Bibliotheca Sacra 134 (October 1990) 387-98.
Copyright © 1990 by
The Bible as Literature
Part 4 (of 4 parts):
"With Many Such Parables": The
Imagination as a Means of Grace
Professor of English
The aim of this article is to explore a heresy that rules vast
segments of evangelical Christianity. That heresy is to defend a ne-
glect of the imagination and the arts on the ground that believers
must be busy in God's work, assuming that God's work is never artis-
tic. Yet the Bible itself, to say nothing of the creation in which
humankind lives, shows that God's work is partly artistic.
One of my colleagues has several times conducted an informal
poll in his art classes. He asks how many students can say that in
their families any of the arts was talked about and regarded as im-
portant. The percentage of such families is exceedingly small. Then
when he inquires into the matter more precisely, he finds that in the
overwhelming number of cases either the families in which the arts
are considered important are non-Christian families, or the affirma-
tion of art is something that preceded conversion to Christianity.
Of all people on the face of the earth, Christians have the most
reason to value the arts and the imagination. The title of this arti-
cle speaks of the imagination as a means of grace. This does not mean
that participating in the arts makes a person more acceptable to God
or that the arts explicitly recall God's saving acts. Instead it sug-
gests that the imagination is a means by which God can reveal His
truth and beauty and people can respond with due appreciation.
388 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990
The Doctrine of
Creation and the Artistic
In countering the heresy that God's work excludes involvement
in the arts, three great biblical principles may be addressed. The
first is the doctrine of Creation. The Bible begins by stating that God
created the world. That world is beautiful and artistically pleas-
ing, as is known simply by looking around and as the Bible confirms.
God looked at what He had created, and, "behold, it was very
good" (Gen. 1:31). The psalmist wrote that the creation proclaims
God's handiwork (Ps. 19:1), implying that handiwork has value. In
the Garden of Eden God made to grow "every tree that is pleasing to
the sight and good for food" (Gen. 2:9). This is a double criterion-
one artistic, the other utilitarian. The conditions for human well-
being have never changed since that moment. Can a person justify
the time spent reading a novel or writing a poem or visiting an art
gallery? In a Christian scheme of things, the answer is yes.
God also created people in His own image (Gen. 1:26). What
does this mean? At this point in the biblical record nothing is yet
known about the God of providence or redemption or the covenant.
The one thing known about God is that He creates. In its immediate
narrative context, therefore, the doctrine of the image of God in
people emphasizes that people are, like God, creative. A well-
known evangelical, when serving as a referee for one of my book
manuscripts, wrote a marginal comment about "the trivial view that
God's image in people is a matter of creativity." Is this the impres-
sion a person gets when reading Genesis 1? The comment is in fact an
evidence of the very heresy just mentioned.
What does the image of God in people say about the arts? It af-
firms human creativity as something good in principle, since it is an
imitation of one of God's own acts and perfections. Abraham Kuyper
once wrote, "As image-bearer of God, man possesses the possibility
both to create something beautiful, and to delight in it."1 Christian
poet Chad Walsh has said that the artist "can honestly see himself
as a kind of earthly assistant to God ... carrying on the delegated
work of creation, making the fullness of creation fuller."2 This ap-
plies equally to those who are not themselves creative artists but
who delight to enter into the creativity of others. And it stands as a
rebuke to those who disparage God's gift of creativity in people.
1 Abraham Kuyper, Calvinism
1943), p. 142.
Christian Imagination, ed. Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981), p.
"With Many Such Parables": The Imagination as a Means of Grace 389
This then is one foundation for thinking Christianly about the
arts: the Christian doctrine of Creation assures mankind that human
creativity can be honoring to God. God Himself created a world that
is artistically beautiful and delightful as well as utilitarian.
The Value of Beauty and Artistry
A second biblical principle is that works of art have value in
themselves, simply as objects of beauty and artistry. For one thing,
the Bible makes no division of art into sacred and secular.3 Art has
equal value in an everyday setting and in worship. The Bible in-
cludes not only songs sung in worship at the temple but also ones sung
in the everyday circumstances of work without direct reference to
anything religious (Num. 21:16-18; Isa. 16:10; 52:8-9). The Song of
Solomon is a collection of love lyrics that keeps the focus on human
love and does not explicitly bring God or spiritual values into the
picture. The Bible records a patriotic elegy by David about national
heroes that does not mention God (2 Sam. -27).
As an extension of this unwillingness to divide art into sacred
and secular, the Bible also refuses to make the value of artistic form
depend on religious content in works of art. Consider the many ref-
erences in the Psalms and elsewhere to instrumental music without
accompanying words. Can this be legitimate, even in worship? In
Psalm 150 musical sound alone is said to praise God when it is offered
to Him as an act of worship.
The descriptions of the visual art that adorned the Old Testa-
ment tabernacle and temple are a gold mine of information about the
arts, and one of the important things learned is that the art God pre-
scribed for these religious places was not always specifically reli-
gious in its content. There was a wealth of realistic or representa-
tional art that symbolized nothing specifically religious. The pil-
lars of the temple were decorated with pomegranates and lilies (1
Kings -22), and the stands for the brass lavers with lions, oxen,
and palm trees (vv. 29, 36). Given the stereotyped notions of "sacred
art" that often prevail in Christian circles, this might seem out of
place. As the Old Testament worshipers stared at the lampstand,
they saw, not angels and cherubim, but things of natural beauty-
flowers and blossoms.
What should one make of this exuberance over the forms of na-
ture in the most holy places of Old Testament worship? Above all it
3 For a fuller discussion of this and related points, see Leland Ryken, The Liberated
Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts (
390 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990
completely undercuts any sacred-secular dichotomy for art. What
God created is a suitable subject for the artist. Since God made the
flowers and sky, they are worth painting or carving.
Most surprising of all, given current stereotypes, was the pres-
ence of abstract or nonrepresentational art in the tabernacle and
temple. Nonrepresentational art means art that represents nothing
beyond itself, like a Persian tapestry. As the Old Testament wor-
shipers approached the temple, they saw two gigantic freestanding
pillars over 25 feet high. These monoliths had no architectural
weight-bearing function. They did not resemble anything in created
nature. They were simply beautiful and suggested by their very size
and form the grandeur, stability, and power of God. They also made
the worshipers feel small as they stood beside them, and this, too,
made a religious statement in a purely artistic, nonverbal way.
The artistic imagination is free to be itself. What it produces
under the guidance of God is good in itself. The robe of Aaron indi-
cates that. The embellishment of Aaron's priestly garment was "for
glory and for beauty" (Exod. 28:2). Beauty and artistry are worthy in
Some of the art in the Old Testament was realistic, but there
was no requirement that it had to be so. The decorations on Aaron's
garment included blue pomegranates. What's so unusual about that?
In nature there are no blue pomegranates. An intriguing artifact in
the temple is the molten sea (1 Kings -26). It was a huge circular
basin 45 feet in circumference and holding up to
10,000 gallons of
ter. Under the brim were engravings of gourds. The whole grand de-
sign rested on the backs of 12 statuesque oxen. Nowhere in the real
world can one find a sea held up on the backs of oxen. It is an utterly
fantastic conception, all the more delightful for its imaginary quali-
Some of the literature in the Bible is equally fantastic. In a sin-
gle short chapter of Zechariah, for example, readers learn about a
flying scroll that destroys the wood and stone of houses, a woman
named Wickedness sitting inside a cereal container, and two women
with wings like those of a stork who lift the container into the sky.
As Schaeffer wrote, "Christian artists do not need to be threatened
by fantasy and imagination.... The Christian is the really free per-
son ... whose imagination should fly beyond the stars."4
An additional reason for believing that works of art have value
in themselves emerges from what the Bible says about the vocation
and gifts of the artist. Two key passages in Exodus describe how God
4 Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible (
"With Many Such Parables": The Imagination as a Means of Grace 391
called and equipped the artists who worked on the tabernacle (Exod.
31:1-11; 35:30-36:2). God called the artists, filled them with His
Spirit, inspired them with artistic ability, and stirred them up to do
the work. The impression gained from these passages is that the
artist's calling is a glorious calling. Unlike what often happens in
Christian circles today, the artist's vocation was not regarded as
suspect or second best.
This, then, is a second way in which to think Christianly about
the arts: the Bible affirms that the artistic imagination and its cre-
ations have value in themselves, not simply for the religious or
ideational content they may contain. The arts do not need to be de-
fended, as people throughout history have felt obliged to defend
them, as something other than art. They have integrity for what
they are in themselves. Christians find a place for the arts as an aid
to worship, but not often as an act of worship. Yet 91 out of 107 refer-
ences to music in the Psalms specify God as the audience of music.5
The principle that emerges from this is significant for the arts: any-
thing offered to God can become an act of worship. This means that
artistic experiences, whether as creators or participants, can be an
act of worship-a means of grace.
The value of the nonutilitarian and the dignity of the concept of
leisure must also be acknowledged. The Christian community lacks
an adequate theory of leisure and play. Regarding recreation, in-
cluding the arts, as frivolous or ignoble, Christians often sink to me-
diocrity by default. Yet the wise use of leisure time is part of the
stewardship of life.6 No one could have lived a busier life than Jesus
did during the years of His public ministry. Yet He did not reduce
life to continuous work or evangelism. He took time to enjoy the
beauty of the lily and to attend dinners.
Truth and the Imagination
The Bible, then, endorses artistic creativity and encourages
Christians to believe that artistic form and beauty have value in
themselves as gifts from God. This might be viewed as the nonutili-
tarian side of the artistic imagination. But the imagination is useful
as well as delightful. This leads to the question of truth in art, or
the imagination as a vehicle for expressing truth. This too is a value
of the arts. The imagination can express truth in its own unique way
for the glory of God and the edification of people.
Dale Topp, Music in the
Christian Community (
Publishing Co., 1959), p. 13.
6 For an elaboration of a Christian view of leisure, see Leland Ryken, Work and
Leisure in Christian Perspective (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1987).
392 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990
What is this unique way of expressing truth? Such truth as the
arts express is conveyed by means of the imagination. The imagina-
tion images forth its subject matter. It does not work primarily by ab-
stractions or propositions but by concrete images and experiences. As
Chesterton put it, "Imagination demands an image."7 The arts take
concrete human experience rather than abstract information as their
Can the imagination express truth? Look at the example of the
Bible. The Bible is overwhelmingly literary in its form. The one
thing that it is not is what we so often picture it as being-a theolog-
ical outline with proof texts attached. When asked to define
"neighbor," Jesus told a story. He constantly spoke in images and
metaphors: "I am the light of the world"; "You are the salt of the
earth." The Bible repeatedly appeals to the intelligence through
the imagination. The prominence of music and visual art in the wor-
ship described in the Bible has already been noted. If it is doubted
that truth can be embodied in visual, nonpropositional form, look at
baptism and communion. They use physical images that allow
people to experience spiritual realities.
It is therefore not surprising that Dorothy Sayers links the
imagination with Christian theology. In a famous essay on artistic
theory, she wrote,
Let us take note of a new word that has crept into the argument by way
of Christian theology-the word Image. Suppose, having rejected the
words "copy," "imitation," and "representation" as inadequate, we sub-
stitute the word "image" and say that what the artist is doing is to image
forth something or the other, and connect that with
"God ... hath spoken to us by His son, the ... express image of His per-
son."-Something which, by being an image, expresses that which it
"Imaging forth" is exactly what the Bible repeatedly does. Its
most customary way of expressing God's truth is not the sermon or
theological outline but the story, the poem, the vision, and the let-
ter, all of them literary forms and products of the imagination.
Think of how much biblical truth has been incarnated in character
and event. To this can be added the poetry of the Bible, including
the heavy incidence of image and metaphor in the prose of the New
The point is not simply that the Bible allows for the imagina-
tion as a form of communication. It is rather that the biblical writers
7 G. K. Chesterton, "The Soul in Every Legend," in The Man Who Was Chesterton,
ed. Raymond T. Bond (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1902), p. 37.
8 Dorothy L. Sayers, "Towards a Christian Aesthetic," in The New Orpheus, ed.
Nathan A. Scott (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1964), p. 13.
"With Many Such Parables": The Imagination as a Means of Grace 393
and Jesus found it impossible to communicate the truth of God with-
out using the resources of the imagination. The Bible does more than
sanction the arts. It shows how indispensable they are.
That the imagination is a vehicle of truth is known also from
sources other than the Bible. An earlier article referred to the dis-
covery of recent brain research that shows that the two hemispheres
of the human brain respond to stimuli and assimilate reality in dif-
ferent ways.9 The left hemisphere is active in logical thinking,
grasping abstract propositions, and dealing with language. The
right hemisphere is dominant in processing visual and other sensory
experiences, in seeing whole-part relationships, in grasping meta-
phor and humor, and in experiencing emotion. The arts and the imag-
ination are essentially right-brain media. Believers need to express
and receive God's truth with the right brain as well as the left.
In Western culture at large, and perhaps especially in the evan-
gelical subculture, the tendency is overwhelming to assume that
truth is conceptual and propositional only. But the arts, with their
emphasis on imagination, show that there is another type of truth,
or a whole other way by which people assimilate and know the
truth. Suppose a person is assembling an appliance. If the directions
include a good picture, he may not even use the written instructions.
It is a fallacy to think that one's world view consists only of
ideas. It is a world picture as well as a set of ideas. It includes im-
ages that may govern behavior even more than ideas do. At the
level of ideas, for example, a person may know the goal of life is not
to amass physical possessions. But if his mind is filled with images
of fancy cars and expensive clothes and big houses, his behavior will
likely follow a materialistic path. A person might say that God
created the world, but if his mind is filled with images of evolution-
ary processes, he will start to think like an evolutionist. Someone
may know that he should eat moderately, but his appetites override
that knowledge when his mind is filled with images of luscious food.
The imagination is a leading ingredient in the way people view re-
ality. They live under its sway, whether they realize it or not. Ad-
vertisers seem to grasp this better than people do in the church.
The Uses of the Imagination in Teaching and Preaching
Thus far three biblical principles have been suggested to combat
the assumption that doing God's work excludes a commitment to the
imagination and the arts. Those principles are the doctrine of Cre-
9 Leland Ryken, '"I Have Used Similitudes': The Poetry of the Bible," Bibliotheca
Sacra 147 (July-September 1990): 260-61.
394 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990
ation, the Bible's endorsement of art as having value in itself, and
the Bible's example in confirming that the imagination is one means
by which people can know and express the truth. What are some
ways these principles may be applied to Christians and especially
to teachers and preachers?
In view of the Bible's endorsement of the arts, Christians need to
affirm artists and their work much more than they typically do.
They need to show from the pulpit and the Sunday school podium
and by their conversations and actions that they believe the arts to
be important. Everyone has an imagination. Some Christians have
sat in the pew for years and never been told that their God-given
imagination is good. Art, music, and literature deserve a more
prominent place in churches than they currently have. They deserve
to be in the bulletin and church services, and Sunday school classes.
It would be helpful to have artists' nights when church members
display their own visual art or photography, read their own poems
or stories, and perform music. Too little of artists' gifts is seen in
All this is in sharp contrast to what is found in the worship de-
scribed in the Bible, where the arts were flaunted to a degree almost
unheard of today. The idea of the beauty of holiness does not mean
much in contemporary worship, and one of the reasons for the attrac-
tiveness of high church worship to some evangelicals is that their
aesthetic inclinations are either starved or offended in evangelical
There is no reason why the burden for artistic expression within
the church should rest solely on the minister. Most churches have a
core of people who are interested in the arts. They are the logical
people to tap as resources for making the artistic imagination a vital
part of church life.
Many Christians have been guilty of a great abdication. They
cannot all be artists, but they can all respect and participate in the
art that others create. The Christian church must be active on every
front in society-in science, in economics, in education, in politics, in
the arts, in the media. God gave His followers a cultural command
as well as a missionary command. They should not
set these up as
vals. To relinquish the presence of believers in any cultural area
only weakens the Christian voice in the culture as a whole and
makes evangelism all the more difficult.
The attitude of Christians toward the arts says something about
the God they proclaim, and often the wrong signal is sent to the un-
saved. A missionary who wrestled with the issue of how beauty re-
lated to her life in a foreign culture came to this conclusion: "I be-
lieve my attitude toward beauty and order, as reflected in my home
and lifestyle, says much to the people around me about the God I
"With Many Such Parables": The Imagination as a Means of Grace 395
serve. Therefore, I want to reflect ... something of the artistry, the
beauty, the order of the one I'm representing, and in whose image
I've been made."10
Christians also need to acknowledge more fully that the imagi-
nation is a leading means by which to express the truth. Turning
from the pages of the Bible to the evangelical subculture today, one
cannot help but be struck by the contrast in this regard. The theolog-
ical abstraction and outline have replaced the imaginative boldness
of the writers of the Bible. People no longer trust the power of
metaphor or paint on canvas or musical sound to express the truth. Je-
sus, however, did not distrust the imagination. He told stories and
spoke in metaphor.
The non-Christian world has a better grasp of the power of the
arts to persuade people than the Christian community does. For ev-
ery "Chariots of Fire," there are hundreds of movies that express an
untruthful or immoral view of life. Christians need to believe that a
painting or piece of fiction can be as truthful to life and to the Chris-
tian view of life as a sermon or religious article can be. "Chariots of
Fire" is as truthful an expression of Eric Liddle's Christianity as is a
biography of him. This is not to suggest that believers displace any-
thing with art, music, and literature. Rather, the point is that these
too are ways in which God's truth and beauty can be communicated.
The Bible itself communicates the truth in all possible ways. And it
does so with obvious artistry. Christians need to lay to rest the
heresy that God's work is never artistic.
A final application has to do with the sermon. As a modern-day
Puritan who believes in the primacy of the sermon in worship, I find
the state of the sermon in evangelical churches alarming. It is in
deep trouble in most churches. This is concealed from view because
churchgoers accept listening to the sermon as part of the duties of at-
tending church. They theorize that as long as a church is filled with
people listening to sermons, the sermon must be flourishing as an in-
stitution. But sitting dutifully through the sermon is not the same as
being excited by it or strongly impacted by it. The average church-
goer finds something lacking in sermons and feels mildly guilty about
not being as interested in sermons as he or she would like to be. It
must be remembered that the visual media have transformed what
audiences expect in a sermon. Contemporary preaching has captured
the minds and sometimes the emotions of people, but not their imagi-
One problem is the excessive tendency toward theological ab-
straction in contemporary preaching. If the imagination is a valid
10 Margaret Ho, "Reflecting a God of Beauty," Eternity, November 1982, p. 29.
396 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990
means of communicating God's truth, then the Christian message
needs to be imaged forth more than it is. A good starting point is to
preach on literary parts of the Bible. There is no defensible reason
why preachers should gravitate so naturally to the most abstract
parts of the Bible, especially the Epistles. The stories and poems
and visions of the Bible are important too.
And when preachers choose a literary text in the Bible, it is im-
portant to approach it as literature. A story or poem asks that the
readers and hearers enter a whole imagined world and walk around
inside it. It conveys its truth by getting the readers to share an expe-
rience. Reliving the story or the thought process of the poet should
be the first item on the agenda of Bible expositors. To do this will
require them to rethink their concept of a three-part sermon. Instead
of imposing three propositional generalizations on the text and dip-
ping into the text for supporting data, they must first relive the story
or poem. Then they can deduce the principles and apply them to the
lives of their listeners.
When expositors make an application, they need to rely on their
imagination-their ability to picture the truth in concrete terms.
The imagination allows them to identify with people and experi-
ences beyond themselves. Identifying with things "out there" is not
something that comes easily to preachers. The voice of authentic
human experience with its suffering and longing is not as common as
it should be in contemporary preaching. The exceptions to that stric-
ture are the preachers who rather quickly achieve popularity and
become celebrities. But the ability to identify with actual human
experience is within the reach of every preacher or teacher and
needs only to be cultivated.
Expositors tend to look on sermon or lesson preparation in terms of
doing research for a lecture or paper. They should view it more like
writing a story or poem. According to the usual model, the preacher
or Bible teacher spends time reading Bible commentaries and finding
illustrations for generalizations. But as poets and fiction writers go
about their composition, the key ingredients in their process are
memory, observation of life, introspection, reading, and imagining.
Paradoxically the ability to identify with the person in the
pew and to picture the truth concretely might begin with introspec-
tion. Imaginative writers are not afraid to look within and assume
that what they find there is of universal interest and insight. The
minister or teacher who sits down to breakfast and who transports
children to music lessons or Little League games has the same ten-
sions and triumphs, the same anxieties and longings, that ordinary
people have. Not to tap this source is a failure of both nerve and
imagination, and it leaves congregations with abstracted theology
as their Sunday diet.
"With Many Such Parables": The Imagination as a Means of Grace 397
Observation is of course needed to supplement introspection. The
way to empathize with people is to observe their pain and tri-
umphs, their longings and fears. Pressed for time as they are,
preachers can develop a network for gaining insight into how a bibli-
cal passage applies to real life. The most efficient means of doing
this is to assemble a small group Bible study that studies the pas-
sage on which the next sermon will be based. The application part of
the sermon is too big a task for one person to produce alone.
In addition to needing more imaging of the truth from the pulpit
and Sunday school podium, more innovation is also needed. One of
the functions of the imagination is to defamiliarize what has be-
come overly familiar. Its task is to state the timeless truth in per-
petually fresh ways. People are temperamentally resistant to
change and experimentation. It is easy to forget that in its original
setting the Bible was a subversive book. Its writers and speakers
challenged conventional assumptions and conventional ways of stat-
ing things. Preachers and teachers need to be more daring and imagi-
native, knowing beforehand that some experiments will work better
What form might such innovation take? Expositors might prof-
itably follow the model of the Bible itself. The Bible takes every
possible approach to the truth, much of it literary and artistic.
Could some of the street drama of the Old Testament prophets serve
as a model? Jeremiah once wore a yoke on his neck as a message to
the people. On another occasion he exposed a garment to the ele-
ments until it had decayed in order to symbolize the spiritual state
of his nation.
What prevents us from trying brief dramatic vignettes and vi-
sual imagery as part of a sermon? Equally attractive is the possibil-
ity of impersonating a biblical character, either directly or in a
pretended interview. The Bible consistently appeals to the right
side of the brain as well as the left. There is no reason why sermons
and Sunday school lessons cannot feature more visual and aural
resources than they customarily do.
And what about the prominence given in the Bible to narrative
or story? One of the most universal human impulses can be summed
up in the four words, "Tell me a story." Among the findings of two
people who made a study of successful American companies was the
conclusion that "we are more influenced by stories (vignettes that are
whole and make sense in themselves) than by data."11 There is ev-
ery reason for Bible communicators to tap into the story quality of
11 Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons
398 Bibliotheca Sacra / October-December 1990
both the Bible and the Christian faith. It is possible to make use of
the strengths of narrative preaching without casting an entire ser-
mon in narrative form. But more than the conventional two-minute
anecdote is needed to illustrate a generalization. A story is needed
that invites the hearers to enter a whole world of the imagination
and that incarnates the truth instead of simply illustrating it.
Fiction too has an amazing ability to defamiliarize both bibli-
cal material and everyday reality. It uses dislocation to create new
angles of vision. It removes hearers from the familiar world so they
can see that world with greater clarity. The classic example of this
in the Bible itself is the parable Nathan told to David (2 Sam. 12:1-
15). By entering a fictional world, David was completely disarmed.
Having entered this world of the imagination, he looked out of it to
the world of his own life. This is how the imagination works: it
first removes the hearers from immediate reality to send them back
to it with renewed insight. There is nothing wrong with telling a
story that does not carry all its meaning on the surface. Jesus told fic-
tional stories that partly concealed the truth in order to reveal it by
delayed action to the thoughtful listener.
To sum up, all people, including Christians, need the truth and
beauty that the imagination can impart. That truth and beauty are
needed during the week, and on Sunday. The nature of truth is such
that it can never be adequately expressed or experienced only as an
abstraction or as a set of facts. Truth also requires the story, the
poem, the paint on canvas, the sound of music.
This is the fourth in a series of four articles delivered by the author as the W. H.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
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