In his new memoir, Bart Millard talks about his abusive childhood and the essential role his imagination played in guiding him through his darkest times.
Like Andy in Toy Story, Bart would construct elaborate scenes with his toys and blast off into outer space. He’d fill the pages in his journal with song lyrics and elaborate sketches. He’d hole up in his room and listen to U2 and Amy Grant, envisioning himself up on stage with his musical heroes.
Through his vivid imagination, Bart tapped into something modern Christians often lose sight of—a deep, an imaginative walk with the Lord.
Imagination: Childish or Childlike?
Most sensible people think of imagination as something like a childish escape from reality— trading invisible images for visible words.
Especially for Christians, this casts a doubtful shadow on imagination. We are a people of the Word and not of the image (Ex 20:4), right?
But, what if we’ve gotten imagination wrong? What if imagination is less a childish escape, and more a childlike way to go deeper into our present reality?
What if imagination is less a childish escape, and more a childlike way to go deeper into our present reality?
Call it whatever you like—reductionism, materialism, naturalism—but our modern world is marked by a scientific sensibility that tends to limit reality to what we can see with our own two eyes.
Everything else builds from there. The invisible concepts we hold dear—meaning, purpose, love—all boil down to the visible quarks and chemicals that make up the universe.
In such a world, imagination by definition points to something outside reality, because things that escape our basic senses just don’t exist.
The benefit of that kind of worldview is that it gets you fun things like iPhones and penicillin. The drawback is it makes it nearly impossible for us to read our Bibles.
Living In The Tension
In Romans 8, Paul talks about the tension between our present suffering and the future glory to come. The entire world longs to be set free from the binding effects of sin. We, too, groan inwardly, as we wait for our final redemption (vv. 19-23).
In a word, this is the hope in, to, and for which we have been saved (v. 24). It comes with a call to live our present lives in light of the future (1 Pet 1:13; 4:7; 1 Thess 5:8). The trouble is, hope is by definition unseen (Rom. 8:24). Otherwise, it wouldn’t be hope.
And therein lies the rub. How are we supposed to live in the light of something we can’t see? Worse, how do we live and move in a world who tells us the unseen is unreal?
Reimagining the Imagination
Kevin Vanhoozer is a Christian theologian whose devoted much of his attention to helping the Church and its pastors recover their sense of theological imagination.
In his book, Pictures at a Theological Exposition, Vanhoozer argues that modern Christians have, by and large, forgotten what it means to imagine.
As he shows (with a little help from C.S. Lewis), people used to make more of the fact that they were characters in God’s grand story. Consequently, they relied upon an unseen unity to all things that transcended what they could grasp with their senses.
Imagination, in that world, was less a way to escape from reality and more a way to participate in its deep structure. Rather than observing God’s world through the lens of a microscope, they imagined it with the eyes of their hearts (cf. Eph. 1:18).
How Do We Do That?
So, how do we do that? How do we, with the childlike eyes of our hearts, reimagine our reality? Taking my cue from Vanhoozer, here’s what I think that might look like:
- See the Bigger Picture – To imagine is to acknowledge God’s plan to unite all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10). We can then see how our personal histories connect with the broader history of what God is doing in the world.
- Bring Everything You’ve Got – We need to think well about our circumstances and take stock of our complex emotions. We also need to engage our wills to live in harmony with what God has shown us in His Word and world.
- Dare to Be Creative – We imagine in words and images, stories and songs. Because the world is richly complex, we need to draw on all our creative faculties—art, writing, music, speech, etc.—to fully imagine our present reality.
- Redefine What’s Possible – A healthy Christian imagination drives us to call on God to do the impossible. After all, he’s already done so in Jesus.
Imagination saved Bart Millard’s childhood, but not as a tranquil escape from his ugly reality. Instead, imagination was the thing that allowed Bart to connect more intimately with the reality of what God was doing in his heart and the world around him.
It took years for Bart to see the full fruit of his childlike imaginings. But, when he did, it was as if the curtain rolled back and God said, “I told you your present suffering wasn’t worth comparing with the glory to come.”
May the eyes of all our hearts be opened to see how much our God has done for us in the past and will continue to do into the future.
If you’d like help cultivating that kind of imagination, take a look at our I Can Only Imagine Journal. This 28-day walk through Jesus’ life and ministry will help you reimagine God’s fatherly love, forgiveness, and the eternal hope that lies before us.
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