Church and culture — the imagination as a means of grace…


“The Christian church has been guilty of a great abdication.”

Somehow, we’ve forgotten that art, beauty, and the imagination are important to the life of the Church—to the life of the Church as the Church and to the life of the Church as it lives in the world.  It’s this unfortunate situation that Leland Ryken seeks to reverse in a stimulating article entitled “The Imagination as a Means of Grace.”

We erroneously think that our world view consists only of ideas. It is a world picture as well as a world view, that is, set of ideas.

A Christian world view consists of the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed, but equally important is the Christian world picture that guides our life. We are influenced in our Christian lives by pictures of Cain and Abel, Mary and Martha, Ruth and Boaz, as well as doctrines of providence and justice.

[T]he Bible, as our supreme embodiment of the truth by which we need to live, and as our supreme model to follow in our own efforts at expressing God’s truth and beauty, communicates God’s truth and beauty in all possible ways. It does so, moreover, with obvious artistry. We need to lay to rest the heresy that God’s work is never artistic.

Ryken reminds us that God’s work includes the arts since the Church is given a “cultural command as well as a missionary command.”

The Christian church must be active on every front in our society—in science, in economics, in education, in politics, in the arts, in the media. God gave his followers a cultural command as well as a missionary command. We should not set these up as rivals. To relinquish our presence in any cultural area only weakens the Christian voice in our culture as a whole and makes evangelism all the more difficult. Our attitude toward the arts says something about the God we proclaim, and I fear that we often send the wrong signal to our culture

Three biblical principles undergird Leland Ryken’s argument that “the imagination can be a means of grace”:

  1. Creation:  “[T]he Christian doctrine of creation assures us that human creativity can be honoring to God. God himself created a world that is artistically beautiful and delightful as well as utilitarian.”
  2. The intrinsic value of art:  “The artistic imagination is free to be itself. What it produces under the guidance of God is good in itself. The robe of Aaron tells us that. We read that the embellishment of Aaron’s priestly garment was ‘for glory and for beauty’ (Exodus 28:2).”
  3. The truth of the imagination:  “The Westminster Confession of Faith defines providence thus: ‘God the Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things. …’ That is one way to grasp providence. Psalm 23 fills our imaginations with the images that comprise the daily routine of a shepherd and his sheep. That is another way by which we grasp providence.”

Having put forward a very positive case for the imagination, Ryken properly qualifies his “enthusiasm for the arts and the artistic imagination as one of God’s great gifts to the human race.”  He acknowledges that the “imagination and the arts did not escape the effects of the Fall. The imagination is neither more nor less depraved than the mind, the will, and the emotions.”  He also points out that the visual arts do not escape criticism in Scripture, as in the case of the golden calf which was the instrument of idolatry in Exodus 32.

To return to my positive thrust, then, the imagination, though capable of fallen ends and means, remains in principle one of God’s good gifts to the human race, to Christians individually, and to the Church. It was intended to be, and it can still be, a means of grace.

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