Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Christian Imagination

First things first. As some of you have noticed, the online payment option is unavailable at present. We are experiencing technical difficulties at the moment, but we do expect to solve the problem within the next couple of days. I will post an update here and at the original web page as soon as I have that information. Thank you so much for your patience! :-)

And now, I am very pleased to present a short essay by one of my professors, Mark D. Filiatreau. Professor Filiatreau lives nearby with his family in Fairfax, VA, and teaches part-time at Patrick Henry College. As a student in his classes, I have greatly benefited from and am grateful for his teaching, insight, and advice. I am very glad to be able to share this with you, and I believe you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Make It Real: The Christian Imagination

There is a new name for you, so personal and fitting, that to hear it spoken is to know a completeness and an intimacy such as angels can never know. 

There is a sound so enchanting that to hear it is to feel one’s heart is leaving one’s chest. 

There is a pain so great that to experience it for a second would shatter the mind completely. 

There is a face so beautiful that to see it is to have one’s heart broken, yet healed forever. 

There is a scent so wondrous that to smell it is to forget all pain forever, is to know the love and familiarity of the perfect homecoming and the intrigue of the most exotic foreign land all at once. 

There is a feeling so sweet that to feel it is to make all the pleasures of sex, food, sport, or music seem like dust in the mouth. 

There is a touch so divine, that to let it wipe a tear from your eye is to be healed of the wounds of every murder, war, betrayal, heartbreak and sadness from before time began. 

To things such as these the Christian imagination directs us. 

We live still in the shadow of a rationalistic age, when the Christian imagination was nearly starved completely.  The church has been both victim and perpetrator of this starvation.   It’s been the case in the Protestant world for a long time, until fairly recently, that human imagination is something to be distrusted.
This distrust seems to have strong Biblical warrant, especially in the King James Version.  There the words translated “imagination” are always in a negative context.  For example, way back in Genesis, the reason that God sent the flood:  for man, “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  “Imagination” is equated with “vain imagination,” the source of idolatry.  Throughout scripture, it seems, the ear is elevated and the eye condemned.  We are to be people of the word: God’s word, his pronouncements going back to the garden of Eden—those are truth.  His commandments to Moses.  The words of the prophets.  In the Hebrew language, the word for “hearing” is the same as the word for “obeying.” In other words, to hear God is to obey him, to disobey means that you haven’t really heard.  His voice is reality.  “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  By contrast, the idolaters had images, statues small and large, pillars on high places, temples.  But of this God, the true, God, the second commandment forbade images.

So there has been a long thread in Christendom of distrust in the imagination, because it is considered inherently deceptive.  To imagine something is to concoct something that isn’t real, isn’t true, isn’t part of God’s creation.  

At first the church welcomed the use of the imagination.  In the first centuries of the church, paintings depicting Christ won the “clash of the gods” in public art, for Jesus Christ contained in himself what pagan images of a magician, a healer, and a god were all searching for.  During the medieval period, the church in Europe expressed the gospel in the very art and architecture of the cathedrals, and by traveling plays performed in villages.  The vast majority of people were illiterate and had no access to books, and this way they could understand some of the Bible.  But during the Renaissance more plays were created and presented that had no obvious gospel intent.  When the Puritans came to power in England in the 1640s, they closed the theaters.
But the fear of the imagination itself is based on an incomplete understanding.  The imagination doesn’t only make unreal things seem true.  It also makes true things real. 

And we use it this way every day.  We hear a voice on the radio and imagine what the speaker looks like.  We try to picture where we last saw our car keys.  A person feels overwhelming love and they try to make it real to their beloved by expressing it in a poem. Nothing else will do.  The imagination is trying to make something true into something real.  There really is a person behind a microphone somewhere.  The car keys really are somewhere.  The love between a man and woman is truly there; a large family can be built on it for many generations.

Likewise, one function of the Christian imagination, one role for the Christian creative writer eventually, is to make true things real.  Things that are true but not yet, or true but invisible.   There really is a pain so great that it will shatter the mind.  Some people, according to Matthew 5, really will see the face of God.  There really is a mission so serious that new weapons must be invented in order to carry it out.   Spiritual weapons.  Intellectual and emotional weapons. 

And the Bible does not really condemn imagination, either, if we re-examine it, and it even more surely does not condemn imagery.  We can start with Genesis 1, the creation itself, the source of all sensory imagination.  “Is your imagination of God starved?” Oswald Chambers wrote.  “If so, set it upon His amazing creation all around you.”

God uses imagination at the beginning of his plan of redemption, and at the end.  At the beginning when God tells Abraham that he will make a great nation come from  him, he doesn’t simply tell him in abstract terms and command him to “have faith.”  He takes Abraham out to look at the stars and says “the number of your descendants will be greater than these.”  Another time he says that his descendants will be like the dust of the earth “so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered”  (Gen 13:16). 

Do you know when the Bible first mentions the Holy Spirit entering a human being?  It is in Exodus 31:3:

1Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,
 2"See, I have called by name Bezalel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah.
 3"I have filled him with the Spirit of God in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all kinds of craftsmanship,
 4to make artistic designs for work in gold, in silver, and in bronze,
 5and in the cutting of stones for settings, and in the carving of wood, that he may work in all kinds of craftsmanship.

The Holy Spirit is first given to an artist

And he has his job cut out for him.  Exodus 25-30 and 35-40 present in painstaking detail how God wanted for worship in his tabernacle, detailing the measurements, the curtains, the ark and the mercy seat, the table, the boards, the veils, bronze altar, oil, the priests’ garments.  God cares about the imagery; it matters.  Just don’t confuse the imagery with holiness itself.   

Later in Biblical history, the prophets especially Isaiah use intensely violent and poetic imagery, to warn Israel from its wrong path or to comfort Israel when it seems all is lost.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel were even commanded to dramatize, with their very bodies in sometimes bizarre and extreme ways, what God was going to do with Israel.  

Then God himself appears, Jesus.  He is the “image of the invisible God,” Colossians 1:15.  The disciples are at great pains to ensure their readers that the Lord was not only embodied, and not only a spirit in a body—which is a conception unknown in the Hebrew vocabulary, by the way-- but a new creation entirely—as Paul especially makes clear.  John’s first letter starts:  “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life….we proclaim to you.”  The risen Jesus asks Thomas to touch him, so that he knows it is not a ghost, a mere appearance.   

And in the end, the new heaven and the new earth are presented in staggering imagery.  In Rev. 21-22, the Holy City comes down to earth, “like a bride prepared for her husband.”  We are told “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”  The city is made of precious stones, and its walls shaped in a perfect cube, each side with three gates, each wall of a specific length–about 1400 miles.  Within the city flows “the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street...” On each side of the river stands the tree of life, that belonged to the Garden of Eden, and its leaves grow now for healing entire nations.  Sunlight is gone, because God is now the light.  It beggars the imagination.  So, clearly, God is not against imagery per se, in favor of the spoken word only.  Rather, imagery, like creation itself, is what has been, is being, and will be redeemed and renewed. 

And likewise it seems this is God’s desire for the imagination. 

To distrust the fallen, unredeemed imagination is a good thing. We find its poison within ourselves at times, and in the world we are surrounded by its insidious, ugly, and idolatrous products and I don’t need to detail them here.  But there is more to the story.  Christians have been and are being renewed, and if we are being renewed in our entirety, this must include the imagination also. 

If for fallen men and women, every imagination of the thoughts of their hearts were only evil continually, could it be true that for redeemed men and women, some day, every imagination of the thoughts of our hearts will be only goodness, continually?

This is a vision for the Christian imagination, and for the Christian artist:  to be fully in touch with reality and all its ugliness and beauty, but also to make real to the world that which is true but invisible, to express the One who is too good for this world but whose goodness re-imagines the world.

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