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Make Believe Makes Believers

My son plays happily. He flits easily between two worlds, the world that is and the world he imagines. His conversation assumes the extraordinary. His play is an adventure in make believe.

How like faith.

Perhaps nothing is more like faith than play. This “admission” would no doubt make Christians raised in an era of apologetic zeal begin to sweat. It may also delight anti-theist scolds, those champions of unhappiness and pretense.

But it is no great surrender to say faith is like play. If in a young boy’s imaginative play he sees himself brave and trustworthy in the good fight, then we are glad if he grows into a man who is like that in “the real world.” Likewise, if a little girl tenderly cares for a baby doll, devoting herself to its care while at play, then grows up to become a loving, tender mother, we are happy. And we should be. I call that good.

So child’s play is braided into the lifelong cords of faith. Part of life is anticipating, by faith, the right-side-up world. And it is deadly difficult when it feels like the ceiling’s coming down all around us.

Part of the Christian life, perhaps the heart of it, is praying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is holy imagination at work. This is a life of imaginative anticipation. Faith is play. It is playing at the most deeply true articles of the human charter.

Imagination is an essential capacity of faith.

Does our conversation assume the extraordinary? If it doesn’t, can we be Christians?

Jesus told us that children show us the way to the Kingdom. I believe he meant to commend both their lack of personal standing (they cannot cling to accomplishment as merit) and their capacity for deep dependence.

Children are suited for the Kingdom in their imaginative play. “Make believe” is one of the clearest avenues along the way to making us believers.

So, let them play. And join them.


  1. You had me at the title. That’s a book. The post is the pitch. Imagination makes faith believable. Faith incarnates imagination. Love it.

  2. Thank you, mKhulu. You are the best.

    I appreciate the encouragement, Clay. Who knows? I keep thinking through this and maybe sometime there’ll be enough there to share that way. I need people like you to keep me straight.

  3. Love love love this. You put it in such a winsome way! I’ve had this conversation with some of my seminary peers in the context of the whole “are you gonna do santa” thing.

    In a related comment, I was at the Covenant Theological Conference a week ago, and a student presented a paper on therapeutic lying to dementia patients–an interesting topic all by itself. He introduced an idea he called the “empathetic imagination” where we engage in imagination with someone who has different categories of reality than we do, “playing along” if you will. He argued that this was actually a compassionate way of ministering to dementia patients.

    My thought immediately went to the application of this concept of “empathetic imagination” with children. Children similarly have different categories of reality, such that they might ask the following question at Disneyworld, “is that the real Aladdin?” In their minds, Aladdin exists. He is as real as their kindergarten teacher.

    Anyways, I was already thinking about this, and your post title encapsulated it perfectly.

    P.S. Have you read this book from Steve Turner:

  4. Thank you, Kyle. We need to hang out sometime.

    I haven’t heard of that. I love the application for dementia patients. It sounds quite compassionate indeed. I’d love to run that idea by my two brothers who work in mental health. The area of mental health that interests me most is using art as therapy. That sounds like it fits in that arena.

    The children idea is interesting, and I have thought a lot about it. I love to interact with the kids in their imaginary worlds, it’s a favorite activity. I do land on the “always tell the truth” side on things (like Santa, death, etc. –insofar as it’s possible), but I recognize that can look different with kids.

    It’s an interesting topic, especially as it relates to OT encounters with God, like the encounter with Abraham before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah (and other places), where God appears to communicate –not untruths– but things that aren’t scientifically precise, but are truthful as people can understand. He seems to engage in a major simplification (from his perspective, of course, it all is). Not sure about that, but it seems pretty clear in places.

    How that applies to relating to vulnerable people, not exactly sure. But there’s something there.

    I haven’t read the book. Looks great. Added to my “wishlist.”

  5. Love this. What a treat it is to have young ones in our home to help us remember… “Creativity opens us to revelation, and when our high creativity is lowered to 2% (as we become adults), so is our capacity to see angels, to walk on water, to talk with unicorns… Something almost always happens to startle us during the act of creating, but not unless we let go our adult intellectual control and become as open as little children.” L’Engle

  6. Thanks, Julie. Is that in “Walking on Water?” I think it is. I just recently read that. A little hyperbolic (as most good lit is), but I loved it. She’s an amazing writer, seeing now what she anticipated so well here among us.

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