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:

  1. 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?
  2. What films or books have been helpful to you in having your own imagination renovated?
  3. Have you seen ministries or churches doing a good job with shaping the imaginations of those they equip?
  4. 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.
Mark Van Steenwyk is the general editor of Jesus Manifesto. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.

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Viewing 8 Comments

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    Greetings, Mark. I'm a new reader of Jesus Manifesto, so I want to introduce myself, and I believe that doing so will relate to the questions you've posed.

    I'm currently on active duty in the US Army and deployed to Iraq. I have about two months left on my tour and then I can leave the service. During this deployment I've been strugging off and on with letting God back into my life. Another issue central to the deployment is, of course, the upcoming election. Typically, when you hear about Christians in politics, all you hear about is the "Christian right." Well, I was bored one night sitting at my computer and I thought, "I wonder if there's a 'Christian left'." Sure enough, Wikipedia did not disappoint me. So I read several articles ranging from the Christian left to Christian Anarchism (which previously I would've thought was an oxymoron).

    In my youth, I was a death penalty supporting, war hawking, capitalistic red-blooded American, thumping my Bible all the while. Now, I look back and ask myself, "Is this what Jesus was about?" Now, I am allowing the life and teaching of Jesus to sink into my life. I am striving, not only to believe in Him, but to follow Him.

    My e-mail address is . Correspondence from yourself or any other regular of this site would be welcome and appreciated.

    Your brother in Christ Jesus,
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    [sidenote: maybe an editor can hide Jim's address to stop him getting piles of spam?]

    Mark, I am struggling to answer your first question. I think because most of our assumptions are not based on words said but on things left unsaid. We assume that everyone wants to progress in their career, that churches need to have buildings, that Christianity is synonymous with being middle class. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that kind of thing, but it just seems to seep into our collective consciousness.

    Regarding books, I really like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is about a little boy who loses his father but finds a clue which leads him on a quest to meet a series of strange and broken people. It made me ache for an end to the journey and to reach home.

    But yes, I am also touched by meeting people and their stories of overcoming the odds. Recently I met people from the organisation Servants of Asia's Urban Poor and was touched by their self sacrificial approach. In Egypt, I met Christians who worked quietly below the radar, doing little things which made a real difference to those involved. In India I met a small congregation who were 'doing what they could' - even when that was far less than what was needed to overcome the local issues (yet far more than any other church I have ever seen).

    I'm not sure this attitude can be learnt in a classroom.
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    I really enjoyed this post. I've found that tactically, many of my very outspokenly non-Christian friends are much more imaginative in their approach to meeting the needs of the community. The Churches in our area have bake sales, and send people on mission trips to 3rd world countries. The anarchist punks have Really Really Free Markets, Alcoholics Autonomous workshops, Domestic Violence workshops, community meals, community building exercises, crafts for children, a very well organized Free Bike program engineered by the Down 'n' Dirty Bike Club, and the list goes on. I'm probably a little biased so maybe my opinion doesn't carry much weight, but IMO I feel that these are better tuned to meeting the needs of the needy.

    I would also be very excited to hear about what creative (and it better be good, no bake sales) things that church communities are doing in your area. And I know this is only a portion of what the article was touching on, but lately I've been thinking a lot about tactics, so bear with me.
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    Now that introductions have been made and I feel very welcome (thanks for the e-mails, Mark and Jonathan), I'll contribute to the discussion. . .

    You have heard it said that the church is a place you go on Sunday, but I say unto you that the church is the people - of all denominations, all walks of life, from the streets to the countryside, from the suburbs to the ghetto. The Church is one. The Church is the bride of Christ. The Church is a family. What is a Methodist? What is a Baptist? What is a Catholic? We need to throw off these labels, or at least make it a name of minimal importance. We all follow the same King.

    No books or films come to mind right away, but believe it or not, the Dark Carnival albums of Insane Clown Posse have had an impact on my way of thinking. The albums play out more like a comic book or a movie than a typical musical album. As the story unfolds, the artists point a finger at those who live comfortably and feel free to judge others, the type of people who will be quick to condemn the sins of others, but somehow justifying their own sins in their daily life. Some might say that the profanity and violence of ICP's music negates any message of God they might have, but, well, that is their choice. I'll simply employ the famous cliche that God works in mysterious ways.

    In the Constantinian churches, the message of the Gospel is being reduced and sold in fast-food format. At worst, it is only lip service. At best, the churches reduce the gospel to a simple "try to be nice to people." But, as we should know, Christ's message and life was so much more than that.

    Jesus did not take a day out of the week to do some mission work; he was always on the job! He ministered to the poor, healed the sick, and cast out demons. He also told his disciples that they would do greater miracles than he himself did. We simply need to put our faith into action.
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    2. the narrow path and fight club. i see a lot of jesus stuff in fight club.
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    #1 You have heard it said that "Jesus is your personal buddy (or pop guru or spiritual icon)," but I say to you that the real Jesus is known in the "distressing disguise" of your actual community (including all its members) and the particularities of the place you live in. You have heard it said that "Technology (like ideas) will improve you as a person," but I say to you that the world doesn't need your input (or technology) in order to keep going and yet you (that is, we) often execute (even if indirectly) lasting harm by way of powerful information/technologies. You have heard it said that "the community/church happens on Sunday morning," but I say to you that your *life* is an expression of the membership (acknowledged or otherwise) grown out of many households throughout the week. You have heard it said that "The War and The Economy are inevitable in the 21st Century," but I say to you that the real disciple will know when and how to say "no" even in the midst of terrible loss and vulnerability.
    #2 Films: I've seen a few really good ones recently and also one other film from a while ago, which I thought of as I was writing...The Mission (Robert Dinero & Jeremy Irons)--explores colonialism, indigenous culture, genocide, religious pacifism, etc.; Mosquito Coast (Harrison Ford & River Phoenix)--narrates radical politics and community, love/hatred for family, exposed Christian missionaries; Ghandi (Ben Kingsley!!! enough said); and The Good Shepherd (Matt Damon & Robert Deniro)--great discourse on power/secrecy in the government. Books: Colossians Remixed:Subverting the Empire (Walsh & Keesmaat); Jayber Crow and Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (both Wendell Berry); In the Name of Jesus and Sabbatical Journey (both Henri Nouwen); The Gospel of Matthew & The Letter of St. James; lastly, The Way of a Pilgrim (an anonymous Russian peasant).
    #3 I've seen small pockets or subsets within established churches (from small group "Bible Studies" to catholic monastic communities) and also "urban" ministries (such as homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and vocational training centers) that have, in their own way, given the people a God-shaped or Mission-shaped imagination. The big difference is, as you know, most of this happens along the margins of so called Christendom. I have also been a part of a few decidedly non-Christian groups who have been, it seems to me, quite effective (some of the time) in their challenge to Empire and its imagination. For example, I know a handful of young urban farmers who formed a non-profit called GRUB (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies). They subvert the imperial notion of cash by "hiring" volunteers to work on the farm in exchange for food and education.
    #4 This is where I wonder if I have any actual experience. It's not that I haven't learned a few things over my several years of practice or that some of my friends along the way haven't been influential and informative, but the work I've done appears piecemeal at best and almost always seems to be unraveling (at least that's my perception). Perhaps the most hopeful and lasting experiment-in-truth is on the path of an apprentice. How that would look, I don't know. Maybe like the "Jesus dojo" (using Mark Scandrette's language) or like the repetition of a novice working alongside a master. Specifics? What a hard question! That might take a whole life (or longer!) to answer.
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    Greetings from NZ, Mark, and thanks for this encouraging + provocative article.

    Too often in my own heart, my conversion to radical Christianity came through the process of winning arguments against Status-Quo Christianity. I came to it by way of "how to see the Bible and God aright" instead of also then following that trajectory to "how to see God's world as God and the Bible do". If I'm reading you correctly, that's the urgent need for the American/Global-North/Global-West church.

    Telling stories, yes, help us see it well. It's no surprise, is it, that Christianity-hued stories like Narnia and The Lord of the Rings are making such a comeback lately. They help us to see our own stories, and the stories of the wider world, as more visibly invested with their full theological meaning.

    And interestingly, Jewish apocalyptic was the genre not just of imperial critique and perhaps future-telling, but also of investing the readers' world with its theological meaning. Perhaps we need our own apocalyptic tales and parables. (though this may be readily filed under "obscure poetry" in your apt words)

    I'll be thinking this through as I dig some garden beds today. Thanks again. :)
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    You are welcome, goes the Woofing?


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