Is there a place for imagination in the spiritual life of the Christian? Some critics argue that Christian faith stifles human creativity. Does the use of imagination in worship and prayer lead to spiritual transformation or spiritual depravity?
On the one side, the Bible consistently warns that a misplaced imagination will distract the Christian from true worship. For example, everywhere in the classic King James Version, in contrast with more modern translations, the English word imagination from the original Hebrew and Greek phrases always carries a negative meaning (then contrast with ESV). For example:
But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward (Jeremiah 7:24 KJV).
Clearly, it is possible to become so engrossed in our own imagination, or someone else’s imagination projected towards us, that we fail to hear God. In our television-saturated world and ultra-realistic CGI animation movies, the massive feast before our eyes can easily clog up our ears to God’s Word. Even in the church, if in our Sunday morning services we find ourselves remembering more about the vivid illustration used by the preacher, and yet still unable to recall what Bible passage was being expounded upon, then I think we have a deadly serious problem.
OK. So far, given this overview, the concept of imagination does not bode well in the life of a Christian. But does this mean that all imagination is contrary to God’s purposes? Is there a more positive, biblical, even godly approach to imagination? Sometimes, in an effort to fight off counterfeit spirituality, we can easily throw out the baby with the bathwater.
A Positive Approach to “Imagination”?
In 1978, Richard Foster, an evangelical Quaker and founder of Renovare, wrote a ground breaking book about the lost the art of practicing spiritual disciplines in the church. Inspired by his mentor, Dallas Willard, Foster reintroduced a generation of Christians to a Celebration of Discipline, describing various practices that Christians in previous times have used but have since been forgotten. Think of them as like the spiritual equivalent of disciplined exercises that someone does who is preparing to run in a 5K race. One example is the use of visualization and imagination in prayerfully reading through Scripture.
For Foster, and others like him, our problem is not too much “Christian imagination”. Rather we have allowed Hollywood and Madison Avenue to do our imaginative thinking for us. Our technological society has seductively emasculated human creativity through the mindless and uncritical embrace of materialism. Kids growing up in our always “online” world, though saturated with video games and smartphones, still complain of boredom. In response, Foster and others offer biblically-oriented visualization and imagination as just one of a set of tools to help Christians counter the spiritually numbing influences of the world around them.
Consider the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible does not tell us much about the scene on the “mount”. Yes, Jesus is on a mountainside and he is preaching. But aside from the content of what Jesus said, that’s about all of the details we get. Advocates for a “Christian imagination” like Richard Foster would find it helpful for us to consider what it would have been like to be there on that day when Jesus was preaching. Would we have been astonished by what we had heard? Would we have tried to work our way among the people to get closer to hear Jesus? Or would we have felt threatened and slipped out of the crowd? Would we have been tempted to dismiss Jesus as teaching some “pie-in-the-sky” ethical ideal, applicable only to some future time? Would we have felt that this was some new legalistic burden to carry? When we hear Jesus telling us to “love our enemies“, what does that really look like in practice?…. This is “Christian imagination” at work.
Objections to “Christian Imagination”
However, not everyone is convinced by such approaches to “visualize” and “imagine” these Scriptural texts. For some critics, since the New Age Movement and Eastern mysticism uses visualization and imagination in spiritual practice, the Bible forbids its use by Christians. Making an appeal to Christian spirituality of the past is a clandestine way of reviving the dark side of medieval Roman Catholicism. These critics caution that such a “Christian imagination” is nothing more than a doorway into the occult and the demonic.
Dave Hunt, a popular Christian apologist with the Berean Call, died in April, 2013. He was an example of someone who has vigorously objected to the spirituality approach of folks like Richard Foster, and his mentor, Dallas Willard. For Hunt, to “imagine” the Sermon on the Mount as suggested threatens to introduce conflicting speculations. We would all come up with our own ideas, and none of them would be accurate. “The Bible does not intend for you to visualize this scene, or it would have given you all of these details“.
A More Balanced Approach to “Christian Imagination”?
I appreciate Dave Hunt’s concerns. However, with all due respect to the late apologist, Mr. Hunt has unfortunately overstated his case and misrepresented some of the teachings he has criticized. The word “imagine” has multiple meanings, negative and positive, depending on the context, but it is ultimately drawn from the notion of picturing or forming a mental “image”. Jesus is all about giving us something to imagine and think about. After all, He Himself is the image of the invisible God, is He not? Surely, having a biblical picture of Jesus is crucial to the spiritual life, right?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about salt, light, bread, birds, flowers, and many other things that can be readily visualized. Elsewhere in the Gospels, He taught in parables. Jesus purposely used images through parables that would fire up the listener’s imagination. Farmers sowing their seed. Lamps and bushels. Fig trees. Mustard seeds. Fishing and fishing for men. Lost sheep. How do you really understand what Jesus is saying about lost sheep if you are instructed never to imagine what it would be like to lose sheep? As C. S. Lewis once said, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
In my view, the issue is not the use of imagination in general that is the problem. Rather, it is the misuse of imagination. It is very easy to get carried away with visualization as a spiritual technique, and go down a road that is far removed from the Gospel. That is why we need discernment from the Holy Scriptures, and it is this principle that Dave Hunt brought out through his ministry that is of the greatest value: Does what we imagine align with God’s Word, or does it conflict with God’s Word? The imagination of the evil heart, as the KJV puts it, in leading us away from the reality of and submission to God’s Word will clearly take us backwards, not forwards. But to cast away all use of the imagination is to throw out something really helpful, if not absolutely essential, for spiritual transformation.
Michael Card has a very helpful essay that sees a distinction between an uninformed imagination and a biblically informed imagination. For example, Michael Card, proper use of the imagination helps us to see the connections between the Old and New Testaments in ways that are not always readily apparent (small note: Card’s reference to Proverbs 6:8 should be Proverbs 6:18).
If you are looking for an advanced approach regarding the scriptural basis for imagination in worship, you might want to consider the teaching of Gregory Boyd on this topic. Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minneapolis, argues that there is indeed a positive understanding of human imagination. The development of a Christian imagination is about the transformation of the wickedness of the sinful human heart to being something where we behold (ESV) or contemplate (NIV) the glory of the Lord, as in here:
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit(2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV).
More research on the New Age movement can be found here on Veracity.