July 19, 2018

Imagining the Kingdom

By Chaplain Mike

I have always considered evangelicals (including myself) weak in the area of imagination. The evangelical or fundamentalist tradition has been, by and large, a prosaic tradition, characterized by simple logic, plain spokenness, common sense, and an iconoclastic rather than an aesthetic ethos. There is a certain literalism at its heart that carries with it a suspicion of metaphor, poetry, myth, mystery, ambiguity, symbolism, and open-ended questions. Evangelical faith is expository faith — it must explain. It values answers and certainty. It wants to “nail things down,” not set the mind and heart free to imagine and explore the possibilities. Its focus is captured in the immortal words of Detective Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am.”

In some situations, this can be a strength. Overall, I think not.

That’s why I was so glad to see Scot McKnight take up the subject of imagination in his book, One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow. Scot notes how reading fiction and entering into its stories and characters “lengthens the horizons of my life and expands my vision of what life can be,” and then talks about how and why Jesus used fiction in the form of parables to teach about God’s Kingdom. “His parables draw us into the kingdom world and then they set us back down in this world hungering for more, hungering for a kingdom kind of world now.” (p. 38)

In other words, Jesus did not give us “just the facts.” He told stories. He stimulated our imagination. He prompted us to envision a different life, a different world, different relationships, a different God than the one expositors explain in theological prose. The One.Life of following Jesus is the Imagined.Life.

The Sower (1888), van Gogh

Jesus’ parables help us “see” with our imaginations how God is at work in the ordinary acts and affairs of our lives. Surprisingly, we discover that God is not “religious”! He is out there with farmers planting seeds and with workers hiring laborers. He’s up early with women baking bread and up late at night when a neighbor knocks on the door to borrow bread. He’s out in the heat of the day with foreigners who help strangers in trouble on the side of the road. He is with fishermen pulling in their catch and throwing back the ones they don’t want.

These “ordinary” situations become “extraordinary” when our imaginations move us to realize that life has additional dimensions beyond what our senses can access. There is an unseen world around us, where the invisible Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all is constantly active, always at work, present and ever engaged in the life of his creation.

In Jesus, this unseen realm has intersected with ours in earnest — ”the Kingdom is at hand! — and because it has, we can believe that the smallest actions of our lives with him can have significant, even eternal consequences.

In One.Life, Scot McKnight examines several paradigm-changing insights that grow out of Jesus’ parables. But the big point is this: truth and life so wondrous as that which Jesus came to give cannot be held within theological definitions and teaching outlines, classroom lectures and debates. The world God wants to create can’t merely be explained, it must be imagined, and most of all, it must be lived.

Sower (after Millet), van Gogh

This parabolic dream kingdom begins, Jesus says, with the imagination. First you listen to his stories and enter into them imaginatively, the way you enter into your favorite novel’s characters.

… You begin thinking about very ordinary things, like fields and farmers and workers and women baking and men picking wheat and wounded people, and suddenly you find yourself transported into a brand new world and a brand new way of thinking. This vision of Jesus will take a conversion of our imagination… (p. 44)

In Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold, C.S. Lewis wrote, “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.”

Jesus’ stories open windows to that place, that realm, that Kingdom where God rules and God acts, which intersects with our world in the most surprising ways, making the ordinary extraordinary and beautiful.


  1. I am at a loss as to how people can read the same Bible as me and believe in some paltry cloud place populated by babies with wings ruled over by a boring judge.

    Our God runs a kingdom completely upside down from this one, where servants are the people of greatness, where our prayers have aromatically pleasing physical reality, and he is accompanied by rolling wheels of fire covered in eyes. His New Jerusalem has city walls stretching almost the length of the border between the US and Mexico.

    That’s WILD.

    He builds his church mostly not on those who are wise or strong, but silly and weak. He binds them together into one body, and works through that crazy menagerie each and every day throughout the whole of the earth. He implants them with love, not just for people like them, but for people who hate them or people who are alien to them. He drops them in difficult situations and works through their weakness. He saves not just the prisoners but the guards, not just the victims but the perpetrators.

    Our God is… a little crazy, from our perspective. This is not boring and sensical, it is amazing and fantastical.

    He’s a God who says in earnest “following me to your death is better than following ANYTHING else to what seems like life”. He encourages us to sell our entire stock, everything we’ve got, to buy one thing. It is the ultimate in risky investments. No hedging of bets or insurance or mitigating of risk is available.

    That’s… not dull.

    • Amen, Tokah!

      I imagine heaven to be fractal-like. Layers upon layers. Dimensions within dimensions. Universes multiplying into other universes. All eternity will never be enough to explore it all.

  2. “The world God wants to create can’t merely be explained, it must be imagined, and most of all, it must be lived.”

    I think about how much of my imagination is spent on making money or satifsying various appetites—how much different would things be if that time were spent on imagining how to live out the kingdom of God?

  3. Can’t help but recall martha’s very sage counsel to anyone dealing with someone dear and new in the faith:


    that was the best advice, IMO, from that entire thread; it brought to mind great landscapes, mountain climbing adventures, great music, and great art. Sad to say, these are not always the materials found in today’s “growing in the faith” lessons.


    • You’re very kind, greg r. I wish I was really half as smart as I seem to appear to be 🙂

      But a greater and wiser was there before me, as I just found out:


      “My father, who was a philosopher, once asked his best friend on the faculty, one of my physics professors, “Jim can you hear the music of the spheres?” My professor responded, “Hear it, Bill? It’s so loud I can’t turn the damn stuff off!” This physicist knew his Augustine: “question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky . . . question all these realities. All respond: ‘See, we are beautiful.’ Their beauty is a profession. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change?””

  4. “There is an unseen world around us, where the invisible Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of all is constantly active, always at work, present and ever engaged in the life of his creation.” AND “God rules and God acts, which intersects with our world in the most surprising ways, making the ordinary extraordinary and beautiful.”

    Those 2 lines brought simultanesouly a thrill in my heart and a burden on my mind. Why the difference?

    The thrill comes from an instinctual YES! YES! YES!! This is what I want! AND MORE!!!! I know this to be true! And even better than that! HIS TRUTH!

    The burden comes from an equally instinctual place that says in some circles neither of these can be taught or lived because in both of those arenas, no one is able to control and dominate the other.

  5. IDK, evangelicalism has its share of imagery, such as “washed in the blood”, “invite Jesus to live in your heart”, etc. I do agree that imagination is not the usual path for most, and Americans in particular seem to have a fetish for knowing all the facts. Don’t believe me? How many commercially successful movies in the US end without some form of resolution?

    This has always been a source of friction between my wife and I. I tend to communicate in example and allegory whereas she is literal to a fault. Here responses to me often begin with “What as that got to do with anything?”

    • I also tend to communicate with many misspellings and poor grammar:

      My wife and ME

      HER responses to me

      What HAS that got to do

  6. Christiane says:

    “hungering for a kingdom kind of world now”


  7. Wait. So this guy wrote a non-fiction theological book about how we should read imaginative fiction? haha

  8. David Cornwell says:

    “But the big point is this: truth and life so wondrous as that which Jesus came to give cannot be held within theological definitions and teaching outlines, classroom lectures and debates. The world God wants to create can’t merely be explained, it must be imagined, and most of all, it must be lived.”

    This is good! Life is a wonderful story, and the more imagination we put into, imagining the Kingdom, the answer to “thy Kingdom come…” the better the story will be. Jesus will help us write that story. Tragedy, joy, victory, loss, death, and new life are all part of it. So are real glimpses of the Kingdom, and in the end resurrection, a new Heaven, a new Earth.

  9. Yes, yes and yes. I love the emphasis on the imagination and the creative and mysterious aspects of God’s kingdom and how he relates to us and inspires the routines of daily life, infusing them with mystery and hope and grace and love. I hope we get more of this in the church. I really long for this.

    But like some others here, I’m not entirely optimistic. I’ve experienced too many churches for whom the analytical and prosaic and doctrinal and correct thinking is the primary thing, along with determining who is “in” and who is “out.” And if you talk about imagination or mystery, if you color outside the established lines, so to speak, your life becomes very unpleasant rather quickly.

    • David Cornwell says:

      “I’ve experienced too many churches for whom the analytical and prosaic and doctrinal and correct thinking is the primary thing… ”

      There are some ways to be analytical in the study of scripture that would be wonderful for some of these churches to learn. But this is serious study that starts away from presuppositions about the passage (or at least as far as that is possible). This kind of analysis takes in a lot. It starts with asking certain questions, writing and paper, and eventually arriving at certain conclusions. It involves disciplined method. It involves spending a lot of time with a book of the Bible or a passage. It doesn’t involve reading what preachers have said, or even commentaries (esp at the early state). I wish this kind of study were taken seriously by individuals and churches, whether fundamentalist, evangelical, or liberal.

      • Right you are. I’m very familiar with inductive study methods and more(MA in theology). I probably didn’t express myself as accurately as I might have. My main frustration is with those for whom one narrow interpretation (theirs or their leader’s, of course) is considered the only valid one, no matter what. This results in a certain insistence and stridency regarding matters about which there really are a range of orthodox views and interpretations. It’s hard to get people to let the text speak and lower the filtering threshold as it were.

        It also has an odd way of sapping any sense of wonder and awe and discovery. I find it a humorless and very un-childlike approach. Not unlike some of the strict adults from Roald Dahl’s book, “Matilda.”

        • David Cornwell says:

          John, you expressed yourself great. I was just adding a way for people who might like analysis to engage in the right sort. I agree totally with with what you are saying.

  10. “But the big point is this: truth and life so wondrous as that which Jesus came to give cannot be held within theological definitions and teaching outlines, classroom lectures and debates.”

    Wow, isn’t THAT the truth! It does seem, though, that many people within the Church are…nervous…about people using their imaginations. Perhaps they are afraid that we if we become too imaginative we will become unstable. I think, though, that it is people who are not allowed to be imaginative who are more apt to become unstable. Or, perhaps, they fear that if we are too imaginative we will come to the point where we will not take direction they think we should take. Well, that IS a possibility and it’s a possibility that we should not take direction from certain people, even if they seem to be the ones “in power.” Just because you are in power does not mean you are correct.

    I love Jesus’ parables. I love stories. I love mystery. Sometimes, though, I too want concrete answers. Less and less often, though, as I age.

    • You and Chesterton, Joanie. He says much the same things you do in his book “Orthodoxy.” Great stuff.

  11. Based on your first paragraph, that quote from the book, I’m not evangelical. No wonder I’ve felt for so long that I didn’t belong. For many years I thought there was something wrong with me, but for the last 10 years or so, I’ve just been freed to express my spirituality, to communicate with God, using a variety of creative expressions. I’ve been freed to live with my questions, to sit with them, to draw them, to dance them, to journal them. How beautiful when God meets me in the pages of my journal, or on my canvas. I treasure those times when God dances with me. The Creator God longs for us to live as creative beings, made in God’s image.

  12. I have some Central American guys working for me who are touchy-feely; great stuff-very free. Anyway, one day Carlos walked by and started giving me a shoulder massage. I started imagining doing the same for Jesus sitiing on His throne at the right hand of the Father. I then gave Him a massage as thanks for His suffering on the cross. It sounds crazy but He felt it as far as I am concerned. He could receive no comfort when He bore our sins but He can receive comfort from His children now: at least in my imagination.

  13. Some quotes from Al Einstein;
    “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
    “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”
    “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

    • Einstein also responded to someone who praised his intelligence by saying that he was not so much talented as “passionately curious”.

  14. Ben Carmack says:

    For me, believing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been a gateway to using my imagination more as a Christian, whereas typically I approached things in a very literal manner.

    I don’t think it coincidental that churches that insist on “ordinances” rather than “sacraments” tend to be less imaginitive. It’s not sinful, and it’s not wrong; I currently go to a Southern Baptist church and know where they stand.

    I think evangelicals would benefit if we began to see our worship not just as a believers’ business meeting, but as an ascension into the heavenly realms to meet Christ. Other traditions produced remarkable sacred art and architecture for reasons, usually deep theological reasons having to do with what the liturgy was for. It is only recently that I have discovered this, but I must say I like it.

    • It’s interesting that you make connection between the sacraments and creativity. The following article does, too:

      “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write” By Peter Leithart


    • This one, too:

      And How Flannery O’Connor can Help us Learn Better”
      By Donald T. Williams


      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Somebody else who’s noticed that all the Christian Literary greats have come out of Liturgical Church traditions! (Mostly Western-Rite Liturgical; the Eastern Rites seem to be too contemplative.)

        And how Evangelicals always seem to be “Left Behind”.

      • Dumb Ox, thanks for both of these articles. Interesting that they have the same title and that they both rely on Flannery O’Connor–but they were written five years apart, so I don’t think they were part of the same conference.

        The best book I have on writing (and I now have a pile) is Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. It’s a collection of her essays and speeches. What a hoot she must have been (well, read a few of her stories and you’ll get that).

        I mentioned Tom Howard in an earlier comment (below somewhere). Here is what Donald Williams says in one of the articles you cited:

        “Too often people like Thomas Howard or Sheldon Vanauken have migrated Romeward (or, like Franky Schaeffer, to Byzantium), partly because their commitment to serious art could find no home in Evangelicalism.”


    • “I think evangelicals would benefit if we began to see our worship not just as a believers’ business meeting, but as an ascension into the heavenly realms to meet Christ.”

      I like that, Ben.

      • That *IS* a great description of things, Ben. When you think about how much of an evangelical church service is taken up making announcements or presenting items of information to the congregation rather than directing the focus towards God, a “business meeting” is about the best description I can think of.

      • +1

  15. I don’t think deeper theological understanding begins with imagination. One might think that the evangelicalism, with its emphasis on individuality would be fertile soil for imagination and creativity, but the opposite is true. Protestant individuality seems to create greater fear of the unknown, which leads to more and more literalism, pragmatism, and legalism. I believe imagination requires firm foundations to distinguish it from sheer madness. Evangelical emphasis on the individual and personal piety provides no such foundation. Chesterton states this the best:

    “Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.” Orthodoxy Ch. 9

    • dumb ox, your comments are interesting because I grew up in a town that had a lot of Catholics (myself included). I only attended Catholic school for one year, but when I got to meet the kids who had attended their entire elementary school years there, I found them to be VERY creative. As a group, they were more creative than the kids who grew up in public schools in my opinion. When I would hear about how controlling the nuns were, I would wonder how the kids grew up to be so creative. I think it may have had a lot to do with their parents. Their parents were very loving, very supportive. But so were the parents of the non-Catholics. So, I am not sure how this came to be. Perhaps the emphasis on the miraculousness of God helped.

      • I think you’re right. It reminds me of that line from “Mr. Blue” that Micheal Spencer referenced more than once: that the incarnation spared us the burden of the infinite. It’s also like the children’s story book about Scuffy the toy tugboat, who longs for the sea, but once he’s there, where the sea has no beginning or end, he longs to be home in his little bathtub.

        I think your story speaks volumes. Kids growing up in a world without the miraculous are confined to a tiny, lonely world of self.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          It reminds me of that line from “Mr. Blue” that Micheal Spencer referenced more than once: that the incarnation spared us the burden of the infinite.

          Why do Evangelicals insist on a 6015-year-old, ending-tomorrow-at-the-latest, Earth-and-some-lights-in-the-sky Punyverse? Yes, it hides you cozy and safe from the “burden of the infinite”, but at what cost?

          Especially when Christianity has a solution none of the other Abrahamic Monotheisms have: The Incarnaion. The Incarnation solves the problem of Deep Space, Deep Time, and the Burden of the Infinite in a single act: No matter how huge Space, Time, and Infinity become, God remains on a one-to-one human scale through Incarnation as Christ.

          • I think the point the point that the author of “Mr. Blue” is that the finite cannot comprehend the infinite. The Incarnation remedied this by the infinite being born as finite man. Christless evangelicalism attempts to embrace the infinite through its rugged individualism and shrinks back in terror. The sacraments are God’s way to reach us through finite elements. Evangelicals in contrast try to reach God through frantic praise and worship and other esoteric practices. This is the burden lifted by the Incarnation: God has already reached us through His Son; there is no need to chase after God.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Kids growing up in a world without the miraculous are confined to a tiny, lonely world of self.

          Even when that world of Me, Myself, and I is hedged around with carefully and intricately-parsed theology.

    • Good point, dumb ox. You and David and others give a valid balance to the discussion. If you read closely you will find I said we must go beyond “mere” explanation to imagining and living the truth. Certainly we would not deny the importance of serious thinking and study and sound theological understanding. The emphasis in the most serious forms of evangelicalism (and not the simpler pietistic and enthusiastic groups) has been so heavily balanced on doctrine and apologetics that I think an emphasis on the actual way Jesus taught and captured the imagination is a needed corrective that needs to be stated strongly and often.

  16. Slightly off topic, but this already looks to be an intriguing book, and I think related to Scott’s book on several levels:

    Skye’s new book, WITH: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, will be released in the fall by Thomas Nelson.

    I really liked Skye’s second installment on what it means to be truly radical, great stuff over at Our of UR.


  17. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I have been an SF litfan since the late 1960s and a (small-press) SF writer since a couple years ago.

    When I was first introduced to Christian (TM) SF (as opposed to all that Heathen (TM) stuff Christians were not supposed to read), the thing I noticed was the Utter Total Lack of Imagination compared to the mainstream. Except for Lewis’s Space Trilogy (which I was so high-pressured to read I have never wanted to read it), Christian attempts at SF were uniformly lame — Near-Future Persecution Dystopias and Pre-Trib Rapture Christian Apocalyptic, all according to conventional formula.

    Little has changed in the intervening 35 years. Even breakout attempts like Frank Creed’s Flashpoint (fast-action Christian Cyberpunk crossover) pay homage to Christian Apocalyptic (Flashpoint’s dystopia is The One State, a One World Government (TM) with overtones of Antichrist).

    I can’t remember where I read this, but someone wrote on the Web that “Evangelical Christians have signed the future over to The Antichrist.” And how can you write about the future when you have No Future?

    When The World Ends Tomorrow (at the latest) and It’s All Gonna Burn, don’t expect grand flights of imagination.

    • For the Catholic version of The End of the World, I quite like (Monsignor) R.H. Benson’s “Lord of the World”:


      He was one of the three Benson brothers who were all writers; he and his brother, E.F. Benson, are noted for their fantastic fiction (horror/supernatural) – though E.F. wrote many successful novels, the majority outside the genre. Yes, this novel is very definite about Catholicism being the One True Faith, but any Catholic (convert) novelist who is willing to bomb Rome into complete destruction cannot be accused of a lack of imagination 🙂

      The Wikipedia summary of the plot is quite accurate:

      “Essentially the novel imagines a socialist and humanist world where religion has been either suppressed or ignored. People have no history or hope so they often turn to euthanasia, which is legal. Further there is a “one-world” government that uses Esperanto for its language and ultimately becomes a servant of the anti-Christ. In brief: The Catholic Church has been suppressed by the rest of the world, which has turned to a form of “self religion”. Pope John XXIV has made an agreement with the Italian government: the Catholic Church can have all of Rome, while all other churches in Italy are surrendered to the government. Ireland still remains staunchly Catholic, with small enclaves all over the world. Westminster Cathedral is the only church in London that is still Catholic. The rest have become Freemasonic temples. The plot then follows the tale of a priest, Percy Franklin, who becomes Pope Silvester III, and an unknown man named Julian Felsenburgh (who is identical in looks to the priest) who becomes “Lord of the World”.

      The fictional world described in this novel (written prior to the First World War) predicts certain innovations such as interstate highways (trunk, main junction) and air travel using “volors”, an advanced form of Zeppelin or Ornithopter. It also assumes the continuation of the British Empire and predominant travel by train.”

      And I love his description of the volors, which are some kind of flying machine along the lines of a zeppelin, but not quite:

      “Once again before he moved there came a long cry from overhead, startlingly beautiful and piercing, and, as he lifted his eyes from the glimpse of the steady river which alone had refused to be transformed, he saw high above him against the heavy illuminated clouds, a long slender object, glowing with soft light, slide northwards and vanish on outstretched wings. That musical cry, he told himself, was the voice of one of the European line of volors announcing its arrival in the capital of Great Britain.”

      It makes it sound as if these are not just machines, but somehow alive, which is not bad going for a novel published in 1908. Besides, the Anti-Christ is an American – take that, Nicolai Carpathia!


    • As far as Christian SF, there are Canticle for Leibowitz and the books by Mary Doria Russell, but those are from a Catholic perspective, not evangelical.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Again, I have noticed that the quality Christian F&SF — the stuff acknowledged in the mainstream and demonstrating staying power — comes out of a Liturgical church tradition.

        The original IMonk once did an essay on “MAO Inhibitors”; the “MAO” referring to “Mystery, Awe, and Otherness” and Evangelicals’ near-allergic avoidance of same. Yet Mystery, Awe, and Otherness are what empowers High Fantasy and SF.

        And Christian Monist (J Michael Jones in these comment threads) writes often about how Evangelicals have slipped into a “Gnostic Dualism” that denigrates everything in the physical universe in favor of elevatiing the Spiritual; it’s the main continuing theme of his blog. Yet the physical universe includes our imaginations and speculations, the foundation and essence of F&SF.

        • HUG, you’ve mentioned Thomas Howard before, and this is exactly the kind of stuff he was always spouting off about in class at Gordon College: “Mystery, Awe and Otherness” and the like.

          A couple of books are Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism and The Achievement of C.S. Lewis. Both talk (lament?) about our loss of awe, our sense of majesty in the divine, etc. And very lively written.

          Also, I bought his book Evangelical is Not Enough. Thanks for the recommendation.

          For you anti-papists out there (and you know who you are): It’s cool. All of these books were written when he was still on this side of the Tiber.

          It looks like this post and comment thread need another look. I think I’ll print it all out and put it next to my chair.

  18. Speaking of imagination and Evangelicalism, I have to stand up for you Bible-believing types in this 😉

    This video, courtesy of The Anchoress’ blog, shows a definite sacramental imagination: