In the Pictures at a Theological Exhibition Series I aim to provide brief summaries and reflections on the chapters of Kevin Vanhoozer’s work of the same title. Vanhoozer’s task in this book and my own task with Lead U have a great deal of overlap, so I hope in this series also to help elaborate on the mission of Lead U.
In the introduction, “The Discarded Imagination,” Vanhoozer gets right to the problem of the imagination. If a properly cultivated evangelical imagination is the answer as his preface suggests, a faulty imagination must be at least part of the problem. Indeed, Vanhoozer says that the Church not only has a low view of the imagination, but it is also simultaneously “suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life” (20). We want to believe the Bible, Vanhoozer says, “but we find ourselves unable to see our world in biblical terms” (20). The gap between the world of the Bible and our own is certainly a great chasm, and without properly cultivated imaginations it seems impossible to bridge this chasm in satisfactory ways, especially when we are at the same time being bombarded by an unbiblical, competing pictures of the good life.
One of the more important things the imagination does is function as a synthesizer. First, the imagination discovers connections and meaningful forms (24). Second, the imagination engages not only the mind, but the will and emotions also (24). Third, the imagination is equally verbal and visual. Vanhoozer suggests that theology, in this light, “can be defined as the attempt to imagine God’s imaginings after him” (26). Finally, the imagination looks at things together, “a seeing as in the mind’s (and heart’s) eye” (26). Vanhoozer defines this more clearly later in the paragraph: “Theology is faith imagining, seeing everything that was, is and is to come as related to what God the Father has done in his Son through the Spirit. Faith is the enduring ability to imagine God, the world and ourselves in the light of the biblical story of salvation” (27).
But what should one do with all this talk of imagination. How can we develop this kind of imagination if we don’t already have the imagination to see how it can be put into practice? That’s precisely what Vanhoozer aims to do in this book—give us scenes, portraits, and pictures of the Church living this imagination out in fruitful ways. The contemporary church, Vanhoozer suggests, “is itself a moving picture or parable of the kingdom of God” (29). Or more concretely, “to understand the Christian faith is to grasp not only what happened in the past but also where we are in world history and what we are to do vis-à-vis the kingdom of God. To understand is to know what to say and do in order to go on following Jesus Christ in new contexts” (32). The reason we need theology is that it provides us with directions on how better to perform scenes of the unfolding drama of redemption. Theology, if it only conveys information, falls short of its goal; it must also help us process and feel that truth as well (35).
These thoughts lead Vanhoozer to a working hypothesis: “the church needs a biblical formed, reformed and transformed imagination in order to live out a vital faith” (44). Moreover, “theology ultimately exists to serve and preserve the integrity of the church’s exhibit to the world” (46).
So much could be added to Vanhoozer’s excellent introduction, but I’ll leave most of the comments for later chapters as he fleshes out these ideas in his more specific portraits. Here I want simply to comment on how the origin of the Lead U Discipleship Ministry began in 2016 with the same foundational ideas as Vanhoozer’s. My passion was to inject theology into the life of the Church so that we might not simply “believe” things about God, but truly feel and live out those things about God in our current context. Sessions 1 and 2 of our Foundations series hit on some of these same points regarding the importance of theology and the drama of doctrine and our participation in God’s drama. I am excited to see if and how the churches influenced by this ministry might reflect the worship, witness, and wisdom that Vanhoozer provides examples of throughout the rest of this book.