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Imaginative Knowledge

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series

"Christian Imagination"

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If Christian imagination is the best way of referring to how Christians know and perceive the world, does thinking of it in this way have any practical effect on our lives? Much in every way.

If imagination is the ultimate way that we understand reality, then this affects how Christians communicate the faith to believers, to their own children, and to unbelievers. It affects not simply the content of that communication, but its form. How so?

When communicating the faith, Christians should aim for the synoptical. That is, Christians should want to take in as much explanation of reality as possible: Creation to Christ, Genesis to Revelation, ultimate questions, the larger narrative. That does not mean we cannot ever focus on particulars, or expound on small details. There is a time to do that. But Christianity is nothing less than an explanation of reality, which means our goal is to the tell The Greatest Story Ever Told. We are to give the explanation of the whole, not get lost in details over minutiae.

When communicating the faith, Christians should aim for the moral, ethical and aesthetic, not merely the ‘factual’. We are not Eustace Scrubbs or Thomas Gradgrinds who believe that the “real” knowledge consists of “hard, neutral, objective” facts. Christians believe there is no such thing as a brute fact. We believe all facts are interpreted ideas nested in a massive network of interpreted ideas (hence the need to be synoptical). But more than requiring “the whole” to interpret individual facts, we also believe facts are only meaningful when we understand purpose, design, beauty or goodness. We want to understand not just the tree, but what the tree is for, why the tree exists, if the tree is good or beautiful. These are moral, ethical, and aesthetic questions. Christians should not seek “neutrality”, but deliberate, honest Christian interpretations of God’s world. Whether talking about science, economics, culture, music, politics or art, Christians must give “the facts” as they fit into God’s world, as explanations of truth, goodness and beauty.

When communicating the faith, Christians should aim for the metaphorical. That is, since we believe reality itself is analogical, we should take our cue from that and seek maximum explanatory power through the use of metaphor. I’m using the word metaphor in a broad sense, to signify the use of analogies: symbols that point to realities beyond themselves. These symbols or metaphors can be musical, or literary, or visual, or otherwise. Richard Weaver said that “a developed culture is a way of looking at the world through an aggregation of symbols, so that empirical facts take on significance and man feels that he is acting in a drama”.

Very importantly, the choice of symbol, analogy or metaphor is vital. Symbols that do not communicate the correct “proportion” between sign and signified end up distorting understanding. The Bible calls God “a high tower”, not “an impenetrable prison”, a “Good Shepherd”, not a “friendly innkeeper”. The image matters, because it provides us with proportions of distance and affection between God and us, and helps us truly understand the nature of unseen reality.

If these three approaches to communication seem abstract, the best way to see them in action is to think of the ultimate communication from God to man: His Word. The Bible is the best example of these in action. The Bible is a synoptic explanation of reality: who God is, what man is, how the world came to be, the problem of evil, the meaning of grace and redemption, God’s ultimate plan, and how the world will both end and continue. The Bible is also a moral explanation, always explaining what pleases God, what is excellent and what is evil. And finally, the Bible, as we have seen, has been given in a form dominated by narrative, poetry, prophecy and graphic imagery and word pictures.

It is from the very form of Scripture that Christians should model how they communicate the faith. In other words, to be truly “biblical” in our sermons, hymns, apologetics, evangelism, we should pay attention not only to the content, that the information corresponds to what is revealed in Scripture. We should pay attention to the form of the information: that the very shape of what we say or write or play has elements of, or is characterised by, synoptical, moral and metaphorical forms of communication.

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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.