Monthly Archives: May 2021

Christian Imagination Fleshed Out

What does the Christian imagination look like when it is fleshed out? We can imagine it as a spectrum, beginning with Scripture itself and working its way out from the explicitly biblical to what is only implicitly so.

The Bible. Scripture itself is the archetype of all Christian imagination. Its content and form are the our model for Christian imagination. Here God takes in all of human history (synoptical), explains the right and wrong way to respond to Him (moral), and communicates it in a metaphorical form: narratives, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, with plenty of imagery in the wisdom, epistolary and Law forms as well.

Quasi-biblical. Drawing from Scripture, believers through the ages have created works of imagination that distill, capture, or communicate something identical to or very close to Scripture. These include liturgies for worship, sermons, versified psalms or Scripture portions for singing, hymns based upon Scripture portions, sacred music (the setting of Scriptural texts to musical forms such as plainchant, masses, cantatas, oratorios), written prayers drawing deeply on the Psalms, and paintings, sculptures, illustrations of biblical scenes.

Christian extra-biblical. By extra-biblical we mean not “unbiblical”, but works of imagination that, though not paraphrases or depictions of Scripture itself, nevertheless capture Christian ideas, theology and experience. Hymns and spiritual songs, Christian verse (poetry with Christian themes or devotion), Christian epic poetry (such as Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost), Christian allegory (such as The Pilgrim’s Progress or The Holy War), musical works themed after Christian theology (think “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), devotional works (writings that seek to explicate Christian spirituality, such as The Ascent of Mount Carmel or The Pursuit of God), histories, biographies and autobiographies that explain the history and experience of Christians, various other Christian treatises, apologies and theologies, and a host of paintings, sculptures, carvings and other plastic arts that depict and illustrate Christian truth.

General semi-biblical. Many imaginative works are not explicitly Christian, but they carry the marks and imprint of a Christian culture. The attitude is birthed in, and consonant with, a Christian understanding of reality. These include many novels and much belletristic literature, poems, music, art, architecture, and for some, theatre and dance.

Taken together, what do we call this collection? The answer is simple and surprising: we call it Christian culture. The artefacts of a Christian imagination are what emerge from a Christian culture. Conversely, these artefacts come to define the contours of that culture, meaning that they are the symbolic embodiment of the culture: they give it its tone and identity. These works of imagination are both shaped by the people in the culture and shape those people who use and make them. This is how culture works: it cultivates around a cultus. The central religious vision of a culture leads its members to symbolise it in works of imagination, and the works of imagination reinforce and embody the central religious vision.

Christian culture is what Christians have cultivated to shape their judgement and flesh out their metaphysical vision over two millennia, and stretching back further to the founding of Israel. The Christian tradition is Christian culture stretched over time. It is the great conversation among Christians that shapes Christian sentiment, and prepares young minds to think Christianly. It is the works of imagination and reason that Christians should live in, be educated in, and speak of to one another.

Perhaps you can see the dilemma of being a Christian within a secular culture. The works of imagination that reinforce our secular culture’s central religious vision are powerful and compelling movies and TV shows, popular songs and music, immersive computer and console games, widespread advertising imagery (moving and still), and malls, restaurants and whole cities built and shaped around a similar vision. Christians then find themselves being shaped by competing synoptic, moral and metaphorical visions. There is the secular imagination all around them in the workplace, the mall, and through every media portal they use; and there is the Christian imagination found only at church (hopefully), and in ageing books, poems and music. Those who go rummaging for more Christian culture find they are almost always looking into the past, and soon find themselves accused of being hide-bound traditionalists, nostalgics for the past, or irrelevant.

The result is the eclectic non-culture of most contemporary Christians: a pastiche collection of movies, music, novels, websites, hymns, histories, paintings and other imaginative forms which are chosen for their entertainment value and for how free they are of offensive elements. The fact that they are chosen from cultures hostile and alien to each other isn’t really a problem for most, which explains why Christians complain of feeling “detached” from their faith, and feeling like they compartmentalise their faith into separate boxes of work, school, family, and church. It isn’t that surprising: if you try to juggle hostile views of reality in your mind, a fragmentation must either be nagging at the edges of your mind, or end up producing an all-out crisis of faith at some point. I’ve argued this is part of the explanation for youth drop-outs from the faith.

Questions remain. What do Christians do with these works of imagination or works of Christian culture? How do we receive and “make” Christian culture? And by what standard should we regard a work as friendly to the Christian imagination, or hostile to it?