As an educator, I’ve been thinking about the importance of imagination for a few years, ever since I read the book The Abolition of Man, where C. S. Lewis writes: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” The work of irrigation entails engaging imaginations. But if you are like me, you have never heard a sermon on imagination.
The world speaks about the importance of imagination more than the church does. In John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” he imagines a utopian world without boundaries, without religions, and without countries. The assumption is that boundaries are the cause of conflict. Lennon longs for an end to wars and strife and for the establishment of peace, and he asks his listeners to imagine with him. Here is the chorus:
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.
When Lennon sings that he is “not the only one,” he is right. His song has touched millions of people, and they sing along with him.
Imagination is one of the most powerful forces in the world. The evidence is all around us. Consider Elon Musk. One day he decided to create an electric car, believing Tesla would be better than every other auto manufacturer. There were many naysayers, but we must admit Musk changed the game. Now he wants to explore space, and the capabilities of his company SpaceX rival national programs. What is Musk’s secret? The two keys to his success, he says, are taking risks and using his imagination.
Of course, imagination does not always produce beauty. In fact, if you search for the word “imagination” in the Bible, most instances are negative (Ps. 73:7; Isa. 65:2; Ezek. 13:2; Ezek. 13:17). The picture that emerges is one of people following their evil inclinations through their wild imaginations. Psalm 73:7 says, “From their calloused hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits.” The problem here is that people’s imaginations are not tethered to God’s Word, but to their own sinful desires. Our imaginations need a starting point, a soil in which to germinate, take root, and grow.
The starting point of our imaginations makes all the difference. If the grounding of our imagination is sinful, then creative sinfulness will emerge. If the grounding of our imagination is goodness, truth, and beauty—namely, God’s own self—then creative goodness, creative truth, and creative beauty will surface. Imagination works best when it binds itself to God. In his essay “The Well and the Shallows,” G.K. Chesterton makes this point when he says, “Those who leave the tradition of truth do not escape into something which we call Freedom. They only escape into something else, which we call Fashion.”
Abraham, the patriarch, offers a different paradigm. God approaches Abram in Genesis 15 in a vision and reconfirms God’s promises to him. It is significant that God comes to him at this point because Abram just engaged in combat with several kings to rescue his nephew, Lot. Not only is Abram’s life in jeopardy, but he also is wondering whether he would ever have a son.
“Do not be afraid, Abram,” God says. “I am your shield, your very great reward” (Gen. 15:1). God promises Abram that he will have a child and many other descendants. “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them. … So shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5). This was the turning point of Abram’s life. God allowed him to use his physical eyes to see an invisible reality and make that invisible reality into a vision worth pursuing. This is what Paul calls faith:
In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:18-21, ESV).
Abraham believed and walked in faith because his imagination, tethered to God’s promises, fired his heart.
If this reading is correct, then imagination, touched by God’s Word, strengthens faith, and faith exercised strengthens imagination. Imagination, therefore, gives spiritual eyes, the ability to see what is not there, and the power to birth it into existence. Therefore, we neglect our imaginations to our peril, a danger that Walter Bruggeman, the great Old Testament professor, warns the church about.
Brueggemann reminds us that cultivating our imaginations will not be easy. He grounds his arguments in Israel’s history. At one point, Israel lost its ability to imagine. It started during the reign of Israel’s kings. The kings created an intellectual and social milieu that domesticated people and even temple worship. And under Solomon, Israel became like Canaan. The people, therefore, could only see what royal power wanted them to see. Other options became invisible, unthinkable, and even untruthful. Incrementally, Solomon re-enslaved his people. According to 1 Kings 5:13-15, he conscripted 30,000 men for his building projects. He also had 70,000 carriers and 80,000 stonecutters. Finally, exile came, and the lack of imagination continued.
This is why prophets are so important. They see the world through different eyes. In a word, they can imagine. Brueggemann argues that a prophet is one who can challenge even the dominant vision. The goal, therefore, is to imagine a better world, one that is different from the agenda set forth by the hegemonic forces that be.
The church must be an alternate voice, must offer an alternate vision, and must live an alternate life, one between heaven and earth. It must bring down heaven and lift earth heavenward. So how can it accomplish these feats? Let me borrow an illustration from N.T. Wright’s article “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” Wright asks us to imagine the discovery of a Shakespearean play, but the play is missing the fifth act. What can be done? He suggests we allow experienced Shakespearean actors to drink in the play and make it their own. When the time comes for the final act, they improvise. They use their imaginations, which are tethered to the play and to Shakespeare’s entire body of work.
The church should do the same. We should imbibe the Word of God, meditate on the character of God, and grow in the experience of the Holy Spirit. Then, like Abraham and Paul, we can walk out in faith to do, to serve, to build, and to love. If believers lived this kind of life, we would undoubtedly bring beauty down from heaven and plant it on earth, where it will grow.
John Lee is an administrator at an independent school and an interim pastor of Newtown Reformed Church in Elmhurst, N.Y. His Ph.D. is in ancient history. He is the author of the book On Generosity (stonetowerpress.com).
- In your experience, how have Christians viewed imagination? Positively, negatively or both?
- How do you feel about your imagination, and has it helped your spiritual life?
- How does the idea of a prophet as someone who can imagine a better world affect your understanding of the biblical prophets and of biblical prophecy?
- How can the local church encourage the exercise of godly imagination among its members?