“…Fiction…communicates indirectly by inviting us into a reality that we live by means of imagination… Literature creates a world, and the writer invites your participation: you will not understand what the novel is about unless you step into that created world and live in it.” (Victor Shepherd)

The world that my Grade 5/6 class is currently inhabiting is the world of Anne of Green Gables. I didn’t know when I chose to read this novel with them that a new series based on the book would simultaneously appear on TV. As the students began to come into class talking about the series, I wondered if I should ask them to critically evaluate it against the book. As it happened, I didn’t need to say anything about that at all; they independently began making the comparisons and concluded that the series, although entertaining, was not true to the book.

That world depicted on the TV is another world, but it isn’t the world that L. M. Montgomery created. Somehow I didn’t expect that my students would be loyal to the book at all; in fact, I was almost dreading starting the novel with them, because I wasn’t sure that the boys would receive it enthusiastically. But I was wrong.

As we open the book together day by day and step into Anne’s world, my boys are the ones who laugh the loudest and longest at Anne’s exploits. While there is some eye-rolling at her flowery language from time to time, and some remarks about her extended monologues (“Was that whole chapter just Anne talking?”) on the whole, they are rooting for her.

What is it about Anne that endears herself to us? She is inexplicably relatable, while simultaneously unique and even eccentric. As we chuckle at her hapless, head-in-the-clouds ways and the scrapes she gets herself into, we’re actually laughing at ourselves. Her vanity, her pride, her stubbornness, her failure to control her tongue and temper – in all her failings, we see our own, and we’re invited to see the frailty and humor in the human condition.

Anne’s so-called heathen ways are an affront to Marilla’s stiff religious sensibilities. Her stiffness in the light of Anne’s child-like questions calls us to examine our own rigid ideas about God and their source, and invites us into the freedom of Anne’s childhood wonder and delight.

Anne has been like a familiar friend to me for decades. In my mind’s eye I see myself at eleven years old, sprawled out on a quilt beneath the blossoming tree in our front yard, an open box of Girl Guide cookies beside me. I’m stomach down, a cookie in one hand, Anne’s House of Dreams in the other, oblivious to all but the scent of the blossoms above me and the scene unfolding before me in my book.

Like Anne, I was fairly red-headed and freckled, and loved learning, nature, and romance. The descriptions of her Prince Edward Island home were not unlike my Vancouver Island home; apart from the red dirt, of course. In Anne, I felt I had found what she called a kindred spirit.

My grandmother also loved Anne. I once spent the evening with her, watching the Sullivan movie based on the book. Grandma delighted in Anne’s escapades, and it brought back memories of her own childhood on a farm in Star City, Saskatchewan. She vividly recalled to me her own one room schoolhouse, a hub in their small community, and farm life with both its charms and hard work.

Not long before Grandma suddenly passed away, the women in our family had taken her on a special outing to see the Anne of Green Gables production at the Chemainus Theatre. My sister pointed out afterward that Grandma had never stopped smiling at any point in the performance.

I brought the memory of that smile with me to Prince Edward Island last summer. Over thirty years after my first reading of the book, I was crossing the long bridge to the land of Anne. Part of me was resisting the association with Anne, wanting to enjoy the island for its own sake. Of course, PEI has fully embraced Anne devotees, a boon to its tourism industry. Yes, there’s a lot of kitsch (like gaudy straw hats with fake red braids attached) but you can almost completely avoid the tackiness if you try.

The spectacular scenery only improved upon the loveliness I had imagined while reading Montgomery’s descriptions of the island. Seeing the real-world PEI did not spoil my ability to live in Anne’s imaginary world, but rather enhanced it.

In Friday’s Literature class, my students were debating why Anne had such a fine imagination but Diana appeared to have none. One student put forward the idea that your imagination is a product of the family you grow up in, and perhaps Diana’s family didn’t encourage it; another argued that you don’t get your imagination from your family because Anne didn’t always have a family – her imagination developed because she had to survive somehow as an orphan. Another student thought that Diana should have a good imagination because she read so much, but another commented that some people just like to see things as they are and they don’t like to imagine otherwise.

I hope that in reading the novel, my students see the right use of the imagination as a good thing.

The Moral Imagination


by Tina Olesen

“Imagination is seeing with the eyes of the heart… Because being follows imagination, the battle is always for the mind… Imagination that is based on truth is tremendously powerful.” [i] Let’s not underestimate the power of the imagination in moral training.

Last year I attended a teacher training workshop on the subject of internet social media and our young people. After taking us through all kinds of sad and sordid internet train wrecks, where teens had posted things so outrageous that one just wanted to look away, the workshop presenter gave us his assessment of “why” this is happening. It is not because teens need to be taught how to have more shrewdness with the internet. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) it is because now that religion has been taken out of public schools, these youth no longer have moral training and so they lack moral judgment. I wanted to give him a standing ovation.

Think about what is feeding and forming the imaginations of our young people in today’s culture. Imaginations are no longer fed with truth and goodness, but with perverted fantasy that calls good evil and evil good. We have libraries full of books praising vampires, werewolves and witches. Zombies are celebrated and humor is often crass. Minds that continually dwell on what is vulgar produce vulgarity.

The problem with much of the so-called moral training curricula offered in our public schools is that it is not anchored in anything. It has no biblical basis and therefore it floats away on an ocean of moral relativism. Children are encouraged to do “whatever is right for you” which competes with whatever is “right” for their classmate, parent, or teacher. Moral absolutes are shied away from, and so children are set adrift on a stormy sea without an anchor. We wonder why we have so many shipwrecks!

Another difficulty with these supposed “character building” programs is that they are often obviously directive and trite, and our students resist the leading that resembles lecturing. Truth that impacts our hearts often comes to us indirectly; for example, in a story rather than a speech. The reception of the truth by the imagination can topple the prideful intellectual barriers to truth that we so often put up. Jesus’ use of the parable is the model for this method.

One of the finest things that a story can do is to awaken in its reader a hunger and thirst for holiness. By holiness, I mean that quality of character that only Jesus Christ perfectly exemplifies. Jesus was the master storyteller. He knew well the smug intellects and hard hearts of his listeners, and He used parables to circumvent their predictable rejection of His message. Concealed in a parable, His hard hitting Truth would either bounce off the stone cold hearts of His hearers, or slice like an arrow straight to the unsuspecting heart, bypassing the self-righteous intellect and penetrating the depths of the conscience. Some listeners responded by hardening their hearts further and walking away from Him. Others experienced the unexpected relief of conviction, humbled themselves, and submitted to His conquest of their hearts.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote, “…the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate…” Children have to be trained even in the right responses – to rejoice in the triumph of good over evil, to be disgusted at that which is disgusting, to recognise and love that which is beautiful.

Our children ought to have more than warnings against moral evil; they should be given a captivating vision of moral good. The tale of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey illustrates this well. Ulysses was commanding a ship of men sailing near the cliffs when up ahead, they spotted the Sirens. These Sirens could enchant the men with their song, bewitching them into crashing the ship on the rocks. Ulysses acted quickly to have the men plug their ears with wax, and made them tie him to the mast of the ship. The enchanting song of the Sirens reached only the ears of Ulysses, who begged his men to untie him, but they did not heed. They safely sailed past the Siren’s song and the rocks. In the Argonautica on another ship, we see an entirely different approach. Orpheus also knew of the dangerous song of the Sirens. Rather than having the men block up their ears, Orpheus wielded his own weapon: his music. He played such a beautiful melody that he captivated the men’s attention (and hearts) away from the song of the Sirens. [ii]

What makes a story, or characters within a story, beautiful? A story is beautiful if it is morally true; that is, true to the holy character of God perfectly personified in His Son, Jesus. If a story stimulates a desire for that holy beauty, perfect order, satisfying justice and gracious humility that is exemplified in Jesus, then the story is imparting a hunger and a thirst that can only be truly satisfied in Him.

The beauty of Jesus Christ is captivating. He said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” Let us lift Him up, not only with our lips, but with our lives.

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[i] An Affair of the Mind, by Laurie Hall, 1996, Tyndale House Publishers, chapter 10.

[ii] (Note: I first heard of this story in a retelling of it by Eric Ludy, titled A Sweet Song Beckons.)