Imagination and the Way of Christ
Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : October 1, 2008
I’m reading Robert Inchausti’s Subversive Orthodoxy with our two Missio Dei apprentices. Sadly, this gem of a book has been largely ignored. The author delves into the thought of a number of subversive thinkers within Christianity to awaken his readers’ prophetic imagination. The usual suspects are included–Kierkegaard, Dosteyevsky, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Wendell Berry, Jacques Ellul, etc. But the first person he examines–the one that sets the tone for the rest of the book–is William Blake.
William Blake, Pre-Romantic Prophet
William Blake was a poet, a painter, and a printmaker. His artistry drips with prophetic mysticism. His other-worldly focus places him in sharp contrast with the 18th Century rational ethos. Blake attempted to shatter a Newton-enslaved objective universe with a mythic hammer. In a time when men and women were looking to science to explain the world, Blake shared apocolyptic visions and called Britain back to what it meant to be human.
Blake seems, at first blush, as an odd partner with which to embark on a subversive journey. But the life of radical discipleship must be rooted in a renovated imagination. Inchausti writes:
…Blake understood that when the spirit loses confidence in itself, the mind falls into the objective world and beings to see creation as something independent. It stops participating with life, stops perceiving beauty and possibility, and, instead, stands in judgment of everything, measuring differences, contrasts, and oppositions. This false objectivity can only be transcended through a return to visionary experience, which alone can restore us to our true, imaginative selves…This is why Blake said that a person who is not an artist cannot be a Christian, for the creative imagination is the only vehicle through which love of one’s fellow man can be grasped. (emphasis mine)
Why this pretentious prattle of a dead British poet-mystic? I believe that Inchausti (and Blake) are right to connect the subversive/prophetic function with the capacity for imagination. This insight isn’t new–the connection has always existed. The prophet is the one who calls us to see things as they will be or ought to be. S/he weaves a picture of something other than our current experience so that we may choose another way.
Here’s an example of this very thing from Blake’s The Everlasting Gospel:
THE VISION OF CHRIST that thou dost see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy.
Thine has a great hook nose like thine;
Mine has a snub nose like to mine.
Thine is the Friend of all Mankind;
Mine speaks in parables to the blind.
Thine loves the same world that mine hates;
Thy heaven doors are my hell gates.
Socrates taught what Meletus
Loath’d as a nation’s bitterest curse,
And Caiaphas was in his own mind
A benefactor to mankind.
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.
And later in the poem:
If He had been Antichrist, Creeping Jesus,
He’d have done anything to please us;
Gone sneaking into synagogues,
And not us’d the Elders and Priests like dogs;
But humble as a lamb or ass
Obey’d Himself to Caiaphas.
God wants not man to humble himself:
That is the trick of the Ancient Elf.
A Lack of Imagination?
Part of the prophetic task is to shatter our existing ways of seeing the world and calling us into a different vision. Human beings can easily get caught into conformity–living in a world we inherited that we never question. That is why many believe that the American Dream constitutes the good life. That is why we believe that “freedom” means the ability to choose whatever we want and “peace” simply means the absence of war. That is why many Christians are more concerned with being orthodox (or “successful” than looking and smelling like Jesus.
Christians are stricken with a terminal disease. We are afflicted with a lack of imagination. We cannot see beyond the world as it appears to perceive the world as it truly is.
When we read Jesus’ Beatitudes, our limited vision sees it as a to-do list for us to achieve, not an accurate portrayal of God’s world. And so, we spend our energy building this Kingdom rather than taking the time to realize that the Kingdom is here…it is within us.
When Jesus tells us to lay down our lives and love our enemies, we get confused, so we wed Jesus’ teachings with Liberalism. We are willing to turn the other cheek, but only if insodoing we affirm our equality and have everyone recognize that we have been wronged (that was a gentle stab at Walter Wink).
Or perhaps we’re not even willing to turn the other cheek at all…perhaps our vision is so filled with the need for security and equity that we shoot the intruder dead before he even gets a chance to slap us at all? Or, to be political about it, we decide to bomb the hell out of the enemy (WMDs or not) and have him hanged publically before he even threatens to slap us at all?
When presented with Jesus’ call to sell our possessions, why do we still cling to them? Is it because we cannot imagine a definition of “good life” that doesn’t include copious amounts of stuff? Even now, as I type these challenging words, do I believe them? Why does a 290 pound man sit in a coffee shop typing prophetic words as he types on his laptop, sips on his French Roast, and nibbles on croissant? Why does he have a house filled with lots of books and a car in his garage? Is it because these are good things or because I lack the imagination to conceive of the “good life” without these things? And does this lack of imagination keep me from seeing the blessing of poverty?
In all of these ways and more, I’m convinced that discipleship requires a reformation of our imaginations. I’m not saying that we need to develop the ability to think of clever stories or dream of implausible dreams. By imagination, I mean the capacity to see what is hidden or obscured. It requires faith (as Paul tells us, faith is the conviction of things unseen). It requires new eyes.
Jesus spent so much of his time confronting limited imaginations. He weaved story after story that called his listeners into seeing something that they often refused to see. They wanted a kingdom to come, but he spoke of a Kingdom come. They dreamed of blood and iron, and he taught them of forgiveness and enemy-love. They wanted liberation from Rome, and he told them that the Gentile would have a seat at Abraham’s table.
Shaping the Subversive Imagination
So, here’s the rub: how do we go about the task of calling people to re-imagine? Something inside of me says that painting obscure paintings and writing obscure poems doesn’t quite get at it. And I’m also certain that “preach the Gospel…if necessary, use words” gets at it either. I live in an area that has tons of loving do-gooders. The imaginative task of subversion requires more than just a provocative lifestyle (thought that certainly is an indespensable foundation for our life with Christ). We must also engage in story-telling. We must take up the sacred words “you have heard it said…but I say to you” in regards to deeply held convictions in our churches and our society.
So, here’s some questions…I am eager to hear what you think:
- What are some of the convictions that need subverting in our society using the “you have heard it said…but I say to you” formula?
- What films or books have been helpful to you in having your own imagination renovated?
- Have you seen ministries or churches doing a good job with shaping the imaginations of those they equip?
- How can we do this sort of thing OUTSIDE of a classroom? I’m convinced that seminary education and other class-room based educational approaches are PROFOUNDLY lacking.
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