Partners in Imagination: an interview with S.D. Smith

Partners in Imagination: an interview with S.D. Smith

Last update on Sept. 16, 2013.

The good folks at Story Warren describe themselves as "Allies in Imagination". They do a fantastic job of helping parents understand and value a sanctified imagination. I've grown as a father through reading Story Warren's blog and exploring their recommended books with my children. If you want your children to love the good the true and the beautiful, Story Warren is there to help. By all means, add them to your blog reader.

S.D. Smith is the keeper of the flame over at Story Warren and a writer I've admired from a distance for some time. Though his (and Story Warren's) work is not specifically about marriage, it has everything to do with creating and shaping the culture of our minds, our homes, and our communities.

S.D. “Sam” Smith was gracious enough to chat it up with me over email about marriage and the imagination. So without further ado, Sam Smith.S.D. Smith

Sam, you once quipped to me that "one Walt Disney is better than a thousand conservative politicians." Setting aside the genius of our founders (Washington, Sam, Washington!), explain that a bit. Why a cartoonist's pen over a governor's mansion?

Smith: By that, I simply mean that imagination precedes law. I’m open to correction, but I think that once you are voting people into office, the most vital work is already over and has been for a long time. The stories have already been told. If you want to transform a culture, then I believe the imagination is the preeminent battleground. (Though, I don’t think “battleground” is precisely quite the best way to see it.) But, sticking with the war imagery, by the time you vote, the war is already lost or won. The vote results are just a by-product of who has told the best stories for years. Something like “Drill baby drill,” can never have the impact of “When you wish upon a star.” As artist Zach Franzen has said, “Politicians generally motivate externally, while storytellers motivate internally.

I don’t even mean that Walt Disney was the best example of what to do, just that his influence was profound and ongoing. He wasn’t really a very good cartoonist himself. He was a storyteller, a visionary. His life’s work framed the imagination of the modern world through storytelling. I have tremendous respect for people who are dedicated to political work in order to serve others and for heroic figures who have served in that station in the past. If that’s where you’re called, then I’m all for you. I just see a sad absence of many Christians in the visionary work of storytelling and imagination. I hope that is changing.   

Speaking at Hillsdale a few months back, Meghan Cox Gurdon, reviewer of children's book for the Wall Street Journal, said:

"This is why good taste matters so much when it comes to books for children and young adults. Books tell children what to expect, what life is, what culture is, how we are expected to behave--what the spectrum is. Books don't just cater to tastes. They form tastes."

How can parents help shape the imagination and tastes of our children as it relates to marriage? Move us beyond a list of kosher and non-kosher books.

Smith: I love what Gurdon said. I believe it comes back to storytelling again. Not only “what books we read,” but what story do we find ourselves a part of? I like the way Alasdair MacIntyre says it:

I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

I think what we should aim for is at least a reasonable coherence between The Story we are called to live and the stories we inhabit through reading/watching/listening. I’m not saying that we need to act out of fear and live on defense, quite the opposite. But it’s hard to argue against the idea that stories are profoundly formative for all of us, perhaps most of all for children.

N.D. Wilson, an author everyone should be reading, is instructive on this when he says:

“Christians have sometimes been suspicious of stories, because they really can influence you. If you read the Twilight novels once a month for a year, I think you’d be a different human afterward—and not a sparkly one. Stories are like catechisms, but they’re catechisms for your impulses, they’re catechisms with flesh on.”

I think parents must act, must become engaged curators for our children’s souls. We care if our children play too close to the edge of a cliff, because we aren’t stupid. But somehow we think their imaginations need less active attention on our part. So we abdicate, we resign. I believe this is fatal. I know we are afraid of becoming too strict, or stifling their exploration and joy. That’s a healthy concern, I think. But the overcorrection to passivity is deadly.  

I believe parents are called to active, happy, intentional engagement with the formative forces bearing on our kids. We all are tempted to passivity, but passivity in this profoundly shaping area of life is suicidal. Be courageous!  

Supposing we can substitute "books" with music, film, television, etc. in the quote above, what gives you hope as you consider the way marriage is being portrayed in art today? What frustrates you?

Smith: I’m somewhat frustrated by the dominant narrative of persistent parental folly. When married parents are constantly presented as clueless, it seems like the power of that is to produce a skewed cultural conception of what is noble. It’s become such a tired cliche to see the dumb dad who must reluctantly, eventually come to repent and realize he should lighten up and give in to his incredibly wise teen’s perspective. But there are exceptions, places where that type is actually played against, while the real complexity is acknowledged. I like seeing the complexity, neither the cookie-cutter perfect parents of some older shows, nor the bumbling buffoons of more recent offering. Speaking as a Christian, I believe the Christian story is comprehensive. It accounts for fallen failures, for those kinds of stories. It also accounts for beauty and goodness, even from fallen people. So, I have hope when I see an honest, well-told story being faithful to the way God made the world and the story of what’s happened in history.

But, I acknowledge there’s plenty to be frustrated with. I’m just not sure the healthiest reaction, longterm, is one of anger and fear. Rebellion is so commonly represented now as virtuous, it’s pretty much become the ultimate storytelling cliche. To quote Zach Franzen again, “Construction is the best way to rebel against the established rebellion.” That’s sort of what Story Warren is about. Let’s build against the rot and ruin.Story Warren

It seems as though you can't swing a dead cat without running into a conversation on the importance of story, narrative and capturing the imagination. There are whole Christian conferences devoted to the idea of telling better, more compelling stories. And for good reason. While those working to see marriage redefined have been at this for years, those of us working in the world of marriage advocacy are in some ways just waking up to it. Is the awakening to the power of story too little too late? Have we already lost the cultural imagination to Modern Family and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' Same Love?

Smith: It does seem like advocates of traditional marriage are currently behind in the ballgame, and maybe continue to commit a lot of unforced errors. But, as they say, “This game’s not over...” I think reacting out of anger, fear, and hatred is the wrong way to go. Marriage is a good story. It’s a parable about this incredible story of God’s love for his people. The Big Story of history centers on a marriage between a man and his bride. I believe the “kill the dragon, save the girl” stories resonate with us so deeply because they reflect our ultimate reality. And it’s beautiful.

I’m an optimist, long-term, about how this tale will end. Nobody wants to be in the tough parts of a story, but those are some of the most memorable scenes and the darkness against which the light is most clear. It’s a bit of a cliche, of course, but when the darkness is heavy, even a little light goes a long way. We are called to live lives of light and love.

What kind of strategic changes (or maybe it's an overall orientation toward culture) would indicate to you that marriage advocates "get it" as it relates to story telling?

Smith: They would not only see stories as weapons to fight with, or as mere vehicles to carry a message to the mind. They would get serious about appreciating stories as stories and less as a tool to get at the “real message.” The aim of good storytelling is the heart. When a story is just a barely-disguised argument, it is often a crummy story. (There are exceptions, of course.) Too many conservatives (in general) focus a lot of energy on truth, and perhaps goodness, but neglect beauty. The opposite might be true of other groups. But I think one of the best “cures” for what ails us would be to seek a better balance of that ancient triad of virtue: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. As the author of Ecclesiastes said, “It is good to lay hold of the one and not neglect the other.” We must go for the heart. The heart is where the affections are moved. Good storytelling, I think, aims for the heart and carries the mind in the same action.

Chris Marlink

Chris Marlink has passed ten years of marriage, and can almost field a baseball team with his family. You can follow Chris on twitter @CMarlink.


  1. Loren Eaton

    Loren Eaton on 09/17/2013 12:56 p.m. #


    Sam, Storywarren, Meghan Cox Gurdon, snarky <I>Twilight</I> references, and Sam. My day just got better.

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