Who has woe? Who has sorrow?
Who has strife? Who has complaints?
Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes?
Those who linger over wine,
who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.
Do not gaze at wine when it is red,
when it sparkles in the cup,
when it goes down smoothly!
In the end it bites like a snake
and poisons like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange sights,
and your mind will imagine confusing things.
- Proverbs 23:29-33
“Abstain completely from imaginary conversations. Although some may tend to kindle pious feelings, this is a dangerous habit. …
“When you perceive that your imagination is beginning to work, be satisfied with turning to God, without directly combating these fancies. Let them drop, occupying yourself in some useful way. If they come at a time of meditation or prayer, such idle thoughts should be treated as distractions. Return, then, quietly to God as soon as you are conscious of them, but do so without anxiety, scruples, or agitation.
“If such imaginations trouble you when you are engaged in external work, the work will help you to resist such castle building. …
“You must positively suppress this trifling with the imagination. It is a waste of time, a very dangerous occupation, and a temptation voluntarily incurred. Never yield to it voluntarily. …”
- François Fénelon, The Royal Way of the Cross
First, the Scripture referenced discusses how the imagination can get you into trouble when you have had too much to drink. Most uses of the word ‘imagine’ in the NIV are neutral in nature. Yet, in this reference in Proverbs 23:33, your eyes see strange sights and your mind dwells on confusing things. Could this be sinful things that we become confused about?
Second, François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon was probably writing this to seminary students and monks. He was a Catholic priest and eventually the archbishop of Cambrai. He lived from 1651 to 1715. He could have written this about 250 years after the Gutenberg Bible was first published, but widespread public schools for the masses were not developed in Europe by this time. In Germany in the late 1600s, there were schools for children, but they were run by the Lutheran church. Such concepts regarding imagination while reading were reserved for the elite and those in ministry, as I stated above, Fénelon’s supposed audience.
Yet, I don’t think it would be a bad use of ‘imagination’ to think that we can learn from his admonition to refrain from ‘imagination,’ here roughly 300 years after his death. Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) that lust was as much a sin as the act of adultery. Getting angry and lashing out, even simply with words, was as much a sin as murder. What is coveting anything of your neighbors’ property other than imagining stealing it?
Now let’s look at the latest novel that you might have read. If it was not written by a Christian fiction author, it probably had curse words throughout. There is reference in most novels these days to every kind of sin imaginable, in some ways glorified. Are any of the author’s descriptions of such sins a source of triggering to harbor sinful thoughts of your own? Do you covet the lifestyle of the fictional hero?
In such cases, maybe reading those books is just what Fénelon is warning us about. Maybe it is worse than just a ‘waste of time.’
Okay, if you do not read books, what about your favorite television show or the latest movie that you’ve seen. Especially the movies have less self-restraint than do the television producers.
As for me, I have read almost 2,000 works of fiction since the beginning of 1993 (with a six-year gap), when I first started maintaining a spreadsheet – when I started counting. I have read novels that have sent my imagination down the wrong rabbit hole. I can attest to that. If this happens or there are so many curse words that I skip over, losing the flow of the dialogue, I will no longer read anything from that author. I try to read at least two novels before condemning the author to be fair. Yet, my fictional reading has been focused more on Christion fiction of late, no foul language and no explicit descriptions of sex. These authors can refrain from such things and still deliver powerful depictions of evil. My first such novel was by Terri Blackstock. At once, I was hooked.
So, I can attest to the validity of Fénelon’s entreaties, but then I must take his message with a grain of salt. Les Aventures de Télémaque, is a didactic novel written by François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon. As a didactic novel, it is fiction – born of the author’s imagination, but used to teach moral lessons. (Note his second sentence in the quote above. Kindling pious feelings, indeed.) It is about the fictional adventures of Telemachus, the son of Ulysses, who traveled with his Mentor who is thought to be Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, in disguise. Some say this book is his most famous writing. Which did he write first?
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.