Why imagination is great (and why many evangelicals don’t like it)

I’ve written before about the dichotomy between Truth and Love, and I suggested (perhaps unfairly) that Truth was a more evangelical concern, whereas liberals are perhaps more concerned with Love. And there’s a similar dichotomy between imagination and rationality, or between art and science, and again this has liberal/evangelical implications.

In my experience, Evangelical Christianity (for the most part, with honourable exceptions) tends to view imagination and art with considerable suspicion – for example, the reaction among some to Harry Potter, which I think is largely a failure to appreciate imagination and symbolism.

Why evangelicals don’t trust imagination

It’s not all that difficult to see why this is so. Evangelical Christianity is arguably a fact-centred faith, which holds Truth as its key foundation, founded on the solid rock of Scripture. For evangelicals, the Bible is a record of definite historical fact, and also of timeless truth and changeless command rooted in the fixed character of God the righteous law-giver. There’s little room within these parameters for creativity, or imagination, or for art except that which depicts biblical themes and can be used for teaching or evangelistic purposes.

Secondly, Evangelical Christianity is concerned with order, rightness and propriety; with law, structure and authority. Things are to be done, literally, ‘by the book’, in the proper and God-ordained way, according to the rules. There is a divine order and pattern to all things, which humans must learn to follow like the steps of a formal dance. Again, there is little room for human invention, creativity or imagination.

Imagination and art introduce a jarringly – or excitingly – flawed, fantastical and fickle human element into this neat and harmoniously ordered picture. Imagination is inherently disruptive, subversive, mischievous, playful. It’s creative and inventive, irrational and emotional, wild and free. It challenges norms and conventions and subverts the status quo.

If evangelical religion is a formal dance to sedate chamber music, imagination is more of a wild freestyle dance to improvised rock or jazz – of which more later.

Imagination and disorder

Of course, imagination and art can be unhealthy or disordered. Not everything that comes out of the human imagination is good or helpful. But imagination itself is a good thing.

Imagination and art are gifts of God. Yes, there’s a place for order, for structure, for solidity. But I believe that place is to form a solid, secure foundation and framework for creativity and imagination, for art and story and play.

Disorderly is not always the same as disordered. I do believe that God is a God of order and harmony and beauty. But I’m not convinced that his order and harmony and beauty always look the way we expect them to. God often does things in a counter-intuitive and upside-down way – even sometimes, dare I suggest, in a subversive and authority-challenging way.

God is also a God of paradox and irony. Just as his wisdom is sometimes shown in apparent foolishness and his strength in apparent weakness, I believe that his order and harmony are sometimes best shown in apparently chaotic and playful improvisation.

I think of the romp at the resurrection of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or the literally bacchanalian carnival at the end of Prince Caspian. God sweeps through the dull, rigid, lifeless systems of the old order with his new, liberating and deeply disruptive life. It’s almost pagan; almost, but not quite; almost, but Christ-redeemed.

it’s why I love Mike Riddell’s poetic and playful Godzone and Frederick Buechner’s profoundly human writings, whereas works of systematic theology (however brilliant) leave me cold.

I want to break free

A number of years ago, while still in my broadly ‘evangelical’ phase, I wrote the following not-very-good poem:

Christianity and poetry seem expected by tradition-and-convention
To be of regularity and regulation,
Reason set in motion by the long-repeated rules
Of rhyme and rhythm, not of
Revelation – fluidity and flow and flight and freedom,
Which to me are Christianity and poetry –
Something of rivers – living – breaths – and atoms spinning –
Flowering and flying – light
That shapes and is reality (forget religion).

Yeah, I did say it wasn’t great 😉 . But the gist was that I was longing for a freer, wilder, more poetic and open faith of the heart, rather than one of sound doctrines, systematic theologies and set forms. I wanted to run free through wide open spaces of the spirit, rather than sit in cramped corridors of correct creeds and moral codes. I’d glimpsed the sky and I wanted to soar above the clouds.

I suspect that a lot of people get tired of what seem like all the life-sapping restrictions and rigidities of codified religion. Many seek to escape into a personal spirituality based on following the heart, rather than trying to adhere to the doctrines and disciplines of formal faith.

However, I believe the rules and disciplines are helpful (even vital), not as an end in themselves but as a starting point. Anyone who’s tried to bring up small children knows that to start off with they need fairly black-and-white rules and clear boundaries, before later gradually learning the shades and nuances, and being able to make their own more complex moral decisions.

It’s important to learn and internalise the ‘rules’ in order that ultimately – at the right time and in the right way – we can break free from them. This is true in music, art and indeed poetry as well as in life and in faith. Only by knowing where the boundaries lie can we learn when it’s okay (even good) to cross or ‘transgress’ them – for example, when it may be right to tell a lie in order to protect the innocent.

Ultimately the rules and limits are there to provide a structure, a framework within which there can freedom for creativity and play and discovery. Like walls they’re simply there to provide protection and shelter, and to enable the really important stuff to take place within the space they surround.

So we need both sides – the rational, logical and ordered, but also the poetic, artistic and imaginative. We need both the rules and the heart, both the rigid walls and the free space they enclose, both the ‘evangelical’ and the ‘liberal’.

Postscript: playing by ear or by the score

One of the things I’m quite good at is playing music by ear. If I hear a piece a couple of times, I’ll make a fair go at bashing it out on the piano or guitar. I’ll get the feel of the piece, if not the exact notes.

But give me the sheet score for the same piece and I’ll struggle through it slowly and painfully; it might be more accurate and have all the ‘right’ notes, but played by me it won’t sound great. However, give the same sheet music to a professional musician and they will make it sound effortlessly beautiful, whereas they may struggle if you ask them just to play by ear.

Classical music is an essentially formal discipline, relying on lengthy training to play note-perfect by the score. You don’t get marks in classical for improvising. Rock, pop and jazz by contrast rely on spontaneity, ‘feel’, vibe, exuberance and energy rather than note-perfect rendition of a score.

Classically-trained musicians and music critics often sneer at popular music as low art for the musically illiterate. Conversely, rock and jazz musicians dismiss classical music as staid, dull, rule-bound ‘establishment’ music. But I love both types, and I’m convinced that both have their place. Both can learn from each other, and there’s far more overlap than at first appears.

There are rules and structure even in rock, jazz and improvised music; and there’s room for interpretation in classical music – no two performances are exactly the same. And of course much rock and jazz is formulaic and dull, while much classical music is vibrant and visceral (think The Rite of Spring).

And it seems to me that liberal and evangelical Christians – and high and low church Christians – may be in a similar position. We dismiss and fail to understand each other because we come from such utterly different schools of spirituality. We can’t see the value in each other’s different formulations and expressions of faith. Yet we have much to teach each other and much to learn from each other, if we can only break out of our little boxes and trenches and stop seeing each other as heretics or enemies.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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7 Responses to Why imagination is great (and why many evangelicals don’t like it)

  1. The best and most creative artists (Picasso Cetane for example) have/had a solid grounding in classic drawing techniques. The best and most creative cooks are have their base in classic French cookery. I guess that Keith Emerson proves that the rule does not extend into the world of music.

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    • Very good 😉

      Must admit I’m not too familiar with Keith Emerson’s output and from what you say I might just keep it that way! I think classical/rock crossovers are always a bit doomed – maybe it’s a bit like trying to get evangelicals and liberals to work together. And who on earth would be crazy enough to try and do that? 🙂

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  2. Pingback: Going on holiday is… silence in your head | From guestwriters

  3. tonycutty says:

    “Imagination is inherently disruptive, subversive, mischievous, playful. It’s creative and inventive, irrational and emotional, wild and free. It challenges norms and conventions and subverts the status quo.”

    Sounds to me an awful lot like God…..

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  4. Brianna says:

    Your passage was very well written sir.
    I used to be a over imaginative, free spirited gal who in time clashed with a more legalistic version of myself. In time I became caged up and could no longer find the freedom in Christ. There is certainly a healthy balance between both that I feel you hit right out of the ball park.
    -Bri

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    • Hi Bri, thanks so much for your comment, I really appreciate it! I think most of us struggle to maintain the healthy balance and tend to keep veering off too far one way or the other. But I really hope you’re finding it possible to enjoy more of your imagination and free-spiritedness again these days 🙂

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