We Americans find ourselves, slowly but surely, drawn farther and farther away from truth and reality. God’s revelation and His creation have been left in the dust of this current stampede towards the mirages of imagination and idolatry, a circumstance that Paul so perfectly articulated in Romans 1:18-25. Indeed the rising generation, fed with the milk of self-esteem and human potential, have become more enthralled with the things of fancy. The immense popularity of fantasy literature, movies, and video gaming belies this fact. The current American generation loves their fantasy: wizards, vampires, hobbits, Jedis, and Marvel superheroes are their role models and sometimes even their new religion.
Is the remarkable and astounding truth of the Bible so boring to us these days that we have to make things up to get excited?
Apparently God’s truth and stark reality are now old hat. These days, reality needs to be augmented by our creativity or replaced altogether by a VR world of our own making. Cold, hard facts have been replaced by the warmness of “story,” where a fuzzy narrative can dull the sharp edges and make bitter truth more palatable to our present-day sensibilities. Speaking objective truth in love is now frowned upon and the greatest sin is to “harsh someone’s buzz” and take away a person’s safe space. Much better, they think, to bring harmony to mankind by blurring the dividing line of God’s truth through loving acceptance, compromise, and syncretism.
Getting Our New Reality From The Imagination
Have we lost sight of reality? Even so-called “reality” TV shows are (more or less) scripted presentations to market a worldview for the masses that both entertain and promote consumerism, diversity, and sin. And then we have the fading journalistic integrity of cable news and their dissemination of reality. On CNN in September 2017, Fareed Zakaria couldn’t put together a real-life face-to-face interview with the elusive Kim Jong Un, so he decided to go on the air by himself to spend two and half minutes on his show “imagining” a made-up Q & A session with the North Korean dictator. That’s right; he asked questions and then imagined the answers, putting as many words in Kim’s mouth as were necessary to provide the proper political spin disguised as truth. Wow. Never before in the history of television has the term “boob tube” been more applicable.
The fallen Adamic race, of course, has always been beset by such folly in an effort to remove themselves from guilt and shame to pursue whatever personal agenda they want without God. But the visible American Church? Here is the great surprise, considering the many admonitions in Scripture to avoid worldliness and all the trappings involved (John 15:19; Colossians 3:2; Ephesians 4:17-20; James 4:4; Titus 2:12; 1 John 2:15-17). Why, then, are so many Christians rushing headlong to join forces with the world in this popular, yet vain pursuit of all things imaginative and fantastic?
The Biblical View Of Man’s Imagination
The renewed inner workings of a born-again mind can be a wonderful thing to behold, and to God be the glory and praise. This informed imagination can be quite useful to devise biblically acceptable ways to live out our calling, express our faith, and reach the lost. It is a component of our mental faculties that helps us to fulfill the sacrificial imperatives of Christ to “go and do” as active ambassadors to the world, and is diametrically opposed to the indulgence of sitting and thinking for self-centered gain.
Indeed God has given us the faculty of imagination which mirrors in a lesser way His power of creativity, but the ability was never meant to be used by man to create things completely separated from God’s creation and His Truth. God was pleased to bless Adam with the right to name the animals as one given dominion over the earth and to freely use his creativity and imagination to assign an order that brought significance and a deeper connection to the world around him. Yet Adam did not create animals nor any other element of the world in which he was placed, nor was the human race ever given that right by God. In fact, when sin entered into the world, it was primarily through the faculty of imagination that man sought to be wise in his own eyes and to wrongly believe he could usurp God’s authority and position as Creator.
It was imagination that fueled the construction of the haughty tower of Babel (Genesis 11); and vain imagination that brought so much wickedness into the world that God felt compelled to drown it in His watery wrath (Genesis 6). Imagination so seized the idle Israelites that they created a molten idol for worship and were severely punished for it (Exodus 32). Disobedient priests were literally consumed in the fire of their own imaginations (Leviticus 10). Pharisees and Judiazers imagined that their good works placed them in good standing with God and were confounded when their very own Messiah came to rebuke and condemn them (John 8:44; Galatians 3:1).
Contrary to those who promote the primacy of Christian imagination, the Bible tells us that man, time and time again, has used his imagination for rebellion against God and the suppression of His truth (Romans 1). This point, of course, does not rule out the possibility that a Christian can use his imagination for godly and edifying purposes. When God redeems an individual there is an understanding that He begins (on some level) to restore the original image of God and makes him a new creation in the likeness of God through Christ Jesus.
Yet the imagination, even for Christians, is still just an ephemeral flower of the mind and not a Godlike power to create something out of nothing like an industrious factory of idols. Just as a human hand can either throw a stone at someone or wipe away a tear, our imagination is an appendage that can be used to promote sin or promote God’s truth, lead us into temptation or lead us into righteousness. But to claim that imagination is the primary attribute of the imago Dei with which Christians have the right to cut a path that leads to a higher or more significant revelation of God’s truth is simply false and unbiblical. Doing so usurps the authority and power of the Holy Spirit and the Truth of God found in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Doing so places the believer into the realm of Gnosticism and idolatry and sin, and aligns him or her with the current world system.
The Proper Use Of The Imagination
As an artist and believer, I am well aware of the pitfalls of my God-given talent. I have wrestled many times with how to juggle my faith with an eccentric imagination prone to run wild apart from Scripture. There is a sacred duty in having this gift and it must be used carefully and judiciously. I have great sympathy for the Christian artist’s plight and great respect for those who rise to the challenge and deftly display a biblical craftsmanship that truly honors God.
A great example of this is found in John Bunyan. He understood the dangers of Christian fantasy when he struggled with whether or not he should pursue the publication of Pilgrim’s Progress. His solution was to create an allegory clearly defined by unmistakable character names and indisputable symbolism; and then just to make sure the reader didn’t misinterpret those obvious literary clues, he added a surplus of specific biblical references in the margins to keep us well within theological boundaries. It was the prudent and God-honoring thing to do, even if it is now considered quaint and archaic in our modern sensibilities.
When The Imagination Is Used To Toy With Truth
There are those other writers and artists, however, who place no such restrictions on their imaginative works. The little secret that few Christian artists will admit is that they enjoy using fantasy and otherworldly imagery because it frees them from the constraints of God’s revealed Truth, and by extension, makes their art immune to biblical criticism. In fact, Christian author Mike Duran, though advocating tales that “jibe with biblical truths,” readily admits that fantasy fiction is a buffer against theological scrutiny:
“Stories that take place in make-believe worlds are LESS subject to theological analysis than stories in ‘real-world’ settings. In realms where magic is tolerable, ethics may also have wiggle room.”
By becoming “Sub-creators” (a term coined by J. R. R. Tolkien), these authors can construct a world that is radically different from the one God made and not be subject to the laws and boundaries of His creation. Unhindered by the oppressive spectre of so-called “Theology Police” waiting to pounce on their efforts, they believe they can present truth in a more impactful and mythical way if they aren’t encumbered by the need for doctrinal precision. The use of divination, necromancy, and hints of reincarnation in Lord of the Rings are deemed perfectly acceptable in the literary sub-creation of Tolkien, regardless of their condemnation by the Almighty God of Scripture who is purposefully ignored in order to gain greater artistic flexibility.
The Imagination In Full-Blown Corruption
This wayward philosophy smacks of the arrogance of false prophet Joseph Smith and his godhood of Mormonism where the ultimate achievement of man is to reign as a God over his own private world. I should know; I came out of that heresy many, many years ago when I left the RLDS Church. It should be remembered that the Book of Mormon is also a product of the human imagination, rich with high adventure and compelling characters, but rife with subtle error and ultimate deadly deception. Though presented by Smith as inspired literature on a level with the Bible, the Book of Mormon nonetheless is eerily similar to the popular fantasy books of today that some Christians claim offer them valid and sacred spiritual insight.
In his article, Evidences of the Book of Mormon, Daniel C. Peterson makes this shocking comparison:
“The only book that I could think of that may resemble [the Book of Mormon] in some way (some people have pointed this out) is something like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But we need to remember that Lord of the Rings was produced over a period of about 30 years by a man with a doctorate who taught at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. It is quite a different thing than a book that was produced in about two months [by Smith].”
Such an assessment is to be expected coming from a Mormon like Peterson, but even non-Mormons now consider Joseph Smith’s work an “extraordinary piece of literature.” Writes Catholic theologian Peter A. Huff in his article, A Gentile Recommends the Book of Mormon:
“Reject claims of supernatural origin, and we’re still stuck with homespun creativity that defies comprehension. (…) At the very least, the Book of Mormon deserves a special place in the American canon, on a par with Moby-Dick, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Roots, and yes, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What’s more, I think we can make a case for ranking it among near-sacred texts of the Western heritage such as The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Narnia, and Lord of the Rings.”
And Huff isn’t the only non-Mormon saying this, either. There is a rising chorus of advocates for the aesthetic merits of this “very strange book.” Indeed it is a sign of our confusing postmodern times when Grant Shreve, who holds a PhD in American Literature from Johns Hopkin, exclaimed in an essay:
“I didn’t expect to fall in love with [the Book of Mormon]. But I did fall – and hard – although not into the arms of the church. (…) Its strangeness, its audacity… utterly thrilled me. In it, I felt I had discovered a singularly penetrative and searching intelligence.”
Do you see the problem here? The implication that people have become dulled by the mundane reality of their tedious existence in God’s creation and are needful of the magic of a Christian artist’s “God-given” creative license to awaken them to a deeper truth is rife with danger, especially when it is indiscriminately untethered from the authority of God’s revealed Truth in the Bible. Such an art form and independent spirit is consistent with self-indulgence and hubris for it seems to assume that they, the enlightened artists, know better than God how to unpack truth for the masses. As purveyors of the fantastic, these kind of elitists have flipped the divine hierarchy and made God part of their creation, instead of stepping aside as a flawed, created being who must acknowledge God and His supreme Truth as wholly sufficient to change hearts and minds through the working of the Holy Spirit.
The Imagination: Establishing Truth Or Error?
Even worse, when these works of the imagination try to mix fantastical elements in a narrative that evokes an otherworldly sense of spiritual depth or a semi-biblical framework, then it creates a “religious affordance” that Markus Davidsen has proven can lead a reader into the arms of a fiction-based religion far removed from the truth of Christianity and more in line with neo-paganism or Mormonism. In his article, Fiction And Religion: How Narratives About The Supernatural Inspire Religious Belief – Introducing The Thematic Issue, Davidsen reports:
“Works of fiction that include supernatural features within their story-worlds serve as sources of religious inspiration and plausibility in the contemporary religious field. Films, such as George Lucas’ Star Wars, TV series, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and novels, such as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, discuss and disperse religious ideas of all sorts – about cosmic forces, witchcraft, and the dark secrets of the Catholic Church. What is more, by inviting readers and viewers to immerse themselves in story-worlds in which supernatural beings and powers are evidently real, supernatural fiction constitutes a ‘plausibility structure’ for religious belief. Spokespersons for alternative religions, including Brian Bates and James Redfield, have recognised this and have strategically used fiction to spread their message.
“In some cases, popular fiction not only inspires belief but also prompts readers and viewers to engage in religious practices that incorporate the story-world into their own lives. For example, members of Jediism, a new religious movement based on George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, aim to live spiritual and ethical lives according to the Jedi Code and perform rituals (mainly meditation, but sometimes also prayer) to communicate with the Force.”
What are we to make of this phenomenon? The art and creativity of man has tremendous potential to reflect God’s truth to the world, but it should be done, like Mr. Bunyan did, with the utmost fear of distorting His truth or presenting a low or false view of it. We should literally tremble before God whenever we embark on such an endeavor, but far too often the Christian artist rests in the belief that his imagination has been redeemed, along with his body and soul. In fact, there are currently a plethora of nonfiction Christian books out there that celebrate this “Redeemed Imagination.” It can be argued, however, that such is not the case. Will McDavid brings up a compelling argument in his essay, Corrupted Imagination:
“Our bodies may be redeemed from death, our souls from sin, but all which is redeemed finds its vanishing-point in the afterlife, and there ‘imagination’ makes little sense: its role in the promised face-to-face vision of God is dubious. That is, imagination is a provisional faculty; when we contemplate God directly, its role will fade. So imagination as a faculty, or tool, does not undergo change from the Holy Spirit as an essential element of Christian life.”
The Imagination: From The Image Of God Or The Image Of Natural Man?
This is not to say that Christians aren’t to be transformed by the renewing of their minds, as Paul was inspired to write (Romans 12:2), but where is the direct scriptural support for this extreme glorification of the imagination within American Christianity right now? In the book, Imagination Redeemed (co-authored by Gene Veith, Jr.), Matthew Ristuccia declared, “Before the beginning, God imagined.” This sounds like a deep thought, but one would be hard-pressed to find a single clear passage in the Bible that would support such speculation. In fact, this abstract idea that human imagination is one of the preeminent characteristic of the imago Dei is a present-day curiosity; little if any such view is evident in the teachings of the earlier divines of the Church, much less supported by the plain reading of Scripture.
Biblically speaking, the “image of God” speaks to man’s ruling position, his dominion over the order of creation (Genesis 1), and the unique dignity of mankind, endowed with reason and intelligence (Romans 1:20; 2:14-15), that makes the murder and cursing of men so grievous a sin (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). In the New Testament, of course, Jesus Christ is THE express image of God (Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3), to which believers will be conformed and ultimately glorified with Him in eternity (Romans 8:29-30). Within these scant biblical particulars, the warrant of imagination may be implied (perhaps), but certainly not justified as wholly indispensable to our Christian understanding. Otherwise, Paul would not have disparaged it so in Romans 1:21 and 2 Corinthians 10:5.
Yet despite this biblical view, many respected Christians today, like Gene Veith, Jr., still persist with the notion that imagination is a prominent key to Christian insight. Veith points to the “great theorist of the imagination,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the renowned Romantic poet, who was also a professing Christian. Coleridge saw two kinds of imagination, described in his work, Biographia Literaria, written between 1814 and 1816: 1) the primary imagination which aligned with the already-discussed “image of God”; and 2) the secondary imagination which “harnesses the immense powers of the underlying primary imagination” and “becomes the key faculty for literary creation.”
The problem with making Coleridge the quintessential poster boy for Christian “imagineering,” however, is that Coleridge himself confessed in an 1812 entry in his private journal to a deep, dark secret concerning his foray into the unstable realm of imagination. According to recent scholarship by Gregory Leadbetter, Coleridge saw an “element of self-conscious moral heresy” in the interaction with his transnatural imagination – which both appalled him and enthralled him.
The Daemonic Imagination Of A Christian Poet
In his fascinating work, Coleridge and The Daemonic Imagination, Leadbetter uncovers the dangerous allure (of which Coleridge was quite aware) of creating mythopoesis through daemonic and Gnostic channels of imagination. In that willing transaction inside his mind, Coleridge believed he becomes a Daemon, a term that denotes (at best) an independent or rebellious spirit of the supernatural. Because of this confession by Coleridge, Leadbetter questions the assumption of the poet’s full religious allegiance to orthodox Christianity and notes that “the restless life and distinctive texture of his writing is promiscuously open to material outside the Christian tradition” and sometimes led him into “a mythological and philosophical syncretism at odds with Christian prescripts.”
At points in Coleridge’s life, in fact, critics alleged he was “drifting into ‘pagan’ and visionary territory.” In The Friend, his book of essays first published in 1811, Coleridge valued ‘the heresies of the Gnostics’ and other spiritual philosophies on the syncretic basis that they ‘shadow out some important truth.’”
In the 1812 private journal notation that Leadbetter analyzes, Coleridge “implicitly modifies the idea of the Fall itself; rather than being an unmitigated disaster for humankind, this Fall shares the double aspect of the transnatural: the daemonic of ‘shame & power.’ Coleridge rewrites the myth of the Fall as the myth of becoming, in which the transnatural itself is both the temptation and the fruit that prompts humankind to leave its ‘appointed Station.’” Furthermore:
“…(T)he religious terms in which Coleridge articulates the double-edged quality of daemonic act indicates the spiritual risks his imagination was willing to take. In his active, if surreptitious, pursuit of the transnatural, Coleridge feels the fear but does it anyway (my emphasis).”
“In this way, the dynamics of Coleridge’s daemonic will link directly with his theory of imagination itself.”
These heartbreaking facts and conclusions are not presented to question Coleridge’s salvation or to indict him on the evidences of a weak faith, but rather to poke holes in the sails of the unfounded notion by Coleridge, Tolkien and others that the imagination of professing believers can be safely practiced outside the confines of scriptural boundaries because of a so-called “redeemed imagination” no longer tainted by the Fall. Outwardly, Coleridge may have theorized about the nobility of imagination and publicly championed it, but in secret, he knew quite well the sinful element of spiritual deception and moral heresy it often brought him and of which he also enjoyed.
Putting The Imagination In Its Proper Place
So what is the prescription to this error? In stark contrast to American Christianity’s current infatuation with fantasy, the Puritans perhaps had the most balanced view concerning the use of imagination in service to Christ and His Church. They were much more passionate and heartfelt in their expressions of faith than their critics suggest, and despite their unfair reputation as dour legalists and enemies of the arts, they had a great appreciation for engaging all aspects of their mind, heart, and soul to ferment a wonderment of Christ as long as it was guided first and foremost by Scripture.
J. I. Packer glowingly wrote of the Puritans:
“Knowing themselves to be creatures of thought, affection, and will, and knowing that God’s way to the human heart (the will) is via the human head (the mind), the Puritans practised meditation, discursive and systematic, on the whole range of biblical truth as they saw it applying to themselves. Puritan meditation on Scripture was modeled on the Puritan sermon; in meditation the Puritan would seek to search and challenge his heart, stir his affections to hate sin and love righteousness, and encourage himself with God’s promises, just as Puritan preachers would do from the pulpit. This rational, resolute, passionate piety was conscientious without becoming obsessive, law-oriented without lapsing into legalism, and expressive of Christian liberty without any shameful lurches into license. The Puritans knew that Scripture is the unalterable rule of holiness, and never allowed themselves to forget it. Knowing also the dishonesty and deceitfulness of fallen human hearts, they cultivated humility and self-suspicion as abiding attitudes, and examined themselves regularly for spiritual blind spots and lurking inward evils. They may not be called morbid or introspective on this account, however; on the contrary, they found the discipline of self-examination by Scripture (not the same thing as introspection, let us note), followed by the discipline of confessing and forsaking sin and renewing one’s gratitude to Christ for his pardoning mercy, to be a source of great inner peace and joy. We today, who know to our cost that we have unclear minds, uncontrolled affections, and unstable wills when it comes to serving God, and who again and again find ourselves being imposed on by irrational, emotional romanticism disguised as super-spirituality, could profit much from the Puritans’ example at this point too…
“And their knowledge was no mere theoretical orthodoxy. They sought to ‘reduce to practice’ (their own phrase) all that God taught them. They yoked their consciences to his word, disciplining themselves to bring all activities under the scrutiny of Scripture, and to demand a theological, as distinct from a merely pragmatic, justification for everything that they did. They applied their understanding of the mind of God to every branch of life, seeing the church, the family, the state, the arts and sciences, the world of commerce and industry, no less than the devotions of the individual, as so many spheres in which God must be served and honored. They saw life whole, for they saw its Creator as Lord of each department of it, and their purpose was that ‘holiness to the Lord’ might be written over it in its entirety.”
– A QUEST FOR GODLINESS: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life
Though excesses of piety were no doubt involved at times, the Puritans’ simple reliance on God’s word for holistic reformation was a reaction to the excesses of the Church of Rome, not only in Rome’s corrupted doctrine, but also in Rome’s glorification of the arts during the medieval age and the Renaissance which openly mixed biblical imagery with pagan symbols to win the approval and support of the heathen masses. Here, the Puritans saw a clear display of the corrupted imagination at play and chose instead to utilize the renewed mind in active, vibrant service to God by the pure word of Scripture alone and the attending Holy Spirit.
Their overarching view was clear: God is THE Author of His creation, and they (the Puritans) are the created characters within His perfect and sovereign plotline. Or to be more scripturally-specific: They are “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
In his analysis above, Packer made the reader take special note: Introspection is a far different practice from the biblical discipline of self-examination by Scripture. These days, sadly, Christian Romanticists tend to lean heavily on their imagination for inward focus and self-fulfillment, but outwardly justify their creativity with the biblical premise that they have a God-given right and duty as image bearers to find new ways to reveal and experience truth for themselves and others. But is the cultivation of imagination for personal introspection what we are called to do as disciples of Christ?