October 12, 2006
Baptizing the Imagination
Our Good Friday this year included no sermon, no worship team, no cutting edge technology or lavish drama. And still people lingered for hours to pray, teenagers returned later in the night with their friends, and children begged their parents for the opportunity to stay longer. Why? I believe it's because our church chose to nourish the most emaciated aspect of people's spiritual lives - their imaginations.
Traditionally discipleship has focused upon two areas - knowledge and skills. Churches have poured enormous energy into communicating knowledge about God through preaching, classes, and small groups. In recent years an increasing number of voices have challenged the effectiveness of information based discipleship. That has resulted in churches shifting their focus to skill driven formation - "how to" have a healthy marriage, share the gospel, or parent difficult teenagers.
However, knowledge and skill based models, while necessary components of spiritual formation, both miss the imaginative aspect of the human spirit. And by ignoring the intuitive capacity of the mind the church has essentially surrendered people's imaginations to the pop secular culture without a fight.
In his stirring book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann says, "We need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and co-opted by the royal consciousness [popular culture] that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought." Those filling the pews every Sunday may be full of information about God, and they may be expertly trained to obey God, but without an imagination enraptured by God they will be powerless to live the life he's called them to. They simply cannot imagine living any differently than the culture around them.
Without significant re-cultivation and sanctification of the imagination, aided by God's Spirit, a disciple will be incapable of weeding out sin and living obediently. Oswald Chambers understood this reality. He knew that if "your imagination of God is starved then when you come up against difficulties, you have no power, you can only endure in darkness."
Thankfully many are coming to recognize the importance of imagination in spiritual formation. Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, author of The Drama of Doctrine and professor of systematic theology says:
"Imagination has been a dirty word for too long?The imagination enables us to see the parts of the Bible as forming a meaningful whole. But we can go further still. The imagination also enables us to see our lives as part of that same meaningful whole. This is absolutely crucial. Christians don't need more information about the Bible, trivial or otherwise. What the church needs today is the ability to indwell or inhabit the text."
Using the imagination to inhabit scripture may seem like a new idea to American evangelicals, but the practice is far from original. Since the middle ages practitioners of Ignatian spirituality have used their imaginations to enter biblical narratives, and Brother Lawrence has instructed Christians for centuries to practice the presence of the Lord with their intuitive senses. The beauty of these ancient models of spiritual formation is that they require no technology, no monstrous church building, not even a digital projector.
On Good Friday we helped people enter the biblical narrative with their imaginations by adapting the traditional stations of the cross into an experiential journey with Jesus from Gethsemane to the grave. While holding a bag of silver coins people contemplated what they valued more than Christ. Children, using a stool if they were too short, lifted a cross suspended from the ceiling while considering if they would have helped Jesus carry his burden. Newcomers jumped as someone nailed a spike into a beam while Isaiah 53 was softly read. Some adults who have known the story since childhood were brought to tears as their imaginations, perhaps for the first time, traveled with Jesus through the suffering.
Ultimately, we do not need multi-sensory events or media saturated worship to engage the imagination. Sometimes we just need the space (devoid of noise and clutter) and the permission (from leaders who affirm the importance of the imagination) to apprehend God and his story intuitively. When biblical knowledge and pragmatic skills are linked once again to an imagination ravished by God, we may finally find the power to obey.
Read more about the imagination's role in spiritual formation in the Fall issue of Leadership.