Saturday, August 14, 2010

Conversion of the Imagination

“Where there is no vision the people perish.” So begins the King James Version of Proverbs 29:18, half of a verse doomed, it seems, to be regularly ripped from its context and made to serve the latest ‘leadership techniques’ proponent—coming soon to a clergy seminar near you. It’s not that there isn’t a morsel of wisdom here, in recognising that people need common purpose to survive together; it’s that the proverb itself points to the need for an unveiling—a revelation—of God’s purposes for God’s people to flourish in a contrary world. There’s nothing esoteric or especially mystical about grasping revelation, but it’s no simple matter either.

But we like things to be simple. When things are simple we feel we can master them, and we can use them for our purposes. But revelation breaks into our world with the new, the unexpected and, despite our attempts of mastery, the untameable. We are often reductive in our use (note even the word ‘use’) of the Bible. But Scripture is diverse and complex—commands, stories, wisdom, visions, proclamation—and it is not meant to be mastered so much as we are meant to be mastered by the story it tells.

The great 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth spoke of the “strange new world” into which the Bible draws us. It is not simply the cultural, temporal and often geographical distance of the people who populate its pages that make it strange, but the unsettling and disturbing activity of God who summons us to new life through his ‘living and active word’. Living in that new life, in that strange new world, requires a conversion of the imagination. Not simply a change of beliefs, or assent to doctrines, or even just a new ‘worldview’ but a renewed imagination. This is not the ‘imagination’ of John Lennon—the wistful dream of utopian humanist possibility—but the deep, ongoing realignment of our hearts and minds, our affections and convictions, to the new reality of God’s coming kingdom, a new world already, subversively ‘on the way’ because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit.

But our everyday world is a taken-for-granted world. Even when Christians identify particular problems and decide they want to make a difference, it is often within the constraints of the wider ‘imagined community’, of the assumed way things ‘simply are’. As William Cavanaugh says, “We are often fooled by the seeming solidity of the materials of politics, its armies and offices, into forgetting that these materials are marshalled by acts of the imagination.” But these materials and these structures are not neutral, just waiting us to infuse them with new ‘values’. “Far from merely ‘secular’ institutions and processes, these ways of imagining organise bodies around stories of human nature and human destiny which have deep theological analogues.” Philosopher Charles Taylor calls these ‘social imaginaries’: the images and stories that are shared by a large group of people providing a common understanding that makes possible common practices and gives a sense of their legitimacy and perhaps the seeming necessity of this particular order of things.

Our imaginations are a theologically contested battleground. In Colossians Remixed, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat remind us that the early Christians lived in a world where images of the emperor—‘son of god’, ‘lord’, ‘saviour’—and imperial power, of the ‘proper’ gods and goddesses, were found in public squares, gymnasiums, baths, on coins, and even on many items for private use. The Roman empire not only colonised new territories but colonised the imagination of people; giving them a new ‘normality’ and socialising them into a new status quo. The more pervasive the images, the more invisible, natural and taken-for-granted the social order and its legitimating ‘theology’. The more natural the imagined community feels, the less obvious it is that is merely contingent and open to change or subversion. Into this world came Paul’s gospel of Jesus—the Messiah of Israel and resurrected and ascended as the world’s true lord. According to his gospel, the Messiah, the Christ, was the true image of God and the true lord in whom everything had its centre and held together. To those who were learning in Christ the new reality, the present order of things was seen not as normal but “passing away”.

The images and regimes of previous times seem obvious and problematic to us. But what are the ‘imagined communities’ and ‘social imaginaries’ of our time? In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith suggests that because our “worldview-thinking still tends to focus on ideas and beliefs” we do not fully recognise the “formative cultural impact of sites like the mall” despite our rather obvious denunciations of greed and ‘consumerism’. “Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall—the liturgies of mall and market—that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world.”

The Christian public response cannot simply be one of scolding wider society while we do not see through and tackle our tacit collusion with the status quo. How can we be enabled to see through the ‘passing’ reality and see God’s new reality afresh? How can our imagination be transformed? No easy answers here.

I was recently at a conference where a church leader and seminary lecturer asked how we could disciple people in this consumer culture. No one could give a substantial answer. It was as though the question had tapped into the uncertainty of the pastors present. But we must recognise this is a necessary long-term project for each congregation and not something rectified by a sermon series or an ad campaign. Our reconstruction, as Walter Brueggemann says, “is a slow, deliberate work done over time, one text at a time.” Hard work no doubt. However that’s not merely about ministers getting their exegesis right and then giving a few principles as ‘application’. We cannot live in the story of God unless we allow that story to live in us, to “let the message of Christ dwell among [us] richly as [we] teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (Col. 3:16). As we approach the Bible in congregations and small groups, we must be sure we are grasping the scope of the concerns of God’s kingdom and realise, like the early Christians, that Jesus Christ is calling into question the present order of things. And this engagement with Scripture requires us to radically question ourselves, each other and the world around us, even in its seemingly mundane aspects. Our workplace conditions and conflicts, our child-raising, our love of technology, our home design, our time on-line, our reading or lack of it, our conversation, our use of cars and energy resources, our recognition of the creation, our listening to others… there is no part of life that falls outside the concern of Christ. Activate your imagination as you give time to enter the world of Scripture with others and see the world afresh.

‘Wisdom’ is another name for this transformed imagination and wisdom does not come easy. Maybe that’s why we often lack it. Augustine recognised that Scripture is difficult and we should not shy away from that. The point of that difficulty was to keep us engaged with it together, struggling and learning and firing our imagination. As we tell and retell the story of the Bible, centred in Jesus Christ, gathered around his table of gracious hospitality and fellowship, in practices of servanthood and peacemaking, seeing each other as God’s new community, let our imaginations be mastered so we may see through the status quo and embody a genuine alternative for the sake of God’s world.

1 comment:

Ian Packer said...

“Culture is far more profound at the level of imagination than at the level of argument. Deep structures of culture are found in the frameworks of our imagination, frameworks of meaning and moral order that are embedded in the very words we use.” – James Davison Hunter in a May 2010 Christianity Today magazine interview.