Reimagining the “Christian Imagination”

BY DOMINICK WONG, STAFF WRITER

If, by chance, you happen to have had a childhood like mine, you are likely no stranger to the dizzying heights of the Imagination. For children like us who had yet to solidify that strict, adult delineation between the Possible and the Impossible, it was all too easy to find ourselves overwhelmingly lost in the fantastic worlds of television, books, and our own creation. In our make-believe, play-pretend days, we had only to say it was so and, for us, it would be. Sticks became swords, floors turned to lava, toys came alive, and for those few passing moments nothing could rival that sheer sense of wonder. Because when we Imagined, we viewed and grasped that which was unseen; we entertained worlds other than our own. By the Imagination, dreams became reality. This was by no means a trivial ability.

But then we grew up, and between school, work, and all those other important responsibilities, there was little time to Imagine save for class-time daydreams that we knew to be more fantasy than reality; and really, that was the most important thing: being realistic. To some degree or another, we had already begun to tell ourselves that it was “childish” to let our Imaginations get the best of us. Because we knew that being a grown-up is realizing what is and what isn’t. It is knowing the difference between fact and fiction, and it is preferring the former. For we know that the things of the Imagination are false, and that, ultimately, the only useful, beneficial things are those that we can consider “Real”.

To us, this may seem rather obvious, but it is only obvious because we have already oriented so much of our behavior and mindset around this notion that something is valuable only to the degree that it serves our ends. All our decisions, goals, and values are based on preconceived ideas of what is and will be beneficial to us. When we become accustomed to looking at the world through this lens, self-benefit quickly becomes our only concern and, soon thereafter, the only thing we see. And so it is that when we speak of reality, we are, in actuality, referring to a “Reality” of our own creation, formed and featured around self-serving utility. In the margins of our collective myopia, there is little room for the Imagination or anything else that might contradict our “Reality’s” aims.

The totality of this social project is most clearly reflected in how we, as a society, deal with those who refuse to play the game. We tell the dreamers to get their “heads out of the clouds” and do something “productive”. Those who cannot be taught to distinguish between “Reality” and their own Imaginations we consider “Insane”. We allow the Innovator and the Visionary to Imagine only on the condition that their Imaginations promise to improve “Reality”. In other words, society considers the Imagination to be worthless when it removes us from “Reality”, and valuable only to the degree that it is enslaved to “Reality”. And yet, despite all of this, people still Imagine in unacceptable ways.

During our spare time and our off-hours, people like me and you still engage in a counterproductive, countercultural rejection of “Reality.” In the books we read and the television we watch, in our happy hour fantasies and our lunchtime daydreams, it is not the productive, socially-sanctioned world of “Reality” that captures our attention, but the worlds of our Imaginations. Many a frustrated housewife or unemployed youth has found comfort in the pages of a tabloid or the levels of a video game. Many a stressed worker or student has found relief and comfort in the safety of their minds. It is in escapist tendencies such as these that we discover something significant: to a certain extent, those who Imagine desire the worlds of their Imagination over “Reality”. For those of us who choose to Imagine, it is often because this “Reality” is not preferable.

I find it, thus, very, very interesting that, seven years ago, at the outset of this publication, To An Unknown God published an article entitled “The Christian Imagination.” In it, our founding editor, John Montague, lamented what he conceived to be a crippling lack of Imagination in the Church and then went on to detail how and where Christians like us might apply our Imaginations. From politics, to business, to literature, to art, Montague believed that we as Christians should not “assimilate” to “Reality’s” standards, but rather, that we should find in the Imagination a means of improving “Reality” on the basis of Christian principles.

I believe that in a society so oriented around what we perceive to be “Real”, John Montague’s call to the Imagination is truly admirable and I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiment. Yet, I hold to the notion that when we speak of the “Christian Imagination”, we call forth something much more significant than what he envisions. In remarkably similar manner to that of society, John’s article values the Imagination for its capacity to better our “Reality”. I believe that the Christian Imagination is capable of much more than mere improvement. The Christian Imagination is a complete rejection of what we call “Reality” that seeks not to improve, but to restore. And so, before we as Christians can even begin to Imagine, we must first understand our reason for doing so; we must first understand what we hope to restore.

Up until now we have spoken of the Imagination’s antithesis as “Reality”, chiefly because that is the term with which it refers to itself, but I assure you, what is commonly called “Reality” is anything but real. Christ referred to it as the “World”, the “kosmos”, which meant more than just planet Earth, but rather “the current order of things”; a corruption of the original order. How did this order break? What turned “Reality” into something unreal?

The first chapters of the Genesis account detail the original order; Reality without quotation marks; the World as it should have been. It describes this World as perfect, created and sustained by God for His glory with mankind placed in a Garden; just two lovers. Everything was good. Everything was real.

And then we Imagined.

We Imagined a World without God; a World apart from God. In that first temptation in the Garden, Satan invited us to doubt God’s Word.  “…Did he actually say…?” (Gen 3:1 ESV) In our minds, God’s Word became lies. “…You will surely not die.” (Gen 3:4 ESV) In that fateful moment when we chose lies over truth, our eyes became blinded to the truth itself, and as punishment for Imagining a “Reality” apart from God, our Imagination became our “Reality”. In this false “Reality”, it is not God that sustains us, but ourselves. We make food and the food gives us life. We work hard and the work gives us strength. We earn money and the money gives us worth. Here, value lies not in what glorifies the Creator, but in what benefits us, the creation. We have constructed a self-serving “Reality” that worships self-gain. Our Worldview, our cosmology, has become broken. Our “Reality” is no longer real.

Ironically, it was only in this broken “Reality” that the Imagination could take on new meaning. When everything was real and everything was true, the Imagination could only be lies. But now, in this fabricated World of falsehood, the Imagination points to truth. For Jesus is himself, “…the way, and the truth, and the life…” (John 14:6 ESV), and in His life, death, and resurrection, he proclaims a restoration of this broken World to the original Reality, created and sustained by God for his glory. It is the need for this restoration that the Imagination makes so clear. Because, at its root, all Imagination reflects the truth that this “Reality” is broken. Even those without Christ know this.

From jaded office workers to heads of state, most everyone becomes aware that something in this World has gone terribly wrong. Some respond to this realization with hopelessness and despair. Many choose to ignore the brokenness and pretend it’s not there. Still others try to think of ways to fix our broken World in ways that all ultimately fail.

And so it is that when we, the Church, speak of hope and joy among a hopeless people; when we refuse to ignore brokenness in a jaded World; and when we hold to an eternal solution that will succeed where all else failed — when we do all these things — it is little wonder that this Christian Imagination of ours will appear childish, escapist, or even crazy to those who are not with us. Indeed, the Christian Imagination has been called “wish fulfillment” by Freud, an “opiate of the masses” by Marx, a “God delusion” by Dawkins. “Reality” has consistently sought to stamp us out, seeing in us the worst kind of Imagination. And this should come as no surprise.

For, “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18 NASB). The Christian Imagination would be just as false and self-deluding as any other Imagination if it were not for the fact that we are being saved. In our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters, Christ is constantly saving us, healing us, and restoring us. The Reality that He is bringing about has already been established among us and is now our Imagination’s greatest hope.

In this lies the true power of the “Christian Imagination”. If, as we’ve said, to Imagine is to see “that which is unseen”, then the Christian Imagination is, “… the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 NASB).

The Christian Imagination is Faith.

Because we are sure that what Christ has promised will come to pass. We are certain that what we Imagine will become Reality. Christ has taken the same Imagination that first removed us from Reality to now bring us back to it. By our Faith we have been healed.

And so now, knowing this, we must no longer be beholden to the things this World considers “Real”; no longer illusioned by the grades, the jobs, and the endless parade of things this “Reality” Imagines. We must Imagine a Reality built on Christ, the only foundation that lasts. We must place our Faith in a Reality with God, not man, at its center. For by Faith we, “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16). And though we do not see it now, we are, “…looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).

Let this be the hope that we inspire in those perishing.

Let this be the Christian Imagination.

Dominick is a recent Cal grad who spends most of his time eating high schoolers and teaching food.

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