A Christian Imagination
Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was “terrible”, describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was “delightful”: make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers “Please will you do my job for me”.
– C.S. Lewis1
Shaping the affections of parishioners feels like trying to make your children grow taller. There are some factors completely out of your control. There are some things which they do which can help or hinder the process. There are a few things you can do to encourage healthy growth.
A pastor who wishes to see ordinate affection shaped in his church members is able to do a limited number of things. You cannot re-grow a Christian culture. You cannot recover the sensibilities of our Christian forefathers and transplant them into the hearts of modern Christians. You cannot make people love what they do not love. You cannot do in your church in a few years what is meant to be done through culture over centuries.
However, you can pay attention to the five matters mentioned earlier. You can become aware of how the moral imagination functions, and do your best to help the formation of a Christian imagination in your people. What follows is a somewhat eclectic set of practical suggestions to this end.
Perhaps the most helpful article I’ve come across to help busy Christians to understand how the imagination informs all else is A.W. Tozer’s “Why We Must Think Rightly About God”. It is the first chapter in The Knowledge of the Holy, and I’ve sometimes used it as a mini-study or discussion.
As preachers, we need to spend far more time considering how analogical language is to shape our preaching. C.S. Lewis’ words bring the point home: we cop out when we keep announcing, “God is awesome! God is, like, totally, amazing!” It is the job of the writer, and in this case, the speaker, to so fire the imagination that the affections of awe and amazement are raised in contemplating God. When we take the imagination seriously, we will spend as much time, if not more, on exposition as we do on exegesis. Our word pictures, analogies, illustrations and overall rhetorical form ought to move the heart to feel rightly about God. Jack Hughes’ book Expository Preaching With Word Pictures considers how Thomas Watson did this effectively. Warren Wiersbe’s Preaching and Teaching with Imagination considers how the imagination is used throughout Scripture, and how preachers can pay attention to this. Finally, from time to time we all need to read a master like Spurgeon, to drink in sermons baroque in their imagery.
We need to think carefully about the imagery and the language used in the hymns we sing. Is it trite? Is it helpful? Do the songs employ vacuous cliches? Are they nothing more than rhyming doctrinal statements set to music? Assuming we are choosing superior hymns, we need to take the time to point out the imagery, and why it is useful. There will probably need to be some polemic work done from time to time, pointing out why the imagery or language in certain hymns or songs is trivial, shallow, sentimental or merely functional. If you church uses printed hymnals, if it is within your power, choose one which has a minimum of shallow hymns, for the average church goer does not suspect that hymnals contain both good and bad.
The same is true of the music we use in our worship services, or encourage as music helpful for ordinate affection. Abraham Kaplan helps us here:
In a fully aesthetic experience, feeling is deepened, given new content and meaning. Till then, we did not know what it was we felt; one could say that the feeling was not truly ours. It is in this sense that art provides us with feeling: it makes us aware of something that comes to be only in the intense and structured experience of the awareness. We become selves as we come to self-consciousness, no longer unthinking creatures of feeling but men whose emotions are meaningful to us. But popular art provides no such mirror of the mind, or if we do find our feelings dimly reflected in it, we cannot pass through the looking glass to confront our hidden selves. We are caught up on the surface, and our feelings remain superficial and deficient, as unreal as their reflections. The shades with which the world of popular art is peopled seem to us substantial when we ourselves are still only fictitious characters. Superficial, affected, spurious-this is the dictionary meaning of sentimental. So far as feeling goes, it is sentimentality that is most distinctive of popular art.2
There are authors and poets who represent a Christian imagination, and their books are accessible to most. Authors like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery ‘O Connor, come to mind. While we do not need to produce ‘approved books’ lists, some pastoral guidance can be helpful in nudging parishioners towards some of the classics and away from popular literature or television which does exactly what Kaplan describes. This is particularly important for children, whose imaginations are hungry and being shaped. George MacDonald’s defense of fairy tales in his chapter “The Fantastic Imagination” can be very helpful for people to see what part these play in shaping a Christian imagination.
Perhaps many church-goers will be unable to make sense of poets like John Donne or George Herbert (at least initially). However, they could probably benefit from reading Frederick Faber, or a collection of hymns by Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley. A.W. Tozer did the church a favor in collecting a modest, but extremely helpful, set of Christian poetry in his book The Christian Book of Mystical Verse. This is probably a must-have for your church library.
We could speak of architecture, ritual, and ceremony, but it is beyond the scope of our discussion. Suffice it to reiterate that a pastor eager to see ordinate affection growing in his people must give thought to these things. He is responsible to inform his people that the imagination is shaped by a multitude of things, and that Christians have a responsibility to nourish theirs with what is excellent so as to be without blame on the day of Christ (Phil 1:9-10)
For all of this to be any more than an odd set of prejudices, the meaning of these things has to be explained. The meaning of the poetry, the literature, the music, the painting or sculpture, the architecture, or the technology has to be made clear. We must understand form, and explain how form communicates meaning. In fact, we must become interested in the meaning of all things, if we are to rightly shape the affections, and rightly apply the Scriptures. This leads to the seventh mark of a conservative Christian church: a conservative Christian church is committed to understanding the meaning of the world, so as to rightly understand worship, affections, and the correct application of biblical principles.
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.