Archive for November, 2010

A Christian Imagination

November 25, 2010

Sometimes we speak of the Christian imagination, and it confuses people. To many, imagination means what is unreal, faked or non-existent. Christians today continually fight against secularists who contend that Christians believe in what is fantastical and unreal. Christians are defending their faith against the charge that it is not in touch with the nuts and bolts of reality. No surprise then, that Christians feel nervous using words like imagination.

The Christian imagination is not an escape from reality. The Christian imagination is, in fact, the way we picture the whole of reality.

What we must realise is that we all imagine reality in a certain way. This is necessary to avoid drowning in details. None of us see or hear all of reality in each given moment of our lives. And yet, you are not confused by what you see every moment of the day. Your mind has a way of relating the parts (what you see and hear in front of you) to the whole (the way you imagine reality).

Your mind does a huge amount of discarding of sensory information. In fact, there are enough things to see and hear in the room you’re sitting to completely overwhelm your mind if it didn’t filter most of them out. What happens instead is that we have an idea or picture of what reality is, which helps the isolated facts cohere. Our minds are continually filtering stimuli out and relating portions of what we see and hear to our internal picture of what life is, and what it means. We have an internal map of what life is.

Many are not aware that they have such a map. Most people’s map or idea is  incoherent, self-contradictory and largely chaotic. However, all of us have some kind of ‘whole’ to relate the parts to.  This ‘whole’ ought to be God’s vision of reality. That’s what we mean when we speak of the Christian imagination: how Christians ought to envision reality.

Our imaginations are shaped by most everything we encounter: conversations, trips to the doctor, meals with the family, the way your mother decorated the lounge, the radio stations you listen to, the entertainment you are exposed to and so on. However, the Christian imagination is most profoundly influenced by Scriptural revelation, and by the imaginations of other Christians.

When we are not under the sound of the Word itself, we need to spend time being exposed to the Christian imaginations of other Christians. When we read of how other Christians have viewed the unseen realities of life, what their ‘internal map’ of reality looked like, it helps to shape ours. It also becomes a kind of guard against the kind of imagination currently represented by many Christian publishers, recording studios and film production houses.

I am not a fan of listing out names, as if one’s giving some kind of approved canon. No one gains a Christian imagination because he ticks off authors or book titles from a list. However, I have been greatly helped when people who were somewhat ahead of me in their Christian walk pointed to the people, names and books that had helped them most. Now, the names on the following list do not represent Fundamentalist Baptists. They were not writing screenplays for Unusual Films or a Hallmark special. Some of them may well have been unbelievers, having failed to believe the gospel itself. However, every one of them was clearly influenced and shaped by profoundly Christian categories of thought. They think much like Christians should. When they describe justice, it is how a Christian should imagine justice. When they describe a king; it is how a Christian should understand wise, benevolent rulership. When they envision loyalty, sorrow, redemption, courage, majesty, fear, kindness, it is the vision of the Christian imagination. They help us see how a Christian should understand himself, humanity, and ultimate reality. They often escape the banal stereotypes and clichés so common in much popular fiction and films, including much that goes under the banner of Christian.

In this list are authors and poets. They aren’t in any serious order, only (very) roughly chronologically so. I’ve restricted this list to writers, and not included composers, musicians or painters. We could probably produce a representative list of examples of the Christian imagination in these realms too, but for the sake of narrowing our focus, the list includes writers and poets. You can find these writers in your hymnal (hopefully), on the web, or on the bookshelves of many bookstores. And, no, I have not read every line written by every name on this list.

The goal is to use some of your leisure hours to enter the imagination of another Christian, or at least one profoundly shaped by Christian culture. It’s that or enter the imagination of the sludge-pump of Hollywood, the boudoir of the magazine publishing houses, or the cacophony of most of the Internet.

Feel free to add or query, too.


Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard of Cluny

Dante Alighieri

Thomas Traherne

Francois Fenelon

John Milton

John Bunyan

Samuel Rutherford

Thomas Watson

The brothers Grimm

Joseph Addison

John Donne

George Herbert

Henry Vaughan

Johann Scheffler

Paul Gerhardt

Gerhard Tersteegen

John Bowring

Nahum Tate

Jonathan Edwards

John Wesley

Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

Daniel Defoe

Isaac Watts

John Newton

William Cowper

Jean-Marie Guyon

Christina Rossetti

T.S. Eliot

C.S. Lewis

J.R.R. Tolkien

Charles Williams

G.K. Chesterton

Dorothy Sayers

Flannery ‘O Connor

George MacDonald

Fyodor Dostoevsky

James Montgomery

Frederick Faber

A.W. Tozer


Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – 4 Judging Culture

November 19, 2010

Christians often imbibe facile and unhelpful definitions of legalism. One of these is the idea that legalism is the act of judging the meaning cultural phenomena, or to put it another way, the act of judging the meaning of things in our world.

Christians live in the world, and therefore Christianity is to be lived out in the world. Christians live in a world that is full of meaning, because it was created by an intelligent Creator who invested it with His intended meanings, and because it has been fashioned and shaped by intelligent creatures who have fleshed out their understanding of its meaning.

Meaning is everywhere. Wedding ceremonies have meaning. Eating at a dinner table instead of eating a TV dinner in front of the box has meaning. Meaning exists in churches with high arches, as it does in churches with flat ceilings lit with fluorescent-lights. The colors worn to funerals have meaning. The music played at Arlington National Cemetery has meaning. A mini-skirt has meaning, as do ties, earrings, sunglasses, tatoos, and lip-stick. Having a cell-phone has meaning, as do the paintings on your wall. Your choice of words has meaning, as does sculpture and painting. Economics has meaning, as does your choice of car.  Everywhere they turn, human beings give the raw materials of creation meaning, or discover that they already possess meaning. We are intelligent beings created in the image of an intelligent God, and it is in our nature to shape or interpret the meaning of  our environment, whether or not we are always conscious of those meanings.

Sometimes these meanings exist purely because they have come through use. In South Africa, there is a mini-language used by commuters who catch mini-bus taxis. It consists of holding up a certain number of fingers held in a certain direction that indicates your desired destination. Taxi-drivers and taxi-riders know the meaning of this ‘language’, a system of meaning that arose purely through use.

Sometimes these meanings exist through association. The ‘rainbow-flag’ is now associated with homosexuality. The living-dead look is associated with Gothic music. Whether the meaning created the association, or whether the association created the meaning is debated. What is clear is the practical result: the shoe fits, and the current meaning-by-association exists.

Sometimes these meanings exist because there is something intrinsic in the thing which dictates what it can or cannot (or ought not) signify. Darkness comes with some meanings inherently opposite to those of light. Loud sounds inherently communicate differently to soft sounds.

Whether people correctly perceive these meanings does not make them non-existent. If I am in an elevator and three Bulgarian men are mocking my clothing in Bulgarian, my blissful non-comprehension does not mean their conversation lacked meaning. Perception of meaning does not affect its existence. It is post-modernity to suggest that meaning is in the mind of the interpreter alone.

In a world full of meaning, it is up to the church to understand the meanings of things around them. Scriptural principles must be applied to life in the world. The only way this can be done is if the truth of life in the world is connected to the truth of Scripture. In other words, we need to know both the meaning of Scriptureand the meaning of the world. If we know only the meaning of Scripture, we lock it within its own covers. If we know only the meaning of the world, we may know the problems well, but we’ll lack solutions. We must know both Scripture and the world around us.

Is a mini-skirt a violation of 1 Timothy 2:9? Does Proverbs 18:24 affect the use of Facebook? Does James 1:19 speak to blogging? Does a church that builds an ugly building disobey Philippians 1:9-10? Do Christians who use shoddy music in worship fail to practice Philippians 4:8? Does Romans 12:2 speak to how we use the mall? Does wearing beach-ware to church violate Hebrews 12:28? These questions can only be answered if we examine the meanings of mini-skirts, Facebook, blogging, architecture, music, the mall, beach-ware,  and so forth.

It has become a kind of reflex action to accuse Christians who examine the meaning of modern cultural phenomena of legalism. This is particularly true of matters like music, entertainment, technology, ministry methods, dress and the like.  However, Christians and particularly Christian pastors who cannot discern the meaning and implications of the environment in which they live will fail to bring Scripture to life, in both senses of the term. Pastors must lead the way in scrutinising life. The excuse that “we didn’t know it meant that” will not exonerate us at the Bema seat.

It is easy to lampoon the fundamentalist pastors who forbade wire-rimmed glasses, beards, and bell-bottoms in their time. One forgets that, in some cases,  such men were trying to deal with the meanings of those things at that time, in that culture. When meaning is purely associative or conventional, it may change with time, meaning it is no longer hostile to the Christian message at a later time. This makes men of earlier times seem alarmist, just as faithful pastors who warn their congregants against current threats to healthy Christianity may seem so to future generations.

In an increasingly complex world, Christian living (and shepherding Christians to live like Christians) is an increasingly complex task. The amount of devices, technologies, media, and social sub-cultures seems to grow exponentially every few years. These are not without meaning. Conservative Christians argue that timeless Scripture has something to say to them; therefore, conservative Christians regard it is an obligation to learn what these things mean. If we love Scripture and love obedience, we should love to learn how to apply Scripture in our world.

Regardless of whether meaning is conventional, associative or intrinsic, it is there. For Scripture to be faithfully applied, we need to know the meaning of Scripture, and the meaning of the world around us. This is not legalism; this is wisdom.

Will the Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – 3 Authority and Submission

November 13, 2010

Conservative Christians are often accused of legalism. To understand what legalism is, we must first understand what it is not. One common misconception is that legalism is teaching and requiring God’s people to submit to Him.

People take to authority today like they take to a cold slap in the face. Anti-authoritarianism is preached in the cartoons, the movies, the soapies, the talk shows, the magazines, the adverts and the comments on the blogs. One of the inalienable rights of 21st-century man is to do what I want without anyone judging me. Any talk of obedience and, gasp, submission to God-ordained human authorities, produces a stampede toward the fire exits, with screams of “Legalism!” heard as the building empties. Tell some people that there is an authority above them which requires their obedience and submission, and by the time it is goes from ear-drum to brain, it sounds something like, “You must sell your soul to me, so I can manipulate your puppet strings as I wish. (Insert evil, maniacal laugh here.)”

In spite of all this, teaching the commands and prohibitions of Scripture, and insisting that those who call themselves God’s people submit to Him is not, in itself, legalism. Indeed, you can hardly read ten verses of Psalm 119 without detecting the psalmist’s unbridled relish for obedience and discipline. The Sermon on the Mount is actually Law 2.0, the Son of God’s authoritative commentary and update on the Law. Paul, the apostle of grace, has no problem with imperatives either, often rapid-firing them off at his readers. Most tellingly, the apostle of love, John, is quite emphatic that love and submission to God’s authority are precisely the same thing (1 John 5:32 John 1:6). For that matter, the supervision of God’s people by elders, and their submission to them is taught in Hebrews 13:17. Church discipline itself implies that God wants accountability, mutual discipleship and a healthy provocation of one another towards obedience and away from disobedience.

Since the biblical case for submission to God and his ordained authorities seems incontrovertibly part of healthy Christianity, why is it so often called legalism?

Probably because the contemporary view of love is rather twisted. As Jonathan Leeman points out, the two great commandments of modern love are “Know that God loves you by not permanently binding you to anything (especially if you really don’t want to be)” and “Know that your neighbor loves you best by letting you express yourself entirely and without judgement”.[1] In a climate where love is setting me free to choose my own path and affirming me as I do so, authentic Christianity seems like a claustrophobic mind-control sect. The reasoning sounds like this: Love is being affirmed and set free to be myself. God loves me, and the church is supposed to represent God’s love. However, this church imposes limits and restrictions on me and actually insists I obey. This church doesn’t represent God’s love. They’re trying to bind me, and that’s – why that’s – legalism!

The problem is a faulty and, I think we can say, idolatrous view of love. For many, love is actually about enjoying my own expression of love, whoever or whatever the object of love may be. Love is without the limits, boundaries or structure of truth. If I am worshipping the idol of my own love, Jesus Himself will seem like a legalist.

To be sure, the commandments of Scripture can be taught legalistically. That is, they can be taught without reference to the gospel, or to the Spirit’s enablement. If biblical commandments or prohibitions are taught in a way that suggests we gain acceptance through the doing of them rather than through the merits of Christ, this leads people back into self-effort and the bondage of leaning on a code for righteousness. Here the problem is not the teaching of submission, but the failure to teach submission in light of God’s fuller revelation. Subtract the Father’s love as the believer’s motivation, the Son’s work as the believer’s position and the Spirit’s work as the believer’s enablement , and you have moralism, and eventually legalism.

The solution is not to withdraw from the preaching and teaching of commands, even on matters where the application is supplied from reason and experience. The solution is twofold: teach what Christian love really is, and emphasise the motive, means and methods of Christian obedience. This isn’t legalism; this is loving God.

Will The Real Legalist Please Stand Up? – 2 Making Applications

November 5, 2010

Avoiding legalism is firstly a matter of rightly understanding what it is. To begin with, we must reject incorrect definitions of legalism. One such error is the belief that interpreting Scripture literally and applying it to modern living is a form of legalism.

For some people, legalism is another word for taking Scripture literally, and making claims that God actually commands or forbids certain actions in the 21st-century.  Apparently, to remain a minister of grace in the eyes of these folks, you need to keep all teaching broadly generic, and keep Scripture wrapped in its historical cocoon. If you attempt to draw a line from text to Tuesday morning, you’re a wooden literalist, and a legalist. (On the other hand, if you take their advice, you’ll be told by others that what people really want is “practical sermons” that “deal with the real world”.)

Now where there’s smoke, there’s sometimes fire. And a jitteriness about sermons making modern applications from ancient texts isn’t to be solely attributed to disingenuous hearts. Some of it comes from having heard one too many preacher produce applications from thin air. Perhaps you’ve sat listening to a sermon and been jolted by applications that seemed to burst in the door unexpectedly (for nothing in the text warned us they was coming). That’s not to say such applications are Scripturally indefensible or, for that matter, equally destructive. The problem is, often enough, good pastors and parents have correctly instructed their charges regarding Christian living, but have done so with little warrant from Scripture. The warrant may or many not have been there in Scripture; too often it was not made clear.

A generation of people were simultaneously told that everything must be “Bible-based” and that such-and-such an application was “obviously what godly people have always done”. The dissonance between the two has produced some scepticism. It’s also produced a pendulum swing in the other direction, where people supposedly devoted to the authority of Scripture will not let it speak outside its own covers. If Scripture does not supply the application in the text, they regard it as legalism to supply one.  And such neo-legalists are in danger of becoming libertarians at the same time, for in their minds, Scripture forbids little of what they do.

Once a pastor gives an apparent application of Scripture from the pulpit, he is, in essence, bringing such a matter to the consciences of his people as a matter of obedience or disobedience. This task he must not shirk, but this task he must do very skilfully. For if he insists people do what God has not called for, God may one day say to him, “This I commanded not, neither came it into My mind.” On the other hand, should the preacher decide that certain applications would be upsetting and unpopular and therefore skirts them, he will be guilty of having failed to unleash the power of Scripture to speak to all of life.

Warrant is the issue here. If there is warrant to connect a Scripture to contemporary life, then a reasonable application can, and in fact, has to be made. The right approach is neither to retreat to applications made purely on the assertive confidence of the preacher, nor to move out to the irony of legalistic antinomianism. What is needed is for teachers of Scripture to think clearly about the warrant for applying Scriptural principles to contemporary life.

The three sources of knowledge are authority, reason and experience. Authority is Scripture. Reason is the God-given ability to inductively or deductively reach the truth through logic. Experience is observation and analysis of observable experience in the universe. If reason and experience provide us truth about matters like music, aesthetics and culture (and they do), and Scripture expects us to worship with music, approve what is excellent and obey God in the world (and it does), then there is sufficient warrant to make applications about such things. That isn’t legalism; that’s furnishing a believer for every good work (2 Tim 3:17).

If a warrant is tenuous, we ought to say so. On the other hand, if the warrant is established through sound reason, and the good judgement of experts, critics, professionals, or other authorities in that field of knowledge, it is not legalism to make the application. In fact, it’s the opposite. It is being responsible enough to apply truth from Scripture to the lives people lead.