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Discerning the Christian Imagination: Analogies and Proportion

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series

"Christian Imagination"

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If Christians should grow in their ability to discern superior Christian works of imagination, how should they do this? Must every Christian pursue some kind of music appreciation, literary criticism or aesthetic theory in order to recognise Christian from non-Christian or sub-Christian imagination? Likely not, though no Christian should scorn the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and understanding, particularly in those areas that communicate a Christian outlook.

Instead, Christians can pursue better understanding in these areas by becoming attentive to the form of music, poetry, literature, painting, sculpture, history, or other humanities that shape imagination. By form, we mean its actual shape and composition: the sum total or result of its components parts that communicate its message, be those colours, shapes, notes, harmonies, or words.

One way to approach this is to use the idea of proportion or scale. Consider a miniature. A miniature car, ship, plane, or village pleases us because it preserves the proportions of the original object in a much smaller scale. The better the proportions, the truer the miniature as a scaled-down version of the original. In many ways, works of imagination function similarly. Metaphors reduce the large-scale realities of God, the world, and self to a miniature version of a poem, a hymn, a symphony, a novel, an allegory, a sculpture, a painting, or another work of imagination. Of course, the work of imagination can never be a miniature of all of reality. Instead, it seeks to faithfully capture some small section of reality: a truth, an affection, an ethical obligation or some other reality. Imaginative materials are not (typically) metal, plastic, or paint. They are words, poetic tropes, meter, notes, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, tone colours, narrative genres, plots, characters, dialogues, paints, oils, and so forth.

The important thing is whether the metaphor seems to represent in artistic miniature what is true in reality. How would this be so? Consider how Scripture does it. When wanting to evoke particular understandings and responses to God, it invokes certain images. When trust, contentment and security are the correct responses, it invokes the image of a diligent shepherd (Psalm 23). When carefulness, respect and caution are the correct responses, it invokes the image of a powerful and violent warrior (Deuteronomy 32:34-43). The analogy contains a kind of proportion between God and what God is being compared to, the Scriptural analogy. The Bible does not compare God to cute puppies or to a venomous snake. The issue is not simply the chosen analogy for the analogue, but if the analogy communicates an appropriate response and affection. Works of imagination fail when they distort what Reality is, and what the appropriate response is to the Reality portrayed.

For example, music for worship that communicates a shallow kind of self-comfort, or a narcissistic pseudo-intensity, or a faux edginess, or a thinly disguised sexual appeal has failed to capture the proportions between Creator and creature, between Redeemer and redeemed. The musical analogies should communicate and evoke reverent joy, sober admiration, reflective wonder, humbled gratitude, triumphant hope, contrite gladness, among many others. We might then say that the musical analogy is faithful to what it purports to represent. It is a miniature that faithfully represents greater realities. The same might be said for a hymn or a poem, a sermon or a prayer, a novel or a painting.

The difficulty arises in that believers need to grow simultaneously in two areas: an awareness of what responses God deserves, and an awareness of how works of imagination communicate. To fail in the first area is to allow the profane, the blasphemous and the false to enter the Christian imagination, by virtue of not knowing God as He is. To fail in the second area is to allow the cheap, the trivial, the shallow, the irreverent, and the sentimental to enter the Christian imagination by virtue of imbibing pop culture as our imaginative lingua franca. Both are dangerous and insidious. In the first, we may offend God because we do not realise who He is (Psalm 50:21). In the second, we may offend God because we do not consider what our symbolic actions are communicating (Malachi 1:6-14).

Furthermore, both end up affecting the other. Wrong views of God lead to poor musical, poetic, or literary analogies. Poor analogies lead to wrong views of God. In sum, Christians have a responsibility to discern not only the cognitive, theological content of what they imbibe for worship and edification, but the affective, imaginative form in which it is delivered.

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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.