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Imagination and Shaping the Affections

This entry is part 21 of 32 in the series

"Toward Conservative Christian Churches"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Many of the pastors I have met are unwitting moderns. I should know, for I am also a pastor, and a recovering modern. That is, I am someone who believed the lies of scientism: that the way to know reality is by fact-collecting, and that humans are capable of being completely objective in their fact-collecting. To put the lie another way, point the microscope, stethoscope, telescope or some other instrument towards the universe, and you will find out a pure, brute fact about what is. If you collect enough of these facts, you might be able to construct a big picture of what is.

Many spiritual leaders apply something similar to Christian discipleship. In their view, if you collect enough theological facts from the Bible you will be able to construct the whole picture. Therefore, their aim in ministry is to discover and then supply people with these facts. All else is peripheral, matters of preference, taste, or, in their words, ‘subjective’ matters. Lucky for their people, they’re ‘objective’, and deal mostly in supplying objective brute facts.

As I say, I am recovering from my modernism, for it still infects much of what I do. However, a biblical mindset understands that the Truth precedes the facts, and that even our understanding of Revelation goes through a grid. That is what leads conservative Christian pastors to pay attention to the imagination.

The imagination is that part of us which gives us an intuitive feeling about the nature of immanent reality. It is our grid, our map of reality to which we refer all the ‘facts’ we encounter. It is built over years, and supplied with an aggregate of symbols from our culture(s). Those symbols, as discussed in the last post, supply the sense of proportion and measure toward all things. This is what largely shapes a person’s affections toward God, himself and the world.

The cognitive aspect of the Christian faith cannot be divorced from the affective aspect. Indeed, as we’ve just seen, there is a sense in which they are dependent on one another.  This is the aspect of the Christian faith that does not seem to be given the attention it requires: how the imagination informs how we feel about the truth. It is our ongoing response to the truth.

We can sing of God in funny limericks, or in stately hymns. We can think of the Flood like this, or like this. We can imagine the experience of encountering God like this, or like this. We can compare sin to ‘Stinky Sox’ or to a curse. We can ‘theme’ the Christian life after treasure hunts, race-car driving, detective-sleuthing or cowboys and Indians, or use the biblical imagery supplied by the apostles. We can sing benedictions like this or like this. We can imagine the event of corporate worship (and therefore the setting for it) like this, or like this. We can dress up the faith in games, fun, material rewards, or in the motives Jesus gave. The list could go on. Whatever you decide about these differing visions, there is little doubt that these examples illustrate that Christians can and do have contrasting, even opposing, visions of how one should respond to the truths of God’s Word.

What we must not miss is that in these matters, we might have total agreement on the content (and perhaps meaning) of the theological facts under discussion. However, the form in which we teach them demonstrates how we imagine these truths ought to affect us. This is the difference between the modernist and the Christian: the modernist cannot see how the form of things shapes the sentiment towards the truth, which can ultimately shape the whole view of truth.

All of these matters are, in a sense, pre-cognitive. They provide a sensibility, a sentiment towards the facts under discussion. If the cognitive tells us who God is, the imaginative tells us what He deserves. If the cognitive supplies us with ideas to be known, the imaginative tells us how we ought to respond to those ideas.

And since Christianity is a religion of worshiping an invisible God, we are heavily reliant on these matters of the imagination to teach us a sensibility toward the truth. Therefore, the pastor who wishes to see affections properly shaped in his people must think carefully about such matters as the poetry in the lyrics of our songs, the music used in worship, the religious artwork we use (in our Sunday School material, for example), the themes or motifs adopted in our children’s discipleship, the motives we give for people (young or old) to serve Christ, down to how we design our place for corporate worship. These are not merely decorative, stylistic matters, they provide precisely the kind of analogies we spoke of previously. Form is formative. If our analogies are not serious, it is likely that the sentiment towards the things of God will not be serious. If the analogies provoke narcissism, it is likely that the sentiment towards worship and discipleship will be narcissistic.

Shaping the affections goes beyond providing facts. It goes to considering carefully the form in which ideas are presented. It considers how the entire worldview and sensibility towards the things of God is shaped by the analogies we give the imagination.

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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.