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Christian Imagination Fleshed Out

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series

"Christian Imagination"

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What does the Christian imagination look like when it is fleshed out? We can imagine it as a spectrum, beginning with Scripture itself and working its way out from the explicitly biblical to what is only implicitly so.

The Bible. Scripture itself is the archetype of all Christian imagination. Its content and form are the our model for Christian imagination. Here God takes in all of human history (synoptical), explains the right and wrong way to respond to Him (moral), and communicates it in a metaphorical form: narratives, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, with plenty of imagery in the wisdom, epistolary and Law forms as well.

Quasi-biblical. Drawing from Scripture, believers through the ages have created works of imagination that distill, capture, or communicate something identical to or very close to Scripture. These include liturgies for worship, sermons, versified psalms or Scripture portions for singing, hymns based upon Scripture portions, sacred music (the setting of Scriptural texts to musical forms such as plainchant, masses, cantatas, oratorios), written prayers drawing deeply on the Psalms, and paintings, sculptures, illustrations of biblical scenes.

Christian extra-biblical. By extra-biblical we mean not “unbiblical”, but works of imagination that, though not paraphrases or depictions of Scripture itself, nevertheless capture Christian ideas, theology and experience. Hymns and spiritual songs, Christian verse (poetry with Christian themes or devotion), Christian epic poetry (such as Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost), Christian allegory (such as The Pilgrim’s Progress or The Holy War), musical works themed after Christian theology (think “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), devotional works (writings that seek to explicate Christian spirituality, such as The Ascent of Mount Carmel or The Pursuit of God), histories, biographies and autobiographies that explain the history and experience of Christians, various other Christian treatises, apologies and theologies, and a host of paintings, sculptures, carvings and other plastic arts that depict and illustrate Christian truth.

General semi-biblical. Many imaginative works are not explicitly Christian, but they carry the marks and imprint of a Christian culture. The attitude is birthed in, and consonant with, a Christian understanding of reality. These include many novels and much belletristic literature, poems, music, art, architecture, and for some, theatre and dance.

Taken together, what do we call this collection? The answer is simple and surprising: we call it Christian culture. The artefacts of a Christian imagination are what emerge from a Christian culture. Conversely, these artefacts come to define the contours of that culture, meaning that they are the symbolic embodiment of the culture: they give it its tone and identity. These works of imagination are both shaped by the people in the culture and shape those people who use and make them. This is how culture works: it cultivates around a cultus. The central religious vision of a culture leads its members to symbolise it in works of imagination, and the works of imagination reinforce and embody the central religious vision.

Christian culture is what Christians have cultivated to shape their judgement and flesh out their metaphysical vision over two millennia, and stretching back further to the founding of Israel. The Christian tradition is Christian culture stretched over time. It is the great conversation among Christians that shapes Christian sentiment, and prepares young minds to think Christianly. It is the works of imagination and reason that Christians should live in, be educated in, and speak of to one another.

Perhaps you can see the dilemma of being a Christian within a secular culture. The works of imagination that reinforce our secular culture’s central religious vision are powerful and compelling movies and TV shows, popular songs and music, immersive computer and console games, widespread advertising imagery (moving and still), and malls, restaurants and whole cities built and shaped around a similar vision. Christians then find themselves being shaped by competing synoptic, moral and metaphorical visions. There is the secular imagination all around them in the workplace, the mall, and through every media portal they use; and there is the Christian imagination found only at church (hopefully), and in ageing books, poems and music. Those who go rummaging for more Christian culture find they are almost always looking into the past, and soon find themselves accused of being hide-bound traditionalists, nostalgics for the past, or irrelevant.

The result is the eclectic non-culture of most contemporary Christians: a pastiche collection of movies, music, novels, websites, hymns, histories, paintings and other imaginative forms which are chosen for their entertainment value and for how free they are of offensive elements. The fact that they are chosen from cultures hostile and alien to each other isn’t really a problem for most, which explains why Christians complain of feeling “detached” from their faith, and feeling like they compartmentalise their faith into separate boxes of work, school, family, and church. It isn’t that surprising: if you try to juggle hostile views of reality in your mind, a fragmentation must either be nagging at the edges of your mind, or end up producing an all-out crisis of faith at some point. I’ve argued this is part of the explanation for youth drop-outs from the faith.

Questions remain. What do Christians do with these works of imagination or works of Christian culture? How do we receive and “make” Christian culture? And by what standard should we regard a work as friendly to the Christian imagination, or hostile to it?

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

4 Responses to Christian Imagination Fleshed Out

  1. Really enjoying this series and I hope there’s more, including exploring the questions written at the end of the post!

  2. Patricia,

    Thanks, and there is definitely more ground to cover in this series!

  3. I have so appreciated this series, though I think it needs to have 80 more parts, 88 of 88 perhaps? :)

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this phrase, “and for some, theatre and dance.” For some people? For some forms? How about dance as an accepted biblical form of expression in worship?

    One other question, in the Generally Semi-Biblical category would you include works created by non-Christian artists that are “consonant, with a Christian understanding of reality.” or would those be elsewhere (or not at all?) In your view would those kinds of works have a place in your definition of Christian culture?

  4. Justin, thanks for your questions.

    Yes, there is some quibble over whether theatre fits comfortably with poetry, literature, music and the plastic arts as another instance of Christian imagination.
    Those who would say it does would point out that theatre combines many of the other forms: narrative, poetry, music, and forms of the plastic arts in one, and therefore should be considered alongside it.
    Those who would object to it would have several objections. One, there was a pretty consistent Christian condemnation of theatre, all the way from Tertullian to Spurgeon. Two, the more immersive an art form, the less analogical it becomes; it tends to become more visceral than contemplative. Three, along the same lines, theatre tends to be more manipulative than formative – in practice, we find ourselves cheering for the abused wife to pursue her adultery, or rejoice in the hero’s revenge, when immersed in the play or the film. Both Augustine and Pascal commented on this, on how theatre tends to evoke passions we didn’t expect or wish to have in any other circumstance.

    For that reason, some Christians would disqualify film and theatre as works of Christian imagination. Probably most would not. For my part, I cannot see all forms of theatre as inherently pagan. If the dangers mentioned are properly understood, I think it can be properly done. For example, Roger Scruton gives some examples in his book, “Beauty”.

    For some very helpful theological thoughts on liturgical dance, see Kevin Bauder’s thoughts here: https://centralseminary.edu/liturgical-dance/

    To your last question, yes, works by non-Christians can still fall into the Generally Semi-Biblical category, and form part of Christian culture. While we always hope that the creator of a work has personal knowledge of what he creates, the artist’s Christianity is not finally determinative of the work’s Christian character. Unbelievers can still make things that are true, good, and beautiful. When such works have a recognisably Christian character, or are friendly to the worldview that Christianity has given, they could be happily included. After all, the only way that an unbeliever produced such truth, goodness or beauty was through some exposure and formation by Christian influences, and through the common grace of God.

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