Book review: Lifting the Veil: Imagination & the Kingdom of God (Malcolm Guite, 2021)

I don’t think a day passes without my thinking about what it means to live at the Interface between the visible and the invisible realms of creation. Each morning I drink my first cup of tea (Irish breakfast blend) in our Away Room in view of the four bird feeders on our deck. There are always Chickadees dashing in and about, but I most love the American Goldfinches. They are a tiny, colorful songbird; their flight to the feeder (or anywhere else) is as if they are traveling on waves, tracing an undulating path through the air. They are, for me, a hint of transcendence, a tiny and fleeting glimpse of the reality that there is something more, something beyond and beneath the raw here and now of matter and energy. It is as if these delicate finches catch brief glimmers of bright golden light from the other side, their high-pitched, seemingly questioning calls asking whether we are blind to the deeper glory embedded in creation.

Evidence for the Interface is everywhere. I hear chains clanking out front and see my neighbor have his pickup towed away to the repair shop. He is a creature, as I am, made in God’s image, and so is indicative of the divine. And on Sunday I hold my hand out to receive a tiny piece of bread from my priest. “This is the body of Christ, broken for you, the bread of heaven.” It is bread, no doubt as I eat it, yet also the signifier of a mystical and invisible reality, no less real for being unseen. As I move forward for the Eucharist, I imagine my cupped hands breaking through the Interface momentarily to receive from the other side, though all I experience is here and now.

There is in this an interplay of reason and imagination, of truth and beauty, of mind and heart. These are not at odds, though they are sometimes mistakenly pictured as such, but are equally essential if we are to know ourselves, our world, and our God. In fact, to dismiss one or the other is to not know much at all, since collecting knowledge never, by itself, adds up to true wisdom and human flourishing.

Followers of Jesus will want to explore how this vision of things fits their faith, and for that task we have a trustworthy guide. Malcolm Guite is an Anglican priest, poet, musician, scholar, and to make it all even better, looks very much like a Hobbit. The book is Lifting the Veil: Imagination & the Kingdom of God, a brief but highly stimulating, deeply thoughtful, and lavishly illustrated 111 pages. Lifting the Veil grew out of the 2019 Laing Lectures that Guite gave at Regent College (Vancouver, BC). I mentioned those superb lectures and quoted from one in a piece I wrote, “Musing on the Physical,” that you can read here. Guite is an extraordinary communicator, weaving art, poetry, philosophy, and theology into a lively and life-giving exploration of the place of the imagination in Christian faithfulness. This is both a serious study of the topic of the Christian imagination and a book that delights the imagination, filled with works of art, poetry, and stories that do not merely illustrate Guite’s points but that deepen our apprehension and comprehension of the truth.

Guite realizes that to properly understand the imagination requires, first, a correction, a refutation of the misguided view of it that has reigned supreme in the West, and sadly, in the Western church. This misguided view was rooted in the emphasis on “pure dry knowledge” that was promoted by the Enlightenment. This modernism made science the final arbiter of truth, denigrated revelation as oppressive, reduced reality to the visible realm, and elevated reason over imagination. And it forced a false, artificial division between reason and imagination, when in fact both are needed if we are to comprehend and apprehend the truth of all things.

The new Philosophers and Scientists had declared war on the imagination and the consequence of that war was a kind of cultural apartheid. The entire realm of “objective” truth was to be the exclusive terrain of Reason at its narrowest: analytic, reductive, atomizing, and the faculties of Imagination and Intuition, those very faculties which alone were capable of integrating, synthesizing, and making sense of our atomized factual knowledge were relegated to a purely private and “subjective” truth. [p. 14]

Guite appeals to C. S. Lewis for the proper perspective. “Reason is the natural organ of truth,” Guite quotes him as insisting, “but imagination is the organ of meaning” [p. 19]. Both are a gift of God, both are essential, and rather than being opposed they necessarily work together to allow us to recognize and embrace truth and beauty. And thus, the follower of Jesus, desiring to be faithful to Christ’s Lordship across all of life, creation, culture, and reality, can gladly seek to bring to maturity both their mind and their heart, their thinking and imagining.

Because we live at the Interface, all art, like my goldfinches, is often touched by hints of transcendence. “The artist,” Guite says, “in her imaginative ‘bodying forth’ is building a bridge between apprehension and comprehension. All great art is a bridge with one foot in the world of comprehension, the visible, the earth, and one in the realm of apprehension, the invisible, heaven” [p. 21]. Appreciating that, as well as developing the skill and art of apprehending it, is worth the effort.

In Lifting the Veil, Guite says at the end, “I hope I have made the case for an imaginative grasp of faith and an imaginative proclamation of the faith, and most of all for a glad recognition that in Christ, our imagination, in all its modes and forms, is baptized and renewed” [p. 111]. That he has done, and I am grateful to be able to recommend this lovely book to you.

Book recommended: Lifting the Weil: Imagination & the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite (Baltimore, MD: Square Halo Books; 2021) 104 pages + notes.


Photo credit: taken by the reviewer with his trusty iPhone.