Monthly Archives: May 2021

Discerning the Christian Imagination: Analogies and Proportion

If Christians should grow in their ability to discern superior Christian works of imagination, how should they do this? Must every Christian pursue some kind of music appreciation, literary criticism or aesthetic theory in order to recognise Christian from non-Christian or sub-Christian imagination? Likely not, though no Christian should scorn the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and understanding, particularly in those areas that communicate a Christian outlook.

Instead, Christians can pursue better understanding in these areas by becoming attentive to the form of music, poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, history, or other humanities that shape imagination. By form, we mean its actual shape and composition: the sum total or result of its components parts that communicate its message, be those colours, shapes, notes, harmonies, or words.

One way to approach this is to use the idea of proportion or scale. Consider a miniature. A miniature car, ship, plane, or village pleases us because it preserves the proportions of the original object in a much smaller scale. The better the proportions, the truer the miniature as a scaled-down version of the original. In many ways, works of imagination function similarly. Metaphors reduce the large-scale realities of God, the world, and self to a miniature version of a poem, a hymn, a symphony, a novel, an allegory, a sculpture, a painting, or another work of imagination. Of course, the work of imagination can never be a miniature of all of reality. Instead, it seeks to faithfully capture some small section of reality: a truth, an affection, an ethical obligation or some other reality. Imaginative materials are not (typically) metal, plastic, or paint. They are words, poetic tropes, meter, notes, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, tone colours, narrative genres, plots, characters, dialogues, paints, oils, and so forth.

The important thing is whether the metaphor seems to represent in artistic miniature what is true in reality. How would this be so? Consider how Scripture does it. When wanting to evoke particular understandings and responses to God, it invokes certain images. When trust, contentment and security are the correct responses, it invokes the image of a diligent shepherd (Psalm 23). When carefulness, respect and caution are the correct responses, it invokes the image of a powerful and violent warrior (Deuteronomy 32:34-43). The analogy contains a kind of proportion between God and what God is being compared to, the Scriptural analogy. The Bible does not compare God to cute puppies or to a venomous snake. The issue is not simply the chosen analogy for the analogue, but if the analogy communicates an appropriate response and affection. Works of imagination fail when they distort what Reality is, and what the appropriate response is to the Reality portrayed.

For example, music for worship that communicates a shallow kind of self-comfort, or a narcissistic pseudo-intensity, or a faux edginess, or a thinly disguised sexual appeal has failed to capture the proportions between Creator and creature, between Redeemer and redeemed. The musical analogies should communicate and evoke reverent joy, sober admiration, reflective wonder, humbled gratitude, triumphant hope, contrite gladness, among many others. We might then say that the musical analogy is faithful to what it purports to represent. It is a miniature that faithfully represents greater realities. The same might be said for a hymn or a poem, a sermon or a prayer, a novel or a painting.

The difficulty arises in that believers need to grow simultaneously in two areas: an awareness of what responses God deserves, and an awareness of how works of imagination communicate. To fail in the first area is to allow the profane, the blasphemous and the false to enter the Christian imagination, by virtue of not knowing God as He is. To fail in the second area is to allow the cheap, the trivial, the shallow, the irreverent, and the sentimental to enter the Christian imagination by virtue of imbibing pop culture as our imaginative lingua franca. Both are dangerous and insidious. In the first, we may offend God because we do not realise who He is (Psalm 50:21). In the second, we may offend God because we do not consider what our symbolic actions are communicating (Malachi 1:6-14).

Furthermore, both end up affecting the other. Wrong views of God lead to poor musical, poetic, or literary analogies. Poor analogies lead to wrong views of God. In sum, Christians have a responsibility to discern not only the cognitive, theological content of what they imbibe for worship and edification, but the affective, imaginative form in which it is delivered.

Shapers of Christian Imagination

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.

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?