James K.A. Smith Reimagines “Imagination”

On March 5, 2013, James K. A. Smith, Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview at Calvin College, delivered his talk entitled “Beyond ‘Creativity’: Expanding the Intersection of Theology and the Imagination.” This was part of the Distinguished Lecture Series held by Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (DITA).

Rather than something that is exclusive to artists, Smith proposes to think about imagination as a meaning-making that is possessed by all and thus attemps to “unhook” the use of the creative language and imagination from subjective expressionism. According to Smith, imagination is a “quasi-faculty” akin to the French phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty’s praktognosia (know-how).  Fundamentally aesthetic in nature, this know-how is understood by Smith to be a precognitive perception, an everyday capacity for understanding the world.

It is with imagination that one can see the artistic truth, or the truth of the aesthetic experience.  The appreciation of form, as opposed to mere content, as truth is found in formalism.  Given their particular structural composition, Smith asserts that narratives, metaphors and liturgies are unique modes of truth. Using the example of a clip from Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” Smith points out Anderson’s frequent symmetrical frames and extended level shots as sites where artistic truth resides in the form.

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