Review of “Imagination of God” by Brian Godawa

(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 Pictureimagination-of-gods: 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.

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Review of Dan Dewitt’s “Christ or Chaos”

christ or chaosThis would be a good summer read for any high school graduate getting ready to head off to college in the fall or for anyone else who wishes to read a very accessible defense of Christian truth.  It is a good presuppositional approach to apologetics aimed at the level of late-high school/early college-aged folks.  This little book (133 pages) is actually a good antidote to the weakest part of Tim Keller’s “Reason for God” because it gives a serious challenge to Darwinian evolution where Keller simply tries to show how evolution and Christianity aren’t incompatible.  Dewitt’s two main challenges to evolution go something like this:

1- It is posited by secular scientists et al that religion was an evolutionary necessity that helped humanity make sense of the world and therefore more equipped to survive.  However, religion is now like a vestigial organ, no longer of any use to humanity and on its way to elimination from the human scene.  But Dewitt responds by pointing out that, if this is the case, then evolution is the author of practical survival skills but also the author of deceit.  Though our genes drove us to religion and equipped us to survive, they deceived us and failed to lead us to what is true about reality.

2- It is also theorized by evolutionary psychology that we are an unrealistically optimistic species and that we are this way because evolution has hardwired our brains this way.  Dewitt quotes Tali Sharot from her TIME magazine article “The Optimism Bias”, “We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures… But both neuroscience and social science suggest that we are more optimistic than realistic.”  In simple terms, hope is irrational.  Again, Dewitt points out that if this is true, namely that evolution is the author of this practical survival mechanism in our brains, then it is also true that evolution has deceived and is deceiving us.

Dewitt rightly points out negatively that if evolution cannot be trusted to point us to an accurate view of reality about religion and even our own thoughts, then why should it be trusted to give us an accurate view in so many other areas?  Or as he puts it, “…how can we break free from the illusion?” (pg. 114)  But Dewitt also uses the data of the human impulse toward both religion and optimism to drive us to ask a positive, observational question: could we be hard-wired with this religious impulse and optimism because we are all yearning to return to Eden?  We have this ache because we know this world is broken, that we are all participants in its brokenness, and that we are incapable of putting the pieces back together by ourselves.  Yet somehow we feel that there is a place where all that is broken will be made whole and all that is sad will become untrue.  And if there is such a place, and if we can’t get there on our own, then maybe there is Someone to do what we can’t, Someone to get us where we can’t go.

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Getting a Snoot-Full as a Refresher

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.  Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

— Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian

Ahhhh… You smell that?  That’s the stink of a otismaterialistic view of the universe taken to its most reasonable conclusions.  Sometimes its helpful to get a good snoot-full as a refresher, a reminder of the stench of the cultural folderol where humanity is the measure of all things.

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Luther on the Human Heart

“I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self.” — Martin Luther

Stupid Germans. Are they all great engineers, knowing and discerning how all things work?

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Lord’s Day Thought – 3rd Sunday of Eastertide

“Biblical hope, rooted in incarnation and resurrection, is creational, this-worldly, visible, physical, bodily hope.”  — Herman Bavinck, “The Last Things”

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A Brief Easter Sabbatical Thought

The New Testament scriptures seem to give great credence to the primacy of the cross.  After all,  the apostle Paul said in 1 Cor. 2.2, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  And while I wish to take nothing from the glory and importance of the cross, is it possible that the Church has undervalued the empty tomb?   As churches fill tomorrow morning with folks who who rarely frequent the public worship of the body of Christ, do they implicitly know something about the power of a risen Savior that many of us ‘regulars’ have allowed to slip off our radars?  Think about it. If we read the book of Acts, we read how the apostles primarily preached about the resurrection, not the cross.  And the saints began meeting on the first day of the week not the sixth.  Why was our weekly Sabbath moved to Sunday to commemorate the resurrection rather than moved to Friday to commemorate the crucifixion?  These questions are all too great for this man.  But one thing that I do know is that it is a glorious and powerful thing to be able to cry out with joy with all the saints, “He is risen!  He is risen indeed!”

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Sabbatical Thoughts 2.0 – Help for my praying

One of the biggest hurdles I’ve had to clear while on sabbatical is finding motivation and discipline for my personal prayer life.  That might seem like a shock to some.  “What?!  You’re a pastor.  You guys are supposed to pray as easy as breathing.”  But I assure you that the same sinfully resistant heart resides in my chest as it does in everyone else’s.  Prayer is a battle and one that I have found is hard to jump start outside the context of my regular pastoral duties.  Well, this morning I picked up my copy of Valley of Vision to give me words to pray since I seemed to have none.  And what a blessing it proved to be.  If you are unfamiliar with this book, it is a collection of Puritan prayers that have been edited and organized for easier reading.  I have produced one below (lightly edited) that was particularly helpful to me this morning, simply titled “Resurrection”:

O God of my Exodus,
Great was the joy of Israel’s sons,
when Egypt died upon the shore,
Far greater the joy
when the Redeemer’s foe lay crushed
in the dust.
Jesus strides forth as the victor,
conqueror of death, hell, and all opposing might;
He bursts the bands of death,
tramples the powers of darkness down,
and lives for ever.
He, my gracious surety,
apprehended for payment of my debt,
comes forth from the prison house of the grave free,
and triumphant over sin, Satan, and death.
Show me herein the proof that his vicarious offering is accepted,
that the claims of justice are satisfied,
that the devil’s sceptre is shivered,
that his wrongful throne is levelled.
Give me the assurance that in Christ I died,
in him I rose,
in his life I live, in his victory I triumph,
in his ascension I shall be glorified.
Adorable Redeemer,
you who were lifted up upon a cross
are ascended to highest heaven.
You, who as Man of sorrows
was crowned with thorns,
are now as Lord of life wreathed in glory.
Once, no shame more deep than yours,
no agony more bitter,
no death more cruel.
Now, no exaltation more high,
no life more glorious,
no advocate more effective.
You are in the triumph car leading captive
your enemies behind you.
What more could be done than you have done!
Your death is my life,
your resurrection my peace,
your ascension my hope,
your prayers my comfort.

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