“The constructs of the imagination tell us things about human life that we don’t get in any other way”—Northop Frye
Last week in the Pastoral Notes, I took time to express the importance of the imagination for a strong and vibrant faith in Jesus Christ. The reasoning was simple. If we are going to see and live according to “…the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), then we must possess the ability to envision the invisible—we must be able to imagine.
Whether we know it or not, we imagine all the time. Every time I lose my wallet and my dear, patient wife asks me, “Where were you last time you had it?” she’s calling on my imagination. Simple questions like, “What did you have for dinner last night?” or “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” are imaginative questions. You’re being asked to mentally retrieve something in the past or cast a vision for the future. You’re being asked to see with your mind something that you can’t see with your eyes.
The imagination also has a deep-seated moral component. Little girls play house and want to dress up like Mommy, because Mommy is the hero they want to be like. Little boys dress up like a superhero, because that’s the vision of what it means to be great. We grow toward that which our imagination is captured by.
Any time we have expectations or hope or an idea for how something ought to be, we are using our imagination. For instance, “What’s your idea of a perfect Christmas morning?” That question is asking you to build a mental image. The person answering is likely to channel certain images and feelings that will evoke a “this is the way things ought to be” moment.
Anytime we’re thinking in the category of the “way things ought to be,” we’re employing to more or less degree the moral imagination. We’re conjuring in the mind a perspective or an image of the good and beautiful life. That image however fuzzy has the power to shape and direct a life. You will inescapably move toward it.
This is why we have to keep a close watch on what’s grabbed our imagination. Does our imagining align with God’s vision for the good and beautiful life? To keep our moral imaginations holy and healthy, we must have our hearts captured and then shaped by the narrative of Scripture.
For instance, when we read the story of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea or David’s clash with Goliath, we’re immersed into a (true) story that shows us God’s power to conquer what looks like unstoppable evil and to rescue His people in what looks like impossible situations and to do in the most unlikely of ways. The imaginative power of the characters, events, and the storyline can “baptize” our minds (to steal a line from C.S. Lewis) and then direct our lives toward the good, right, true, and beautiful.
The more such biblical stories capture our minds, the more power they carry to strengthen our trust in God and condition our obedience to His call. In other words, as the Scriptures through the power of the Holy Spirit lay hold of our imaginations our moral lives are shaped according to God’s heart.
We must be disciplined to stir up the imagination to the enchantment of the gospel story. We must remember time and again that not just Moses and David have come, but an even a greater Hero has emerged. And He came conquering what looked like unstoppable evil, to rescue His people from what looked like an impossible situation, and to do it in the most unlikely of ways. His name is Jesus Christ. He is the babe in the manger, the man on the cross, the resurrected Savior in the sky, and one day returning King of King who is remaking heaven and earth.
The more this story gets in you, the more power it will have over you, and the greater shape and direction it will give to the unfolding of your story—I mean God’s story in and through you.