Category Archives: Imagination
Why all the imagery in the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation?
This is one of the questions I try to answer in my forthcoming book.
My answer is three-fold:
- the imaginative literature in Scripture helps us value the gift of imagination God has given us;
- the imaginative literature in Scripture sparks our growth in godliness; and
- the imaginative literature in Scripture introduces us to a theology of our world.
In my book I tackle 1 and 2 and explain why I think Christians should read fictional books to cultivate our God-given imagination. And I explain how developing skills to read fiction literature has in turn helped me read the imagery in Revelation. But due to space in my book, and in hopes of keeping the book as simple as possible, I was unable to deal with 3 and I want to more fully explain this point, with help from a few paragraphs out of Richard Baukham’s The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge University, 1993). In that book Bauckham explains that the Apostle John does not write in the imaginative form to dazzle us with his literary skill, but he writes in imaginative form to exercise theological motives.
The power, the profusion and the consistency of the symbols have a literary-theological purpose. They create a symbolic world which readers can enter so fully that it affects them and changes their perception of the world.
Most ‘readers’ were originally, of course, hearers. Revelation was designed for oral enactment in Christian worship services. Its effect would therefore be somewhat comparable to a dramatic performance, in which the audience enter the world of the drama for its duration and can have their perception of the world outside the drama powerfully shifted by their experience of the world of the drama. Many of the apocalypses could have something of this effect. But Revelation’s peculiarly visual character and peculiar symbolic unity give it a particular potential for communicating in this way. It is an aspect of the book to which we shall return. (10)
He returns to this “symbolic world” point just a few pages later.
We have already noticed the unusual profusion of visual imagery in Revelation and its capacity to create a symbolic world which its readers can enter and thereby have their perception of the world in which they lived transformed.
To appreciate the importance of this we should remember that Revelation’s readers in the great cities of the province of Asia were constantly confronted with powerful images of the Roman vision of the world. Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, even the visual wonder of cleverly engineered ‘miracles’ (cf. Rev. 13:13–14) in the temples—all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and of the splendor of pagan religion.
In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from the heaven…The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be. (17)
So what’s the point? What is Revelation teaching us today? In the conclusion to his book, Bauckham wraps these points together.
We have suggested that one of the functions of Revelation was to purge and to refurbish the Christian imagination. It tackles people’s imaginative response to the world, which is at least as deep and influential as their intellectual convictions. It recognizes the way a dominant culture, with its images and ideals, constructs the world for us, so that we perceive and respond to the world in its terms.
Moreover, it unmasks this dominant construction of the world as an ideology of the powerful which serves to maintain their power. In its place, Revelation offers a different way of perceiving the world which leads people to resist and to challenge the effects of the dominant ideology. (159–160)
In the previous paragraphs Bauckham helps us answer these important questions: What is the purpose of our God-given imaginations? And what is the function of Revelation’s images?
The book of Revelation engages our imaginations until we see the world in new and radical images. These images help us see past the dominant ideologies of our loud culture, the everyday ideologies that we simply assume and ingest daily like thoughtless breaths of air. The images in Revelation expose us to the world again, but in new and shocking ways, breaking into our imaginations and offering us a new alien way of looking at the world.
God has given us the gift of imagination. The book of Revelation comes alongside us to purge and refurbish that imagination, providing us with a profoundly fresh theological angle on the world that we have grown familiar with.
Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, 6:50-51:
“The Bible at the very beginning emphasizes that God is not merely an acting God of deed-revelation, but a speaking deity also who shapes language as a medium of intelligible communication with man made in his image. Words are the means of transmitting ideas from person to person: it is not centrally in symbols and visions, but especially in words, that the Old Testament focuses its account of divine-human relationships. Moses the lawgiver reports the Word of God; the prophets impart the revealed Word of Yahweh. The Gospels record three occasions on which the invisible God spoke from heaven to acknowledge Jesus as his unique Son: at his baptism (Mark 1:10; cf. Matt. 3:16 f.; Luke 3:21 f; John 1:32 f.); at his transfiguration (Matt. 17:5; cf. Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; cf. 2 Pet. 1:17); and shortly before the crucifixion (John 12:27–39). Jesus Christ, moreover, commissioned disciples to “preach the word” (Matt. 10:7, 20, 27:20; John 6:63). The secret of Christianity’s expansion was growth of the apostolic word (Acts 6:7, 12:24, 19:20). The orally proclaimed biblical truth, together with the subsequently published Gospel of Christ or teaching of the Bible, was the message of the early Christian church (Rom. 10:17; Gal. 3:2 ff.); the authoritative source of that message was, is and forever remains the transcendent God (1 Thess. 2:2, 13; Gal. 1:11 f.).”
The gospel incorporates various strands of detail. Included in the gospel is a complex string of genealogies that run together the most unlikely of folks into a most unlikely ancestry for the Savior. The gospel is also comprised of ancient prophecies often fragmented and scattered throughout the OT and often veiled in obscure language not immediately clear to the eye. All these centuries of time and genealogies of people and prophecies of intent are all interwoven by God into one cohesive plan that points directly to Christ, a plan so subtle and so complex that even man and Satan allied to thwart the Messiah’s progress was nothing more than a self-defeating push that further hastened the Savior’s death, burial, and victorious resurrection. This entire plan was conceptualized by God before sinners sinned, before the world existed. The gospel, it seems to me, is the most glorious expression of imagination.
Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin, 2005) p. 9:
“‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth’ [Exodus 20:4]. I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as a part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. We may hazard a guess that a people who are being asked to embrace an abstract, universal deity would be rendered unfit to do so by the habit of drawing pictures or making statues or depicting their ideas in any concrete, iconographic forms. The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.”
I think most pastors would admit that our churches can improve when it comes to reaching our community. Some of the most community-centered and creative ideas I see originate from the Acts 29 Network. Here in my home city of Omaha, NE the Acts 29 network planted a church East of 108th street, where Gospel-centered churches are quite rare (Core Community Church). Core ministers to the unfortunate, homeless and those wanting to learn English. They are doing tremendous work in the Eastern half of Omaha often neglected.
Recently I came across another impressive Acts 29 church: Oikos Fellowship in Washington. The church is producing an excellent monthly magazine for the lost of their city. As you will see the magazine is a creative way to gauge the local thoughts about Christianity and communicate the message culture needs (like Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God). The magazine also highlights local ministries. It appears all their writings, photos and graphics originated from their own people, too. You can download the August magazine here.
In a church culture often centered around programs for Christians, this ministry philosophy goes a long way, I think, in pressing the church from its comfortable weekly activities out and into the community.
Anyways, grace-centered props to Oikos Fellowship.
This week I have been positing several pictures I created as a college ministry leader on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Omaha. These cards were printed as 4×6 photographs and created to introduce college students to writers of the past. From the response, they were well received.
The challenge in a visually based society is to present messages that include well-done visual elements. As you can see, being visually appealing does not mean compromise to the message of the Gospel and the urgent pleadings with sinners to be reconciled. Quite the opposite! Biblical churches would benefit from thinking of preaching and pastoral ministry within the visual framework.
And I’m not talking about merely running some general landscape nature pictures behind text. Think about what picture captures the message. Think visually. What can I show them that reinforces what I am trying to tell them?
And so to close out the week, here is a graphic design I created for a series on worldliness, sexual sin, intellectual pride and laziness. I called it Spiritual Biohazards of the College Life. It was created on PhotoShop Elements 2.0, an inexpensive graphic arts program, using three free images from the web.
Keep pressing on! – Tony
“My soul – never be satisfied within a shadowy Christ. … I cannot know Christ through another person’s brains. I cannot love him with another man’s heart, and I cannot see him with another man’s eyes. … I am so afraid of living in a second-hand religion. God forbid that I should get a biographical experience. Lord save us from having borrowed communion. No, I must know him myself. O God, let me not be deceived in this. I must know him without fancy or proxy; I must know him on my own account.”
This quote from Charles Spurgeon is a reminder that we must know and press close to Christ ourselves. Some of the darkest periods of church history, where the shroud of monotony covered the pulpit came at a time when preachers lived off a second-hand, borrowed communion.
Anyways, during the Middle Ages, the deadness of the churches can certainly be tied to a failed pulpit. Most noticeable was a failure of preachers to stand for God’s Word with conviction and freshness enforced with genuine godliness of character. We are reminded of the impotence of the church when God’s preachers do not preach from the freshness of personal communion with Himself but rather simply copy and regurgitate what was given by others. The result is borrowed communion and dead preaching:
“We have already had occasion to speak of the low character of the clergy during this epoch [the medieval period leading up to the Reformation]. Much ignorance, immorality, luxury and ambition [or a desire for rank], laziness, avarice, and other evil things have to be charged to their account. And this of course was at once both the cause and evidence of decay in the pulpit. For in all times the character of the preacher either enforces or enfeebles his preaching. And where the average of character is bad, no matter how noble the exceptions may be, the average of preaching will necessarily be low. Where there is a lack of true piety and conviction in the preacher the pulpit work tends to become empty, formal, frigid and without moving effect. And this is the character of much of the preaching of that age.”
“Always one of the signs of degenerate preaching – as of any literary production – is a slavish dependence upon others, past or present, a want of independence, originality, freshness. Copyists and imitators are found in every age, it is true, but when the masters belong chiefly to a former generation and the small followers mostly abound, the fall is great.”
- Edwin Charles Dargan, A History of Preaching (Solid Ground: 1905/2003), 1:308.
I purchased my copy of Marsden’s biography Jonathan Edwards: A Life at CLC this Spring (two days after visiting Edwards’ grave in Princeton). It has become one of my favorite biographies just behind Dallimore’s George Whitefield. Edwards had a powerful preaching style stemming from his intellectual gifts and seriousness with divine things.
“Although Edwards had none of the dramatic gestures of a Whitefield or a Tennent and was said to preach as though he were staring at the bell-rope in the back of the meetinghouse, he could be remarkably compelling. An admirer described his delivery as ‘easy, natural and very solemn. He had not a strong, loud voice; but appeared with such gravity and solemnity, and spake with such distinctness, clearness and precision; his words were so full of ideas, set in such a plain and striking light, that few speakers have been so able to demand the attention of an audience as he.’ Through sheer intensity he generated emotion. ‘His words often discovered a great degree of inward fervor, without much noise or external emotion, and fell with great weight on the minds of his hearers. He made but little motion of his head or hands in his desk, but spake so as to discover the motion of his own heart, which tended in the most natural and effectual manner to move and affect others.’ The combination of controlled but transparent emotion, heartfelt sincerity both in admonition and compassion, inexorable logic, and biblical themes could draw people into sensing the reality of ideas long familiar.”
- George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale: 2003) p. 220
“The most eloquent of all the prophets, the one from whom most can be learned as to preaching, is obviously Isaiah. Isaiah was the very opposite of Amos, the shepherd and gardener. He lived at court during several reigns, and in that of Hezekiah was high in influence. He was a highly educated man, a man of refined taste, and singular literary power and skill. He enjoyed in the best sense of that now often misused term, the advantage of Culture, with all its light and its sweetness. His writings, like all the other inspired books, take their literary character from the natural endowments, educational advantages, and social condition, of the man. They exhibit an imperial imagination, controlled by a disciplined intellect and by good taste. This imagination shows itself in vivid and rapid description, as well as in imagery. The careful and loving study of Isaiah has educated many a preacher’s imagination to an extent of which he was by no means conscious, and few things are so important to an orator as the real cultivation of imagination. True, the book of Isaiah presents the poetic more often than then strictly oratorical use of this faculty. But the two shade into each other; and we also, when we become greatly excited, and our hearers with us, do naturally use in speaking such imaginative conceptions and expressions as generally belonging only to poetry.”
“In part 1 of the book of Isaiah the oratorical element very distinctly predominates – it is direct address, aiming at practical results in those who hear. Sometimes the style even sinks into quiet narrative, but more often it rises into passionate appeal. And in part 2 (from the 40th chapter on), the orator is lost in the poet. The prophet’s soul is completely carried away by imagination and passion, till we have no longer an inspired orator directly addressing us, but a rapt seer, bursting into song, pouring fourth in rhythmical strains his inspired and impassioned predictions. He is like the angel that appeared to the shepherds, whose message soon passed into song. Besides the yet higher blessings which have come to the world from the devotional and practical, the predictive and theological contents of this grand prophet’s writings, who can estimate how much he has done in training servants of God for the highest and truest forms of all religious eloquence!”
- John Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching (Solid Ground: 1907/2004) pp. 14-16