Imagination and Virtue

In a previous post I referenced a book by Vigen Guroian, the Orthodox Christian who is on Faculty of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.  This book, “Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child’s Moral Imagination”, makes the argument that one of most vital ways that parents can encourage the development of virtue in the hearts of their children is by deeply ingraining the most lasting of stories deeply in their imaginations.  I am now a parent and have began to see once again the profoundly imitative nature of children.  Again and again I see them learn by copying or parroting what they see and hear in others.  I love watching my oldest acting out baseball and football games while he and I are watching them on television.  He is seemingly completely incapable of watching the games without physically playing and re-playing the motions of the game as he observes them.  I chuckle whenever I see this because I did the same thing when I was his age.  All of our boys re-enact all of the stories that we read and watch in their play.  Whether they become King Peter and King Edmund, or Batman and Robin they love re-playing and re-inventing stories.  Imaginary play is the life blood of their development.  But just as the nutrition of the type of food we feed our children affects their physical health and development, the type of stories that our children feed upon affects the development of their moral imaginations.  The contemporary moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way,

“It is through hearing about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance…that children learn or mislearn what a child and what a parent is, what cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are.  Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.”

I believe that some of the change that we have seen in our culture (and not for the better) is that we have left older, more proven stories behind and replaced them with pale copies that teach very different lessons.  Worse than that, we have removed stories wholesale from the lives and education of generations and left them with a Gradgrindian (read “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens if you want to understand that reference) view of reality where all that matters is the facts and even those are open to interpretation.  Much of the division we see in our political process can be traced to a loss of common stories and culture.  We view the world differently because we don’t know the same stories and even the ones we do we approach from radically opposing directions.  Biblical illiteracy is at epidemic levels even among those in our society who seem to be the “best educated”.

But lest I go too far down the road to Curmudgeonville, my purpose isn’t to bemoan how far we have fallen.  It is instead to reflect on what we can do to tend the heart of virtue in ourselves and our children.  The apostle Paul exhorted the Corinthians to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”.  (1 Cor 11:1)  One of the best ways we can do that is to approach the stories of Scripture with the imagination of a child.  All too often we in the evangelical Christian world have treated the Bible as texts to be dissected in search of principles for living or correct formulations for teaching.  But, while useful, transformation isn’t accomplished via technical scholarship.  Do we picture the story in our eyes of our heart, putting ourselves squarely in the middle of flow?  Do we believe that the same God who is an actor in the narrative (and not a background character) is acting in our story?  This is how virtue forms.  By yielding to the story we allow virtue to be formed within us.  This is adding to your faith, virtue.  Formation of virtue is an act of grace, it is a gift received.

I do have one more thing to add.  There is a school of thought in education that it doesn’t really matter what kind of literature a child reads, so long it gets them in the habit of reading.  I couldn’t disagree more.  I am not saying that children should only read from a pre-approved canon of “great literature”.  There are plenty of good books around that kids can read.  But they need to be good books.  Stroll through the children’s section of your local Barnes and Noble.  There is a lot of stuff there that isn’t well written, has questionable content and just isn’t worth reading.  But good books should be supplemented by great books.  Not every child’s book rises to the level of Hans Christian Andersen.  But that isn’t an excuse not to read Andersen along with the rest.

In a very real sense, imagination can be defined as “the eyes of the heart”.  These eyes need to be opened.  As parents we can help them be opened at a young age.  And I say, the earlier the better.



  1. Excellent! I can honestly say, the more we read to our children, the more their imagination grows! I also love what you said about we need to have an imagination like children when reading His Word! I’ve always struggled to ” pretend, dream, imagine,” but since I’ve had 3 boys, I see how my imagination can open up!
    Awesome, Steve, awesome!!

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