Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Recapturing the imagination

I've just been listening to the audio book version of Alain de Botton's Status Anxiety. One thing that captured my attention was his comment on the similarities between the Bohemian and Christian approach to status and hierarchy. They don't tear the ideas down but base them on other things (e.g. in Christianity it is spiritual status, not worldly status, all else is, or should be, egalitarian).

Likewise, the Bohemian movement gained ground, according to de Botton, at precisely the time that Christianity was failing to capture people's imaginations. Not doctrinal assent but imaginations. I wonder how much the iconoclasm of the Reformation played a role in this, along side with the scientific discoveries of the world. Richard Dawkins might say that there is better poetry in science now than religion.

It reminds me of comments Tom Wright makes in his book, Simply Christian, where he notes the role of art (high art in his case, a failing of the book), music and so on in regaining the imagination (and critiques Pullman's atheistic literature). Modern iconoclastic Evangelicals seem to elevate pews, fluorescent lighting and so on as being the only aesthetic appropriate to Christian worship.

I'd agree that the hard sell, modernist success story of the prosperity gospel is an inauthentic way to re-capture the imagination of the Modern or Post-Modern of the West. I would, however, demure at criticising the use of candles or other ways of creating an atmosphere in emerging to alt worship as some do, automatically as idolatry. Iconoclasm is often a form of idolatry in itself.

Consider this: Is nature dull? Why is there variety? Why is there natural beauty? Why can humans appreciate this? Why does it move us to worship (Psalm 19)? In the effort to avoid making idols for ourselves we risk fencing off the imagination and make ourselves pure spirit, or probably more appropriate, pure mind. God commands us to avoid making images, but he also commanded the Israelites to make a magnificent structure - the temple. To approach God properly didn't only require a good doctrine of God's transcendence, but a feeling of awe, fear and numinescence.

To worship an idol is to imagine God as something he is not. To worship God however requires our imaginations. Why else is so much of Scripture story or narrative? This suggests not all is reduced to proposition.

Scripture provides some controls on worship - it is in Spirit and truth, it uses music, it involves a clean heart, a contrite spirit, it may use incence. It cannot use worldy wisdom (hyped up rhetoric) or a slick sell. We worship God, not a product.

What can we use to capture imaginations as well as minds with this great gospel message, how can we communicate the authentic gospel? Not by being reductionists and mere gatekeepers.

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