Imagine no Imagination


“A hollow people,
Bound by a lack
Of imagination
And to much looking back
Without the courage
To give a new thing a chance
Grounded by this ignorance…”

I was convinced for a long time that David Gray’s Birds Without Wings was about the Church and that growing up in Wales he’s been sent off to some Presbyterian Chapel much the same as those where I minister in, in Northern Ireland. The words seemed to fit too easily, too perfectly. If I had the ability I could have written them myself. Now that Gray is a household name his past much more openly exposed, there seems no evidence that Church was the target of his prophetically barbed rhyme throughout his debut album Century’s End. I suppose the encouragement for us within the Church is that we are no worse than the society in general that Gray describes as being birds without wings with the cat coming to pounce. We are just a mirror image…

And yet that in itself is an indictment. The Church was never meant to be a mirror image and should be appalled at such a description. If the Church is the people and Kingdom of God that Jesus came to point to and die in order to release the possibility of then to be a mirror of society is not an acceptable accusation.

There is a word in Gray’s song that might point to clues as to why the Church has lowered her standards, expectations and possibilities; imagination; or a lack of it to be precise. If it is true that without a vision the people perish then it must be said that imagination is the engine room of vision. In a Church where the arts have been all but banished in preference for the confining straight lines scientific of precise definitions, decline can be diagnosed back to here. It is almost like the body being starved of her oxygen. Only in the centre of imagining can a new world be envisaged, can change by fired, can hope be born, can vision not only prevent the perishing but pump the blood around the heart of a world to bring God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

Imagination begins with God. In the beginning God imagined. Blue, red, green. Blue sky. Red at night. Green valleys underneath that blue sky. Shapes and textures and movement and dance. Mountains and stars and beaches of sand. Gemsbok skipping, birds in flocks throwing shapes over the city bridges at twilight and humans touching lips and hearts. All imagined and then…then created.

The entire relationship between God and humanity has been about firing that imagination, giving a vision of how people could live; a dream of how society could be. The law would put in place a visionary pattern of how a society in a land promised could be better than what slavery had been in Egypt. The prophets continued to dream and rant about it. Isaiah imagined a lion and lamb lying down together! Micah imagined swords turned into ploughshares! Jeremiah imagined a brand new covenant and Ezekiel imagined a new shepherd king who would do justice.

God told his people that “young men would see visions and old men would dream dreams.” It is crucial to the whole deal. Sadly the Phariseeism of modernity sent the life of faith up blind alleys of dreamlessness. Indeed imagination and art became something to be suspicious of and even to despise. Not that it was quenched. It was just reversed. Imagination was turned negative and stories were made up to dismiss anyone who painted even vaguely outside the lines. The devil hijacked imagination and indeed not only took it out of commission so that indeed the people perished but twisted it to make the perishing even more torturous.

Old Testament theologian Walter Breuggemann has been trying to get the imagination back into Christian thinking for sometime. His books Hopeful Imagination and Prophetic Imagination have made Old Testament theology exciting as well as showing so articulately how high on the Biblical agenda imagination sits. He writes, “Jesus’ way of teaching through parables was such a pastoral act of prophetic imagination in which he invited his community of listeners out beyond the visible realities of Roman law and the ways in which Jewish law had grown restrictive in his time.”

Writing about Isaiah he shows how the prophet inspires the people with his poetic utterances to believe that another way is possible. He sparks their imagination to have faith in another day. He says, “The practice of such poetic imagination is the most subversive, redemptive act that a leader of a faith community can undertake in the midst of exiles. This work of poetic alternative in the long run is more crucial than one-on-one pastoral care or the careful implementation of institutional goals. That is because the work of poetic imagination holds the potential of unleashing a community of power and action that finally will not be contained by any imperial restrictions and definitions of reality.”

In American rock magazine Rolling Stones’ end of the year issue in 2001 David Fricke did an interesting and thorough study on John Lennon’s most famous song Imagine. And the themes of the ex Beatle’s song echo Brueggemann’s slant on the poetry of the prophets. Lennon’s classic peace anthem has been used in some pastoral way by America in responding to the shock and mourning of September 11th. Neil Young sang it at the Telethon for the heroes, Tori Amos sang it on the radio and the song like so many others took on a new meaning and responsibility.

Fricke speaks to a few rock stars about what the songs means for them politically speaking. Yoko Ono in some cerebral new age naivism suggests that her husband was not actually talking about action but literally changing the world by imagining, “Imagining, visualising – this is a powerful way of creating the future. It’s very gentle but also extremely basic. There is an incredible power to that.” Bono is a lot less in the clouds and feet on the ground. He is wrapped up in Yoko’s imagining for sure but then points to his favourite thing about Imagine revealing that what sets it apart for him “is the Buddhist core of the song, the idea that imagination precedes action, that you have to imagine something before you make it true.”

As a new year begins in Northern Ireland and again we have violence on the streets. As we see the place where the angels sang of peace on earth and see blood being spilled at will. As we wonder where the world will go post September 11, 2001. As the Church in the west hits the crisis of diminishing interest and impression in the wider world. As I seek to be a better father than I have been until now. What needs lit is the spark of imagining. Imagining a different world. Imagining a Kingdom where the last person becomes the most important, where we treat the tramp on the street like he was Jesus himself, where the poor are blessed, where the mourn rejoice, where there is dignity and love and a place of belonging for all.

It starts in the life of Jesus, the world that his life inspired us to live, that his death and resurrection won us the ability to make it a reality. It will be headed towards only as the engine of imagination fires. It has to be then constantly suggested to us in sermons and in lives and in songs and art like those of the prophets and that of John Lennon. God give us the art of imagination and may that imagination sustained through the arts become masterpieces of living to keep us keeping on in faith and hope and love. Then the birds will open their wings and fly. No fear of cats.


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