(full disclosure: I was provided a free e-copy of this volume by the author for the purpose of writing an honest review. All page numbers will be from the electronic edition, epub format.)
I had graduated seminary and been involved in ministry in the local church for a few years when the book Word Pictures: Knowing God Through Story & Imagination (2009) was first published. I had been struggling to figure out how to communicate about the Christian faith and biblical content in better ways in our image-driven culture. I had wrestled with the question, “How do I excite people about a word-and-text-based way of viewing their world (i.e. Christianity) when everywhere else in their lives they are goaded and stimulated by images, videos, and little glowing screens. So Word Pictures‘ content was like a fresh breeze to me. Much of what was written I had already learned in various places, but Godawa was able to bring all the pieces together in such a way that it just clicked. So when this book was republished this year under the title The Imagination of God: Art, Creativity and Truth in the Bible (2016), I was very much pleased. And what follows is my attempt to help show how works like Godawa’s Imagination of God can help Christendom in the West bridge the gap from being captive to modernity over to a faithful and satisfying engagement with an image-driven culture without falling into the chasm of postmodernity.
After centering the reader in the personal dilemma out of which Godawa’s Imagination of God sprung, he moves on in chapter 2 (pp.19ff) where he lays out a very non-technical discussion of the nature of the Bible as a literary feast. And like any good diagnostician, Godawa pinpoints the problem that necessitates volumes like his, namely that the study of the Bible had been hamstrung by the 17th-18th century Enlightenment’s preoccupation with precision and empirically-verifiable data. In his words, “the biblical narrative became eclipsed by the pursuit of factual empirical verification of the text: a modern scientific obsession (pp.21-22).” This obsession of understanding the Bible in such a literal and mechanistic manner ironically led to a widespread inability to see the Bible’s text in all its rich fullness, robbing people of their ability to fully know the true and living God.
The next two chapters, “Word versus Image” and “Iconoclasm” take the readers into the battle of ideas and its corresponding history. Godawa demonstrates quite cogently how “…the structure and method of theology affects the content of theology…” and that any theology that neglects “…story, image, symbol, and metaphor… is not being strictly biblical in its method (p.57).”
But in this reviewer’s personal opinion, the real heart – the real meat and potatoes – of this book is found in the next three chapters titled, “Incarnation,” “Subversion” and “Cultural Captivity”. It is here where Godawa’s strength really shines through. Here is where he applies the previous chapters’ argumentation to our own cultural context and helps us see how it isn’t postmodernism that gives superior tools for communication but a fully biblical Christianity. In the chapter “Incarnation” he makes the point that the power of story and imagery are so potent because they embody truths that would otherwise be abstract and elusive. But when “[n}arrative imagery incarnates truth (p.70),” readers/viewers can see the truth dramatized, creating an openness and an ability to identity with the truth portrayed — an openness that would have otherwise remained distant if the truth had been communicated through propositions and/or logical argumentation. And Godawa rightly points out that at the center of all good Christian doctrine is the Truth Incarnate, the Word made flesh. Not a mere proposition, but a person. And it is this Person, this God-in-the-flesh Person, who enters the story of humanity and, with the drama of his life and teaching, punctures the pretensions and the feigned ignorance of humanity, subverting the truth claims of any and all-comers. And “Subversion” and “Cultural Captivity”, the titles of the next two chapters, is where Godawa shows how — following sound, biblical precedent — we can use the “narrative, images, and symbols (p.93)” of our cultural context and subtly appropriate and redefine them within the superior system of a Christian worldview. This is not a capitulation to the non-Christian mores and alternative worldviews of our day. This is, in fact, the conquest of them.
The remainder of the book and its appendix, though not of as crucial a nature as the preceding three chapters, are a valuable read for any Christian who feels hamstrung or without the cultural vocabulary to engage these issues that swirl around us. And any church leader who doesn’t have a firm handle on the use of story and image in the communication of the gospel today could do a lot worse than beginning with this volume by Brian Godawa.