December 3, 2020

iMonk Classic: The Conversion of the Evangelical Imagination

Harry Potterphoto © 2008 Joya Wu | more info (via: Wylio)Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
December 9, 2005

NOTE from CM: With the release of the final Harry Potter film, I thought this little meditation from Michael Spencer would be appropriate today.

Father Andrew Greeley may be writing with a wink when he wonders if evangelicals have considered the possible irony of their current interest in movies, but the point is still well made.

Secondly, it seems to me that the evangelicals slip dangerously close to Catholic idolatry when they embrace a wondrous allegory as a summary of the biblical story. Jesus is not and never was a lion like Aslan in the film. To interpret him as a lion is to go light years beyond literal, word-for-word inerrancy. The evangelical enthusiasm about the sufferings of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” put them one step away, it seemed to me, from importing crucifixes and Stations of the Cross into their churches. I’m afraid that their enthusiasm for both films shows just how seductive the Catholic temptation is. We delight in pictures and stories and allegories and symbols and signs because they appeal to the whole human person and not just to the rigid, rational mind.

There is nothing that is more of the essence of conversion than the capturing of the imagination. This is a truth that has confronted me in my mid-life years as have few others. Despite the neglect of the imagination in my own fundamentalist tradition, I have discovered that it remains a essential part of human nature. Fallen and fragile, but powerful and influential. To understand how to appeal to the imagination effectively is to be able to influence human beings on a much more deeper level than the appeal of reason alone.

Joe Castillo, C.S. Lewisphoto © 2008 Tim Grable | more info (via: Wylio)Not long ago, a friend asked me to assist him in understanding a teenager who had gone “goth.” The understanding of this phenomenon common in fundamentalist circles involves Satanic influence and rebellion against God. Of course, Milton- that Puritan poet- understood this quite well when he created a Satan of the imagination, and made him the captain of our human rebellion against a God who seems (at least in Milton’s poem) dully reasonable and parental in comparison. This young “goth” has found the imagination of Christianity to be wanting, and the imagination of the occult world to be fascinating. He has joined himself to its story, because propositions mean less to this young man than the power of the imagination.

The fundamentalist war on the imagination is old. It is not that fundamentalism offers nothing to the imagination. It does, but there is in fundamentalism a deep-seated and deeply wrong belief that the second commandment was a “closure” order on the imagination. There is a deep suspicion that anything imaginative violates a divine order and seduces us in the wrong direction. This is as true of the Christian imagination as of the secular imagination. There is often as much fear of Catholic art as there is of occultic art. The paltry artistic production of recent conservative Christianity bears witness to this imaginative desert. Little is planted, and little grows, and we lose most of our children not to the world’s propositions, but to the world’s illusions.

One of our students has asked me to help her recover an entire set of Harry Potter books. What happened to them? Well-meaning staff at our Christian school confiscated them as being illegal, because our rules prohibit the possession of anything occultic or pertaining to witchcraft. My experience with students is that the Harry Potter books are unsurpassed in their ability to excite young people about reading, and I have never met a student who missed the messages of courage and friendship and was, instead, persuaded to pursue an interest in the occult.

Only recently, however, have protestants begun to hear a positive evaluation of Harry Potter. Why? Because evangelical Christians have finally discovered that the world of the imagination may have something to offer them, and this discovery is increasingly being made, not in the world of literature, but in the more common medium of the movies.

While many of us have long known that fiction such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” repudiated the fundamentalist attitude toward the imaginative, it was the discovery of Christian appeals to the imagination in movies such as “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings” that began to break the ice in the evangelical world. While media such as Focus on the Family and Baptist Press penned warnings about the dangers of Harry Potter, they gave surprisingly positive coverage to the evangelistic and homiletical uses of “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings.”

With the advent of projection technology in churches, and the use of movies by churches as sermon and teaching illustrations, evangelicals began to look at the movies differently. Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,:” based on an imaginative and visionary Roman Catholic interpretation of the suffferings of Jesus, brought evangelicals into the theaters by the millions, and convinced the film-making community that evangelicals were an audience to be tapped.

But do evangelicals realize the change in their attitude toward the realm of the imaginative that has taken place alongside this embracing of the visual media? Is Father Greeley correct that no evangelical attempt to reinterpret C.S. Lewis books and Narnia films will escape the inevitable comparisons to Catholic art and other visual appeals to the imagination?

My fundamentalist influences would be quick to say that no one is praying to Aslan or Gandalf, only citing them as illustrations. Our Catholic friends must laugh, as evangelicals awash in DVDs, t-shirts, jewelry, audio/visual projection technology, and other astonishing uses of video and movies say they are not appealing to the imagination in those “bad Catholic ways.” Right. Gibson rightly named his studio “Icon.”

The emerging church suggests that rejection of the visual and the imaginative was a mistake from which we ought to vigorously repent. I agree, and even at the risk of a bit of silliness such repentance is worthwhile to at least make an effort to recapture the lost imaginations of millions. The interpretations of the second commandment I grew up hearing were nothing more than excuses for the impoverishment of the imagination. Evangelicals have produced enough bad art to keep someone in purgatory busy for thousands of years just watching, reading and listening to it. We’re beginning to repent of being the people who considered the local theater a subdivision of hell and whose response was Billy Graham movies.

paintbrushesphoto © 2011 Monika | more info (via: Wylio)Let’s do more than begin. Let’s become a people known for our love of the imagination and its possibilities of enjoyment, creation and worship.

The Great Christian Tradition- especially in its early centuries- was always visual without being idolatrous. It engaged culture through mind and imagination. The risks of idolatry were never absent, but the rewards of a holy, and living, imagination are too rich to avoid. In eras of illiteracy and spiritual warfare, the church sought to appeal to and capture the imagination of those who heard the Gospel. Whether liturgy, cathedrals, musical compositions or great works of visual art- all were arrayed for the purpose of taking the loyalties of the imagination captive for Christ the Lord.

Evangelicals have dabbled. They have denounced. They have demeaned. They have experimented. Are they ready to admit that we can preach through our engagement with story, image and aesthetic, and not only through propositions? Art and imagination, great writing and creative expresssion: they all preach the Gospel and engage human beings with the truth of God. If evangelicals are opening their minds to more than outlines and answers, will they seek out those God has gifted in the realm of the imaginative and release them to create, praise and evangelize?


  1. Excellent. Vive l’imagination!

  2. Great essay from Michael Spencer. I particularly like, “Little is planted, and little grows, and we lose most of our children not to the world’s propositions, but to the world’s illusions.” Michael had a great way with words!

  3. I always liked that quote of Calvin regarding our minds being the perpetual factory of idols. Perhaps this is where the prohibition against imagination began. If so, I think we misunderstand Calvin. Our minds fashion God substitutes of every size shape and form. The horrible representations of God within much of evangelical theology is at the heart of its impending collapse. These false representations or idols mold a god which fits our own purposes, values, and agendas.

    Art has the power of peering into our souls, revealing our deepest concerns, joys, and ultimate concern. If our art becomes idolatrous, it is because that is what it has found within us. If our theology or perception of God is messed up, our art will reflect this. I believe the reason evangelical art is so shallow and mass-produced is because our view of God is shallow, objectified, and pragmatized (trinket-ized, if there is such a word). I believe evangelicalism’s prohibition or phobia against art and imagination is very similar to how art was treated under oppressive governments: freedom of art was banned to hide the suffering and oppression of the people; the art which was allowed was propaganda to force conformity, but it also revealed the inhumanity and shallowness of the government. Once again, the mirror of self-criticism must be avoided at all costs or replaced with a picture of how we want people to see us.

  4. Thanks for a thought provoking article. I’m not quite sure what it will look like, but if “postmodern” is a reasonable description of the US and UK, then I suspect the importance of narrative and the imagination ought to and will come more to the fore.

  5. Richard McNeeley says

    Reading this reminded me of Franky Schaffer’s 1981 book “Addicted to Mediocrity”. Evangelicalism shows very little imagination. Walk into a Christian book (trinket) store and you will see bad artwork, and T shirts with slogans borrowed from Madison Ave. ad campaigns. Where is the originality? Can’t we enjoy art, music and entertainment just for the joy of it or does everything have to have some kind of spiritual message?

  6. I found the book The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing by Leland Ryken very helpful in expanding my view of the role and value of imagination in a Christian.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Surprised this got so few comments. As a 40+ year SF/Fantasy fan, Imagination (and the Evangelical lack/failure of same) is one subject I get VERY passionate about.

    But then, when all that matters is the Spiritual, Ye Ende Is Nighye, and It’s All Gonna Burn, don’t expect anything to do with the Imagination. When all that matters is to keep your nose squeeky-clean to pass God’s Litmus Test and sell that Rapture Fire Insurance, don’t expect anything to do with the Imagination. Or the Arts. Or anything other than Closing That Wretched Urgency Sale.

    One exception: You can expect Witch Hunts of all who do not. “Beware Thou of The Mutant.”