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Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God by Malcolm Guite

01 July 2022

A lovely book on paying attention to the poets, says John Pridmore

THOSE who turn first to Malcolm Guite’s Poet’s Corner in their Church Times every week will be pleased to learn that he has a new book out.

Guite’s Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God is based on his 2019 Laing lectures, given at Regent College, Vancouver, a community to whom he pays warm tribute. Guite mounts a vigorous defence of the imagination as a “truth-bearing faculty”, vital to the quest and service of the Kingdom of God.

In his introductory and foundational chapter, he deplores the reductionism that claims that nothing can be known beyond what can be scientifically proven. He insists that the imagination has the capacity to apprehend — if never wholly to comprehend — things hidden beyond the veil of appearance or the reach of reason. It is the role of the imaginative artist to “body forth”, as Shakespeare has it, this transcendent truth. Above all — and here is Guite’s boldest claim — it is the work of Christ, the Word made flesh, to do so.

Guite unfolds these mighty themes in the three central chapters of his book: “Christ and the Artistic Imagination”; “Christ and the Moral Imagination”; “Christ and the Prophetic Imagination”. In developing his argument, Guite courteously declines the assistance of the theologians. The latter are inclined to think that they know best. They don’t. Instead, he invites us to listen to those who have seen further, especially the poets.

As we would expect in a book about the imagination, there is much here about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The imagination, Coleridge famously taught, is “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”. Guite’s book could be read as a further attempt, more successful than many, to elucidate those haunting if elliptical words. (We also have a delightful line drawing depicting Coleridge. The abundant illustrations in this book are a feast.)

Guite sends us back to George MacDonald. (Guite holds the high office of “Ambassador for the George MacDonald Society”.) For C. S. Lewis, reading MacDonald was sacramental, “a baptism of the imagination”. MacDonald’s visionary fantasy remains a visa to the “high countries”, and his seminal essay “The Imagination: Its function and its culture” (though not mentioned by Guite) is still required reading.

Guite’s exposition of poets who look far beyond our narrow horizons is unfailingly illuminating. He honours especially those whose work has nourished his own. These, whom we will now read with fresh appreciation, include R. S. Thomas, John Heath-Stubbs (“there were giants on the earth in those days”), and Piers Plowman. Above all, there is William Blake: he who saw the angels in the apple tree in which others saw only the apples. Guite calls Blake “a prophet for our times”. So, too — dare one suggest it? — is the author of this lovely little book.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God
Malcolm Guite
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.99

Read an extract from the book here

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