One of the things that has most annoyed me about Evangelical culture is the lack of imagination. I think part of this has to do with the fact that we don’t know how to read the Bible in an imaginative way. Please don’t think that in making this criticism I am in any way suggesting that we read the Bible as merely an inspiring piece of art over against the church’s claim that it is deadly serious in speaking the truth about matters of eternal life and death. It is certainly the latter. But when I think of the Christian authors who have most inspired me, their imaginative treatment of the Bible, though often appreciated by Evangelicals, is something I would argue the latter do not have the capacity to replicate.
What I mean by this is that poets like Donne and Herbert, or the Old English poets, or Milton, seem to tap into what I would call a Biblical/Christian atmosphere. If you try to pin down by Biblical chapter and verse the metaphysical conceits of Donne or the extrapolation of the Genesis story by Milton, you can’t; much as most Christians believe in something like Milton’s conception of the fall, the devil, etc., there is no scripture they can point to to back it up in the strictest literal sense. The serpent of Eden is only identified as the devil by later Christian (and possibly Jewish) tradition. And if we pared Donne’s poems down to only things that could be found in the Biblical text as understood by a modern Evangelical, they would be impoverished indeed. Though we recognize these texts as deeply Christian, they are not “biblical” in the modern Evangelical sense, but rather their roots are in a whole imaginative superstructure built via tradition atop the basis of Scripture. Like the best of Cathedrals, it took centuries of medieval trial and error (and councils) to build, and though we can’t always see immediately how the lines trace back to God’s word, our loss of vision does not make the superstructure less scriptural. If you put yeast in grape juice and let it brew, it will become something different and better, even though it is no less the original grape juice with which you started. I suggest that Christian tradition, in its best instances, is exactly this – scripture left to ferment in the wineskin of the church inspired by the active agent of the Holy Spirit. Yes, if a fly gets in the wine it can become vinegar, and even so can heterodoxy and sin produce sour batches of tradition – Christ on the cross is made to taste vinegar. But when it goes right, it goes very right, and produces exactly the sort of the thing that Miltons and Donnes and Herberts of the past could draw on, and exactly the sort of thing Evangelical churches have tossed out as “superfluous additions” to Scripture understood in the narrowest sense possible.
Lest my critique here should sound like a typical romantic idolatry of imagination, I do want to clarify that the imagination and imaginative works are not pretty toys we can bring out at parties, and then put away when we are done with them. No, if we dare imagine, we will be captured – whether by something good, or by something bad, for the imagination can engage in and promote both, as can tradition. But I feel like Evangelicals, seeing the negative side of tradition (that is, the imagination of the church), have gotten rid of it entirely. It is a little like reading Proverbs and presuming that because there are some figures of temptresses, we should eschew women altogether – thereby missing the central figure of the text, Woman Wisdom.
But what can be done, and who can do it? I will post more concerning this in some following posts, but one thing I do think necessary is for Evangelicals to quit pretending that faith is a respectable and reasonable (by 21st C standards) business. I have seen many Christians attempting to defend Christianity by betraying their sisters and brothers in Christ from the past – and betrayal of Christ’s body is the betrayal of Christ. Yes, they will say, those awkward, ignorant, backward Christians in the past were entirely stupid, but we Evangelicals are eminently reasonable and easy to get along with – we will make good neighbors in your middle class suburbs (but don’t expect us to cross the street for you if you get beat up). Please notice I am not here saying that modern Christians should not own up to the sins and errors committed by Christians in the past – the place to do this is on our knees weeping before God in repentance. What I am saying is that more often than not, our apologetics become a means of dissociating ourselves from those “weirdos over there, a couple of centuries back.” Christ bears the sins of the church on the cross, and as part of his body these sins are ours to bear as well. One of the best places to learn to love our enemies is the church, for on more than many occasions we will find ourselves called to love those we pray with and hate.
I suppose what I am getting at here is that addressing the scandal of the Evangelical imagination will be more than a mere shift in “worldview” or an attempt to be sensitive and emergent. What it will require is the ability to stand beside the historical church and say that we are one with them, for better or for worse, in poverty or plenty, in sickness or in health. To do this is to be the bride of Christ, and it makes sense that in neglecting this commitment we have lost the rich and fruitful imagination – the imagination of the Song of Songs – that was once part of our marriage.