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Cruciform Imagination, Part 3: Bad Neighborhoods

“My mind is like a bad neighborhood. I try not to go there alone.” – Anne Lamott

This analogy packs a punch because it portrays the habits of thought and feeling that comprise our imaginations as spatial, social, and economic in nature.

Spatially speaking, when we engage our imaginations, we go someplace. We even refer to neural connections in our brains as “pathways.” The ability to travel within our minds is at once heralded as one of humanity’s great gifts and lamented as one of humanity’s great depravities depending on where we choose to go. The metaphor of landscape is especially powerful here: there are mountains and valleys, deserts, oceans, cities, and gardens in our imaginations, each of which carries metaphorical meaning. When we are involved in the work of creativity, we go places in our minds, hearts, and imaginations. And of course we try to go to good places, but sometimes we get lost.

Second, Lamott presents our imaginations as places of social dimension. As a little interior society, there are a myriad of cultures we can visit within ourselves, some of which we are on good terms with and others of which we rarely speak to at all. Of course, in this particular quote, our relationship with the residents of our mind, our “bad neighborhood,” is questionable, tenuous, and even fearful and dangerous.

Last, there’s an economic dimension implied in this metaphor. In the little interior society called our imagination, there are thoughts and desires that receive plenty of subsidizing and support, upheld as absolutely valuable and beautiful, as well as wounded feelings we shun, from which we withhold the riches of our time, energy, and attention.

I must make a disclaimer here: sometimes in our inner worlds, where there is deep scarring, trauma, and tender wounds, it is important that we stay away from the bad neighborhoods. Brazen confidence in healing our own wounds is just as much hubris as is strategic avoidance of them. If you need to stay away from your bad neighborhoods, by all means, stay away. This is a situation in which we must listen to the Holy Spirit, our conscience, and the needs of our hearts. But, to the degree that we’re able, I think we ought to examine why we perceive certain neighborhoods as bad and others as good.

The film Spirited Away helps us ask these questions regarding the spatial, social, and economic dimensions of our imaginations. As stewards of our minds and hearts, we, like Chihiro, open the door to many guests, some of whom are much older and craftier than we are. The spirit in which we treat them has real consequences for their inevitable return visits.

Speaking of return visits, my pastor has preached on the way in which life cyclically brings back characters, events, and places from our past and how our encounters with them propel us into the future. He often says something along the lines of, “If I don’t deal with the places of tension and unrest in my story, these places will come up again and again in different forms.” Each recurrence is not a vengeful punishment for not dealing with our issues the last time, but rather an act of grace from our Father, who gives us opportunity after opportunity to make amends with our suffering, to find in our wounds the cruciform pattern of Christ, and to participate in his suffering, following him all the way through death and into rebirth.

How might the civilizations of our imaginations be transfigured into a microcosm of the new heavens and earth? Drew Miller

As Christians, we believe in the Kingdom of Heaven, in which the world’s measurements of worth are flipped upside-down. We believe this is never glimpsed more plainly than in the crucifixion, when the Trinity suffered, grieved, and endured death in Jesus: a death whereby all creation found solidarity in suffering with its Maker, that even death might be given a sacred role in the Father’s true economy of redemption and resurrection. If we are to be transformed by this story, that transformation must plunge deep into our imaginations, where there is plenty of death and life, disease and healing.

So the ultimate questions I’m interested in asking are: How might the civilizations of our imaginations be transfigured into a microcosm of the new heavens and earth? How do we adopt a cruciform posture towards our inner worlds? What economies of our minds and hearts need a good upending?

For the purposes of this post, I’ll treat these questions in their application specifically to the creative process.

When I first began writing songs in my teens and word got around about it, I endured many a cheap, well-intentioned quip from my friends and family, often in the form of non-sequiturs like, “Well, there’s some material for a song, Drew!” or “That should be the name of your next album!” I was always annoyed by such comments, perhaps because they cast me as a writer gold-mining the very gift of life for my “material.”

The thing is, no matter how much fault I find in that metaphor, I have lived by it, impatiently and exploitively, most of my life. I have trained myself to seek out the places in my mind and heart that I associate with magic and inspiration while shunning the places of exhaustion and depletion. I idealize and idolize the land of milk and honey at the expense of the desert. I stay in the “good part of town” and avoid the “bad neighborhoods,” unaware that by perpetuating the reputation of each, I keep them both from the proper restoration and reconciliation they truly need.

So now we come to the question: “What makes and keeps a bad neighborhood bad?” This is a question well suited for sociologists and psychologists, but from my own experience, a bad neighborhood is kept bad by my perception of threat. In an immediate sense, I stay away from my bad neighborhoods, the places I consider best left in the dark, because I feel my safety is threatened by them. I certainly shouldn’t visit them alone; I think Anne Lamott had that right, at least. But I would like to acknowledge that my idea of “safety” is often a euphemism for comfort.

In the real estate of my imagination, the more I fear neighborhoods of shame, loneliness, and hurt, the more threatening they become. Not only that, but in my fear, I uphold and protect exclusively those places of my mind and heart that meet strict, homogenized guidelines for goodness, truth, and beauty. I lie to myself about the shape of my inner world. As a result, the health of my imagination suffers. I become narrow-minded and engage in a sort of artistic elitism. This is the gentrification of my imagination in which I leave vast interior landscapes to slow deterioration.

So if that’s what happens to the places within myself of which I’m afraid, then what’s the fate of those places in my imagination I glorify as productive and abundant? A simple answer would be monoculture, in which only one crop is grown over vast stretches of land, working the soil dry. By analogy, my concern in creativity shifts from the thing I’m making to the making itself. I want productivity. I grow only what I have a taste for, and my taste narrows to that which I grow. I become blind and numb to my work for fear of its failure. I forget that all I put my hands to is a gift of God.

In this state, when I happen upon one of God’s good gifts, such as an intuition for a new song or a beautiful chord progression, this scenario unfolds:

“A brief entry in a mid-nineteenth-century collection of English fairy tales tells of a Devonshire man to whom the fairies had given an inexhaustible barrel of ale. Year after year the liquor ran freely. Then one day the man’s maid, curious to know the cause of this extraordinary power, removed the cork from the bung hole and looked into the cask; it was full of cobwebs. When the spigot next was turned the ale ceased to flow. The moral is this: the gift is lost in self-consciousness. To count, measure, reckon value, or seek the cause of a thing is to step outside the circle, to cease being ‘all of a piece’ with the flow of gifts and become, instead, one part of the whole reflecting upon another part.” – Lewis Hyde, The Gift

It comes as no surprise that when I constantly take inventory of the wealth of my imagination, I end up trying to seize the good gifts of God rather than receiving them. In my attempts to seize the gift, it turns to cobwebs. This way of seeing dries up its subject. It is in such times of extreme self-consciousness, of dread and shame over dark inner spaces and fearful idolization of spaces I have privileged as all-good —it is in such times that I can’t make anything.

What we need to see in the crucifixion of Jesus is the obliteration of all our concepts of beauty. Drew Miller

But then, when my heart softens enough to confess my fear, possessiveness, and idolatry, I see myself in this quote all too easily (please excuse the exclusively masculine pronouns):

“…man seeks God in the law, and attempts to conform to him through the works of the law, in order to bring himself into the righteousness of God. If he sees and believes in God in the person of Christ, condemned by the law, he is set free from the legalist concern to justify himself. Man seeks God in the will for political power and world domination. If he sees and believes God in Christ who was powerless and crucified, he is set free from this desire to have power and domination over others. Man seeks to know God in the works and ordinances of the cosmos or the course of world history, in order to become divine himself through knowledge. If he sees and believes God in the suffering and dying Christ, he is set free from the concern for self-deification which guides him towards knowledge. Thus the knowledge of God in the crucified Christ takes seriously the situation of man in pursuit of his own interests, man who in reality is inhuman, because he is under the compulsion of self-justification, dominating self-assertion and illusionary self-deification.” – Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

We could riff on that and write another sentence about those of us who seek to make the world beautiful, redeem it ourselves through art, and thus attain God-like status. What we need to see in the crucifixion of Jesus is the obliteration of all our concepts of beauty. God the Father and Spirit calls beautiful in the crucifixion what we could only ever see to be ugly, thereby obliterating our arbitrary distinctions between what is beautiful and what is reprehensible. Only in obliterating these distinctions is it possible for us to be redeemed from our misguided pursuit of redeeming the world through our creativity.

Recall with me the character of Chihiro from Spirited Away. She “owns” nothing—in fact, she herself is owned as a sort of indentured servant—and her poverty of spirit enables her to see the true wealth of hospitality and gift in those around her. Likewise, she sees the exploitation and “riches” of her surroundings for what they truly are: alienation and profound poverty.

If we take these little parables and metaphors to heart as instructive for a healthy relationship with our own inner worlds, I believe we will look a lot like Chihiro as we hone our art: empty-handed, grateful, and privy to our own illusory notions of what it means to be wealthy and secure in our creativity. By adopting such a cruciform posture, we may even open ourselves up to be tilled by Christ, our desecrated spaces recovered, our overworked fields given rest, and the flourishing of our imaginations more diverse and fruitful than we ever could have anticipated. In being so transformed, the nature of our work will be unable to escape its own transformation:

“…tilling was never simply about growing things. Tilling has a double meaning: by working the garden people also learn to work on themselves so that through their work they can be brought more closely to an awareness of God in their midst, and then make the commitment to participate in God’s beauty- and goodness-building ways in the world. In other words, work is ultimately to be about a finer attunement to the world as the place of God’s sustaining presence. With an awareness of God and with an appreciation for God’s intention that creatures be whole and at peace, people’s use of the world can be transformed so that the gifts of life are better cherished, nurtured, and shared.” – Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating

Our imagination’s soil having been tilled with such gentleness, we will become gentle. Our weeds having been pulled with such grace, we will become gracious. Our interior landscapes having been reconciled so thoroughly, we will become participants in reconciliation. Newly named “redeemed” by our Father, every work we set our hands to will become a work of redemption.


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