Imagine you found yourself newly landed upon earth from elsewhere in the Universe, unequipped with language or context to grasp the actions or intent of those around you.
You would, perhaps, observe, test, question, prod. You might quietly soak in sentences and emotions, facial expressions and tone of voice. You would quickly ascertain how to get food, how to stay safe, whom to trust. And as your language skills progressed, you would want to know how the people around you came to be who they are, how the world came to work as it does. You would want to know their stories.
Imagine, in other words, that you are a child.
Children, in a few short years, develop fluency in language. Children keenly identify cause and effect, love and hate, safety and danger, dancing and drudgery. And they do this before they could possibly read a technical treatise written to explain earth to aliens. They learn by story, in the context of relationship. “Tell me about the time…” becomes a common refrain. “Read that one again.”
Stories allow children to make connections, to make sense, a deep need that we do not outgrow.
The importance of story should not surprise any of us who have been exposed to Christianity (or for that matter Judaism or Islam). The bulk of our Bible consists of stories. The BIG story is that the Creator made something almost unimaginably beautiful, which was broken and thrown into chaos, and we nearly despaired of life itself, but an almost hidden redemption was growing until – at great cost when all hope seemed lost – a sacrifice of death paradoxically brought victory. This story line underlies all the capital-T Truth found in the best stories. As children, we knew this in our guts, and we still look for it and recognize it in our favorite books, movies, shows.
But stories do more than make sense of the past; they also propel us forward. Stories require imagination, the most basic of human characteristics. A human can imagine that there is more than what is seen, that all that is is not all that can be.
For a child who is hungry, or lacking a sense of enveloping love, a story shines as hope that not all the world is as grey as the days one has experienced. That the nagging sense of being made for something greater is true.
For a child who is satisfied, story teases out empathy as one imagines other lives less easy. Or a story might challenge that child to dream about justice, about an active role in making the world right.
Imagination nurtured by story grows a creative disruption that launches each generation to reshape the world as it could be. Albert Einstein said, “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” In a world where too many children suffer and die on the way from A to Z, we need those who imagine something better.
In A Chameleon, A Boy, and A Quest, the protagonist Mu feels trapped in a life with little choice or hope. Perhaps the most important role of the chameleon as a guide is to awaken Mu’s imagination. This happens as the chameleon tells Mu stories including the story of Mu’s own life and the bigger story of his world.
We watch Mu’s horizons shift as he begins to doubt the story he once knew, and search for the true story of who he is.
It is my prayer that as young people read about Mu, those who need hope will grasp the possibility that their own story contains mystery and purpose they have yet to understand. And they might begin to imagine their own quest. They might join the dreamers who have imagined a world without slavery, or racism, or hunger. They might imagine their own role in the story of redemption.