Guest Blog: Imagination and Its Place in the Christian School

This two-part guest blog is written by CSI partner and my good friend Dr. Richard Edlin, the director of Edserv International in Warrawong, Australia.

– Joel Westa

As created beings, one of our greatest treasures, perhaps the dearest fingerprint of God in us, is our ability to imagine. But inevitably, whenever I speak about the “biblical imagination” someone will object, “Isn’t the imagination a bad thing? Doesn’t the Bible say our imaginations are evil?”

— Michael Card, Christian musician

Panval Viaduct on an Indian postage stamp

Panval Viaduct on an Indian postage stamp

Rajaram Bojji is a former managing director of the Konkan Railway Corporation. The Konkan railway line is 738 kilometers long on India’s west coast, linking Mangalore with Mumbai, and was completed in 1998. As an engineer, Bojji oversaw the construction of many sections of the line, including the famous 424 meters long and 67 meters tall Panval Nadi Viaduct near the port city of Ratnagiri beside the Arabian Sea.

As a part of his Extreme Railways television series, Chris Tarrant travelled the Konkan railway. During the filming, he interviewed Bojji, and together they inspected the Panval Viaduct, watching as a passenger train traversed its heights. In describing the marvel of the viaduct—the largest in all of India—Bojji said to Tarrant, “There must be some kind of divine spirit that makes humans imagine and do things that look impossible.”

The story of the creative genius behind the Panval Viaduct introduces us to the wonders of the human imagination. It also shows a Hindu engineer unwittingly acknowledging the biblical perspective that creative imagination is a part of the very character of God, and is something that he has graciously bestowed upon humanity, his image bearers. In this post and the one that follows, we shall begin to explore imagination in its full biblical context:

  • from its glorious divine origin in God’s creation story in which God graciously gifts this capacity to humanity, the pinnacle of his imaginative creation,
  • through its distortion and idolatry because of the Fall,
  • through its redeemed character because of the cross of Christ and in which God’s people are challenged with imagination’s renewal and the opportunity to use of this divine attribute rightly,
  • and finally through to the glorious restorative completion at the return of the Lord Jesus.

As we tell this story, we shall explore how significant Christian writers in recent times have explored the issue of imagination, we shall engage in a critique of some ways that imagination has been used/misused in contemporary society, and we shall give special attention to the place of imagination in the Christian school.

At the beginning of this exploration, it’s important to define what we are talking about. In his doctoral work on imagination in education, Meyer (2012) identifies eight different definitions of imagination. One of them, for example, is the ability to produce items or models (pictures, art, sculpture, choreographed sequences, etc.) consistent with reality, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, another definition defines imagination as the production of materials that are fanciful or unrelated to reality (talking horses, science fiction etc.). The Oxford English Dictionary tries to simplify matters by defining imagination as “the creative faculty of forming new ideas or images.” Gene Veith (2014), co-author of Imagination Redeemed (2015), offers a one-sentence definition (later expanded in a very helpful way) of imagination as, “the human capacity to picture things in our minds” (Block, 2014).

Renowned educator Philip Jackson (1996, p.12) reminds us that even our definitions are a non-neutral part of our argument, and the Oxford definition, reflecting as it does a secular view of the world, fails to put imagination into a Christian worldview context. We offer the following definition (Edlin, 2015), which expands on some of the thinking of Michael Card (2011): “Imagination is our minds working with our hearts and hands to be inventive and creative (in obedience or disobedience to God’s creation norms).” The significance of this definition will become apparent throughout the paper.

Imagination through a Biblical Lens

Evangelical Christians want God’s inspired written word, the Bible, to illumine our thinking and living, consistent with the affirmation of the psalmist that God’s Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). Depending upon the translation that you use, the term “imagination” or “imaginings” occurs up to 36 times in the Bible. Disturbingly for some, 35 of these references are in the negative.

In the light of the predominance of this negative view of imagination in the Bible, some Christians have concluded that imagination is a sinful characteristic and should be shunned at every opportunity; see, for example, Costella (2011), and Card’s comment at the beginning of this paper. The way advertising appeals to the self-centered imagination is one contemporary example that critics of imagination point to, as is the combination of sinful imagination and witchcraft in the Harry Potter stories. Even the Narnia tales of C. S. Lewis, despite their allegorical attachment to solid biblical themes, are frowned upon by these folk because of their imaginative references to witches, animals that talk, etc. Appeal is made to the rejection of images in churches by many reformers such as Calvin, Zwingli, and others in support of this position. The false perspective that God can be understood independently through the imagination, a position that spurned the development and worship of wooden and sculptured images within the Roman Catholic Church, seems to give some extra credence to this negative viewpoint of the imagination.

But does the Bible really view imagination as inherently evil? We suggest not. The one positive reference to imagination from among its 35 biblical appearances occurs in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. In an amazing string of superlatives, Paul says, “now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all that we can ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

There is not hint of condemnation of imagination in that passage. Furthermore, on a much broader and even more compelling front, the entire Bible itself is full of glorious imaginative language. Rather than coming to us as a systematic, step-by-step systematic theology instruction manual, God has chosen to reveal himself biblically through powerful, image-filled literature. As just one magnificent example, consider the imagination evoked in Psalm 23 (NKJV):

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The Bible is full of wonderful miracles, all of which are factual and true. But also consider the power of the parables of Jesus—imaginary stories he told to emphasize key concepts during his earthly ministry. The parable of the good Samaritan, created by Jesus to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor,” is just one case in point (Luke 10:29-37).

On the other hand, we have the true account of God’s own people, the Israelites, constructing a golden calf, a God-replacing idol of their own imagination. This is imagination as a tool of the devil.

Displaying its neo-Platonic foundations, popular expression seems to confirm this ambivalence toward imagination, with tainted utilitarian economic rationalism at one end of the pole, and elevated, autonomous freedom of expression at the other. Roques, referring specifically to the arts but reflecting upon the broader issue of imagination as a whole, expresses this dilemma as he understands many people to perceive it:

If we follow the thinking of materialist philosophers and educationalists, who tend to construe reality in terms of mathematical, physical, and chemical conglomerates, then art [and the imagination] becomes highly problematic. If the real stuff of life concerns mastering and controlling “nature”, then art becomes merely a self-indulgent game, an amusement to distract you…At the very most, it can become a willing slave of industry and…so we tap the artistic gifts of men and women to create clever commercials.

On the other hand, if we follow the thinking of those sympathetic to the “romantic” movement, art and artistic activity are the only true meaningful things in life. To engage in art is this to become a superior being, unsullied by contact with commerce or science. (Roques, 1989)

The Importance of a Full Biblical Metanarrative and of Avoiding Decontextualised Proof-Texting

How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction wherein the Bible is claimed by some to condemn a mode of communication (imagination) that the Bible itself liberally uses in order to communicate? The answer provides a salient lesson in ensuring that our theological positions avoid out-of-context proof-texting and recognize the integrity and metanarrative (i.e. big story) of the Bible as a whole. In the same way that family, work, sexuality, or culture are abused by humanity in all of history subsequent to the Fall, these characteristics, along with others such as imagination, were initially created good by God. In what is called the cultural mandate or the creation mandate (Genesis 1:28 and 2:15, Psalm 8), God gave to human beings the unique capacity to explore and shape these characteristics. The characteristics are not evil in themselves, but what fallen humanity has done with them has debased them. Wonderfully, the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ makes possible their redemption, implemented in the light of the cross through the sanctified activities of Christ’s followers in this epoch between Christ’s ascension and his Second Coming.

The picture being described here is often referred to as the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Fulfilment (CFRF) motif, which takes the whole Bible into account when understanding any part of it. Appeals to individual passages from Scripture are still valid and important in providing a sure footing for belief and action, but this appeal must be consistent with both the immediate and overall context in which those passages are found. This perspectival view of the Bible emanates from a biblically faithful worldview. Worldview is described as a way of seeing and being in the world (Edlin, 2008), and the CFRF model is framed from within a reformational worldview and reflects the sweep of human history narrated in the biblical story.

According to a CFRF perspective, there is a key concept that can be explored at each of the four motif stages. For example, for the creation stage, the concept is “How God intended for things to be.” The model has its defects. It only describes a linear pattern, and this is inadequate since working with the model in the real world reveals a blend of several of the stages across a culture at the same time. Also, the centrality of the cross is not sufficiently prominent in the model. Nevertheless, CFRF is a useful application of the imagination to the task of understanding the Bible aright.

We’ll explore this topic again in my next CSI blog post, which will contain the balance of this paper.

2 Comments

Filed under Christian worldview

2 Responses to Guest Blog: Imagination and Its Place in the Christian School

  1. Good Morning Joel,

    This is a timely post for me. Thank you for the depth. Where I currently work, we have been productively struggling where the concept of imagination and creativity fits within the work of a Christian School. We have recently been studying the work of Joseph Renzulli who has developed what is the called the Three-Ring concept of giftedness. Here is the Wikipedia link for Renzulli: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Renzulli. In summary, he feels schools should be a place primarily to develop the “talent” of all students. I don’t know if Renzulli is a Christian, but I do feel his view of the child is connected to biblical truth. He believes all children (not just students who we would label as “gifted”…all children) are created with innate creative and imaginative ability and it is up to schools to develop these abilities through the education we provide. No, he doesn’t say we need to toss out standards of learning. He believes they are necessary, but they should be used to guide us as we help students see the how imagination and creativity serve a greater purpose (as Christians, we would say this purpose is to fulfill the greatest commandment and the second which is like it.) Sometimes I wonder if as Christian schools we could set ourselves apart by focusing in on this concept (the development of a child’s
    God-given desire to imagine and create.) What if folks left our schools saying: “Wow, the Christian Education my school provided for me (or for my child) helped me (them) understand how my (their) ability to imagine and create could be used to serve God and my (their) neighbor well.” To me, our God-given desires to imagine and create are timeless qualities and qualities we can leverage to interact with a changing world. Maybe Christian schools are better off focusing on helping students develop these timeless qualities and as we help them develop these qualities help them understand how they can be best utilized in our contemporary society (meaning the current culture with its rapid advances in all areas.) Not that this isn’t happening in our schools, but instead of it sporadically happening, it became a focus. What do you think Joel?

  2. Matt-
    Great comments. I travel and visit our schools and I’m happy to say that this is indeed happening in many of our schools. There is a constant struggle for balance in this area…preparing kids to transform culture for Christ while excelling academically and being creative thinkers should not be mutually exclusive, but unfortunately in some cases, something falls by the wayside….and it’s usually the development of imagination and creativity at the expense of the others. I heard Andy Crouch speak a while back about the concept of mastery and how that concept is lost in the current educational environment. We are so laser focused on our students succeeding academically and preparing our kids to have a career (Andy used coding as an example….you can be a master of coding at 15 years old, but not a master of the cello at any point in your life) and we lose sight of instilling the concept of being imaginative and as God’s creation, being creative! My friend Richard Edlin tells the story of the math teacher struggling to find ways to incorporate God into math….he replies, “you don’t need to add Him to math, He created math! It’s one of the languages God uses to define creation!” We should be preparing our students to be confronted with the imaginative God and creator, who calls us to be imaginative and creative as well…it’s part of our being made in His image!

    Thanks!

    Joel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *