Imagination and the Gospel

Peter Leithart has posted
the first part of a fascinating essay entitled ‘Why Protestants Can’t Write’.
Leithart argues that a Zwinglian, or memorialist, view of the sacraments
divorces grace and nature and therefore makes fiction impossible. It’s a characteristically
audacious and sweeping argument that shows Leithart’s own prodigious gift of, in
the best sense of the word, imagination.

offers his argument in a ‘gleeful fit of
reductionism’ and admits that there are many notable exceptions to his rule. Of
course, neither protestantism nor evangelicalism requires a Zwinglian view of
the sacraments. In the seventeeth century, even the Baptists the group where
one might expect only the lowest of the low church opinions to reside, confessed
a Calvinist view of the Lord’s supper in their 2nd London Confession.
Perhaps, then, the post would have been better entitled, ‘Low-church
evangelicals can’t write’ and, true enough, none of the exceptions Leithart
lists meet that description.

I wonder, though, if there is another reason for our aesthetic limitations,
our understanding of what it means to be faithful to the Gospel. Discussing the
problem of evangelical artistic failure back in the 1960s, Clyde Kilby wrote,

Evangelical Christians had had one of the
purest motives and one of the worst outcomes. The motive is never to mislead by
the smallest fraction of an iota in the precise nature of salvation, to live it
and state it in its utter purity. But the unhappy outcome has too often been to
elevate the cliché. The motive is that the gospel shall not be misunderstood,
not sullied, not changed in jot or tittle. The outcome has often been merely
the reactionary, static and hackneyed…        

When I was at university, the highest compliment that could be paid to a
speaker was that he was ‘clear and faithful’. What this meant was that the
speaker explained the propositional content of the passage, using clarifying
illustrations, in as plain and unmistakable way as possible. This, naturally,
is often no mean achievement. Plenty of people fail to be either and are of no
use as a consequence. However, the problem with that method was that it
restricted the scope for the use of intrigue, deliberate ambiguity and
narrative tension so prevalent in the Scriptures. Pithy phrases, once chosen
for their incisive clarity, were repeated so often as to become clichés that
died on the lips of the speaker and had thoroughly decomposed by the time they
reached the ears of the hearers. Of course, this environment was not one where
imagination of any kind, let alone that required to be a fiction writer,
was encouraged to flourish. The reason given for this mode of communication was
the pursuit of clarity and simplicity but as Kilby continues,

There is a simplicity which diminishes and a
simplicity which enlarges, and evangelicals have too often chosen the wrong
one. The first is that of the cliché – simplicity with mind and heart removed.
The other is that of art. The first falsifies by its exclusions, the second
encompasses. The first silently denies the multiplicity and grandeur of
creation, salvation, and indeed of all things. The second symbolizes and
celebrates them. The first tries to take the danger out of Christianity and with
the danger often removes the actuality. The second suggests the creative and
sovereign God of the universe with whom there are no impossibilities.

In our desire to be devoted to the Gospel, we have embraced the first of
Kilby’s simplicities. The problem is that communication is more than simply
using the words with the lexical definitions that correspond to the meaning we
want to convey. The problem is that the Gospel is more than propositional
content designed to engage the cognitive faculties. The human frame is more
than a brain and the Gospel is more than cerebral truth claims, it is a story, a
drama, a song designed to engage, move and inspire every facet of the human
condition. If God wanted to simply present the propositional content of his
message, we would not have the Bible we do. Jesus would not have told so many puzzling
stories, Ezekiel and his strange imagination would never have been called to be
a prophet and the book of Ecclesiastes would never have been written. Perhaps
if we paid as much heed to the means of communication in the Scriptures as we
do to the message communicated, we would find better soil for writers, and
preachers for that matter, to grow.

In the end, I don’t know if Leithart isn’t right that evangelicals’
problem is our view of the sacraments, but not quite in the way he suggests. Perhaps
our problem is that we’ve come to view our crisp, clean, simple form of words
that we use to communicate the Gospel as a kind of sacrament, but one that
works ex opere operato: all we have to do is say the right formula and the Holy
Spirit will do the rest. We speak the truth that Jesus is Lord and Saviour with
as few frills as possible. The trouble is that by doing that we not only communicate
the content of our message but the impression that Jesus’ lordship and
salvation is one devoid of beauty, devoid of drama, devoid of all the things in
literature that resonate with the human condition. Thankfully, that impression
is mistaken, the Biblical material’s multiplicity of form and genre is
testimony to that, but perhaps sometimes the way to obscure and misrepresent
the Gospel is to be ‘clear and faithful’.

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