“The man who has no imagination, has no wings”
– Mohammad Ali
“Imagination means nothing without doing”
– Charlie Chaplin
To offer hope to this world, it requires imagination. Imagination is mysterious. We cannot observe it in a test tube. We cannot measure it in inches, or liters. Yet it is essential for a life of meaning, hope and joy. Without imagination, there is no hope because there is no future. The very gospel requires us to imagine heaven and to maintain hope in the goodness of God despite the tragedies we see and experience.
Imagination is the ‘lightning in a bottle’ God put within each human being. It gives us the ability and desire to try something new. It gives us the ideas which fuel our hopes and desires. Kind David said in the psalms, let me sing a ‘new’ song unto the Lord because he kept using his imagination. He longed to sing better lyrics, in a more passionate way, with fresh melodies on the harp and the lyre. The man after God’s own heart is a model for all believers. Imagination drives creativity and anchors our hope in the goodness of God.
Artists and Creatives
This is why artists and creatives are essential to the life of the church and the health of society. We need men and women who have developed their imagination, their creativity, and their hope in the goodness of God. God gave us artists in the first few chapters of Genesis, and we can see the work of master artisans in the majestic descriptions of the New Jerusalem.
You are designed by God to be a culture creator. Economies do not exist without creativity, ingenuity, and community. This is the way God intended it to be. From the beginning, God commissioned you to contribute to your family, village, city, and country. He commissioned us, made in the image of God, to create every part of the culture we live in. Then he calls us to be salt and light in that culture. All the time.
Life is a blessing, and eternal life is the ultimate blessing. Our imagination is what fuels our ability to enjoy this life and to imagine the other. We are called to savor one and yearn for the other. In that vein, we are called to express joy, hope, and love. Likewise, we are called to condemn evil and pursue justice. We are called to create experiences, to offer hospitality to others (especially the less fortunate), and all of our work should be designed to either contribute to the beauty and health of this world, or to create a yearning for a better world. That better world is the New Jerusalem.
Imagination should drive Christians to create and curate our culture. This is the way to offer hope to a culture drowning in divisive politics, self-righteous propaganda, and digitally enhanced isolation. The world is lapping up tainted water from the fountain of mainstream media and art. They are looking for something to connect their imagination to their heart and to their soul.
Media, Art and the Christian Community
Media and art are powerful incarnations of our imagination. They can offer everything from despair to hope, while packaging it in a capsule of entertainment or propaganda. It influences our politics, our dinner discussions, and our social media antics.
For a significant part of the last century, the Christian community had two basic responses to art, media and entertainment: 1) Some Christians saw it as the enemy and responded by avoiding or demonizing; 2) other Christians embraced the culture, often giving up the very heart of the gospel in the process. It became a social “gospel” which lacked the power to transform.
Both options fail to be redemptive or transformational.
Christians who withdrew, often pursued purity while abandoning the culture.
Christians who engaged, often pursued relevance while abandoning the heart of the gospel.
Cultural elites see these dynamics and conclude that the gospel is irrelevant either because it is disconnected, or because nothing new of value to add to the conversation.
There is a third group of Christians who have successfully started a sub-culture of music, movies and art created by Christians, and for Christians. These industries can be valuable for creating worship music, videos for their children, and other content for their own community. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach. The problem is they tend to affirm the notion which elites in New York and Los Angeles think but don’t necessarily state: Christians should just go back to their own little cultural world and sell to each other. They can and should be quarantined because their world view doesn’t fit the future of where our culture is going. By not being in the mainstream culture, Christians unintentionally promote the idea that we should retreat to a Christian ghetto and stay out of the broader cultural conversations. If we do this, we fail to be salt and light.
The good news? There’s another approach.
As Jonathan Edwards would claim, a biblical Christian is one who pursues not only personal piety and doctrinal orthodoxy but also cultural practix. We cover these in detail in our Arts & Entertainment Institute . These pursuits are not mutually exclusive, but the one Christians talk about the least is the responsibility to engage culture, in the context of orthodoxy.
The Cultural Mandate
From the beginning, God called us to tend the culture as we would tend a garden. He defined the parameters for Adam and Eve and gave them a mandate: God “took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” He commanded them ” be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.”
Just as God brought order out of chaos during creation, He commanded this man and this woman, made in His image, to continue the work of bringing order out of chaos. We were always meant to develop culture, to care for the meaningfulness of life, and build healthy communities through our endeavors.
We were never called to merely focus on ourselves in a pietistic ghetto. Man’s responsibility was to tend creation, so it would be fruitful, and for man himself to be fruitful. When they were planting seeds, digging irrigation, creating economic systems, or establishing governments, they were fulfilling their calling as men and women made in the image of God and called to create and care for all they see. Today, we must tend to our families and society at large, just as Adam and Eve were to tend to their garden.
Abraham Kuyper, one-time prime minister of the Netherlands and founder of The Free University in Amsterdam, brought great clarity to the meaning of this mandate:
“In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare, ‘That is mine!’”
Though we may have been involved in other valuable pursuits such as mercy ministry and missions, rarely do we see the church become equally passionate about journalism, the arts, academia, the legal system or business—and the impact their transformation might bring. God cares about all of these endeavors and we should too.
Some people want to only focus on caring for the poor and homeless, as if they are in competition. We cannot ignore either responsibility. In fact, even if we fed all our homeless and sent millions of missionaries overseas but failed to engage the most powerful communication networks in our own backyard, we would fail to transform this culture and thereby fail to carry out God’s first command. We would care for the poor, but the culture would become more destructive than it already is.
God Started With An Artist: Bezalel
What does it look like to transform culture? One answer lies in the story of God redeeming His people when they left Egypt. After centuries of their immersion in the pagan idolatry of the Egyptians, God transformed the Israelites’ understanding of culture and art by commissioning an artist.
In Exodus 31 we read: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel … and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts—to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver, and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.’”
So the first person in the Bible “filled with the Spirit of God” is an artist, yet many Christians barely notice him.
Why? We may skip over his name, because, as good modernists, we assume that art and artists are incidental instead of integral to God’s redemptive plan. So, when pastors, theologians, and churchgoers read this passage, we may simply miss it—like we gloss over genealogies, lists of cities, and other information for which we see no direct link to our daily life. By doing so, we miss something about God’s plan for redemption and a vital connection between our spiritual life and life in the world around us.
Though this is not a commonly preached passage, it was pivotal for the Israelites. After Moses led them out of Egypt, they crossed the Red Sea (Exodus 13-15) and three months later were at the base of Mount Sinai, awaiting God’s directions. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), but something else happened on that holy mountain. We find this amazing passage where God specifically calls an artist, Bezalel to do the work of building artifacts for the tabernacle. In fact, a third of Exodus is spent describing the artwork.
When the Israelites heard God wanted them to build a tabernacle, imagine their shock. Why build anything akin to a temple? They had been rescued from slavery, oppression, and the task of building temples for kings and idols. Their memory was still fresh with the blasphemy that could take place in temples.
It’s easy to imagine a smile on God’s face. Even this act tells of His character as One who redeems—art, artists, temples, and entire cultures, as well as individuals and a whole people group called the Israelites.
In Exodus, we learn God would redeem everything they knew of culture. He did not look at the misguided and misdirected worship of the Egyptians and conclude it was too corrupt to redeem. Quite the opposite. God rejoiced over the opportunity to show He redeems all things (Colossians 1), including pagan temples and pagan hearts.
God placed worship at the center of the Israelites’ desert camp, just as it was at the center of Egyptian culture, but now He directed His people to worship the Creator, not the created. He changed the rules and the focus, so they could see how they were designed to be worshipers of the God who made them in His image.
Redeeming Culture Through Imagination
As God redeemed the Israelites, reshaping the culture they were commanded to tend, artists continued to play a critical role. In battles to come, the ark of the covenant, made by Bezalel and his helper, would be the primary visual reminder of the glory and power of God. Just like the flags of countries today, God had his own visual vocabulary and symbols to unite and inspire His people to always remember the God who rescued them out of Egypt and slavery. The imagination of his artists fueled the hope and imagination of God’s people.
All the artwork—representations of angels, animals, plants, and structural components—were made to help Israelites remember their God is the One who created everything. He is the One we worship; the beauty we see throughout creation is a reminder of Him. Not once does God diminish the role of art in worship, nor the value of the artist to reshape their culture. God loves to redeem, and He loves to use the arts.
Bezalel is a model for Christians today, using their God given imagination to inspire their entire culture. The uses of art in the life of the Israelites in the dessert is a picture of God’s heart for the art world, for New York, Los Angeles, Hollywood, London and the entire entertainment industry. God is not calling us to abandon the arts but to become His hands and feet as He redeems the very center of our culture.
In fact, as we consider this dynamic, we may recall other characters in the Bible who were called to be salt and light in the heart of pagan environments. Whether we consider the life of Daniel and how he was called by God to be second in command for idolatrous kings, or how God called Joseph in a similar manner. It’s clear that God does not call us to retreat from working in hostile environments.
God gave us an imagination, and then he gave us His Word. In those 66 books of the bible we find page after page of hope fueling our imagination. This gift of hope is the very thing we offer to the world around us. In that journey, artists and creatives play a powerful and unique role. God gave us this great gift of imagination, and we are accountable to develop our gifts and to be good stewards of them.
Imagine, one day God will ask you what you did with all the creativity and imagination he gave you. What do you hope to say that will make him smile and say, “yes, that was wonderful.”
Copyright © 2019 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.