In the preface to his book “Union with Christ,” PCA pastor Rankin Wilbourne says, “Imagination is necessary to know and enjoy God.”
In Wilbourne’s view, there is a correlation between our imagination and our capacity to comprehend God — to grasp the full, earthy, flesh-and-blood reality of the Christian story. ¶ As Wilbourne dives deeper, he describes union with Christ as “an enchanted reality.” And he then observes, “We live in a very disenchanted world.” These aren’t words we normally use; they are not part of our common Christian lexicon, but they ring true. When reading them, there’s a sense of resonance: “Yes, I know what he’s saying.”
Not long ago, Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar who’s written about the Psalms, said, “The key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of the imagination, so that we are too numbed, satiated, and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.”
Other Christian writers talk about how we much we value imagination, but how we also misunderstand and minimize it. Holly Ordway, an English professor at Houston Baptist University, says that when we hear the word imagination we tend to think it describes children’s stories and cartoons. In other words, we associate imagination with fantasy. That’s why, when kids are afraid of monsters in the closet, we’re quick to assure them that, “Oh, it’s just your imagination.” But of course, there’s more to imagination — theirs and ours — than conjuring make-believe monsters.
A Gift for Humans Alone
It’s startling at first to realize that we’re the only creatures who have been given the gift of an imagination. With it, God has given us the capacity to image the imperceptible; that is, to visualize things that aren’t present. To illustrate the point, Wilbourne asks questions such as: “What color are your spouse’s eyes? Have you ever seen the Smoky Mountains? Do you like the sound of waves at the beach?”
We use our imagination all the time, because whether we’re scientists, artists, or accountants, imagination is how we see, hear, taste, and smell things that make up our concrete reality, even when they are nowhere near us.
Christians, then, need a vivid imagination. Because no matter how old we are, or how much we know, or how much experience we have, we worship the true God whom “no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:16). What’s more, we need to bring a lively imagination to our reading of God’s Word. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible appeals to our mind’s eye. It paints pictures, draws parallels, and makes analogies. Which means it engages us on the imaginative level.
It’s startling at first to realize that we’re the only creatures who have been given the gift of an imagination. With it, God has given us the capacity to image the imperceptible; that is, to visualize things that aren’t present.
As Wilbourne points out, when Moses tells the people to say from generation to generation, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8), he’s calling them to use their imaginations, to put themselves in the Exodus story, and to make it their own. When we read Jesus’ parables and think about how to apply them today, we engage God’s Word with our imagination. When Paul tells the Colossians to “set your minds on things that are above” (Colossians 3:2), we know he’s not telling them — or us — to stare into the sky. He’s telling us to look for a reality beyond what we can see with our physical eyes. And in 2 Corinthians 4:18, when we read that we’re to “fix our eyes … on what is unseen,” there’s only one way to faithfully respond, Wilbourne says, and it’s with our imagination.
Other examples aren’t hard to find. For example: How does the relationship between Jesus and His people work? What makes it healthy? How does it grow? This isn’t a trivial issue; Christ’s followers need to know. So, in John 15 Jesus explains by saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”
What is He saying? And why is He saying it like that? According to Wilbourne, Jesus is telling us that our relationship to Him is living and organic, that our faith depends on a source outside of us, that when we’re grafted into the vine then — and only then — does our nature begin to change, and that the lifeblood of another flows within us and gives us life.
So why didn’t He just say that? Why not give us the four points of a healthy relationship with Christ? Why, in order to make these points, does He say, “I am the vine and you are the branches”?
Another question: Who is your neighbor? Practically every Christian can give a perfectly good answer. But most Christians also know that when a lawyer asked Jesus the same question, Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers.” Why, instead of simply answering the question, does He tell a story? How does it affect the way we think, the way we see, the way we imagine what He means by the word neighbor?
The Bible is Written to Our Imagination
More broadly, we might want to consider why the Bible — God’s inspired and infallible Word — is written in literary form. It’s not a point-by-point explanation of doctrine. It’s not a systematic theology. Instead, it’s wisdom literature
and prophecy and the Gospels and
One writer, Clyde Kilby, is curious about the poetry in the Bible. He wants to know, for example, if we were to summarize the 23rd Psalm by saying that “God cares for His children the same way a good shepherd cares for His sheep,” would that adequately convey the meaning of the 23rd Psalm? And if it would, why bother with the poetry? What’s the advantage to us — Christians who strive to understand God’s Word? What happens, what change takes place in our minds and hearts, when we extract meaning
Think about this: Psalm 119 is the longest chapter of the Bible. It, and a dozen other poems in the Bible, are written in the form of an acrostic. In Psalm 119, there are 22 stanzas; there are also 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Each of Psalm 119’s stanzas begins with a new letter.
Did God inspire the acrostic? Or did that come from the poet? And either way, should we be reading the Bible as a work of literature — a work created intentionally with eternal purpose — that speaks to us imaginatively?
Kilby asks other questions that are worth pondering. He wonders about the “indirection” of saying that a godly man is like a tree planted by the rivers of water (Psalm 1:3). Why does the Bible tell us that the mountains and hills will burst into song … and that all the trees of the field will clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12)?
What is God conveying to us? And why does He do it like this? What does He want us to do with the language? How does He want us to read it and think about it and engage with it?
Or maybe we don’t have to. Maybe, Kilby suggests, this language is just embellishment. Mere decoration, only a few frills. But it’s not likely that anything in the Bible is “just” this or “merely” that. And so, if we want to know God and if we want to understand the nitty-gritty truth of the Christian faith, we need an active imagination. Because that’s the part of us God often speaks to.
From Genesis to Revelation, God speaks into our sense of wonder, our sense of “What in the world is that going to look like? And sound like? And feel like? When the trees clap their hands, how thrilled will we be? When the mountains burst into song — whatever that means — what kind of tingle is to travel the length of our spines?”
God gave us the gift of imagination, and then He speaks into that gift.
More Imaginative Apologetics
There’s another aspect to this. God has not only given us the gift of imagination, He’s given it to our unbelieving neighbors as well. And if Wilbourne is right — if our union with Christ is “an enchanted reality” and if we do in fact live in a “disenchanted world,” then maybe we should ponder how imagination might facilitate evangelism — introducing our unbelieving neighbors to the wonders of this world and to the Author of those wonders.
From time to time, we’re all evangelists. We assume the role whenever we share the Gospel with our neighbors, when we call them to repent and believe in Jesus. We become apologists when we deal with our friends’ doubts, and when we try to remove the obstacles to belief or show them the error in bad arguments.
Apologetics, as defined by theologian Douglas Groothuis, is “the rational defense of the Christian worldview as objectively true, rationally compelling, and existentially or subjectively engaging.” It is, then, mostly an appeal to logic. It speaks to worldview and ethics. In other words, it takes aim at the mind.
In the Reformed tradition, especially, we’re conscious of the need to persuade people rationally. We value objective truth — as we should — but often without seeing the value and purpose of our imagination.
“We need reason,” Ordway says. “It’s essential to the faith, and we need to know it’s true to embolden us to share the faith with others. But reason is not sufficient by itself. To know about Christ is not the same as to know Him and have a personal relationship with Him. The Christian faith is not about what we know — it’s about Who we know.”
It’s also about why our friends should care.
Persuading Neighbors to “Come and See”
Watch the news, go online, or read a newspaper. It’s no wonder our neighbors are disenchanted with government, education, and business. Far too many are disenchanted with the church, too. But as Holly Ordway points out, that’s not because they lack objective information. We have Bible-believing churches, excellent and theologically-sound websites, along with hundreds of podcasts and online sermons by faithful preachers.
The problem isn’t good information. According to Ordway, the problem is that people think they already know about Christianity, and don’t want to know more. It’s that our neighbors have some notion of who Jesus is, and have concluded that there’s no reason to investigate further.
For the disenchanted people around us, Christianity is just one more option, and from their perspective, it’s a pretty outdated one. So, we preach, write, and post good content — yet people shrug and walk away.
The fact is, there’s a lot competing for our neighbors’ attention. And given what Christians think about sex and marriage and evolution and science and creation — our neighbors may not think we’re the most enlightened people in the neighborhood. We must give them a reason to listen.
Evangelism is the proclamation of the Gospel, but more basically, perhaps it’s mimicking Andrew, Philip, and the Samaritan women. After they encountered Jesus, they rushed out to tell others that they had “found the Lord.” They told their friends “to come and see for themselves.”
It’s a good pattern for us to follow. But in our time we have to ask: Why should our friends bother to “come and see for themselves”? With all that vies for their attention, they must first believe there’s some chance of finding something worthwhile, which means there must be some sort of imaginative engagement.
C.S. Lewis Didn’t Lack Information; He Lacked Meaning
C.S. Lewis, as we know, possessed a giant intellect. He had one of those rare minds that could consume, evaluate, and recall massive amounts of information. And yet he didn’t grasp the objective truth of the Christian faith until his friends engaged his imagination.
In his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy,” Lewis talks about how, as a young man, he was influenced by the novel “Phantastes,” by George MacDonald. The book is a fairy tale — the story doesn’t mention Christ or church or the Bible. And yet it’s thoroughly infused with, in Lewis’ words, “the bright shadow of Holiness.”
When Lewis read the book, he said that he had a sense of this bright shadow “coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged.” He went on to explain that at this point, “My imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer.”
Using his imagination, by reading a work of fiction, Lewis had glimpsed something he couldn’t explain, something he couldn’t quite grasp. For the first time he had seen the world, at least vaguely, from a Christian perspective. Intellectually, however, he was still an atheist.
Eventually, he said, he “gave in.” He admitted that God was God. He knelt and prayed and described himself as “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” Grudgingly, he had bought into the reality of a sovereign and powerful God. But he still wasn’t sure about Jesus.
He told his friend Arthur Greeves that his problem wasn’t intellectual. He had the facts. He knew the doctrines of salvation and atonement. What was holding him back, he later explained, wasn’t “so much a difficulty in believing as a difficulty in knowing what the doctrine meant: you can’t believe a thing while you are ignorant what the thing is.”
Ordway notes that C.S. Lewis, one of the brightest men who’s ever lived, did not struggle because he lacked information; he struggled because he lacked meaning. And because he lacked meaning he didn’t fully grasp the idea of Christ’s sacrificial death.
Two other friends — Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien — helped him. As Lewis tells the story, the three men walked through the grounds of Magdalen College at Oxford: “Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story … I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it. … Now, the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference, that it really happened.”
Tolkien and Dyson reached in to Lewis’ imagination. They showed him how the doctrines of Christianity come from a “true myth,” how doctrine explains the flesh-and-blood reality. Imagination (to borrow a phrase from Ordway) allowed Lewis to enter into those true things, to make them his own. Imagination empowered the truth to shape him and to create meaning. Which is why Lewis later concluded, “Reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
Tolkien and Dyson took Lewis’ love of mythic stories and showed him the truth of Christianity. They showed him how to connect his imagination to the factual reality of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. And that’s when the final barriers fell. That, Ordway writes, is when C.S. Lewis could become a Christian as a whole person, with both his imagination and his reason fully engaged.
In his book, Wilbourne says, “One way to think about the Christian life — not the only way, but a powerful and too-little used way — is that believing the Gospel means having your imagination taken captive and reshaped by a new story.” He goes on, saying, “And perhaps this is a child’s business, and at least part of what Jesus meant when He said in Matthew 18, ‘Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”
Maybe, to better grasp what God has to tell us, we must become like children, and get serious about exercising our imagination.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine.