How is Christian imagination shaped? A true but not very helpful answer would be to say, “everything shapes imagination”. Visits to the doctor, watering the garden, schoolwork, housework, trading and every other activity shapes our outlook on reality in small or big ways. But it is also true to say that certain actions imprint the imagination in far more vivid ways. These make up the heart of a culture, and it is our reciprocal give-and-take from our culture(s) that have the greatest effect upon imagination. While everything shapes one’s worldview, certain actions are formative in decisive and more permanent ways. Here let me suggest the four most important.
Worship. At the very top of imagination-formation is worship, and corporate worship in particular. Private and family worship are similarly vital, but they flow out from and down from what is done in corporate worship. In the act of public worship, we unite our hearts and minds around the imaginative Word of God, as it is preached, read, prayed, sung and proclaimed in the ordinances. The active participation in worship, the shape of the liturgy, the very form of the music and poetry, and the affections evoked by the elements of worship all represent the highest and strongest form of imagination-formation. In no other context is our imagination shaped and formed as it is when we present our ultimate love towards what we believe is ultimate. J. K. A. Smith argues that even the secular have a “liturgy” that they use for worshipping what they believe is ultimate. Whatever we worship, we become like (Psalm 115:8).
Community. “It is not good for man to be alone”, because we were made for community: be it marriage, family, friendship, membership in the local church, partnership in business, or citizenship in a nation. It is in our experience of community that we are profoundly shaped to understand reality. Here the metaphors are not words and songs, but living examples. The roles in marriage and the home and church and life shape imagination with their hierarchy and responsibilities and example. The routines we live by suggest the priorities and rhythms of what is important. The manners and etiquette for eating and speaking and dressing and so forth demonstrate our view of our status as image-bearers. Our rituals and ceremonies around birth, growth, coming of age, membership, graduation, marriage, and death all deeply shape the Christian imagination.
Vocation. What we are called to do in the world regarding family, church, and career shapes our imaginations. Here we order the world, ideally turning what is chaotic into what is true, good or beautiful. We subdue the earth and shape it towards a vision of what we believe is good, when it is in the power of our hands to do it.
Leisure. Leisure does not refer to mere idleness. Leisure is that state when we are freed from the pressing demands of providing for our physical needs. What we do in these increasingly large amounts of time (in the modern world) deeply shapes our imaginations. It is in these moments that many Christians fill their minds with recreations that are mere time-wasters, with “entertainments” that are either trivial amusement or positively destructive to Christian virtue. Christians must use these moments to meditate on and create genuinely Christian art, and to choose those hobbies, avocations and recreations that do not conflict with a Christian vision of the good life.
Each of these four profoundly shape our view of ultimate reality. Some of what we encounter in these may be beyond our immediate control. For example, we may not be in leadership in a church, and so do not control what happens in worship or in the life of the church. The society we are in is shaped by countless influences beyond our control. Our “job” may not be exactly what we believe to be our ultimate vocation. Nevertheless, the individual Christian has control over what degree he voluntarily participates in and embraces cultural elements that are hostile to true Christian culture. He can choose to not sing profane songs. He can choose to not submit to unethical practices at work. He can choose what he watches or listens to or does in his free time.
What is then vital is that the individual Christian develop his discernment for recognising Christian patterns of imagination, particularly in art. We’ll consider this next.