This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.” Purchase a print edition of A Conservative Christian Declaration here.
We affirm that ordinate affections are often expressed and evoked through works of imagination, which function through simile and metaphor. Among these are music, poetry, literature, and other arts. The Word of God itself is a work of imagination. At least two works of imagination are commanded for worship: poetry and music (Col. 3:16).
We deny that God can be known and rightly loved solely through cognition and the intellectual understanding of objective propositional statements about God.
We hold that works of the imagination (the arts) are more than enjoyable distractions. Nevertheless, many Christians assume that only their cognitive beliefs about God are important, while musical or poetic expressions about God have little purpose beyond making truth about God interesting, enjoyable, or exciting. This attitude leads to the conclusion that the choice to expose one’s self to certain works of imagination is merely a matter of preference. Some suggest that the only mark of successful sacred art is whether it ignites “passion” for God.
To reiterate, we hold that works of imagination are more than merely enjoyable diversions. We recognize that this proposition is disputed. In support of it, we offer the following considerations.
First, as we have already argued in Article 4, right affections are central to biblical Christianity. Some affections are appropriate for expression to God, while others are not. The major categories of affection (e.g., love, joy, awe, fear) each include multiple nuances of response, only some of which can rightly be addressed to the Lord. For example, it would be wrong to love God as a parent loves a child, as a biker loves a motorcycle, or as a glutton loves a plate of spaghetti.
Second, right affections are nurtured and cultivated through the imagination. Imagination is that faculty through which the facts and experiences of the world are construed and interpreted, and through which they find their significance. For example, a farmer who is enduring a drought construes a rainy day as a blessing. He welcomes it and responds with joy and gratitude. A fidgety child who wishes to play outdoors, construes the same rainy day as an obstruction and a nuisance. She responds with disappointment and perhaps petulance. How the farmer and child imagine the rain shapes their response to it, and their response leads to the expression of different affections.
The same principle is at work in those affections that Christians express toward God. How we imagine God will produce different affections, and different expressions of affection, toward him. Whether one imagines God to be a cruel despot, a warm lover, or a gracious sovereign will affect the kind of response that one feels and articulates toward God.
Third, the goal of the arts—including music and poetry, the arts employed in worship—is to shape and furnish the imagination. These arts (including poetry and music) always go beyond the expression of propositional content. They also express a point of view, a particular imaginative construal of the propositional content, the goal of which is to enable the singer or listener to grasp the perspective of the artist toward the subject. In other words, poetry and music communicate more than propositional content, and this communication is accomplished through the poet’s selection of metaphors and other devices, and through the moods and sensibilities expressed by the music.
When these arts have truth about God for their content, they express specific perceptions of God in ways that are designed to shape the imagination. Such matters as the metaphors that are chosen to represent God, the poetic meter, the melodic contour, the rhythm, harmony, form, timbre, and so forth express ways of imagining God and elicit particular responses. These arts can be employed in such a way that the productions represent God as a despot, a lover, or a sovereign—producing the corresponding responses.
Fourth, Scripture itself uses imaginative devices to shape our vision of reality. The Holy Spirit of God chose particular literary genres, forms, metaphors, and other imaginative devices to communicate truth in Scripture. These choices enable us to imagine reality in a way that corresponds to God’s own sovereign understanding. Working in this way, the imaginative content of Scripture also provides both guidelines and limits for new art that is produced today.
Finally, since works of art shape the imagination, and since these imaginative works express and evoke affections, works of art ought to be employed as expressions of right affection. Specifically, Scripture commands that Christians express certain classes of affections toward the Lord. Imaginative works have the power to express those affections, and are fitting and necessary ways in which God can be adored, praised, worshiped, and glorified. Nevertheless, art that imagines God wrongly or provokes inordinate affection toward him must be rejected.
In sum, Scripture commands that truth about God be expressed through works of imagination (Col. 3:16). The purpose of this command is not simply to make God’s truth more amusing. Since wrong imaginative expressions can elicit inordinate responses toward God, Christians are responsible both to produce and to choose imaginative expressions that are aesthetically true; i.e., that evoke responses corresponding to the reality of who God is. If we wish to imagine God rightly, not only must our doctrines be propositionally true, but our responses must also be aesthetically true.