A Christian Imagination

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.

Augustine

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

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