Determining if a poem, hymn, musical piece, novel, devotional work, painting or other work should be considered a helpful work of Christian imagination is mostly an act of considering its meaning. Does its content agree with the truths of Scripture? Does its form remain consonant with that content, and shape the appropriate responses in us? There is a circularity involved here: we must already know the appropriate responses in order to detect if a work is evoking them. And yet this circularity is implied in Scriptures that state that the ones doing God’s will end up knowing God’s will (John 7:17, Colossians 1:9-10), or that more truth is given to the one who already has it (Mt 25:29).
There is, however, a second way that we verify if something is a helpful work of Christian imagination: the Christian consensus. The Christian consensus is a combination of popular use, the winnowing effect of time, and a broad catholicity of agreement of a work’s beauty and usefulness. Some works are hugely popular during their time, but die out altogether in another era. Some works are loved by a particular group, sect or denomination, but never find life outside their ghetto. Some works are loved and praised by a small minority, but few others find them edifying. It is the works that survive hundreds of years of use, across multiple nations and continents, and continue to bless and edify believers of varying sub-traditions that deserve our special attention. These make up a “Christian consensus” of genuinely helpful works of Christian culture. They sometimes are referred to as ‘classics’.
Perhaps the Protestant understanding of the canonicity of Scripture is the best explanation of how this phenomenon occurs and functions. Believing that Scripture is self-authenticating, Protestants hold that the church of the first few centuries was able to identify Scripture, because existing Scripture had already taught it to do so (note again the circularity). As early Christians recognised the divine qualities of Scripture (beauty, power, and efficacy, and doctrinal, thematic, and structural unity), along with the apostolic testimony, they corporately recognised a particular book as part of the canon of Scripture.
This corporate recognition functioned as a kind of consensus on what counted as self-evident Scripture. The consensus confirmed what was already true. It did not decide or declare what was Scripture; it recognised and then declared the church’s unanimity. It could not make a book Scripture or not, but it could state what the church’s consensus was. That consensus guarded the church from impulsive or eclectic judgements.
In so doing, the early church recognised a distinction between Scripture as the absolute norm of authority, and other sources as important but secondary sources of theological authority (such as received tradition or the agreement of councils) that could recognize Scriptural authority. Christians who lived generations after those of the first four centuries were simultaneously accepting Scripture’s authority and the secondary authority of the Christian tradition of the canon. To accept the canon, is at the very least, to accept one post-biblical tradition, and (at least tentatively and practically) to submit to its authority.
In a similar, but not identical way, Christian imaginative forms (hymns, poems, devotions, songs, prayers, liturgical practices, and spiritual disciplines) have also developed over the centuries. Where the community best understood and practiced the Word, they chose worship and devotional forms that best captured and expressed the Word. Once again, we witness the circularity present.
These forms of liturgy and Christian imagination have been passed down, and deserve the considered attention of those seeking the best of Christian imagination. Where they have survived and continue to edify the church at large, they should likely be considered part of the Christian consensus.
Time is a big factor here. Imaginative forms are shaped through a reciprocal relationship between a religion and a culture. As the Word penetrates a culture, it begins reshaping the imagination of that culture. As the culture then worships using the Word, it develops forms commensurate with that imagination. The longer this process goes on, the more one can expect forms that better approximate ordinate love for God.
Those forms of worship and devotion that have arisen recently, out of a society immersed in the narcissism and sentimentalism of popular culture deserve careful and discerning scrutiny before being adopted. Modern Christians can still reach into the past, before popular culture arose, and become familiar with the forms of historic Christian culture. Those spiritual disciplines and works of imagination deeply rooted in historic Christian communities of reverence will likely turn out to be universal, timeless works of Christian imagination.
The Christian consensus is not authoritative the way Scripture is. But it is instructive and carries the weight of the judgments of thousands of souls, who may have lived in eras more friendly to the Christian imagination. If, as Chesterton said, tradition is the “democracy of the dead”, we should ask what works of imagination the believers of hundreds of years ago would vote to be included in our corporate or private worship or collections of Christian imagination.