The Bible and Christian Imagination
Transcript of N.T. Wright’s May 18, 2005, Lecture at Seattle Pacific University
Why is our world beautiful, and what are we as Christians to do about the fact that our world is beautiful? Why is our world ugly, and what are we as Christians to do about the fact that our world is ugly?
How do we make sense of these, and how do we live as ourselves, called to be human beings who live within that ugliness and that beauty and are called to respond appropriately to God in God's world?
You need imagination to cope with that. Most of us find that too hard, so we retreat into soap operas and shopping and sport and hanging out and drinking coffee and shopping and so on. From time to time we catch our breath at the sight of the mountains coming out through the clouds or at something we see on television about horrible violence somewhere else or maybe even not somewhere else. It's too big and too difficult and we can't cope with it and so we retreat.
And our Christian tradition has not given us the means to cope with being creatures who live in a world achingly beautiful and awesomely ugly. We go back to scripture and we find worship offered God by the angels, who in Isaiah 6 sing day and night, without ceasing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts,
The whole earth is full of his glory.”
And we say, yes, it is — the whole earth is full of God's glory. I see it. I catch it on the sunrise and the sunset, the flight of a bird, the sight of a whale emerging from the waves, whatever it is. The world is full of God's glory and power. Then we remind ourselves that it's also a place of violence and destruction, and of terror and shame and fear which invade our own souls. And then we move on in Isaiah and just a few chapters later in Isaiah chapter 11 we find there a vision, an extraordinary vision, of a world healed by the love of God, a world in which the lion and the lamb will lie down together, a world in which there will be peace at all levels, peace between humans, peace between animals, reconciliation right through the cosmos. And answers the prophet, “the world will be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.”
We, my friends, are called to live between the vision of the world which is already filled with the glory of God, and a world which is yet to be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea. It's a fascinating phrase. How do the waters cover the sea? They are the sea. God intends to flood the world with himself, with his love in fresh ways, in which what we already know of the beauty and power and majesty of creation will be taken up and enhanced yet further when that which is ugly and which defaces God's world has been finally done away in God's project of reconciliation, of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, so that nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore — another Isaiah vision of God's future.
The Bible helps us, enables us, to understand, to re-appropriate, to celebrate the role of the imagination as part of our redeemed, renewed, image-bearing humanness. You need imagination to live in God's world. The Christian church has often been bad at encouraging imagination. People have been worried, Christian teachers have been worried, about letting people imagine things, in case their imagination runs riot and they start imagining the wrong things, and so we've squelched it and squashed it and we've built buildings that are inherently ugly, lest anyone think that the buildings are somehow divine. And we've done all kinds of things, even in our worship, to prevent the glory getting out.
But the arts, the imagination, our capacity to create beauty ourselves, is not simply incidental to what it means to be human. For generations now, many Christians have really believed, and acted on the belief, that the arts, the imagination, are the pretty bits around the edge, the kind of decorative border, whereas the middle bit, the main bit, whatever it is, is the kind of solid, stodgy, chunky bit in the middle which is Christian truth, dogma, belief, and ethics, and all that stuff, and then you can kind of go away and play sometimes around the edge if you're lucky.
And I've met Christian artists — in fact I was speaking in a church in Newcastle on Tine, not far from where I live, just a few weeks ago, and I was speaking about New Creation, about resurrection and Easter, about new life, and I just dropped a couple of sentences in the middle about God's call to Christian artists, painters, sculptors, musicians, et cetera. For some reason I was talking particularly about painters that day, I forget why, God's call to Christian artists to have this unique vocation of enabling people to see what they can't otherwise see, to see that the world is already full of the glory of God, and that it will one day be filled yet fuller.
And out of the corner of my eye as I was saying that, I was aware of a young woman breaking down into tears. And afterwards she came up to me and said, "I'm an artist, and you just told me that I actually belong, and my church had never told me that. I've always thought that I just had to do this stuff and that nobody really understood why and didn't want it in the middle of what they were doing."
Exactly the point. We have denied some of the creativity, lots of the creativity, which God has given us. How do we give an analysis, then, of the world as it is, the present, and of our task within it, within the biblical vision of what it means to be made in God's image. I have an illustration which helps me to understand this. And it may help if you're musical, but you may be able to understand it even if you're not musical. And I want you to imagine that some people in an old house in Vienna, in Austria, in Europe, are grubbing around in an attic, and they come upon a musical score, a piece of music, a manuscript, written by hand, and they look at it and they wonder what it is. And it turns out it's a piece for the piano, and somebody takes it to the piano and says, "This is strange,” playing it, “this is great music, what is it?"
And they phone the museum or the culture center somewhere, and somebody comes and says, "Actually, this handwriting, this is Mozart’s handwriting, but it's very strange, because we don't have this piece of music. We've never seen it before. What is it?"
And then they get a professional pianist, who plays it, and it makes a lot of sense, but it's incomplete. There are bits where there are gaps, where the piano stops and there's a few bars' rest. And it's awesomely beautiful, but it's pointing toward a larger whole. And they realize that what they've got is the piano part of a string quintet. And we haven't got the violins, the viola, and the cello. We've got something which is a signpost pointing us to something further which has yet to be discovered.
That is what the beauty of this earth is like. It is a true signpost. God has put us in a beautiful world, and wants us to celebrate it, but he wants us then to use our imaginations to write those other parts. We'll get it wrong, we will imagine it wrong, but then we'll get glimmers which are getting it right, and the music will grow, and swell, and we will teach one another, and enlarge one another's horizons so that we can actually glimpse and see that there is to be a yet fuller beauty, a beauty in which the ugliness of this world is redeemed, in which the violence is rebuked, in which the possibilities of this world are finally fulfilled. Our culture is not good at imagining that, and it takes the arts to help us to do it — music, poetry, literature, dance, drama, all of that.
And the Bible is not just one tool which can help us. The Bible gives us the framework within which we can start to imagine Christianly, not just winging it vaguely taking off in flights of fancy, but living within the great story. I hope when you read the Bible that you are aware that it is a single great enormous story, a great epic running from that original creation in the garden to the final New Creation when God brings earth and heaven together finally and forever — with the climax of that story being Jesus dying on the cross and rising again as we were just singing. And then the work of implementing that achievement being given to us.
We live between the moment of New Creation when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning and the ultimate moment of New Creation when in Revelation 21 God says, “Behold, I make all things new.” We are to be making new people, living on the basis of God's making new all things in Christ and looking toward the making new of all things in the resurrection.
That is how the biblical story works, and that is how you can put together Isaiah 6 and Isaiah 11. And it's how as well we are called to live within this world with all its present ugliness and pain and shame, because the story of New Creation is also the story of healing and redemption. I have spent a long time over the last few years meditating on John, chapters 20 and 21, the two great resurrection chapters, the fullest account of the resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament. And in line after line and scene after scene in John 20 and 21, Jesus is meeting individuals and dealing with them where they are. Jesus comes out of the tomb and the first person who sees him is Mary Magdalene. At least she doesn't initially see him because she is weeping. She doesn't know what has happened: "They've taken away my Lord and I don't know where they've laid him."
And through her tears she sees an angel. (Maybe you only see angels through tears.) And then she hears a voice and turns and sees someone. She thinks he's the gardener. It's a good mistake to make, because this is a reprise of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and 3. And it's a way of saying, this is the garden, and here is the Gardener, and he has actually put the garden back to rights.
She sees him and he speaks her name, not the name that we've had up till now in the Gospel — Maria, the Greek name, the name that a Roman soldier would have called her — but the name Mariam; our English translations don't pick that up, but that's what it is in the Greek, Mariam, Miriam, the name she was always really called. Jesus calls her through her tears, calls her by her true name, calls her to the new identity, which she'd never imagined before, but being the one who is going to be the first witness to the resurrection.
And then Jesus confronts Thomas a week later. Thomas has said he won't believe unless he can actually put his finger into the mark of the nails, thrust his hand into the place where the spear went into Jesus' side. And it would have been better if Thomas had believed without needing that, but Jesus meets him where he is. "OK, Thomas, here are my hands, here's my side, don't be faithless. But believe." And Thomas takes the flying leap of faith and doesn't just say, "OK, all right, I believe." He says what none of the others have said to this point, "My Lord and my God."
You see in each case so far, Mary, and then Thomas, and it's going to be the same with Peter in John 21, New Creation happens in Jesus and then happens to those who come and meet Jesus — come as they are, come with their questions — and then they are given something more, something where they have to become agents of New Creation.
So Jesus then confronts Peter in John 21. "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" And ultimately Peter says yes, though it's a bit more complicated than that.
But Jesus then says, "Feed my sheep." It isn't just reconciliation. It isn't just forgiveness. It's a new task. A new task. “I've got work for you to do.” Now, in that work Mary is sent off to tell; Thomas is given the task of articulating a faith that nobody had imagined before; Peter is given the task of feeding the sheep. And we are given multiple tasks. I don't know what your tasks are going to be, but Jesus has got something for you to do. When you come to him as the one who has launched New Creation, when you look ahead, you discover that the reconciliation which is happening to you is what you are to be an agent of in the world.
And for many of you here, part of that agency that you can bring will be your creativity — your works of art, your writing, your drama, the work of art that is your own life, your own character, your own relationships. Because through art, through music, through literature, through character, we are constantly creating a world in which it is possible to believe things that you can't believe any other how. When you hear a great piece of music, you realize your mind and imagination have been enlarged, and you can think thoughts that you couldn't have thought other how. And when you go through a great art exhibition, you see things which make you realize the world is a different place.
And if we're not doing that, the world squeezes us down into its own mold, and as Paul says in Romans, "Don't let the world squeeze you into its own mold. Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discover and practice God's good and perfect and acceptable will." We need every single art that God has given us in order to be able to do that. The Bible is there to rekindle the Christian imagination after the long winter of secularism and rationalism has pushed the arts to the edge and said, "Actually, let's just get on and be functional and brutal." When you go to an airport, except the most recent ones, an airport has been built just in square concrete like that because it's purely functional. I find them soul-destroying places. It's quite a serious point. A building tells you something by the way it's built — about the sort of people who are going to be in there and the sorts of things they're going to be doing. I just choose the airport because it's an obvious example. The airport says you are here for a purely functional purpose, to get from A to B, in one door and out the other. And that's all that it's about.
This is a nice building. Haven't been in here before, but, yes, it says good things. Have you thought about what your public spaces say, what your buildings say? Some of you are probably called to be architects. Have you thought about what being a Christian architect is all about — not just building places which have good acoustics so the music will work, though that's very important. But about building spaces which will actually speak in meta-levels in all sorts of different ways, about the greatness of God and about God's power to heal his ugly and broken world. That's what we have to be aiming at. The Bible is there to rekindle our imagination so that we can worship God for all he's worth. And in our worship, in our music, in our dancing, in our drama, in all that we do in worship, in our liturgy, because liturgy matters — it's the great drama which echoes the great drama of Scripture. We can't just play any old music that comes into our heads, we can't just wing it and hope that it will work. We owe God better than that. We owe God the discipline, the mature and wise imagination, to recognize God's glory and reflect it. And worship in such a way that is yearning toward the day when the world will be full of the Glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
Christian imagination rekindled by Scripture is vital to refresh our engagement with our contemporary culture. One of the reasons I've been so thrilled to be here this week is because of this vision which you have in this university of engagement with the culture. I have seen artists and musicians who as Christians have gone out into the culture and have actually done business with it so that people will realize that something's going on here. I had a young Christian artist in the college where I was college chaplain at Oxford many years ago — actually he became a Christian during his first term at university — and I had the privilege of preparing him for baptism and confirmation. And he was a brilliant artist.
Within weeks of his conversion, his art tutors noticed a difference in his painting. He wasn't aware that it was happening — he was just painting the way he felt he ought to paint, and tutors said, "What's going on? You didn't use to paint like this."
And he scratched his head and said, "Well, I guess it is different." They said, "Well, what's happening in your life?" And he said, "Well, I've just become a Christian."
They were horrified, because all the art tutors at Oxford were Marxists at the time. And they said you cannot possibly be a Christian and an artist, because to be an artist you have to be committed to the struggle for a just and fair society. If you're a Christian you're copping out, because you're compromising with the establishment.
He had a really hard time. He went through about a year of real struggle. Should he give up his art course? Should he do this, should he do that? We made it a matter of prayer; we worked at it. Then one day he was actually saying his prayers in a church in the east of Oxford, and it came to him how he had to paint — and he started to paint abstract icons. Not icons like this where you can actually see a figure, but abstracts. But they were icons, and his tutors loved them, and he waited till they'd given him wonderful marks and said, “These are great!”
And then he told them what they were: works of art designed to lead people through that thin veil that separates heaven and earth, into the very presence of God.
I'd like to meet up with him again. I haven't seen him for 10 or a dozen years now, but he's a sign to me of what we need to do to engage with the culture. It's painful to engage with the culture, because the culture doesn't want the Christian gospel. The culture's got itself sorted out a different way, a way which says, "We've got enough glory, thank you very much, and actually the violence is quite convenient for us, and there are all sorts of other things which really sustain us and make us a successful people, successful as individuals, successful as a country, as a nation, as a culture."
And the Christian gospel has got to slice through all of that and say, "There is this man who died on a cross — and whose suffering is at the heart of the ugliness of the world — to show that God has come to that place where the world is in pain, and he wants us to go to the place where the world is in pain, and to imagine the love of God at that place, and to express that imagination in our art, our music, our silence, our poetry, our architecture.” And then, to earn the right to speak resurrection into that culture in ways that will stretch and blow the mind and the imagination as was Mary's, as was Thomas's, as was Peter's.
There's a work of art which stands at the moment in the great new atrium in the British Museum in London. The director of the British Museum is a practicing Christian, Neil McGregor. And he has with great courage put this work of art there. It speaks volumes about the nature of Christian imagination, taking the great biblical story and making it live again, speaking into and engaging with our culture. It's a sculpture from Mozambique, and it's a sculpture of the Tree of life, the Tree of life which stood there in the Garden of Eden, but was inaccessible, the Tree of Life which now grows on the banks of the Waters of Life coming out of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22. But this tree of life is different, because it is made of decommissioned weapons after the Mozambique civil war. It's composed entirely of military hardware — guns and stuff. It's a very powerful symbol of what Isaiah was talking about. There will come a time when people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, a time of peace.
How do you re-imagine the Christian story after a civil war? Maybe you do it like this. You turn the weapons into a tree of life. What a wonderful symbol of engaging the culture, of taking a theme which spans Genesis to Revelation and of saying, put this in the middle of your world and imagine, imagine what God is like and what the world will one day be like.
God bless you and may God give you each one the wisdom to know what your gifts are and the courage to use them. Amen.
Transcripts from other N.T. Wright lectures at Seattle Pacific University:
The Christian Challenge in the Postmodern World
Decoding The Da Vinci Code
The Bible and Christian Imagination
God, 9/11, the Tsunami, and the New Problem of Evil
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