciliatory drama of the gospel burrowing down through the strata of society and penetrating all the mechanisms that quietly shape our personal narratives.
A missional imagination inspires a “preemptively sympathetic” hermeneutic. It forms the moviegoer as hospitable observer. It trains the eye to perceive Bazinian realities in filmed expressions of time and space. It sees the very forms of cinema as a theological landscape, structures over which autobiography and theoretical impulse are free to roam. In this way, a missional imagination is not simply a mode of retrieval, seeking to baptize or redeem experiences and ideas in conflict with the renovating bent of the gospel. Rather, the missional imagination offers a freedom of response through such a “preemptive sympathy.” One way forward for Christian film criticism in particular is this Berryan hospitality suffused with a sense of Bazinian wonder about cinema as the fingerprint of life.
None of this is really new. I am not describing anything that can’t be seen in bits and pieces elsewhere. But I am describing work. We need these imaginative critical acts of world-building and unbuilding, learning and unlearning, describing and obscuring. We need to be watching and exploring directors interested in preserving space through imagination, rather than destroying it through unsympathetic commerce. This concept of “missional imagination” is a worthy candidate for future discussion, but at the very least it makes a lot of sense of Bazin, who in turn makes a lot of sense of cinema.