Scandal of the Evangelical Imagination
Why right thinking and right doing are not enough.

In 1995, Mark Noll argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind that the problem with evangelicalism is "that there is not much of an evangelical mind." His solution was to take scholarship more seriously. A decade later, Ron Sider argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience (2005) that the problem with evangelicalism is that Christians live just like nonChristians. His solution was to take the social and corporate implications of the gospel more seriously.

Whether or not these books can be credited with sparking current trends, it's clear the spirit of both of them is alive and well in American Christianity. The so-called "New Reformed" movement is living out Noll's call for greater intellectual engagement and doctrinal sophistication. And legions of younger Christians are taking up Sider's vision to seek social justice in Jesus' name. I support both of these relatively recent developments, more or less. But I think they have the same shortcoming in common. As different as they are, they both appeal to the intellect in one way or another. They both seem to assume that if we simply believe the right things (whether it's the doctrine of atonement or the Christian's moral responsibility in the world) then we'll behave the right way.

I'm not convinced.

I think there's another, deeper problem in evangelicalism, what I'll call (for consistency's sake) the scandal of the evangelical imagination.

I don't mean that evangelicals produce bad art (although we do), and I'm not issuing a call for more sophisticated creative engagement with culture (though we need one). Imagination is broader than that. The dictionary defines imagination as "the faculty or action of forming new ideas," or "images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses." This has to do with faith at its core. We are accustomed to trusting our senses to tell us what is true. But imagination offers a broader perspective on truth. If imagination is the capacity to visualize, and be confident in a reality, even if it contradicts our experience, then it refuses to let our senses determine the limits of what is possible. Faith requires us to envision and inhabit a world that we cannot perceive with our senses–a world where an invisible God lovingly maintains his creation, where the Son of God can become a human child, can die on a cross to save sinners, and be seated at the right hand of God in glory.

From beginning to end, the Bible calls us to adopt a sanctified imagination that helps us look beyond our own experience. Experience tells us prayers go unanswered, as the cries, "O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer" (22:1). Experience tells us sinful, rebellious people get their way in the end, that the values of the world are profitable and preferable: "In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak...; he blesses the greedy and reviles the Lord ... His ways are always prosperous" (Psalm 10:2-5).

Displaying 1–10 of 36 comments


August 19, 2011  11:39am

Brandon, thank you! You have well-captured the epiphany I also had which propelled me to look for an expression of Christian faith that facilitated a more whole person encounter with God (employing reason/intellect, acts of obedience, and also–through liturgy, sacrament, and the testimonies of the heroes of the faith throughout history–offering a consistent vision of Christ at work in the world and in His people–stimulating holy "imagination," if you will). I quite agree those old testimony times in Evangelical Churches were often a small, but sometimes very powerful, facilitator of this faculty–with one caveat; sometimes those testimonies may have reflected not a real encounter with the Living God and His provision, but last night's pizza at work on a fevered imagination, or someone's wishful greedy thinking rationalizing a foolish or even sinful decision. I'm sure you have the more noble and reliable kind of testimonies in mind when you write, but I traveled in charismatic circles for a while, and so I know "testimony time" can sometimes be as much a revelation of man's sinful delusion as it can be of God's working in our lives, unfortunately, and often a little of both! As indicated in some of the comments above perhaps, talking about "imagination" in our modern context tends to mean a specifically rational human willed activity and not an experience which is the result of a cooperation between man's spirit and will and God's loving Self-disclosure by the Holy Spirit. Because of the rationalist framework in which we tend to employ the word imagination, it perhaps doesn't quite do justice to that of which you really intend to speak. It seems to me, you might avoid this confusion by using the biblical terms "vision" or "revelation" or those from Christian theological tradition, "epiphany" or "theophany," to more fully express the phenomenon you are exploring here and to further amplify what you mean by this sanctified "imagination." Again, thanks for this insightful and thought-provoking post!

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August 19, 2011  11:37am

Thanks for the post challenging and inviting us to a dimension that has become more or less atrophied in us. I am going to go on a saying this: In our desire to be faithful to God's revelation through the spoken/written word and given to us in the Bible, we have just about forgotten that God reveals himself through the things that he has made, namely, nature/creation as well. If we must recover/redeem our imagination then we must look afresh at nature. One has just got to read the gospels to see how the Lord himself made use of nature/creation to teach what he taught. I always wondered at the words of the seraphim in Isaiah 6, '...the whole earth is full of his glory'. How I wish I had their eyes to see what they saw! Truth comes to us both from the Word and the World and both compliment each other. We have practically abandoned nature to the secular scientists and philosophers. And it is this neglect that us left us delinquent in our witness. I must add that one is not claiming that truth learnt from God's general revelations is salvific but a proper handling of it could lead to sensitizing the conscience and engender right thinking. We need people who could communicate truth imaginatively through the story, drama, novel etc and not sound preachy. I am yet to come across a good novel which communicates truth about God and the gospel to a culture alien to the Bible. Our lack of imagination is also a reason why there just seems to be no variety practically in the way we conduct our services. Universally there seems to be just one way of doing our meetings - programme-based and performance driven format! The organisational models we have followed too in running our churches and ministries reveals our lack of imagination - we are so stereo-typical and monotonous, as if the Creator of the whole earth has nothing else and nothing different to offer.

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August 18, 2011  6:53am

Thanks for your very thought-provoking post. I love your identification of imagination as a missing element in the Christian mind. Along with a few other commenters, I do think story is a powerful kindler of imagination. Your post immediately made me think of how often and poignantly Jesus taught through story. The imagery of the tale of the Good Samaritan, the many parables of the kingdom with their vivid scenes of wedding feasts and harvest fields inform the way we understand the kingdom of heaven even today. Perhaps the challenge for many is that imagination takes us into the realm of wonder, even mystery. Imagination deals in symbol and image, rather than a definable doctrine or action and so confounds our impulse to make a rule about what is acceptable in imagination and what is not. But our imaginations are simply formed by what we feed them. When they are informed by Scripture, by the imagery of the prophets and Gospels, by the beauty of the earth and the compassion of the people around us - and personally I would add redemptive expressions of art, music, and literature - they will help us to envision what God desires us to do and become. I love the motto of the International Arts Movement: "engaging the culture and creating the world that ought to be." How can we create or act if we cannot envision, and describe, as the prophets did, the kingdom to which God calls us? Great post.

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August 16, 2011  4:27pm

Sheerahkhan, Lighten up a little man! use your imagination!!

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August 15, 2011  12:20pm

I don't think the evangelical problem is imaginative, though we sorely need more creativity. We do need more stories of God's faithfulness in the midst of our vain attempts to be obedient that enliven our concept of love in action. The problem with developed imagination is that one tends to get crucified theologically for describing orthodoxy in different words. One is often scorned for expressing conscience in ways not deemed politically or morally acceptable. Evangelicalism's main issue is judgmentalism. We attack ways of expressing faith that have not been vetted by those who see themselves as keepers of orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

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Chuck Arney

August 12, 2011  2:37pm

About three years ago, as a church, we read through the gospels . . . not to understand or to study them, but to find out in what way Jesus is calling us to join Him in His radical Kingdom. We then set aside a day called "Imagination Day." On that day we all got together and each of us "imagined" what radical "thing" Jesus was calling us to. We then grouped people around the commonalities they expressed and began several new ministries. For us "imagination" became another name for "Spirit." We see imagination as God's incarnational Jesus self coming to us.

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August 11, 2011  11:15am

What happens when my 'imagination' and your 'imagination' are in conflict with each other?

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Lou Cole

August 11, 2011  9:36am

In all the comments, and in the article itself, I don't find what seems to me to be a key element in immagination – meditation. Today's world offers constant, instant input, balanced only by planning and action. It's no wonder that there is such shallow imagination. We don't have time to imagine! The Holy Spirit has to work his message in between the cracks of our focus. Even worship has become almost exclusively input/action. Our hearts and minds are not trained to simply be open, to allow ourselves to know He is God. (Obviously, we must avoid the danger of being open to simply anything, which invites heresy.) Meditation focused on the Trinity in light of the Word, eager, peaceful, deliberate invitation to the Holy Spirit to guide our thoughts and actions, taking time to meditate on Scriptures and experiences and God-offered thoughts, is far from a waste of time. It is essential to holy imagination!

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August 11, 2011  7:05am

The imagination in this sanctification walk on earth should be driven by the social and spiritual teachings of Christ. This is why it is so hard for me to understand my evangelical soul mates who take a very possessive and selfish view toward their testimony to others while addressing even the "political" issues of our time. Conservative theology does not equate in society with conservative political philosophy! In fact, it is counter intuitive.

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simon travers

August 11, 2011  5:40am

Surely part of the problem here is that 'evangelical imagination' often appears as a paradox. The great root of evangelical belief is that the bible is the source life and belief. The bible speaks authoritatively into our lives. No wonder people who enter into christian life through this door distrust the idea of 'imagination'. Of course, imagination is needed constantly to apply the Bible into our lives and to work our worldview into the wider view of life presented by the bible. Those acts of imagination should be Spirit lead and therefore prophetic in nature. Imagination matters because God hasn't stopped speaking. But if you're working with terms then, it is a charismatic, rather than an evangelical, imagination that is needed; the freedom of the Spirit and the grounding in the truth. The only problem is that put the words 'charismatic' and 'imagination' together and alarm bells ring across the western world because look out, here come the nutters!

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