by Gene Edward Veith Jr. & Matthew P. Ristuccia
Have you ever wondered why the human faculty of imagination has gotten such a bad rap in Christian circles? In the Church, somehow the black hat of disapproval has been bestowed on imagination and its creative expression in the arts. How did this attitude develop? How can this idea be changed and imagination and creativity be encouraged in the church? The book Imagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind by Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Matthew P. Ristuccia deals with some of these questions.
I’d like to mention here that the second half of the title, Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind, put me off somewhat because it seems to suggest that Christians are neglecting their imaginations. That may not be true at all for the individual. On the other hand, I do think it is true that the Protestant church historically has not actively encouraged the use of the imagination, or participation in the arts, and this may be seen as neglectful.
The book Imagination Redeemed has a twofold purpose. One is to explain what imagination is, and to move it back from the “dark side” into the good graces of Christian opinion, showing that imagination, like any other area of life, can be redeemed and used constructively. The second purpose of the book is to invite the reader into a brief but fascinating study of the visions of Ezekiel, demonstrating how this ancient prophetic text is a powerful example of the use of imagination.
As to the subject of imagination, the authors, particularly Gene Veith, explain that imagination is pervasive in daily life. One’s memories, planning of future events, visualizing changes in an existing physical space (e.g., remodeling a room), or designing something that is not presently in existence, such as a garden, all employ imagination. Imagination is not an obscure New Age consciousness nor a seldom used faculty of the mind. One’s imagination is constantly in use throughout every day.
Here are a few comments about imagination from the book:
“[A]llowing the Lord God to see and know our imaginative capability for what it is constitutes the first step toward imagination redeemed. The goal, therefore, …of our book is, in prayerful presence before the living God, to develop a fuller awareness of our imaginations.”
“[T]he Son is the very imagination of God, the model, the agent and the purpose of all creation.”
“The imagination is a gift of God, and finds its fullest expression in God.”
“When God captures our imagination, he captures the rest of our mind, including our understanding and our will.”
Another valuable section in Imagination Redeemed covers developing an accountability system for our imaginations. The “old Adam” can still wreak havoc with a redeemed imagination, according to Ristuccia and Veith. Developing a ritual called an “imagination audit” can help one be aware of the role imagination plays in daily thought processes. Here are some questions that the authors suggest which might be used in creating an imagination audit:
- What memories, dreams, or mental pictures have been particularly vivid? How have they been impacting me? How have they made me feel?
- Which of these mental pictures have been life-giving? Which of them have been life-sucking?
- Is there an “imagination feed” behind these pictures, in other words, a network of mental or visual input, behaviors, relationships and unopposed ruminating thoughts… that give rise to these images?
Between definitions and explanations about imagination, we are given an introduction to the prophet Ezekiel, his priestly training in Israel, his relocation through exile with thousands of Jews to Babylon, and his call from God to become a prophet to God’s people in Babylon. Author Ristuccia skillfully draws us a picture of the bleak and hopeless days experienced by the Jews as they, including Ezekiel, perform their back-breaking task of making bricks for King Nebuchadnezzar’s astonishing “Seven Wonders of the World” building projects.
Ristuccia also helps us to understand the hopelessness that the Jews felt as they compared their present state in Babylon to a previous state in Egypt. They were slaves there, too. They made bricks there, also. But the Lord who had saved them by using Moses to set them free from Pharaoh’s control was not going to help them anymore. They had broken their Mosaic covenant with the Lord. They had boldly disobeyed him, broken his commandments, and worshipped idols in his holy Temple. There was no possibility he would save them again. No chance at all. Into this demoralized, bereft place God calls Ezekiel as his prophet, his messenger of truth and hope to his chosen people.
Ristuccia makes a great point when he says that in this state of mind, when despair and cynicism were rife among the Jewish slaves, a word from a prophet, a “Thus saith the Lord” was not going to make an impression on the captives, or even on someone like Ezekiel – a faithful follower of Yahweh who had been trained as a priest in Israel. But a vision? Yes. A vision would be seen. A vision would grab hold of them.
Why did God choose extraordinarily powerful visions as his means of communicating his messages to Ezekiel? Ristuccia says it was for the purpose of restoring hope to his people. The only way to cut through the overwhelming despair and doubt was to present a picture of the future glory of Israel:
“In order to renew and reform the faith of his people in exile, the covenant- loyal God seized Ezekiel by the imagination. Yahweh captured the mind of the son of Buzi with an overpowering, unmediated, sensory presentation of dense truth about the still-sovereign majesty of the God of Abraham, even though Abraham’s descendents were captives in a foreign land. I AM bypassed the rational powers of Ezekiel’s mind and went directly for his imagination.”
Over the course of Imagination Redeemed, Ristuccia describes all four visions which God gave to Ezekiel. He helps us to imagine what kind of hope the messages of the visions brought to the captives in Babylon. The most obviously encouraging of the visions is the Valley of the Dry Bones (Ez 37:1-14) This is the well known story about a vast collection of bones which come back to life through the breath of God. Wisely, Ristuccia doesn’t leave the stories of despair and hope of God’s people in Babylon, but brings them to the present by drawing parallels between the captivity of the Jews in Babylon and the present state of the Church in America. There are some very provocative ideas in his comparisons that are worthy of our attention.
Did Imagination Redeemed answer all my questions about why the Protestant Church has such a discouraging attitude toward imagination? No. But the book does at least acknowledge the problem exists, and offers some valuable and, dare I say imaginative?, ways to address the situation – chief among them the enlightening done study on Ezekiel’s visions.