21 October 2014

The Conversion of the Imagination

paul2A couple of weeks ago in Kilmallie Free Church, we started studying Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. As part of the groundwork for the series, I was thinking about a way to capture Paul’s intent in chapters 1 and 2 of the letter. A way to set up the study, to shake things up a little! The words of Richard Hays came to mind (actually about what Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, but apt for Ephesians too):

Paul...was calling Gentiles to understand their identity anew in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ - a gospel message comprehensible only in relation to the larger narrative of God's dealing with Israel… As a result, Jew and Gentile alike found themselves summoned by the gospel story to a sweeping re-evaluation of their identities, an imaginative paradigm shift so comprehensive that it can only be described as a 'conversion of the imagination'. The Conversion of the Imagination, 5-6

Now, this is theologian-speak, so it may need a little teasing out. Hays is pointing out two important things about the way Paul understands Christian discipleship. They’re important to us as we set out to study Ephesians, because they’re apparent in the letter itself.

  1. Christian faith is not just what we believe about God, but what we believe about ourselves. That’s the ‘imagination’ bit. Not imagination in terms of fluffy unicorns, or ‘what would it be like to base jump off the north face of the Ben’, but imagination in terms of a mental exercise, something that goes on in our heads. Often we put belief in God so far out in front that what we believe about ourselves is barely on our radar. In fact, we sometimes have the mistaken impression that to think about ourselves is somehow a manifestation of pride and unbecoming for the Christian. That’s not right. This particular mental exercise is to do with questions like: who am I? why am I here? They’re questions of identity.
  2. Christian faith is not really about truths in the abstract, a list of prepositional truths that we assent to. Sure, there are things we believe, and we can write them down in a list. But, Paul believes that it’s when we understand these truths as part of a story, the story of God’s unfolding purposes in the world, that things really start to take off in terms of our Christian discipleship. And so, in Ephesians 1 and 2, Paul rehearses the story of Israel, the promised Messiah, and the Goal of God’s Purposes. He sets out how the Ephesians became part of this story. And he tells them that understanding this story is so important that it’s his constant prayer for them.

So, the ‘Conversion of the Imagination’ is not really an event, but a process. It’s a ‘imaginative paradigm shift’ (a radical change in how we think about ourselves) that might be more radical when we first see it, but that sets a trajectory that doesn’t really stop during our lives. We are always learning more about God’s purposes as revealed in Holy Scripture. We are always fitting more things into the story, and understanding how aspects of our lives relate to, or are incorporated into this story.

Unless we understand the Big Picture, we won’t understand Our Part in It. Unless we understand the story, we won’t understand our place in it, our role in it. How we’re supposed to be living; what we’re supposed to be doing; what does salvation mean for us, in the end – all these are part of it. If you’ve never read the Lord of the Rings and you read a random chapter from the Two Towers, it’s not going to mean much. In fact, you might get totally the wrong end of the stick. You might come away feeling pretty despondent about the story of tragedy, struggle and defeat. And that Tolkien was a bit morose. But, if you’ve read the whole trilogy, you’ll see the richness in that chapter and you’ll immediately understand its significance. The bigger picture sets the whole in a context of hope.

Just as important, since this is a real story (unlike Tolkien), our participation in it joins us together with Jesus Christ. Assenting to a list of prepositional truths is not Christianity. Merely knowing a story is not Christianity. Christianity is knowing Jesus, but it’s more than that. Christianity is following Jesus. And following is what happens when we are living within the story of God’s purposes in Jesus the Messiah.

So, the idea of the Conversion of the Imagination is about being transformed by the ‘renewing of our minds’ – in a very particular way. It’s about the light that’s shed on our lives and our self-understanding by our knowledge of where God’s story is going, how Jesus is realising its goal, and how we fit into it as his disciples. And that is truly transformative.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe. Ephesians 1:16-19