Monday, February 4, 2008

What should a Christian imagination look like?

“You can sing about the Light, or you can sing about what you see because of the Light. I prefer the latter.” ~ T-Bone Burnett
“I would rather be told an R-rated truth, than a G-rated lie” ~ Ken Gire, author of Reflections on the Movies: Hearing God in the Unlikeliest of Places

I’m going to be honest with you…I find that blatantly “Christian” music/books/art (to clarify, let’s just say that by this I mean anything one would usually find in one’s local Christian bookstore) is often just a matter of “singing about the Light” over and over (to use T-Bone’s great image) or just another avenue for “evangelizing” which after a while becomes trite and shallow. My frustration is not that I don’t think this stuff has its place, it’s that this has such a monopoly on what the evangelical Christians I know sing, listen to, read, and look at (perhaps this is an unfair generalization, but it does seem to accurately describe the folks I interact with daily). I’ve been wondering what effect this seemingly one-dimensional approach has on us? So here are my questions that I would love to hear your thoughts on:
What does it mean for a Christian to have a "Christian imagination"? What is the role of the imagination for living the Christian life? What is its role in the arts? What should the "Christian arts" (if we want to argue that there should be such a thing) look like? What would the purpose be for them?


Anonymous said...

What does it mean for a Christian to have a "Christian imagination"? What is the role of the imagination for living the Christian life? What is its role in the arts? What should the "Christian arts" (if we want to argue that there should be such a thing) look like? What would the purpose be for them?

There should be no such thing as Christian arts or for that matter secular arts. That only creates an us against them mentality, which may further divide us from those outside of the Christian community. In fact, should there be a Christian imagination vs. just simply an imagination? God's light touches and illuminates almost all aspects of life. The quiet, private underworld that each of us contains within ourselves, as well as out public day to day interactions with others are open to God's illumination. To make a distinction between secular and sacred is a lack of recognition for the sacredness of life to begin with. Within a "secular" song can be the light of God's illumination upon certain truths about our humanity, or faults and temptations, our relatedness to one another.

Its a shame that the there is a huge industry built on the antithesis of this premise. Anyway, I kind of what on a rant there. Hope that was something!

-Steb- said...

I think that a Christian imagination would have to be characterized by "going". In order for there to even be a Christian imagination then we would have to go out, to engage, because within a Christianized culture imagination is not needed to see God. (or maybe it is??? :) )

I think that we have a fear of being led a stray so we tend to avoid things that are not overtly "Christian". But what happens when that fear paralyzes us from engaging in our culture and those culture around us?

Strictly from a beholders perspective, I think that we miss out on God. Of all the ways that God reveals Himself though each culture, especially the non-Christianized culture, I think that we are handicapping ourselves, and settling.

So imagine what crucial role imagination must play in our pursuit of our God.

R Cronk said...

I feel the pain. As a child of the 60s and 70s I headed to a Christian college with a dogmatic grasp of dualism. There were clear lines in the sand separating the sacred and secular, more like cultural precipices to careen over – each with a deep, dark, godless abyss waiting to swallow me. I had been counseled to steer clear of the evil trinity – dance, movies and pop music. Rock-and-roll was my undoing – or perhaps my doing. I tried so very hard to develop an appreciation of the sanitized Christian rock of the day. I just couldn’t do it. I gave up the battle. As you so clearly point out, image bearers will do more than evangelize the evangelized. Image bearers will appreciate creative works of beauty and truth – no matter where they are found, to draw upon the words of Arthur Holmes. Thanks for helping a fellow sojourner to think rightly on these maters.

Jenny M. said...

"What does it mean for a Christian to have a 'Christian imagination'? I believe that as humans we're endowed with an imagination and that imagination is good, and I don't think it can be Christian. I think a person can imbue their natural imagination with religious imagery and themes but imaginations can't be born again :) But for serious, I'm bad with words, so I'll quote Donald Miller..."Christian is a great noun but a poor adjective."

:::: Travis Keller :::: said...

if i decide what my/our imagination should look like have i lost my imagination?

Ron said...

Thanks for the thoughts so far! Here are some of my responses to continue the conversation:

Annoymous: I agree wholeheartedly with you on the issue of dualism and ill effects that can occur when we begin to see things in terms of "sacred" and "secular". I'm a crazy enough Wesleyan to believe that God's prevenient grace is at work in all and in Creation...however, I wonder if that conviction about prevenient grace is an act of imagination itself that allows me to live in a certain way in the world?

Steb: I like your idea of "going", if only because throughout the Bible we see God's people as wanderers, folks without homes. What kind of imagination would sustain this "going"? What imaginative understandings of God uphold this?

Cronker: I, too, went through my Christian rock phase in junior high and high school...and I have a drawer full of old Christian rock tapes in my desk to prove it! It is interesting that as a 15 year old when I first listened to U2's "War" album I immediately recognized it as more rich and substantive than any of the "Christian" music I was listening too.

J.M.: Perhaps imaginations cannot be born again, but can our imaginations, as shaped by our Christian convictions, be such that it leads us to see the world in peculiar ways? I think I need to define imagination more substantively in the future, but I guess I am using it in the manner in which Walter Brueggemann and Jurgen Moltmann use it throughout their writings...that is, it takes an act of imagination to believe and live in such way that the lion lays down with the lamb, to forgive enemies, to sell possessions, to give food and water to those who need it, etc.

Travis: I appreciate the postmodern question and my question is not about some sort of "imperializing" that sets in stone what a Christian imagination should look like. But can we begin to discuss what types of imagination that might look Christian while understanding that these are tentative and partial? That any attempt to describe always reveals as it conceals? That no tradition can ever be fully articulated and so a lively argument over the goods/contents of a tradition is always a good sign of an alive tradition?

Joe said...

I think a CHRISTIAN'S Imagination in a postmodern time, will expose injustice leaving the response to that of the person enjoying the art.

I personally want to stop calling things like music and art Christian, even if the artist(s) maintain that religious belief. I think there are many artists, be it authors, musicians, or artist of other mediums, whom all differ theologically, and we find rich pearls of knowledge and understanding and beauty in each of them, not because it's categorically "Christian" by label, but because of it's true depiction of humanness.

Maybe that's just a preference of mine, but I want to maintain "Christian" as it was originally used as a noun and not an adjective, which has served as an awful symbol that means many different things across our culture. To me it means, overtly theological babble with no poetic metaphor, and awful art, which makes me feel bad for my friends As Cities Burn and Mewithoutyou. .

Justin said...

First off, I'm incredibly intimidated to comment on this blog. Just wanna get that out there.

In my mind I see the "Christian Imagination" as having a sociological impact. As Christians begin to more rapidly enter the realms of mainstream media, an implicit message of Christian questions and ideas will begin to redefine and reestablish social norms.

This may seem like, propaganda, but think about it.The media is already defining norms, creating ideas, such as that of "redemptive violence", which is prevalent among many people. What would happen if theologians paired with writers and artists? What could television look like? How could this influence daily life? How could our sense of community be increased as what Durkheim called "the ties that bind" would be being shaped by Christians?

Ron said...

Joe - I'm with you in that I don't know that the "Christian" label is really all that helpful. I like your idea of "true humanness" being important. Do you want to flesh that out more? I'm interested to hear what you would include in that category. (I use similar terms to describe why I listen to Wilco, Radiohead, Josh Ritter, The National, etc.)

Justin - First off, no worries, this is a no intimidation blog. Just imagine sitting in my crappy chairs in my office listening to good music and chatting. What do you have in mind when you talk about this mainstream message? It's funny, but I think of the Sopranos, Lost, and Heroes as challenging some of our mainstream notions (I think particularly of the role of love in Heroes). I think you are pointing in the right direction when you suggest that writers, artists, television producers, singers, etc. should be theologically astute. That is why Martin Scorcese can see his Catholic theological framework all over his movies. The same goes for Sufjan Stevens and his Episcopal liturgical theology (you knew I had to work him in somehow!).

Joe said...

I guess when I mention the true depiction of humanness in art, I am specifically talking about the power of truth in shared human experience.

This is an amazing power in our culture which hold defining labels such as vocation and class to determine the "style" of one's life, yet through good art, we have INTENSE graphic description of moments, that all (or at least most) of people who are human share a feeling, a moment, an act of injustice, or an act of grace. The power art has to bind people together.

In a sense it's the ability to describe the beauty to being human that every person can understand, the mortality of man, and the brokenness of society. The "lies" that we all have to deal with, no matter where we find ourselves in society, and the truth that speaks so strongly across generations. The basic themes that we share as mankind: Love & Lust, Apathy & Justice, Destruction & Restoration, Good & Evil, Heaven & Hell, and so on.

These are the polar ideas which show our shared fallen selves, as well as our hope for shared restoration to Humanness divine. The restored Imago Dei.

Ethan said...

Hey, what do you mean by prevenient grace as part of your imagination?

Ron said...

Hey Ethan! Nice to see that you are still out there! What I was meaning by that comment is that there is no way that I can know for sure that prevenient grace is TRUE (other streams in the Christian tradition do not think it so), therefore it is a theologically imaginative act that I take to be correct and which than shapes the manner in which I engage others and the world around me. I think I really need to do a post defining what I mean by imagination because I think that is where others may be getting confused by my language! :-)

Daniel Coutz said...

T-Bone Burnett neglected to mention a third option. You could sing about both the light and what the light reveals.
Secondly isn't there some sort of line between what a follower of Christ will and will not or should and should not watch? I'm not saying its between PG-13 and R, but it seems like there would definitely be one.

Ron said...

Daniel - Thanks for posting! I think T-Bone might say that by singing about what we see differently because of the Light we ARE ALSO singing about the Light...just my guess.

What do you think the "line" should be for Christians? I find it difficult to come up with some hard-and-fast rule because I want to see human experience/human nature revealed in some truthful manner and I often find than that Disney movies are more dishonest on this than "R" rated movies which may involving swearing, sexuality, violence, and/or other "objectionable" content. I guess my line is more about the "gratuitousness" of the content than about the content itself. What do you think?

Daniel Coutz said...

I agree and I have a hard time drawing a line for the same reason. I know for me I have to draw the line at pretty much any nudity as it is to easy for me to stumble if I don't, anything beyond that I don't really have an answer yet.

Ron said...

Perhaps we need to begin talking about how to DISCERN what is appropriate for each individual (within relationships in community) rather than "rules" for everyone to follow?

What can we do to nurture self-insight, wisdom, and discernment?

Andrew said...

I think up until this point there has been two main Christian/Evangelical responses to "secular" culture. Protesting and Parroting. We have either tried to ban it or make a bad copy. I believe that a healthier approach would be to permeate it. Whether it be music, movies, art, or even academia, I think that rather than banning it or making a crappy immitation we should strive to mix right in with what is already out there. How are people going to see the Light or see what we see as a result of the Light, if we only sell it in Christian bookstores or teach it on Christian campuses.

Joe said...

hey Dr. Wright, I took your advice and when at Barnes and Noble today I picked up a copy of Radiohead's last album, "in rainbows." After doing some reading in how it differs from their more established ablums, i understand how off the beaten path it may seem and may not represent them as a whole, but i enjoy it thoroughly and I think it's easier to write to actually. There's something about it that's amazing.

Thanks again

Farmer said...

Today in Chapel, the woman speaking mentioned that there are more people voting for musicians in a reality contest than for a presidential candidate, and presented it as a problem. I am curious to see if others think this is a problem. I will write a brief post on it.

I think it shows that the values of the new voting generations are with Art and it's ability to critique Powers. They feel more powerful using that form of expression than with an electoral vote. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing because, this generation most likely feels there is something wrong with the game, and it's going to have to take someone who's NOT a player to change that game (ie: musicians, artists, authors, moviemakers, etc.).


Daniel Coutz said...

Hmmm...I don't know. One thing I don't think a majority of the people who vote for American Idol are thinking "Hey I can critique the powers by voting for this person" Most motives are much shallower than that (He's hot) in my opinion. But the same argument could be made for why people vote in presidential elections also.