January 28, 2021

The Conversion Of The Evangelical Imagination

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.

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.

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. That’s a great essay, Michael. And I hope evangelicals can do what you say needs to be done. But a couple of questions: Will it be ‘good?’ IE., will what they produce entertain beyond the ghetto? LOTR, LWW, The Matrix, hell, even Star Wars all have an appeal because they’re good stories, with multiple layers of meaning to them, being told well. Moreover, and I hate to be a pessimist, but I wonder if the insistance on an ‘altar call’ at the end of the art being exhibited will lower the bar on how the narrative is presented and what can be told. I just wonder if the “Creative Muscle” has atrophied to the point that we don’t know exactly how to be creative anymore.

  2. Isaac,

    I don’t think that it will happen overnight, but it will happen.

    And I don’t think it needs to be Evangelicals “doing art” as Evangelicals, i.e. commissioned by the church — at least at first. It will be enough for a start if individual Evangelicals who choose to work in an “imaginative profession” can do so without being looked askance at by their fellow Evangelicals, and if those in ministry can make use of art being produced by anyone in their proclamation of the gospel without incurring censure.

    I believe this is happening already, and as it happens, Evangelical attitudes to art in general change. As attitudes change, new generations growing up will have less of a barrier to entering creative fields. I am optimistic in this regard.

    A contributing factor to this is former Evangelicals who have moved into churches of the Great Tradition and have somehow maintained their credibility in doing so: as an example, John Granger’s Christian interpretations of Harry Potter were picked up by Evangelical media, which encouraged Evangelicals to voice their own positive evaluation of these books.

    What we need to avoid doing though is labelling such phenomena. Labels are pernicious. Many good ideas have come out of Willow Creek, for example. But as soon as Willow Creek turned into a label for a movement and/or method, there were those who lost all interest or even started warning of the dangers (I am one of those who lost interest). The same thing applies to Rick Warren’s success at Saddleback: as soon as it became a marketed idea and method, some of us turned off. The “Emergent Church” is a similar phenomenon: many good ideas, but attach a label to it, and people become suspicious and begin to warn of the dangers, etc. Again, myself included: I still haven’t figured out what is “emerging” about it, the Church has been around for more than 2000 years, it is not only emerging now, etc.
    An example the other way round is the praise and worship songs now common fare in much of Evangelicaldom — not an unmitigated blessing to be sure: if these songs had been clearly labelled (by those who introduced them to their churches) as “Charismatic” or “Vineyard”, there would have been much more resistance to them. But most Evangelicals singing these songs or listening to them do not consciously make the connection to those labels, and thus the songs have become accepted far behond their own tradition.

    If we can avoid tagging a label to this growing appreciation for art and creativity I believe it will continue to grow and will infiltrate more and more Christian groups, movements and churches.

  3. chrisstiles says

    Though the use of that particular paragraph as a quote may be mislead to some – it seems clear from the rest of his column that it’s gentle irony. Indeed he makes more or less the same point as you in his article.

    Secondly, I suspect you are inferring a ‘Grand Tradition’ in retrospect. In the area of music, whoch I have the most experience with, every musical innovation post-plainsong has been seen as problematic by the church, eventually embraced yes – but only after long periods of suspicion.

    I can see a certain merit in the argument that the Catholic church also lost it’s respect for this part of the “Grand Tradition” at the time of the Reformation.

  4. Well, growing up in a very fundamental background, I was encouraged to put down my art supplies, put down my creativity and instead take up rote memorization. This of course left me feeling as though something was lacking and I left the church for a while. God CREATED. Our creativity comes from him and we should embrace that. Here, we have opened a Christian based art studio, and the reaction has been amazing. We have art classes, and ask people to worship God in creative ways. Its been nothing more than freeing for me. I can finally say, “I am an artist” and God made me that way. Why should the creative only be the realm of those who don’t know Christ? I think the church’s unwillingness to accept ALL of mankind has been wrong. I’m tired of seeing churches expecting people to give up their individuality, and expression of self, for ties, and blue suits on Sunday morning. If that is who you are then fine, but most people I know want to be able to participate in a church and come as who they are, and not who the church expects them to be. Funny, I jumped online for a break from my creating (working on Christmas gifts) and I’m shown this post. Good job Michael.

  5. Preaching, teaching, sharing the gospel, etc. with bold imagination is absolutely essential, and evangelicals are largely poor at it. In our defense, this is partly due to a fear of not letting our sermons be the point of the passages we are trying to teach. Some of the most imaginitive and creative sermons I’ve ever heard failed to accurately interpret any text or, even worse, misinterpreted a text for the sake of matching it up with his/her imaginative story-telling. Still, we can do better. Excellent thoughts from Michael here.

  6. 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.

    Personally, Michael, I think this is largely a myth. Evangelicals have embraced several fantasy series such as LotR and The Chronicles of Narnia. That said, this misperception is fueled by the discriminating tastes of conservatives that won’t write blank checks to all types of fantasy that they deem harmful or supportive of the demonic, such as Harry Potter.


  7. Harry Potter is a story of good vs. evil much the same that LOTR and Narnia are. Where does this charge of being ‘supportive of the demonic’ come from?

  8. Histrion (Jay H) says

    They may seek them out, but they will never release them.

  9. Brian Pendell says

    Quick comment:

    Being a Goth does not necessarily mean being into the occult or into Satanic rebellion. I have personally known people who became Christians without ceasing to be Goths. I mean, heck, there are Jews for Jesus … why not Goths for Jesus?

    You can encounter one of their websites at



    Brian P.

  10. Michael:

    Great essay!

    I’m remembering the church where I grew up.
    When I was around 10 years old, we had a
    choir director who was very talented.
    She pushed the choir into doing some
    things they hadn’t done before, almost
    “high-church” music in some cases.
    I remember it making an impression on me
    even as a 10 or 11 year old. My parents told me,
    that she used to get a lot of flack from
    some families in the church for doing
    “all that high fallutin’ music”.

    I’m particularly attuned to music. I play
    in my church music program. There are some
    examples of “praise music” we do that are really
    well done and imaginative. Unfortunately a lot of
    these type of songs are rehashed “four-chord
    wonder songs”. (I can’t judge the heart or intent
    of the person who wrote the song. I can however
    judge it’s musical effect.)

    It’s good to know that there are other people
    out there asking these questions.

  11. The Chick Voice says

    It has been, for years, my first instinct to reject any input from the evangelical church as it relates to the film and entertainment industry. At my church in 1977 the horrors of Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth” was denounced from the pulpit (before, of course it was aired or seen). Less than a decade later, that film was considered one of the better treatments of Jesus’ life and sold in Christian bookstores. In 1988 I was forbidden from taking my youth group to Universal Studios Theme Park while on choir tour, because they had released The Last Temptation (a film that would have been seen by very few were it not for the Christian “boycott” that ensued.) I was viewed with great concern that year when I refused to sign a petition denouncing something I hadn’t seen. As for the Harry Potter controversy, when I read the first book it immediately brought me back to my delight as a child reading the Narnia series………..I have since read and very much enjoyed all the books in the series. Alas, I am clearly, once again, out of step with my brethren.

  12. Just finished Orson Scott Card’s latest fantasy novel, Magic Street. I was disappointed at first with the ending, which had that definitive Mormon feel of wistful emptiness.

    Then, I realized that the real climax happened dozens of pages earlier, when one of the characters, a street preacher, begged for and received deliverance from a spirit that enabled him to see into hearts, and speak miracles into existence.

    Father Brown eventually converted G K Chesterton. I suspect a similar process may be underway with this Mormon writer who keeps creating believable Christian characters.

    Please join your prayers with mine for this literary friend of our family.

    (For 20 years, I’ve been challenged by the fact that our God had to raise up a MORMON to honor the name of Jesus in the genre of science fiction!)

  13. 2 comments: I was always struck by the irony that most Christians I’ve talked to considered LOTR “good” and Harry Potter “bad”. My “Dungeons and Dragons” days in High School were accompanied by reading of Tolkien as the “bible” of fantasy stuff. I’d say not really occultic but I never saw anything that would bring anyone to Christ. Anyway, my point is, if Dungeons and Dragons are considered “not good”, how is it that LOTR is “good”?

    2) I’m not worried about the idolatry aspect of imaginative works, I’m worried about the potential of talented people ultimately using the “gospel for gain”. I.e, thomas kincade, lahaye, the guy who wrote “prayer of jabez (for everyone, for teens, for women, for recovering this or that). By using the imagination to “fill in the blanks”, they have found a highly lucrative market. The creatives make gobs of money, and the sheep are shorn. Is this pleasing to God, or does he not care about this stuff?

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