Legos and Apologetics: Imagination, Art, and Sub-Creation - Part 1
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories1
Every child builds. Some build castles out of wooden blocks handed down from an older sibling. Some construct forts out of blankets, chairs, and miscellaneous living room artifacts. Some erect mansions and small municipalities out of Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, or any other plaything their grandparents or parents saved for them to enjoy one day. As fun as those pastimes were, my medium of choice has always been Lego bricks.2
I received my first Lego bricks from a family friend in Michigan when I was two years old. Their three boys gave me three five-gallon buckets full of these plastic treasures. And though I wouldn’t get my hands on them for a couple more years, when I finally did, my imagination was awakened by them, captivated by these little bricks with endless building possibilities. Those three buckets were my child-hood equivalent of stepping into a magic wardrobe or the TARDIS. Pieces led to imagination. Imagination led to building. Building led to storytelling. I spent hours in my room and around the house acting out the stories I told with my Lego sub-creations. I followed instructions. Sets were built. Sets were deconstructed. New ideas and creations were built and the cycle repeated. Whole worlds were created and complex stories formed a strong undercurrent to these creations.3
I’ve also noticed a common theme in other areas of life. Math teachers use Lego bricks for learning fractions. Engineers and artists use Lego bricks for architecture and design in various scales and styles. Building toys also have positive benefits in the development of a child’s fine motor skills and dexterity, as well as social interaction with other children and adults, stimulation of creativity, and play. There’s even a Lutheran church on YouTube who constructed a giant mosaic of Luther’s Seal using nothing but Lego bricks and a well-designed pattern.
But the point here is not to extol the virtues of Lego bricks, but to highlight the importance of the imagination. This is why I enjoyed The Lego Movie so much. The entire movie was about the imagination. And without getting into too much plot detail, in the midst of adventure, humor, and a well-told story, more than one man’s imagination is unlocked or opened—I think freed would be the best word—by an act of sacrifice. Yes, I think happens to be a Christ figure in The Lego Movie; and I’ll give you a hint. This character’s name means ‘truth’.4 Moreover, there’s a similar progression in the plot of The Lego Movie to what I experienced growing up.
Pieces led to imagination. Imagination led to building. Building led to storytelling.
Before the imagination can be used in Christian apologetics the Christian imagination must be set free. Not free to do as we please, mind you. After all, that’s not freedom; that’s anarchy and lawlessness. No, freedom to use the imagination in service to Christ. Many of the 20th Century’s greatest authors did this. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy Sayers are just a few that come to mind. Now, the point is not that all Christians need to become a best-selling author in order to use their imagination as an apologetic for the Christian faith. Rather, in our various vocations (or hobbies) God’s gifts of intellect and imagination are put to use to serve the neighbor and declare and defend the Gospel.
A great place to start, or whet the appetite for construction, would be to read Gene E. Veith’s book Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature, or Francis Rossow’s fantastic tome Gospel Patterns in Literature.
And in discussing the writing process, no one describes his own writing in fantasy better than Tolkien. Tolkien defined his own writing process, such as we find in the pages of The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, as a work of Sub-Creation. As a writer he saw himself as a Sub-Creator. Human beings, Tolkien says, do not create things out of nothing. That is God’s work in creation. He alone is the Primary Artist. Man is a Sub-Creator. In his poem Mythopoeia¸ Tolkien describes this idea of Sub-Creation this way:
Though all the crannies of the world we filled with elves and goblins, though we dared to build gods and their houses out of dark and light, and sow the seed of dragons, ‘twas our right (used or misused). The right has not decayed. We make still by the Law in which we’re made.5
For Tolkien Sub-Creation is a derivative mode, or aspect, of creation. We make by the law in which we are made. Using the Imagination and Sub-Creation, we’ve begun to construct a tool for tender-minded apologetic. In this first segment we find an important first piece—a baseplate—for a tender-minded apologetic, the imagination. The next piece is to further examine Tolkien’s use of imagination and its connection to Sub-Creation. But more on that in the next segment.
1J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories, in Tree and Leaf. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001. p. 56.
2For the record, the plural of Lego is Lego Bricks, not Legos. And yes, I am that nerdy.
3This is similar to the way that C.S. Lewis created and developed the rich background story to Boxen which prepared the way for The Chronicles of Narnia.
4Emmet appears to be a variation of the name Emmeth, similar to the character in The Last Battle. Emmeth is also an English transliteration of the Hebrew word for truth.
5J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia, in Tree and Leaf. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001. p. 87.