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Suspending My Disbelief

When I was a little kid, my brothers and I used to play “Raft.” Raft was a simple game, something we probably made up on a boring, nondescript afternoon. We would all jump on our parents’ king-size bed and pretend that our ship had sank, and we were the lone survivors on a small, inflatable raft. In our minds, we could taste the salt water, feel the waves bob us about, hear the lonely cry of a sea gull in the distance. And then, as always, my older brother would quietly announce that he could see sharks in the water. He would explain that the only way the sharks would leave us alone would be if they had some food to eat. And then we would look at one another for one brief, adrenalized moment. And then we would suddenly lunge at one another, frantically throwing each other off the bed.

That was so much fun. It was boy sweat. It was brothers in headlocks. It was laughing and pushing and tickling and torturing each other like only brothers could. It is one of the fondest remembrances of my youth. I can still smell the briny sea air, still feel the steady tussle of the ocean on the bed.

Suspension of Disbelief is the concept that the audience of any storytelling must willingly and temporarily put aside feelings of implausibility in order to engage in the narrative of that story. First coined by aesthetic philosopher Samuel Coleridge, the idea is that reality must be suspended to some degree, in order to accept the premise of a tale or advance a storyline to its ultimate conclusion. Science fiction, fantasy, suspense, horror, parables, mythology, even bedtime stories—all require some suspension of disbelief from the audience.

We must accept that it is possible for Dorothy to be whisked away by a cyclone to a Technicolor land filled with munchkins and witches and flying monkeys; otherwise, there is no Wizard of Oz. We must accept the idea that transporters and warp drives and Klingons are possible; otherwise, there is no Star Trek. And we must accept that sponges and starfish can talk and drive boats underwater; otherwise, there is no Bikini Bottom.

Suspension of disbelief is an essential aspect of any storytelling art form, from filmmaking to fiction writing to comic book authoring. That is the way it must be for the story to work. And as the audience for these stories, we willingly put aside our doubts and rationale and cynicism for the sake of being entertained, for the sake of story. Superman puts on his eyeglasses and suddenly no one suspects that Clark Kent can leap tall buildings in a single bound. They cannot suspect, for if they do, the story fails us. The foundations of the story crumble. And we are left only with reality.

And this is the way that art works as well. An ordinary rose is a beautiful and remarkable thing, an organic and living masterpiece created by God. The beauty of the rose displays God’s glory. Now a photograph of that rose is not the rose. It is only a piece of paper. But if it is photographed well, then the photo hints of the rose, and displays its beauty and majesty interpreted through the eyes of the person who took that photo. So we suspend our disbelief that this is simply a piece of paper, and enter into an experience of that rose through the photograph. And what happens then is art. Because we suspend our disbelief, we can see the photo also with the same eyes that saw the rose—as a beautiful and remarkable thing.

In a way, the photo of the rose hints at the glory of God. But you see, the same can be true for a painting of that rose, or a song about the rose, or a poem about the rose. They are all human expressions, all artistic interpretations, of God’s creation. Our artwork is an extension of God’s artwork. Artmaking is re-creation, a distant echo of the original creation. And so art can display Truth and Beauty and ultimately God’s Glory.

There is another word that theologians use to describe suspension of disbelief. It is “faith.” Or at least the beginnings of faith. For “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 NASB), and the first step of faith is by definition, a step into the unseen, the unsure, the unknown, and ultimately, the unknowable.

Abraham and Sarah needed a suspension of disbelief when God told them they would be parents of a vast family. Noah needed a suspension of disbelief in order to build his great boat. The trumpeters needed a suspension of disbelief in order to topple the walls of Jericho. Moses needed a suspension of disbelief in order to part the Red Sea. Peter needed a suspension of disbelief when he stepped out of the boat and walked on water. The apostle John needed no small suspension of disbelief when he was moved to write the book of Revelation. Acts of faith, both great and small, require some suspension of disbelief.

And perhaps this is one more aspect where faith and art can intersect. Faith is required if we are to be carried along in the art of a story. And as God writes the stories of each of our lives, faith is also required.  Perhaps then, the suspension of disbelief ultimately results in an elevation of belief. If faith really is the substance of things unseen, then this must be true.

Suspension of disbelief allows us to engage and appreciate a painting or photograph or poem of an ordinary rose. But it allows us much more. Suspension of disbelief says that anything is possible in a world where God is in control. As such, it allows us to engage more deeply into the very Story of God. It allows us to have vision for our future. It allows us to dream big dreams. It is a necessary component of childlike faith, and ultimately of Joy.

Some evenings at bedtime, before my children became too old, I would gather them on our queen-size bed. I would explain that our ship had sank, and we were the lone survivors on a small, inflatable raft. And then, as always, I would announce that I could see sharks in the water, and the only way the sharks would leave us alone would be if they had some food to eat. And then we would look at one another for one brief, adrenalized moment. And then we would suddenly lunge at one another, frantically throwing each other off the bed.

[I encourage you to check out my book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist (Moody Publishers).]

Comments

We have faith that God actually loves us enough to take care of our needs. We have faith that He hears our prayers when we call Him.-Donald Leon Farrow

The phrase "suspension of disbelief" came to be used more loosely in the later 20th century, often used to imply that the burden was on the reader, rather than the writer, to achieve it. This might be used to refer to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of those premises. - Douglas Andrew

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About
A rock musician turned rocket engineer turned Christian artist, MANUEL LUZ is a creative arts pastor, working musician, and author. His new book, Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist, is released by Moody Publishers.


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