Exploring an often-forgotten part of the mind, the authors examine biblical and historical precedents to highlight the importance of the imagination for knowing God, understanding His Word, and living in the world.
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About the Author
Gene Edward Veith (PhD, University of Kansas) provost and professor of literature emeritus at Patrick Henry College. He previously worked as the culture editor of World magazine. Veith and his wife, Jackquelyn, have three grown children and seven grandchildren.
Matthew P. Ristuccia (DMin, Dallas Theological Seminary) has served as the senior pastor of Stone Hill Church of Princeton since 1985. Matt and his wife, Karen, live in Princeton, New Jersey, and they have two sons and three grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
Imagination: The Mind's Eye
The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.
Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises.
"Sin" (I), George Herbert
Imagination is simply the power of the mind to form a mental image, that is, to think in pictures or other sensory representations. The imagination is at work when you use your memory. (What did you have for dinner yesterday? Do you remember what it looked like? How it tasted? You are using your imagination.) You use your imagination when you plan to do something in the future. (What is on your to-do list for tomorrow? What are you going to have to take care of at work? Do you have errands to run? Notice the mental pictures that come to mind.) Imagination lets us relive the past and anticipate the future. And it takes up much of our present. We use our imaginations when we daydream and fantasize, to be sure, but also when we just think about things.
Reading requires the imagination, which is true whether you are reading a narrative ("It was a dark and stormy night"; "Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin in 1809"; "Two people were killed Saturday night when their car ran out of control and struck a tree") or an exposition of ideas ("Examples of the economic factors would include the housing market, the automobile industry, and Wall Street"; "Plato explains his philosophy with the analogy of people chained up inside a cave"; "Christ died for sinners"). Notice how much you have been using your imagination just reading this paragraph.
So imagination is this faculty we all have of conjuring up pictures in our minds. That's all it is. Many treatments of the topic glamorize and mystify the imagination. It is associated with the fine arts and artistic genius. The imagination, we are told, is a matter of creativity. The whole concept is often presented as if it were some special talent held only by a few or perhaps as if it might be cultivated if you work hard enough at it. We ordinary folks are exhorted to "be creative!" and to "use your imagination!" But, failing to measure up to the great poets and inventors, we might reasonably conclude, "I don't really have much imagination." But you do! If I say, "Think of a tree," and you can do that, you have imagination. It is true that artists work with their imaginations and address ours. And since we can imagine things that do not currently exist (think of a tree with blue leaves), it is the faculty behind creativity. These are applications of imagination, as we shall see, but the ability itself is a God-given power of the human mind that is so common, so ordinary, that we take it for granted.
When we think of the human mind, we usually think of the intellect (reason), emotions (feelings), and possibly the will (desires, choices). Those are other mental faculties that we have. I suspect, though, that our conscious minds are occupied far more with our imaginations than with these other faculties. In fact, the imagination often provides the subject matter and the impetus for our reasoning, our feelings, and our choices. Strangely, though, we have tended to overlook the imagination and the role it plays in our thinking and in our lives.
This is certainly true of Christians, who have done much with epistemology (the study of how we know) and have long debated the role and limits of reason and the will. Actually, Christians of the past had quite a bit to say about the imagination, as we shall see, but it is something of a forgotten category in contemporary Christianity.
Some might say that Christians, or Protestants, or evangelicals are "suspicious of the imagination." But, again, in the sense that we are using the word, the imagination is not something we can choose to employ. The issue is not whether imagination is good or bad, useful or not, or something we should or should not cultivate. We cannot help but use our imaginations. This is the way God made our minds to function. But it will help us greatly to reflect upon the role and limits and possibilities of the imagination, just as we have with reason and our other mental powers.
One reason Christians may have shied away from emphasizing the imagination is biblical texts like this: "And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Gen. 6:5 KJV). In this text, the reference is to the human condition that provoked the flood, and so, one might argue, what connection is there? That was then, and this is now. But there are plenty of other biblical warnings about the imagination, including Jeremiah's caution about "walk[ing] in the imagination of [our] hearts" (Jer. 13:10, and six other places in that book), and Paul's assessment that sinful human beings have become "vain in their imaginations" (Rom. 1:21 KJV). To be sure, the imagination — like reason, emotions, and the will — is fallen. Our knowledge of God must come from his revelation of himself to us, that is, through his Word, which may in no way be replaced by human reason, emotion, will, or imagination. Imagination is indeed the source of all idolatry (the "graven images" that begin with mental images) and all false religions (which we imaginatively construct to evade the true God).
Furthermore, we must "walk" by the Word of God; that is, we must live according to God's revelation in Scripture rather than by our own reasonings, feelings, choices, or imaginings. Jesus himself warns us about murdering and committing adultery in our heart (Matt. 5: 21–30). Imaginary fantasies about illicit sex or about harming someone are sinful, even if they are never acted upon. This is because they disclose and aggravate a sinful heart.
But just because the imagination can be the source of idolatry and other sins is no reason to ignore it. That the imagination can be used for evil means that Christians dare not ignore it. We must discipline, disciple, and sanctify our imaginations. We are to "take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5), and that must include the thoughts we imagine. This can be done, above all, by saturating our imaginations with the Word of God. The Bible directly addresses the imagination in its narratives, descriptions, and vivid language.
Notice how your imagination is working as you read these passages, taken nearly at random:
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:1–2)
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (Ps. 1:1–4)
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear." (Matt. 13:1–9)
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1–3)
Just reading those passages fills our minds with mental images of light and darkness, trees planted by streams of water, great crowds, a boat anchored by the shore, a sower in the fields, noisy gongs and clanging cymbals, what it would be like to give away everything including one's life at the stake, and the personal associations we each have with love. The Bible also gives directives for how we can use our imaginations in a holy way. For example, when the apostle Paul enjoins us to "rejoice with those who rejoice" and to "weep with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15), he is calling for an act of imagination known as "empathy," imaginatively identifying with other human beings to the point of feeling their emotions.
In practice, the different faculties of our minds work together seamlessly, and the imagination plays an important role in integrating our ideas and our feelings, the outer world and our inmost selves. Imagination bridges the rational powers and the emotional center of our being.
Indeed, God reaches us by connecting to our imaginations. And appealing to the imagination is a way we can reach others. C. S. Lewis tells about how God worked not simply through his intellect but also through his imagination to bring him to faith. T. S. Eliot struggled with the fragmentation of the intellect and the emotions, which he found to be characteristic of the modern age. He found wholeness in the Christian imagination, in works of Christian literature that would eventually lead to his conversion. When God captures our imagination, he captures the rest of our mind, including our understanding and our will.
Developing a Christian imagination can play an important role in our spiritual growth. A godly imagination can help us meditate on the Word of God, pray with fervency, cultivate a corporate culture of grace, and grow through personal sanctification (recognizing sin's inventions, fighting temptation, putting off the old and putting on the new, loving our neighbors). When we read the Bible with our imaginations fully engaged, the biblical truths become personal. And a sanctified imagination can help us direct our choices and set plans toward a Christ-centered future.
To become conscious of the imagination and to reflect on its powers and uses is to be filled with gratitude for an astonishing gift of God, a reflection of the mind of God himself whose creativity went so far as to make us according to his image and his imagination.
Ezekiel and the Imagination
An Unexpected Encounter
My first experience with Ezekiel goes back to my pre-Christian days. At the request of my parents, who were distraught with my late-adolescent mutinies, I postponed entrance to university and spent a gap year in England attending a "public school," the British equivalent of an American prep school. It was there, in the tiny, two-desk study that I shared with a roommate from Iran, that I opened a Bible for the first time in my life.
I had heard of the Bible many times before, but I had never thought it was important enough to read. To be honest, I thought it was dangerous: "ancient literature, the kind of thing too many people have died over. Don't go there." But God used common grace to his advantage and mine. You see, I had a keen interest in English literature and recently had become intrigued with a curious seventeenth-century book called The Pilgrim's Progress. "Odd," I commented to myself when I saw the title, "what on earth does progress have to do with a pilgrim?" I wish I could say that I then immersed myself in the text, but, alas, I was much more captured by the yellow cover of the Penguin Books edition: a spiral maze, various people walking, the so-called Celestial City at the center. "Cool." Next to it on the library stack was a different edition, one that contained marginal glosses unlike anything I had ever seen, peculiar notations such as "Is. 64:6."
"What does "Is. 64:6 mean?" I later asked my roommate. He was studying for his A-level exam in English literature, so I figured he should know. And he did.
"Oh, 'Is. 64:6' is a reference to some passage in the Bible."
"Oh, okay." I pretended that I understood, although I didn't. But in that moment, the idea birthed full-term in my mind: "Matthew, if you're serious about English lit, you should really read the Bible."
I attempted to do so a few days later. Still having no idea what "Is. 64:6" meant, and all the while intrigued by what the Bible might contain, while I was alone in the study mixing up some instant coffee, I noticed The Holy Bible on the shelf above my roommate's desk. I decided I would take a look. I opened to the table of contents and found there a long list of unusual names. I recognized Genesis, to be sure, but names such as Numbers (what on earth is that about — ancient Hebrew arithmetic?) and Judges (key moments in jurisprudence?) sounded strange, almost cultish. They put me off.
But then I noticed something with which I was familiar: Ezekiel.
"Oh," I said to myself, "that must be the same Ezekiel who 'saw da wheel.'" Years before, during my junior high years, I had sung in a community choir, and one of our favorite songs was the spiritual, "Ezekiel saw da wheel, way up in da middle of de air." It was lively, it had great parts, and the words had stuck with me.
So I turned to Ezekiel on page 643 and began to read. But phrases such as "son of Buzi" and "living creatures" and "the gleaming of beryl" and "wheel within a wheel" bewildered me. I had no idea what was going on, and the more I read, the more jumbled I became. "Well, that's it for the Bible," I commented. "I've given it a try, and it makes no sense. It's not worth the bother."
Such providential irony! Today Ezekiel is among my favorite books in the divine canon. And I am just one in a long line of people who have studied and preached and loved what this eccentric prophet has bequeathed to us. Take John Calvin; he was in the midst of preaching an in-depth series (did Calvin ever preach a lite series?) on Ezekiel when he died. A few centuries later, the great American Puritan Cotton Mather turned to Ezekiel 24 in order to shape his thoughts for what would be one of his most moving sermons, "The Loss of a Desirable Relative, Lamented and Improved," given at the funeral of his beloved wife. And then there's Charles Spurgeon, the "prince of preachers." In the course of his decades of ministry, he preached at least ten sermons on Ezekiel 36 alone! Titles include "The Stony Heart Removed" and "Come from the Four Winds, O Breath." During 1859, a year when some would argue he was at his peak, Spurgeon preached three times from Ezekiel: in January on chapter 36, in May on chapter 36 again, and in July on chapter 16.
The question has to be asked, however, when was the last time a typical American evangelical heard a sermon on Ezekiel? In so many ways, like the other prophets, he seems a universe apart from us and our times. And to make matters worse, he is so odd. On the one hand, especially as the later chapters of his book show, his thinking and heart ran deep with grace. If we met him today, we would call him profoundly gospel centered. Think Billy Graham for that side of him. But then add to the Billy Graham piece a full cup of Adrian Monk, the famous detective of recent television fame who is obsessive-compulsive about all the details of life — much like Ezekiel as he describes the intricacies of his wheels within wheels (chap. 1). To Monk and Graham, pour in some of the social activism of a dissident artist like Ai Weiwei. Ezekiel's street drama of laying siege to an engraved stone fits that bill. But still that is not enough, for to it all one must finally slice in some Beethoven: the gifted, tortured, silent soul. Read Ezekiel 3:15.
Very few people would find that mixture of personalities at all appetizing, either in the seventh century BC or today. Ezekiel was indeed odd, as the facts of his life make plain. He spent half of his life in Jerusalem (from birth to around age twenty-five) and half in Babylon (to his death, somewhere around age fifty): a third-culture type, we might call him today. Shortly after he was commissioned as a prophet at age thirty, he was struck dumb, unable to speak for about five years apart from prophetic oracles. Aphasia is how it might be described medically; the biblical text says that God caused Ezekiel's tongue to cling to the roof of his mouth so that he was mute and unable to reprove the house of Israel, which was not listening anyway and was therefore in rebellion (see Ezek. 3:26). Twice in his Babylonian life he had some sort of out-of-body experience in which he was transported to Jerusalem (Ezek. 8:3; 40:1); for a year and a half he laid siege to a brick (think a large stone block); sometime in his thirties he was forbidden by God to mourn publicly the death of his wife. Strange stuff this, even for a prophet — the kind of stuff that makes for eerie reading. Imagine what it would have been like if you had lived three houses down the street. "Here he comes, that lunatic from another world."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Imagination Redeemed"
Copyright © 2015 Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Matthew P. Ristuccia.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Imagination: The Mind's Eye 13
2 Imagination and God 33
3 Imagination and Evil 59
4 Imagination and the Future 85
5 Imagination and the Community of Grace 109
Conclusion: Imagination and Apologetics 141
General Index 161
Scripture Index 169
What People are Saying About This
“Imaginationa gift from Godis not just for daydream or fantasy. It’s critical to objective recall and idea development. A thought-provoking gem, this is a must-read.”
Bob Doll, Chief Equity Strategist and Senior Portfolio Manager, Nuveen Asset Management
“For many, the imagination is synonymous with fantasy and childishnesssomething to outgrow as we mature. But Veith and Ristuccia have done the church an incredible service in lifting up the critical role of the imagination in the Christian life. Their insights help us realize that it’s only when our imaginations are engaged that we are able to live out our calling faithfully in every arena of life.”
David H. Kim, Executive Director, Center for Faith and Work, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City, New York; author, Glimpses of a Greater Glory and 20 and Something
“Defenses of the imagination are somewhat common, but this one combines the perspectives of a literary scholar and a biblical expositor. The result is a unique defense of the imagination. The book is reader friendly, and the defense of the imagination is comprehensive. A particular strength is the demonstration of how the imagination relates to the Bible.”
Leland Ryken,Emeritus Professor of English, Wheaton College
“This is a biblically grounded, down-to-earth, and eminently accessible book. It deserves to be widely read.”
Jeremy S. Begbie, Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology, Duke Divinity School; author, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music
“Veith and Ristuccia offer practical steps for keeping our imaginations captive to Christ. Veith clearly defines imagination and explains its role in our daily lives, tracing our understanding of imagination through key figures in history. Ristuccia insightfully exposits sections of Ezekiel, showing how God engages our imagination to reveal his character and plan of salvation. Reading this book will help you, as it helped me, fulfill the great command to love God with all your mind. I highly recommend it.”
Danielle Sallade, Campus Minister, Princeton Evangelical Fellowship, Princeton University
“Veith and Ristuccia have teamed up to give us a mind-stretching introduction to imagination from a biblical perspective. As I read this book, I learned things I had never thought about before and was often made to stop, think, and pray.”
Ajith Fernando, Teaching Director, Youth for Christ, Sri Lanka; author, Discipling in a Multicultural World