This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.”
We affirm that expressions and vehicles of ordinate affections are usually works of imagination, expressed in metaphor: 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 understanding of objective propositional statements about God.
Today most people consider works of imagination as enjoyable distractions, but of little real significance. Even most Christians assume that their cognitive beliefs about God are important, but musical or poetic expressions about God have little purpose beyond making truth about God interesting, enjoyable, or exciting. This leads to the conclusion that what works of imagination we choose are merely a matter of preference or that the only mark of successful sacred art is whether it ignites passion for God.
Yet works of imagination are more than merely enjoyable for the following reasons:
First, as we have already shown in Article 4, right affections are central to biblical Christianity. Some affections are appropriate for expression to God, while others are not. Even something like love has multiple nuances of response, only some of which are worthy of the Lord. Christians dare not express toward God the same kind of love a man shows toward his wife, for example.
Second, right affections are nurtured and cultivated through the imagination. Imagination is that faculty through which the facts and experiences of the world are interpreted and find their significance and meaning. For example, a farmer finds a rainy day welcome and responds with joy and gratitude, while a child wishing to play outside thinks it a nuisance and responds with disappointment. How the farmer and child imagine rain shapes the affections they express toward the rainy day.
This is true for the affections Christians express toward God as well. How a person imagines God will produce the kind of affections he expresses toward the Lord. Whether he imagines God to be a cruel despot, a warm lover, or a gracious sovereign will affect the kind of response he has toward God.
Third, works of art shape the imagination. When propositional content is expressed through poetry and music, for example, they express a particular imaginative representation of that content that shapes how others perceive that content. This is accomplished through the metaphors and other poetic devices used as well as through the moods and emotions contained in the music.
Likewise, when truth about God is expressed through works of art, they express specific perceptions of God that shape the imagination. What metaphors that are chosen to represent God, poetic meter, melodic contour rhythm, harmony, form, and more express a certain imagination of God that elicits particular kinds of response. Art can be employed in such a way that it represents God as a despot, a lover, or a sovereign, and it will thus produce corresponding responses.
Fourth, Scripture itself employs imaginative devices in order to portray particular representations of reality and thereby shape the reader’s imagination of that reality. There is a reason the Holy Spirit of God chose the kinds of literary forms, metaphors, and other imagery in Scripture that he did. These choices present exactly the kind of imagination that corresponds to his own sovereign understanding of reality, and thus Scripture’s imaginative content provides guidelines and limits for new art produced today.
Finally, since works of art shape the imagination, and imagination elicits certain kinds of affections, those works of art can be employed as expressions of those affections. And since Scripture commands that Christians express certain kinds of affections toward the Lord, works of imagination that express those affections are fitting and necessary means through which God is adored, praised, worshiped, and glorified. On the other hand, art that express a wrong imagination of God and thus inordinate affection to him are to be rejected.
So, when Scripture commands that truth about God be expressed through works of imagination (Col 3:16), the purpose is far more significant than merely making God’s truth enjoyable. Since wrong imaginative expressions of truth can elicit inordinate affection toward him, Christians must be careful to produce and choose imaginative expressions that are true; that is, they rightly correspond to the reality of who God is not only in their propositional affirmations, but also in how God is imagined.