Why the Church Needs Imagination

Growing up in church, I wanted the truth of God to burn in my chest, but too often it sat collecting dust in my brain. In youth group, I learned about this disease. I had a breakdown between my head and my heart, and other people had it, too. In fact, everyone seemed able to diagnose it—pastors, Bible study leaders, and teachers at my Christian college—but no one had an effective cure.

You can’t cure a nagging cough without treating the underlying pneumonia, but that’s what these well–meaning Christians were trying to do. The gulf between our brains and our hearts wasn’t the problem, it was only a symptom of an underlying disease.

The real infection was the belief that truth is ultimately a package of facts.

To lump a bunch of philosophy and history into one sentence, we have Modernity to thank for that.

The church absorbed this belief and began to think of Christians as people who believed the right facts about God. Correct belief, rather than transformed love, became the mark of modern Christianity.

Believing the right facts about God is important, but it’s not enough. Just like it’s not enough to know the facts about our friend’s two-year-old daughter who’s battling leukemia. We can google her chance of survival, see the tears in our friend’s eyes, and know that he’s devastated, but the facts only get us so far. We need something more if we’re going to love our friend. We need imagination.

Imagination is what allows the smoke of his grief to fill our lungs and sting our eyes. With imagination, we feel simple tasks turn into herculean feats and wonder whether vacuuming his house is the best way to love our friend. While facts can fill our heads, imagination is what moves our hearts.

Imagination feeds our faith

C. S. Lewis blamed weak imaginations for the lack of passion among God’s people: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

In our modern age of iPhones and data plans, when WiFi seems more vital than oxygen, a constant stream of media washes over us. Connecting to Jesus on Sunday becomes just one point of contact, lost among a million tweets, text messages, and YouTube videos.

Bombarded by non-biblical world-views, imagination finds little time to feed on truth and our ability to imagine what we read in the Bible withers. We fail to see God’s promises in vibrant hues. When lust overwhelms us, for example, we find our imaginations incapacitated by a life’s worth of self-gratification propaganda. We fail to imagine a power stronger than our biological drives or a satisfaction deeper than momentary release.

Honoring God requires frequent leaps of faith, but a strong imagination can shorten the gap.

Imagination helps us understand Scripture

God infused the Bible with images that we first encounter in the physical world, so that understanding Scripture often demands imaginative work. Reading “light of the world” John 8:12 or “living water” John 7:38 forces us to open the vault of sensory experiences. We remember the glow of a nightlight in a dark hall, scaring off monsters and showing us where the stairs begin. We recall the cool liquid coating our throats after a soccer match in the blazing sun.

A robust imagination helps us tap into the profound depths behind biblical stories, prophecy, and metaphors.

Imagination requires cultivation

As English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven.
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

Earth may be crammed with heaven, but the Bible also bursts with earth—will we stop to see? Because seeing takes time.

Racing through morning devotions in Ephesians 2, for example, comes easier than stretching our imaginations. Skimming across “dead in transgressions” Ephesians 2:5 takes half a second. Exploring our neighbor’s relation to a flat-lined EKG requires more time. Getting the most out of imagination takes slowing down. It also requires training, but unless we cultivate our imaginations, they’ll shrink like biceps after a break-up with the gym.

God painted the Bible in human experiences and the pigments of our world, so that delving into it requires a vigorous imagination. While knowing God demands both imagination and reason, many of us in the church have amputated our imaginations, inflicting ourselves with a mind-heart disconnect. With God’s help and careful cultivation of our imaginations we can begin rebuilding the bridge between our heads and our hearts.

Adapted from