Living in Imaginary Worlds

Recently I discovered and fell in love with a podcast called Imaginary Worlds. Host Eric Molinsky explores many of the fictional worlds we know from pop culture, but often with a unique and very intelligent spin. It was his five-part series on Star Wars that hooked me (which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows my lifelong devotion to that franchise), and made me think about the movies and expanded universe in new ways. In one episode, historians and Star Wars scholars discussed the cultural/political factors in 1977 that led to the original movie becoming such a phenomenon. Subsequent episodes delved into the “Han shot first” controversy from an ethical standpoint, asked whether the Empire saw itself as evil or was taking what it saw as reasonable steps to bring order to a chaotic galaxy, featured a rabbi who compared the Star Wars expanded universe to the rabbinic commentary on the Torah called midrash, and debated whether “Slave Leia” could be seen as a symbol of female empowerment or was a misogynistic wrong turn in the character’s journey best left forgotten. I listened to those episodes multiple times, then went back and listened to every episode since the podcast began in 2014. It got me thinking about how much of my time is spent in imaginary worlds, not just when I lose myself in fiction, but when I do my job as a chaplain.

In the hospital, I walk alongside people experiencing some of the worst that the real world has to offer. They or their loved ones are sick, hurt, dying. My job is to enter with them into the pain of what they’re going through, to acknowledge their suffering and loss. But that’s not all. It isn’t enough to stay stuck in the darkness of the present, where they often feel alone and hopeless. I have to believe for them that there is another reality beyond what they see and feel in that moment. It takes some imagination. I believe that God is present with them in their suffering, and invite them to imagine what difference that might make in their present and future.

Sometimes they ask me to imagine with them, to hope or pray for a world different than the one that is right now – a world where they can walk again after a devastating injury, a world where they are free of cancer, a world where they can be reconciled with their family, a world where they can somehow survive without the loved one who has just died, a world where they can finally have a child after trying and failing so many times, a world where they can remember what it’s like to be happy. Sometimes these worlds we imagine become real, and it’s wonderful to see that.

But even the ones that stay imaginary are valuable. There’s often some truth to be learned from them – just as I’ve learned important lessons from Dagobah and Hogwarts and Narnia and Middle Earth and Sunnydale and Oz. So I’ll keep exploring Imaginary Worlds with Eric Molinsky, not just because it’s fun and thought-provoking, but because I need to keep my imagination sharp. So much depends on it. This week leading up to Easter especially reminds me that I have, in fact, based much of my life on two worlds that, though very real, are only accessible now through imagination. This Thursday and Friday, Christians are invited to imagine the world in which Jesus experienced the end of his life as a human being. It’s a world from which I’m separated by twenty centuries and thousands of miles, not to mention differences in language, religion, and culture. So much has changed, it’s difficult to try and put myself there.

And after we imagine ourselves sitting at the table for the Last Supper, watching Jesus weep in the Garden of Gethsemane, standing at the foot of the cross while his death sentence is carried out, we try to imagine a world without Jesus. In the darkness of Holy Saturday, we imagine ourselves in the place of his disciples, who must have thought this was the end of the story. Then as the sun rises on Easter Sunday, we imagine the excitement of those women among his disciples who went to the tomb, to find Jesus no longer there. The resurrection lets us dare to imagine a world where death does not get the final word, a world in which God’s will is accomplished on earth as fully as it is in heaven.

Before his death, Jesus spent most of his ministry years preaching about that other imaginary world, the one that we believe will be and is already becoming, but has not yet fully come to be. He was always telling stories about what “the kingdom of God” was like, and assuring his listeners that it was close at hand.  But two thousand years later, this world where love and justice reign seems very far from our reality. Still we catch glimpses of it, when even for a moment we live as Jesus lived and taught us to live. I love the way OnFaith author Christopher Doucot explains the already/not yet nature of the kingdom of God:

“The kingdom of heaven is already when we forgive; it is not yetwhen we harbor a grudge. The kingdom of God is already when we share the abundance of this world; it is not yet when our selfishness condemns others to hunger and homelessness. The kingdom of God is already when we cooperate; it is not yet when we compete. It is already when we use nonviolence; it is not yetwhen we use violence. It is forever already when we love and always lost when we hate.”

Sometimes the worlds we imagine do change the real world. Sometimes they are even more real than the one in which we currently live. If we keep imagining better worlds together, even as we live and love in this one, God only knows what could happen.

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