Mediocrity and the Death of Imagination

When we think of the word mediocrity it easily conjures other words in our minds too…

Dull, boring, banal, unimaginative, humdrum. Mediocrity speaks of thoughtlessness, of expediency, ‘necessary evils’ compromised ethics, maybe even bureaucracy?

The poet, the artist, the rebel, the dreamer within us wants to resist mediocrity yet we also (slowly) come to realise that mediocrity is part of the picture. The human condition has its share of highs, lows, passions and sufferings, and residing somewhere in the middle.. the mediocre; the long commute to work, the financial struggle to make ends meet, the moments of utter boredom and tedium, call-centre frustrations, and the challenges of illness or grief.

Within dull blandness, (and maybe because of it), a more sinister seed of totalitarian is may be planted. In the horrific stories of genocide, such as the Stalinist purges, Nazi death camps and the SL21 Execution Centre of Cambodia, are symptoms of a lack of imagination, compassion and ultimately boredom. Violence, it appears can come from the most mediocre places; In these horrific histories we see over and over the banality, the mechanisation, the industrialisation of death, destruction, and terror.. we might think of climate change here too. The suffering bought upon individuals is all too real; families traumatised; victims forever changed. But the process of destruction is often banal, often mediocre. This is the perverse imagination of power; destroying human imagination destroys people and destroys reverence – it numbs people, it is truly an existential threat.

If this idea of mediocrity is about banality, crushing imagination, and disposing of inconvenience. We may ask once more, ‘why was Jesus killed on Good Friday? Did Pilate have Jesus killed through passion, anger or rage; or was it simply a mundane political expediency, (a trouble-maker, a rabble-rouser, a pretender to the throne?
Note for example the ‘satire’ of riding a donkey triumphantly through a small gate into Jerusalem, when Pilate would have – probably only recently – done something grand on a white Stallion trumpets and flags and high pomp through the main gates. Would that imaginative, challenging and usurping satire have gone unnoticed?

At that seems to be Jesus all over; as he walked and talked, laughed and challenged, he freed the human imagination. To this day he sets our thoughts on new possibilities. opens up a world of wonder.. announces/evokes/alludes to the arrival of God’s kingdom. Like the disciples on Palm Sunday, we are asked ‘do we dare see this holy imagination?’  and if we cannot will even the stones see it?

Totalitarian regimes still to this day oppress the artists, musicians, comedians, poets and writers first; those who conjure new worlds, these are the tricksters the un-tameable; and this might be a way to think about the crushing weight brought against this beguiling Jewish teacher from Nazareth.

“The Christ that emerges from Mark, tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist. Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow. Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity”. Nick Cave.

From this perspective it makes perfect sense for Jesus to be executed… who needs this kind of stirring of the imagination. And if that was so then, is it still the same today? Who wants to listen to climate change protesters, or women’s rights campaigners, who wants to see their privilege and power toppled? Who wants the status-quo to be upset? ‘Evil is banal’ wrote Hannah Arendt in her appraisal of the Nazi occupation.

And so what is the cross if not the final subversion? A resistance to numbness, a final unforeseeable act of the imagination, ‘a deeper magic before the dawn of time’ CS Lewis says…the old magic is powerful, but not as powerful as the deeper, holy magic of love. The cross resists power – it overcomes with love, solidarity, it speaks of a hope beyond hope.

And for us….? Where do we go with this?

Our lent film series was all about people’s dealings with mediocrity. Sometimes it was explicitly shown, like Lady Bird’s teenage angst and naive desire to leave a stifling home-town and to ’live through something’. More often the theme of mediocrity was subtle because mediocrity is ‘our world’; we all have to deal with the mediocre, the mundane, the humdrum. Many of the characters we met existed on the fringes of mediocrity, trying to resist, or at least compromise with it. They showed that something about imagination keeps us all free…like the dissidents, poets and writers in Gulags. In The Breadwinner, the mediocrity (and terror) are found within religious fascism – telling story becomes an escape route, a way to process horror and grief. In Leave no Trace, the father and daughter wanted to live outside, on the edge; to form identity beyond community. Yet community still calls, reaches out, both good and bad. For the Shoplifters we witnessed a different, alternate community (family), made of misfits and chancers, (like the church?), they lived beyond mainstream society, and yet something beautiful, loving and tender held them together. Mediocrity was never mentioned but always there, looming, until it broke into their world. And in Cold War we witness the machinations of political powers beyond our control, (hence the film framing characters low down in each view, like some giant presence looming above them). The political mediocrity labels, divides, terrorises and kills, yet small lives, small stories which try to live and love through these times. We are left to ask what survives, what gets broken?

The work of fostering this holy imagination is left to artists, mystics, poets and prophets, and in whose company the Church finds itself.
It is signified in the Eucharistic exchange, it is the source of our ‘mission poise’. Imagination offers a new reverence, and funds compassion, awe, wonder, the possibility of impossibility… Christ may have been killed through a lack of imagination, a resistance to what he showed people. His passion was simply too much to allow to continue… but Easter shows us that this imagination is always calling to us. In the final moments of ‘The Last Temptation’ Nikos Kazantzakis writes,

‘He uttered a triumphant cry: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED
And it was as though he had said: Everything is begun.’


GS Collins, Easter 2019