Cultivating Imagination

I recently re-read George MacDonald’s short essay, “The Fantastic Imagination.” It has me ruminating on cultivating imagination. As a pastor, I’ve been thinking about it as it applies to my work in ministry. But I think imagination may be advantageous in pretty much any vocation or avocation.

MacDonald is known to C.S. Lewis fans as one of his most significant influences. Repeated requests for him to explain certain things in stories he had written prompted this essay. Rather than offer the explanations his readers craved, he wrote to expand their appreciation of the power of fairytale (a term he admits isn’t entirely satisfactory). He writes:

Inharmonious, unconsorting ideas will come to a man, but if he try to use one of such, his work will grow dull, and he will drop it from mere lack of interest. Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button-holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.

Imagination is the tailor that cuts garments of beauty that clothe Truth. Christians sometimes conceive of imagination as being at odds with truth. MacDonald insists that, whatever else that may be, it isn’t imagination. So-called creativity, uprooted from what MacDonald calls Law, isn’t imagination. By Law, MacDonald seems to have in mind reality as God has created it. He distinguishes between physical and moral realities, with the former providing more room for “invention.” In any case, ideas cut loose from the created nature of things–or as Ken Myers puts it, the givenness of things–are inharmonious, disintegrating, and produce works that are dull and lacking in interest.


MacDonald is after something more than defense of fairytales and defining imagination. He writes to convince that fairytales are important. Why are they important? He explains:

A fairytale, a sonata, a gathering storm, a limitless night, seizes you and sweeps you away: do you begin at once to wrestle with it and ask whence its power over you, whither it is carrying you? The law of each is in the mind of its composer; that law makes one man feel this way, another man feel that way. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness. To one, the cloudy rendezvous is a wild dance, with a terror at its heart; to another, a majestic march of heavenly hosts, with Truth in their centre pointing their course, but as yet restraining her voice. The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended. I will go farther.–The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is–not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.

Imagination has the power to sweep you away. It can rouse conscience; it can wake up things within you. It is able, in other words, to give you a grasp of truth that encompasses your full humanity: mind, body, will and emotion. It can make you think things for yourself. It can carry you to embrace Truth for yourself. This power of imagination probably helps to explain why so much prophecy assumes the form of poetry in Scripture. The prophets are constantly seeking to move us to embrace the covenant both externally, and internally, for ourselves.


A plethora of voices have persuaded me of the importance and power of imagination. Four men in particular have convinced me of the necessity to cultivate imagination for pastoral work: Bryan Chapell (see Using Illustrations to Preach with Power), Jerram Barrs (see especially his recent book, Echoes of Eden), Ken Myers (for more on his work see Engaging Culture Christianly), and Eugene Peterson (see e.g. Cultivating the Imagination, a Conversation with Eugene Peterson).


I face personal limitations when it comes to imagination. Some of us have greater imaginative gifts than others. There are surely also cultural impulses that tend to stifle imagination. Or if they don’t stifle, they at least anesthetize us to its importance for our lives and work. I won’t go into what those may be in this post. My point here is to say that I find that I tend to be weak in imagination. Hence, cultivating imagination is something that I need to pursue deliberately. What follows are five practices I find helpful for cultivating imagination.


1. Cultivating imagination by attending to creation.

While most orthodox Christians reject macro-evolution, many of us who do are functional evolutionists. We live as though our world was not created by God. Consequently, we aren’t as attentive to the givenness of the world as we need to be. This failure to pay attention to the createdness of the world includes our physical environment, our spiritual environment, and our understanding of what it means to be human. If, as MacDonald argues, imagination is rooted in the givenness of things, cultivating it will require a growing understanding of that givenness. We need to ask questions like: what does it mean to be human? What is the world in which we live like? We need to ask such questions in spite of the prevailing voices who insist we can’t know such things. One of the most powerful components of effective sermon illustration is keen observation.


2. Cultivating imagination by attending to Scripture.

Propositions occur frequently in Scripture, and I don’t subscribe to the notion that they are unimportant. However, as many have argued before me, those propositions rarely stand alone. They’re embedded in metaphor, story, and poetry. Scripture uses many and diverse means to drive truth home to us as whole people. It provides word-pictures, analogies meant to appeal not only our minds, but also our wills and emotions. To give but one example, the apostle Paul prays for his readers:

…That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (Ephesians 1:17-19, ESV).

In relating his prayer he uses the metaphor, “the eyes of your hearts.” The prayer itself indicates that the knowledge he desires for his readers is more than what might be called merely rational. Certainly he wants them to have rational understanding. But he desires more. He wants them to appreciate the truth. He desires that they would have an emotional embrace of the truth that will in turn reshape their way of living. He wants them not merely to be able to define hope, or give a rational account of it, but to actually have it.


This passage is one example that shows how Scripture leads us to appreciate the power of imagination. Imagination is capable of reaching us physically, intellectually, emotionally, volitionally and spiritually. The Bible can also motivate us to grow in imagination. It gives examples of how that might be done in a way that corresponds to who we are as human beings. The fact that Paul uses things like metaphor reinforces the propriety of cultivating imagination. He certainly knows that God must affect spiritual change. But that conviction in no way deters him from employing imagination as he ministers to people.

3. Cultivating imagination by attending to the arts.

Tastes vary. Some people will resonate most strongly with music, others with the visual arts, and still others with literary arts. Some may appreciate all the above equally. Even within a given artistic arena, people’s tastes will vary. While allowing for variations of taste, good art will always impact us through evoking imagination. Sometimes it touches imagination in a way that expands it. Like a musician who develops mastery in her craft through disciplined practice, so disciplined consumption of the arts may develop the capacity for imagination.

Further, we can learn from artists who have mastered their disciplines, and demonstrated an ability to move us by evoking imagination. If you want to appreciate the power of words, you can read Shakespeare or Marilynne Robinson. If you want to better understand how music employs imagination to move us, you can listen to Bach (or George Strait, the Beatles, or Miles Davis). I’m convinced that we can find useful principles employ imagination within our own work from diverse artistic sources.


4. Cultivating imagination by attending to contemplation.

Like any good plant, it seems to me that imagination needs room to breathe for growth. For quite awhile now, we’ve had many voices wisely warning us about the dangers of excessive activity, information overload, and media saturation. These warnings ring true in my experience. I struggle as much as anyone to make time for quiet reflection. It often seems that I’m perpetually processing information in a very cursory and shallow way. Giving time to reflect more deeply on creation, Scripture, and the arts, can sometimes prove amazingly fruitful for expanding our imagination, and the capacity to use imagination in our work and communication.


In this regard a couple of things come to mind. First, I find that my ability to appreciate Scripture, art, and even creation is expanded through good conversations about the subject in question. Especially where I can converse with someone who has more experience, understanding, or appreciation for the subject, it can expand my imagination.

Here I would include reading. Though admittedly a different kind of conversation, reading represents a conversation nevertheless.


Second, imagination can grow as we seek to articulate our perceptions in the course of conversation. As you put into words your reflections about a movie, or about a piece of music, or about a passage of Scripture it can help to better appreciate and understand imagination. If you’re an extrovert the value of conversation will be intuitive. But even for introverts I think it holds. That conversation is important for cultivating imagination seems obvious. Notwithstanding, how little I actually put it into practice. I rarely speak with fellow pastors about, say, the value of imagination in preaching or teaching. What makes an illustration effective? How do we set our sights on heart embrace, and not merely rational facility? These are the kinds of questions that might result in fruitful conversation when it comes to imagination.


I’m convinced that I need to be cultivating imagination in my work as a pastor. I’m convinced partly because I find imagination to be lacking in my work. I’m absolutely convinced that the Holy Spirit causes people to embrace Christ, and He drives home the truths of Scripture. But I’m also persuaded that God provided all my faculties for His service, including imagination. Similarly, in seeking minister to others more effectively, it would be foolish to ignore a faculty as powerful as imagination.


What other ideas do you have about cultivating imagination? What would you add to the discussion? What is imagination? Do you agree or disagree that its important? I’d really love to hear your thoughts–please take time to comment.

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