August 8, 2011
Scandal of the Evangelical Imagination
Why right thinking and right doing are not enough.
In 1995, Mark Noll argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that the problem with evangelicalism is “that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” His solution was to take scholarship more seriously. A decade later, Ron Sider argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (2005) that the problem with evangelicalism is that Christians live just like nonChristians. His solution was to take the social and corporate implications of the gospel more seriously.
Whether or not these books can be credited with sparking current trends, it’s clear the spirit of both of them is alive and well in American Christianity. The so-called “New Reformed” movement is living out Noll’s call for greater intellectual engagement and doctrinal sophistication. And legions of younger Christians are taking up Sider’s vision to seek social justice in Jesus’ name. I support both of these relatively recent developments, more or less. But I think they have the same shortcoming in common. As different as they are, they both appeal to the intellect in one way or another. They both seem to assume that if we simply believe the right things (whether it’s the doctrine of atonement or the Christian’s moral responsibility in the world) then we’ll behave the right way.
I’m not convinced.
I think there’s another, deeper problem in evangelicalism, what I’ll call (for consistency’s sake) the scandal of the evangelical imagination.
I don’t mean that evangelicals produce bad art (although we do), and I’m not issuing a call for more sophisticated creative engagement with culture (though we need one). Imagination is broader than that. The dictionary defines imagination as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas,” or “images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” This has to do with faith at its core. We are accustomed to trusting our senses to tell us what is true. But imagination offers a broader perspective on truth. If imagination is the capacity to visualize, and be confident in a reality, even if it contradicts our experience, then it refuses to let our senses determine the limits of what is possible. Faith requires us to envision and inhabit a world that we cannot perceive with our senses--a world where an invisible God lovingly maintains his creation, where the Son of God can become a human child, can die on a cross to save sinners, and be seated at the right hand of God in glory.
From beginning to end, the Bible calls us to adopt a sanctified imagination that helps us look beyond our own experience. Experience tells us prayers go unanswered, as the cries, “O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer” (22:1). Experience tells us sinful, rebellious people get their way in the end, that the values of the world are profitable and preferable: “In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak...; he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord ... His ways are always prosperous” (Psalm 10:2-5).
But the prophets continually challenge us to imagine a godly future. “The day is coming,” they said again and again, a day when injustice will be judged, when evil will be put right, when exploitation will cease, when God’s faithful people will experience the deliverance they have hoped for--hoped for against experience. In that day, the rebellious lifestyle will no longer be profitable. This is a radical message. The prophets call us to share this vision, and they do so by painting landscapes of a world that contradicts our experience because it exists, until “that day” comes, only in the mind of God.
Jesus calls us to an even more demanding act of imagination. He stood in the line of the prophets, but he radicalized their message. “The day is coming,” they had said. He changed the tense. He says, “the day has come.” The world the prophets had envisioned is no longer a future reality. It is happening here and now. And it is beyond our senses. “Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21).
Practically speaking, this means we church leaders need to move beyond telling people what they ought to believe and how they ought to behave. This instruction is necessary but insufficient. Clyde Kilby put it this way several decades ago:
Pastors seem beset with the conviction that statement is the only correct way. I am starkly admonished, for instance, to love, as though I had not already beaten myself a thousand times with this cudgel. What I need instead is the opening of some little door through which I can enter, some little path through the tangle of my own selfishness, some glimpse of a person who practiced love last week. But what is the use of repeating to me, as though my soul were blind, what my conscience and the Holy Spirit habitually tell me?
One practical way of opening “some little door” through which folks can enter the life of the kingdom is through testimony. I was raised on a steady diet of true stories from missionaries and single moms who received the Lord’s provision in the eleventh hour, of secretaries who led confrontational coworkers to faith in Christ, and folks of all ages miraculously delivered from disease. These stories, from people I could relate to, fed my imagination and gave me the confidence to affirm what I knew to be true and the courage to behave how I knew I should. The longer I’m away from that tradition, the more difficult it is to maintain my imagination.
I’m curious if any of you has found a way to engage the imagination in your congregation. Thoughts? Tips?