Archive for the ‘Moral Imagination’ Category

Save Them From Secularism

March 20, 2013

Last year, I did a series called Pre-Evangelism For Your Children. I compiled those posts, re-worked them, and added some material on manners and education. The result is this booklet, aimed at parents and pastors, to think through how we create a Christian ‘thinking-grid’ or worldview in our children. While trusting entirely to the decisive work of the Spirit in bringing regeneration, we must not fail to use all means possible to instil in children an imagination shaped by Christian categories, to prepare for and support the gospel and orthodox doctrine.

As a pastor and parent, I’m concerned at how oblivious we seem to be at the many ways that we inculcate a secular imagination. This book is an attempt to point out some of the possible gaps in our thinking and practice.

It’s free for five days at Amazon. If you find it helpful, promote it to other parents, grandparents, pastors, etc.

Save Them From Secularism2

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Cheap Thrills – 7 – Escape to Never Never Land

March 1, 2013

Popular art is accused of being escapist. Kaplan agrees and disagrees. He argues that popular art seeks to escape the ugliness or troubles of this world, but it does so differently to serious art. Art may give us an idealized depiction of the world, but it seeks to transform the reality of the world. Real art may show us the world that is, or even the world as it might be. Popular art simply shows us the world as we would have it.

It does this not through its use of symbolism, for all art makes use of the symbolic. Instead, popular art attractively packages the world by glossing and varnishing it. It prettifies, delighting with sound, shape and colour in overpoweringly sweet doses. The escape comes through shutting out the reality, and then envisaging a world in which we are the heroes, the overcomers, the desired lovers, the powerful, beautiful people. It is a world of our own making, where everything is selected and placed in our own interest. Defects are polished and characters flattened, lest they evoke pity instead of soothing sentimentality. We quickly recognise the stereotypes, and fill them with the feelings we know we are supposed to have.

Once again, popular art is an exercise in narcissism. It assures us that our prejudged values are correct, and our very narrow perspectives are the correct ones. All art is illusory, but serious art aims to return us to reality, being illusory without being deceptive. Pop art is a tissue of falsehoods, in Kaplan’s words.

Just as in the discussion of sentimentality, the problem may not be too much, but too little. Popular art may be said to suffer from too little fantasy as too much: it simply does not do enough with its materials. Instead of working far enough to confer reality on its products, it stops short, letting its prettified depictions of life-as-we’d-like-it-to-be substitute for the real.

Real art helps us to escape: not from reality itself but from our own unimaginative experience of it. We are returned more aware, more alive to the profundity of life in God’s world. Popular art simply pleasures us with the illusion of true imagination. We do not escape to reality, for no reality is even depicted. The line between fantasy and reality is blurred. It is, as Kaplan puts it, the difference between masturbation and a mature love that reaches outside the self.

Real art gives us a kind of objectification, in which we are able to see ourselves in perspective. The self and the world are understood rightly. We see people as God sees them, with divine objectivity. Popular art is all too human, and ultimately childish. We want pleasure without change, an escape from pain and ugliness without altering a thing within. And so we escape into non-existent worlds where we are already pleasured and beautiful. Popular art turns its back on a world it has never known.

***

Here are three imaginative depictions of King David’s experience of losing a child (2 Samuel 18:33). Each calls us to escape. Where do we escape to, in each one? Which returns us with a deepened sense of what such anguished grief feels like? Which actually prettifies the pain?

Cheap Thrills – 5 – Affective Anaesthesia

February 15, 2013

You can recognise popular art not only through its form (or formlessness), but through the feelings it evokes, according to Kaplan. He disagrees with the common objection that popular art is mere entertainment. All art, Kaplan argues, has intrinsic interest and intrinsic value, giving joy to the beholder without regard to more serious interests. That popular art does so is not reason enough to disqualify it as serious art. Only a kind of perverted puritanism would imagine good art to be boring, or bad art to be interesting and enjoyable.

Kaplan sounds like G.K. Chesterton as he turns commonly accepted ideas on their head. Popular art is not, as many think, an exercise in diversion, diverting our attention to other objects. Instead, it is mere reinforcement. Popular art entertains by trading in familiarity, and by trafficking in familiar emotion. Popular art does not need to be excellent in itself, it simply needs to be effective in bringing certain feelings to mind, evoking past satisfactions, producing nostalgia, and in providing occasions for reliving experiences. In other words, the emotions we feel with popular art are not expressed by the particular song, painting or poem, they are merely associated with them. In popular art, we lose ourselves, not in the work itself, but in pools of memory.

This goes back to its formlessness. The form is so schematized as to be the equivalent of cue cards for a public speaker. The form does not have substance enough to broaden our feelings. Kaplan says, “Popular art wallows in emotion while art transcends it, giving us understanding and thereby mastery of our feelings.” Popular art is, once again, narcissistic, making our own feelings the subject matter, and indeed the goal of the aesthetic experience. We are not drawn out of ourselves, but driven deeper into loneliness.

The deep and sad irony is that as we idolise our own feelings, we become anaesthetised to them. Like the addict who experiences the law of diminishing returns, as we wallow in our passions, they affect us less. Instead of growing into people whose affections are vigorous, we become somnambulant.

What might be the effects of the use of this affective sedative in worship? What might be the effects on us as affective beings, if we live on these sedatives? Is this generation one that feels too much or too little?

***

Consider these three hymns. Which of these trades in nostalgia, pools of memory, or mere association? Which is nothing more than a cue to wallow in feelings we think we ought to have?
Which calls us to investigate the poetry for itself – for its images, descriptions, language, rhymes, meter, tone? Which trades in clichés that are mere symbols for familiar responses? Which affects us but gives us mastery of our feelings? Which leaves our feelings unchanged, merely invoking what we already feel (or think we ought to feel) about the supposed subject matter?

‘Tis the Christ
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
See Him dying on the tree!
’Tis the Christ by man rejected;
Yes, my soul, ’tis He, ’tis He!
’Tis the long expected prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
Proofs I see sufficient of it:
’Tis a true and faithful Word.

Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning,
Was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning,
Foes insulting his distress:
Many hands were raised to wound Him,
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave.

Ye who think of sin but lightly,
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here may view its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the Sacrifice appointed!
See Who bears the awful load!
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man, and Son of God.

The Old Rugged Cross
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
Refrain

So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
Till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
And exchange it some day for a crown.

O that old rugged cross, so despised by the world,
Has a wondrous attraction for me;
For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary.

In that old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine,
A wondrous beauty I see,
For ’twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died,
To pardon and sanctify me.

To the old rugged cross I will ever be true;
Its shame and reproach gladly bear;
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.

How Deep the Father’s Love for Us
How deep the Father’s love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

Why “Subjective” Doesn’t Get You Out of Jail Free

October 5, 2012

I was one of those who used the word ‘subjective’ to defend my own prejudices. My approach was to enter into debate with someone on the merits or failings of some music, book, poem or film. If at some point I felt that something I loved was in danger of being judged inferior, ugly, banal or otherwise in poor taste, I resorted to the “Well, it’s all very subjective” defence. And it worked. Subjective is the control+alt+delete word for conversations about beauty that are locked; it is the ref’s whistle for arguments about fitting worship; it’s the bugle call for all parties to retreat to the culturally acceptable position of tolerating all tastes. Remind people that the judgement of the arts is a subjective judgement, and you are sending them the cultural cue that only snobs and elitist bullies would argue that a man’s personal preference could be an example of bad taste. After all, that’s intolerant.

I didn’t see how using the word subjective to ward off attacks on my tastes was an incoherent use of the term. It was rather like saying, “Well, that’s what you think.”

Yes. And? Anything intelligent to say about what I think?

On closer inspection, we see that no one should get away with using the word subjective this way.

First, all knowing is subjective in some sense. All the knowledge you have is held by a knowing subject: you. Your education was a repeated process of one mind communicating knowledge to another mind – yours. This doesn’t make the knowledge fanciful or illusory, it simply means all we know is subjective to us. No one can step outside himself as a perceiving subject, render a perfectly objective judgement, and then return with that purely objective judgement into himself as a subject. This is the foolish and conceited thinking of some Enlightenment thinkers.

Second, some things are known only subjectively. The knowledge of persons is such knowledge. To treat a person as an object to be studied violates his personhood. We must know people subjectively to know them truly – in a relationship of trust and commitment. Knowledge of ethics, and knowledge of beauty is much more like this kind of knowledge than the knowledge of arithmetic or physics. This doesn’t mean that truth in these areas is unobtainable. It means that truth in these areas is not gained through the scientific method, but through the process of subjective judgement.

Third, humans still seek consensus on matters obtained through subjective judgement. Witness people debating over the merits of certain music. Observe people disagreeing on history’s verdict on a person’s life. See how people argue over ethical issues. Debate (when carried out by rational gentlefolk) is an attempt to reach consensus. And the elephant in the room is the question, why work so hard to reach consensus, if subjective judgements cannot be held to a standard outside of themselves? Why seek consensus, if a subjective judgement reflects nothing more than a subject’s state of mind? We should by now be content to let every man be right in his own eyes. That the debates continue show that as much as we like to use subjective to defend our prejudices, we do not fully accept the argument ourselves. We long for others to agree that our tastes are good, even if it be by their silent acquiescence. Culture is itself a form of moral and aesthetic consensus, without which man is blind and naked in the dark.

Fourth, the whole use of subjective avoids the point:  what if a subjective judgement is true? Are we excused from believing or submitting to what is true simply because someone holds it as a  subjective preference?

Certainly, some facts can be more easily seen than others. An object that exists or an event that happens is easier to regard as objective than a judgement about morality or beauty. However, even these facts go through a subjective grid. That we notice some facts, and filter others out, demonstrates that a form of subjective judgement is taking place all the time. Yes, some things are easier to agree upon. Nevertheless, the fact that some knowledge requires a more difficult, critical, careful judgement does not render that knowledge unreliable or unstable. To think this way is to parrot the naive scientism of our day, with its blind belief in its own supposedly objective empirical observations (which are actually judgements).

Indeed, if the knowledge of persons, of good and evil and of beauty is knowledge obtained through subjective judgement, then it turns out that this is the most important kind of knowledge, and these judgements are the most important – and difficult – kind we can make.

To the remark, “Well, that’s a very subjective judgement,” I now might reply, “Yes. It is. And I, as a subject, am attempting to judge reality correctly, using the truth God supplies in His Word or His world. I desire to get better at this judgement (Heb 5:14), so that I (the subject) can approve the things that are, in objective reality, excellent (Phil 1:10).”

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 21 – Imagination and Shaping the Affections

August 19, 2011

Many of the pastors I have met are unwitting moderns. I should know, for I am also a pastor, and a recovering modern. That is, I am someone who believed the lies of scientism: that the way to know reality is by fact-collecting, and that humans are capable of being completely objective in their fact-collecting. To put the lie another way, point the microscope, stethoscope, telescope or some other instrument towards the universe, and you will find out a pure, brute fact about what is. If you collect enough of these facts, you might be able to construct a big picture of what is.

Many spiritual leaders apply something similar to Christian discipleship. In their view, if you collect enough theological facts from the Bible you will be able to construct the whole picture. Therefore, their aim in ministry is to discover and then supply people with these facts. All else is peripheral, matters of preference, taste, or, in their words, ‘subjective’ matters. Lucky for their people, they’re ‘objective’, and deal mostly in supplying objective brute theological facts.

As I say, I am recovering from my modernism, for it still infects much of what I do. However, a biblical mindset understands that the Truth precedes the facts, and that even our understanding of Revelation goes through a grid. That is what leads conservative Christian pastors to pay attention to the imagination.

The imagination is that part of us which gives us an intuitive feeling about the nature of immanent reality. It is our grid, our map of reality to which we refer all the ‘facts’ we encounter. It is built over years, and supplied with an aggregate of symbols from our culture(s). Those symbols, as discussed in the last post, supply the sense of proportion and measure toward all things. This is what largely shapes a person’s affections toward God, himself and the world.

The cognitive aspect of the Christian faith cannot be divorced from the affective aspect. Indeed, as we’ve just seen, there is a sense in which they are dependent on one another.  This is the aspect of the Christian faith that does not seem to be given the attention it requires: how the imagination informs how we feel about the truth. It is our ongoing response to the truth.

We can sing of God in funny limericks, or in stately hymns. We can think of the Flood like this, or like this. We can imagine the experience of encountering God like this, or like this. We can compare sin to ‘Stinky Sox’ or to a curse. We can ‘theme’ the Christian life after treasure hunts, race-car driving, detective-sleuthing or cowboys and Indians, or use the biblical imagery supplied by the apostles. We can sing benedictions like this or like this. We can imagine the event of corporate worship (and therefore the setting for it) like this, or like this. We can dress up the faith in games, fun, material rewards, or in the motives Jesus gave. The list could go on. Whatever you decide about these differing visions, there is little doubt that these examples illustrate that Christians can and do have contrasting, even opposing, visions of how one should respond to the truths of God’s Word.

What we must not miss is that in these matters, we might have total agreement on the content (and perhaps meaning) of the theological facts under discussion. However, the form in which we teach them demonstrates how we imagine these truths ought to affect us. This is the difference between the modernist and the Christian: the modernist cannot see how the form of things shapes the sentiment towards the truth, which can ultimately shape the whole view of truth.

All of these matters are, in a sense, pre-cognitive. They provide a sensibility, a sentiment towards the facts under discussion. If the cognitive tells us who God is, the imaginative tells us what He deserves. If the cognitive supplies us with ideas to be known, the imaginative tells us how we ought to respond to those ideas.

And since Christianity is a religion of worshiping an invisible God, we are heavily reliant on these matters of the imagination to teach us a sensibility toward the truth. Therefore, the pastor who wishes to see affections properly shaped in his people must think carefully about such matters as the poetry in the lyrics of our songs, the music used in worship, the religious artwork we use (in our Sunday School material, for example), the themes or motifs adopted in our children’s discipleship, the motives we give for people (young or old) to serve Christ, down to how we design our place for corporate worship. These are not merely decorative, stylistic matters, they provide precisely the kind of analogies we spoke of previously. Form is formative. If our analogies are not serious, it is likely that the sentiment towards the things of God will not be serious. If the analogies provoke narcissism, it is likely that the sentiment towards worship and discipleship will be narcissistic.

Shaping the affections goes beyond providing facts. It goes to considering carefully the form in which ideas are presented. It considers how the entire worldview and sensibility towards the things of God is shaped by the analogies we give the imagination.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 20 – More than Cognitive

August 12, 2011

The cultivation of ordinate affection depends on several areas we have already covered in this series. A pastor determined to conserve biblical Christianity will be conserving several areas, each of which affect the others. Bear with me as we tie several elements already discussed to the shaping of the affections.

Since regeneration is essential to ordinate affection, a conservative Christian church preserves and propagates the biblical gospel. Apart from the heart being given an entirely new disposition, it will always love creature more than Creator, and therefore become more warped in its affections.

Since a right understanding of God, ourselves and the world is essential to right loves, a conservative Christian church conserves and teaches a comprehensive biblical and systematic theology. Without a systematic exposition of God’s Word, with practical submission to it, no one will love what God loves and hate what God hates.

Since example and exposure are necessary for the shaping of appropriate loves, the conservative Christian church conserves biblical worship, and understands one of its roles as a ‘catechism of the affections’. Corporate worship, with its forms, order and structure provides a lesson in proportion, decorum and appropriate responses. Corporate worship is the opportunity for adjusting the sensibilities of the worshipers, so that a common sentiment towards God, the world and ourselves is developed. It is not meant to be a venue for competing sensibilities to all find expression in the name of personal taste and Romans 14.

Since sanctification is essentially re-ordering our loves to bring them in line with God’s, the conservative Christian church gives much attention to teaching personal piety, and encouraging discipleship relationships. When Christians observe ordinate love for God, mankind and the created order, it is often caught. Therefore, piety is to be encouraged in the life of the individual and the family. Practical obedience is to be stressed as essential to knowing and loving God.

Since understanding a biblical view of man is crucial to loving God ordinately, the conservative Christian church gives time to teach on the importance of the affections, the nature of the affections, and their application: what ought to be loved and how. A pastor who gives himself to all these things is well on his way to shaping ordinate affection in his hearers.

However, all of the above is not sufficient. The conservative pastor must become aware that the affections are not only shaped by regeneration, sound doctrine, sound worship, true piety and teaching on the affections. My point in the previous post was to illustrate how God shaped the affections of His people, and it was not only through information and obedience. He filled their lives with a large variety of symbols, ceremonies and rituals. These did more than regulate health and civil life in Israel. They dressed up the mere material existence of God’s people with the drapery of symbol, metaphor and analogy. Notice, God did this in addition to the moral imperatives of the Law. God knows that while our hearts can be partly shaped by what our minds know, and by what we choose, the heart’s responses are primarily affective responses, taught by analogy. Affective responses are essentially about proportion: an object deserves a particular kind of love. There is a response to an object or person that is proportionate to what it is in reality. This kind of proportionate response or just sentiment, is not taught cognitively. It is taught through analogy, wherein the analogy provides the sense of proportion. The symbol, if correctly chosen, contains the kind of affections required for the observer to correctly respond to the realities behind the symbol. Seeing an animal die at the altar evoked certain affections commensurate with repentance for sin. Comparing God to a captain of an army called for certain affections proportionate to His nature. Conversely, the high places with their analogies of sexual potency and fertility evoked inordinate affection.

All of this is to say that the pastor who wishes to shape ordinate affection in his people must become aware of how our knowledge of God and ultimate reality is analogical knowledge, and therefore our affections are shaped by the right analogies. Since God cannot be seen, how can we know how to love Him justly and appropriately? When our affective responses are responses to biblical or well-chosen images, analogies, metaphors, symbols, and signs, they will be correctly proportioned. In other words, the conservative Christian pastor must give attention to the imagination, and to form. This we will examine next.

Towards Conservative Christian Churches – 18 – Doorposts, Frontlets and the Affections

July 29, 2011

The first and greatest commandment is to love God ultimately. Immediately after giving this command, God went on to insist that this kind of ultimate love be the most conspicuous reality in the homes of His people. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 are commands to structure the home and family life so that loving God is taught through conversation and life indoors and outdoors, at rest, at work, when the day starts or when it ends. God wanted this kind of love for Himself to be as prominent as one’s own hand, as visible as if something was stuck in front of the eyes. He wanted it to be something His people would know every time they entered or left their dwelling.

God’s intention was not that His people would go on to wear strips of leather on their forearms, tie boxes with the law between their eyes, or place tiny versions of the Shema in little receptacles and stick those on their doorposts. God was figuratively teaching that love for Him ought to saturate the home-life of His people.

Deuteronomy 6:6-9 gives us a helpful take on how the affections are shaped. Certainly, the Hebrew parents were to teach their children to love God, quoting the very words of Scripture and explaining them. There was a cognitive, intellectual aspect to shaping the affections of the Israelites. They needed to know that loving God ultimately was their obligation, and they needed to know why He was worthy of such love. What we love is very much informed by intellect, refection and learned moral precept.

However, God’s words reveal that the shaping of the affections is not an intellectual exercise in the strictest sense, at least not merely an intellectual one. God’s words did not mean that He wanted the Israelites to discuss nothing but loving Him in every situation and on every occasion. Rather, God was commanding that parents should structure the environment and atmosphere of their homes so as to cultivate a sensibility of love for God. It is not merely the cognitive instruction on loving God that counts, but the myriads of cultivating influences that express or explain what loving God means and why loving God is beautiful, sensible, wise, compelling and even obvious. It is one thing to gain an understanding of what is true. It is another matter to gain appreciation for that truth. It is one thing to know that something is worthy. It is another to sense the worth of it. The first category are matters of cognition, while the second are matters of affection.

How would a child of Israel gain not merely assent to the truth claim that Yahweh alone is God, but proper affections with respect to that truth claim? By hundreds of daily shaping influences. It would be cultivated through what the parents loved. What did the parents prioritize? Was the worship and service of Yahweh first? Did they embrace sacrifice and inconvenience to worship Him? How did their treatment of Him compare to their pursuit of food, or honor or wealth? What sort of time did they devote to God? How much pleasure did they express in God? When they spoke of Him, how did they speak of Him? When they spoke to Him, how did they speak to Him? In relating to one another, how did husband and wife display the meaning of being in a covenant relationship with a loving God? How did their authority, instruction, chastening and exhortation of their children reveal the meaning of knowing and loving God? In other words, the loves of the parents would inevitably be communicated to the children. Example is a major part of why we love what we do. The prejudices, sensibilities, priorities, pleasures and attitudes and tastes of our family, our peers, our church, and the wider culture tend to shape our own.

Beyond that, Israelite family life was filled with custom, ritual, and tradition. The parents were to be faithful to keep the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routines of prayers, feasts, celebrations, days of worship, days of assembly or other ceremonies, not to mention all the civil and ritual laws. Through these tangible routines and habits of life, the Israelite’s life was filled with analogies to explain not only who God is, but how His people respond to Him. They helped him know the difference between the holy and the common. They provided sensibilities about the truths he knew. In attending worship, he heard the prayers and songs of Israel, and was catechized as to how God’s people love Him. By hearing, seeing, touching, smelling and tasting Sabbath meals, slaughtered animals, Solomonic choirs, golden menorahs, Davidic poetry, priestly incense, accounts of the Exodus, unleavened bread, kingly authority, Jubilee celebrations and hundreds of other things, the Israelite gained living metaphors of truth that evoked and shaped his affections. The affections of Israel were shaped when they were exposed to forms used by God to help His people rightly respond to the truths they knew.

Apart from God’s Revelation, none of these forms would shape ordinate affection. But assuming its presence, faithful exposition, and Israel’s practical submission to it, these forms were a necessary part of shaping the religious imagination of the Israelites. And as Tozer said, what comes into your mind when you think about God is the most important thing about you.

You Say Non-Essentials, I Say Truncated

March 15, 2011

Conservative Christianity is concerned with conserving all it means to be Christian. Broadly speaking, all Christians want to see Christianity conserved; our disagreement consists in what we think must be conserved to achieve that.

Generally, evangelicals and fundamentalists think that the preservation of Christianity consists in the conservation of the gospel itself, along with a strong commitment to biblical doctrine. If I read them right, methods which preserve and propagate the gospel and sound teaching are the means to conserve Christianity. Therefore, a large amount of hope is being placed in expository preaching, church membership, church discipline, biblical discipleship, spiritual leadership, theological literacy, clear evangelism and robust missions. Certainly, the revival of emphasis on these aspects of Christianity is to be applauded and welcomed.

While I agree with the commitment to the gospel and biblical doctrine, I don’t think these alone are enough to conserve and propagate biblical Christianity. I think several other things are essential to Christianity and need to be conserved. I believe Christianity is a life of love; therefore, Christians have to be very concerned with the matter of the affections: what we are to love, to what degree, and in what way. We further have to be concerned with what shapes those loves, what affects and moulds our imaginations. To navigate these issues, we have to be concerned with meaning, discovering what various objects, things, gestures, practices or other cultural artifacts mean, since we end up using them in life or worship. Therefore, I urge the study and understanding of such things, not because I want some complex form of Christianity, but because I think these things are essential to Christianity.

I think that Christianity lacking these distinctives is, in fact, a truncated Christianity. That is, instead of being a sleek, supple, essentials-only Christianity, I see it as ultimately incapable of sustaining the life of faith. I think that the removal of a right understanding of the affections, a neglect of what shapes the imagination, an incorrect understanding of how we know, and a failure to relate the centrality of the affections to the doctrine of sanctification will result in a severely under-developed spiritual life. The resulting Christianity walks into the gale-force winds of modern unbelief with something barely more than a mental and volitional commitment to certain biblical facts. In the face of such a storm, quite literally the majority of those who have grown up with such a minimalist Christianity are blown off into apostasy or a secularized form of religion. A small minority of people barely hang on to their creed by the tips of their fingernails. Sadly, this massive fall-off is considered normal, and is proof-texted with the parable of the soils.

In other words, my commitment to conservative Christianity is not due to cultural imperialism, or an obsession with particular applications of the Bible to behavioral standards. I embrace conservative Christianity because I think it is a full-orbed Christianity, and the only kind that will ultimately survive. I think that it is the kind of Christianity that had always existed in various shapes and forms before its secularization in the 19th century.

So here is the irony and the misunderstanding. As I look at Christianity, I think that the conservative take on it is not baroque and ornate; it is simply what is required to sustain healthy Christianity. I look at those who disagree with me and I see  a reduced, skeletal Christianity that can barely keep its own head above water, let alone seriously defend or propagate the faith in the challenging years ahead. I see the current state of evangelicalism and fundamentalism as emaciated and spiritually anaemic, scarcely holding on to life. Worse, it regards its weak pulse and laboured breathing as evidence of its healthy commitment to ‘core essentials’, and thanks God that it is not as other men are: legalists, cultural snobs, elitists, or even as this tax collector.

On the other hand, those I’m looking at see my take on Christianity as a massive confusion of non-essentials with essentials, of turning applications into doctrines, and of seeing inferences and non-biblical knowledge as authoritative. I’m the guy wearing four woolen jerseys on a summer’s day, unnecessarily laden-down with joy-killing extras. As far as they are concerned, they have streamlined, flexible, gospel-centred Christianity, free from cultural imperialism and fundamentalist taboos, brimming with nothing but Scripture and Scripture alone.  Conversely, I think this Christianity is not supple, slick and Scripture-centred; I think it is abbreviated, inconsistent and intentionally agnostic where it needn’t be.

I know God can do anything, and that God’s ultimate purposes will prevail. I know that God continues to use all kinds of means and imperfect men and methods. However, a steward does not have the right to be careless and sloppy because his Master is sovereign. I urge the ideas of conservative Christianity because I love Christ and His church, and want to see Him honoured and His church conserved and propagated.

In the Dark Age we’re in, we can’t afford to defend anything but the essentials. I’m convinced that’s what I and others who share these convictions are doing.

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.

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

Prayer and the Affections

July 12, 2010

Private prayer is taught in Scripture and almost universally exhorted by the Christian world in books, sermons and even hymns. The fact that these biblical and extra-biblical exhortations exist testifies that we are prone to ‘faint’ when it comes to prayer. We are prone to ‘cease’. A kind of inertia within us creates drag and slows whatever momentum we seem to make in our private worship.

The modern exhortations seem to take two different approaches to grow and sustain prayer. To generalise and simplify, we might term these the discipline approach and the desire approach.

The discipline approach exhorts Christians to practise self-denial, rise early, keep prayer lists or journals, and otherwise plan, structure and supervise themselves in the training of prayer. There is sometimes a suspicion that people who do not pray with such precision are guilty of messy, vague and unclear prayers. Prayer is seen as obedience to the many commands to pray, and reluctance and discomfort are to be mortified as works of the flesh. Desire is often seen as a happy consequence of dying to self or gaining a good habit of prayer; its absence or presence is however regarded as fickle and unreliable as a motive or means. Sometimes, the disciplines are valued as ends in themselves.

The desire approach exhorts Christians to pray from a wholehearted, inclined and united heart, that comes to God as He is with our desires as they now are, and seeks to gain greater desire from the act of prayer. The Spirit’s filling and illumination are primary to desire, so that God is the source of our prayer, not our own willpower. Here there is usually an antipathy towards prayer fulfilled as a duty, and a suspicion that prayer which is performed as an obligation is prayer that is insincere. Discipline is not shunned, but it is seen in reverse order from the discipline advocates: desire becomes the engine for good habits. (Often, such people exhort us to ask God to change our hearts’ desires when they are cold, instead of applying more discipline. Consequently, people exposed to such ideas find their hearts’ coldness puzzling and discouraging, since they asked God for a change of heart.)

Certainly no one subscribes entirely to either one or the other, everyone recognises the need for both. However, people tend to fall on one side of the spectrum or another, placing either desire or discipline as primary to prayer.

If we believe the affections are central to the Christian life, we believe they are the driving force behind true religion. This, in turn, means that the affections must drive prayer. And viewing the affections as primary to prayer gives us a somewhat conciliatory position on the matter of desire and discipline.

On the one hand, the affections are, in one sense, the desires of the heart. They are the inclinations, the dispositions, the tastes, the sensibilities of the heart. They are what (and how) the person loves and values things and people. In this vein, we would say that desire is primary to prayer. Furthermore, we’d agree that the affections are not driven by an act of will. In fact, the reverse is true. We agree that the inclinations of our hearts are things which cannot be changed by direct control. Prayer which ignores the current disposition of the heart, and seeks to overcome it with sheer willpower, may fall into the trap of Colossians 2:23.

On the other hand, we assert that there are ways of shaping and driving the affections. (We disagree that it comes by merely pleading with God to give you more desire.) We have discussed previously how the affections are shaped by imagination, example and exposure. And this is where discipline takes its place. Only by disciplining ourselves to engage in the act of prayer, can we be shaped by it. Only by structuring circumstances to make prayer more likely, or more lively, or more specific, can our hearts gain a taste for it. And here is where I’d part company with die-hards in both groups.

I suggest in the matter of exposure, we ought to discipline ourselves to experience prayer more and more intensely than we do. (Prayer-lists, alarm-clocks, and journals may be helpful to these ends.) However, not to the point where prayer has become a bitter experience, for then we must overcome even more mountainous opposition to it the next time we attempt it. Self-denial is one thing; putting a hedge of thorns in your own way is another. Rather, we should coax ourselves out, aiming for a few minutes earlier, a few minutes longer, or a focus that is more intense than previously. We must realise that a taste for prayer must be nursed, not force-fed. Deny the flesh mercilessly, yes; but give your heart time to grow.

In terms of example, we can do no better than to be frequently reminded of Christ’s prayer life. The prayers of Paul give us insights into God’s priorities. For that matter, there is a place to be exposed to the prayers of others, seeing by example how other believers have addressed God. Reading books on prayer and accounts of the prayer and piety of past saints can shape us to desire prayer more. However, let us beware that we do not parrot one man’s discipline, hoping it will produce in us overnight what took many years to shape in him. Rightly used, example will shape our affections towards prayer. Discipline will make sure that we are not far from the examples of godly pray-ers and prayers.

Finally, what of the religious imagination in prayer? It would seem to me that when David prays, as recorded in the Psalms, he more often than not addresses God through metaphor (“my Rock”, “my Shield” “my Shepherd”). He is concerned to get his heart to apprehend what God is like, before his understanding makes requests of God. I would suggest this is right. We are not to ‘visualise’ God. However, we are to seek to apprehend who He is, by what He is like. When our hearts are gripped by who He is, they gain spiritual momentum to maintain the act of praying, and they pray aright. Here discipline would insist that our wandering thoughts focus on biblical metaphors, and maintain a steady focus on them. Once again, not until it is painful and plainly distasteful, but longer than our Google-scan minds are used to.

A.W. Tozer said, “The presence of God is not imaginary, neither is prayer the indulgence of a delightful fancy. The objects that engage the praying man’s attention, while not material, are nevertheless completely real; more certainly real, it will at last be admitted, than any earthly object. The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual…I long to see the imagination released from its prison and given to its proper place among the sons of the new creation. What I am trying to describe here is the sacred gift of seeing, the ability to peer beyond the veil and gaze with astonished wonder upon the beauties and mysteries of things holy and eternal. The stodgy pedestrian mind does no credit to Christianity. Let it dominate the church long enough and it will force her to take one of two directions: either toward liberalism, where she will find relief in a false freedom, or toward the world, where she will find an enjoyable but fatal pleasure.”

Our failures are usually twofold: we either attempt too much, and failing, we withdraw for days or weeks, or we do not pray because our desires are not present, and we think it more sincere to not pray. Either one is a failure to see desire and discipline correctly. You cannot overcome your heart’s tastes by ‘cramming’ prayer. You cannot wait for your heart to love prayer on its own.

For our affections to be ordinate in the matter of prayer, discipline has its place to expose us to more and better prayer, to study examples of prayer, and to meditate carefully and seriously on God as revealed in Scripture. When discipline attends to these circumstances, desire may slowly and steadily grow.