Catechizing Your Imagination

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God’s gifts, in turn, conform our minds to the mind of Christ, and catechize our imagination in the image of God’s Son.

It’s a favorite phrase of health-conscious parents and grandparents everywhere. It’s the go-to dad joke when the kids are horking down Halloween candy by the fistful: “You know, you are what you eat.”

Biologically speaking, there is truth in these words. As we mature, we move from counting how many pounds of candy we collected to tracking calories, carbohydrates, and cholesterol numbers and how they affect us. There is, however, more than mere practical, healthy advice baked into grandma’s words of wisdom.

There is also a deeper theological truth in this old adage. In our daily life as Christians, we are students and Jesus is our true Teacher; we are disciples and our Lord is the true Master; we are forever catechumens of Christ. When we turn to the Scriptures and the Catechism, “you are what you eat” becomes, “You are what you read. You are what you hear. You are what you study.” You become what you read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. What we read, listen to, and watch – in many ways – shapes, molds, and forms us, the whole of us; our reason and imagination alike.

God gives us both our reason and our imagination. They are complimentary, not contradictory. We learn this in Luther’s Small Catechism, particularly in his explanation of First Article of the Apostles’ Creed, where Luther reminds us that “God has made me and all creatures; he has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, and still preserves them.” One of God’s many and gracious first article gifts is the gift of the imagination. With it we form pictures in the studio of our minds. It is how we interpret meaning in the world around us. It is also an ally in the way we communicate and confess the faith. With the Scriptures and the Catechism in hand, we teach children not only what is true and false, but also what is good and beautiful and meaningful. That is one of the chief reasons God gives us the gift of the imagination. God creates, and gives for our use, both intellect and creativity. Jesus is Lord not only of the head but also the heart.

It has been said that if we don’t catechize our children, the culture and world around us will. The same is true for catechumens of any age. Both our intellect and our imagination need daily catechesis in the gifts of God: his Word, water, body and blood. Just as our heart needs cardio exercise to stay healthy, so too, our imagination needs to be catechized, strengthened and built up by a steady diet of God’s gifts in his word and sacraments. The aim of Christian catechesis, then, is to fill us with the truth, goodness, and beauty of God’s Word, catechizing both our intellect and imagination.

The rhythm of the Christian life of catechesis is ongoing, daily. Just as our bodies require daily nourishment in the gifts of daily bread, so too, our faith and life in Christ live not by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. A word that feeds not only our faith, but also our intellect and imagination redeemed in Christ. We receive God’s gifts in the Word and sacraments that bear and bestow the crucified and risen Christ. God’s gifts, in turn, conform our minds to the mind of Christ, and catechize our imagination in the image of God’s Son. In catechesis, God’s Word, and the saving gospel of Christ crucified and risen, is imprinted both in our head and upon our heart.

Catechizing the imagination is also an indispensable antidote to the twisted imagination of our fallen sinful flesh. Like all of God’s gifts in creation, our imagination is affected by the fall of sin. God’s gift of imagination once declared very good, along with the rest of creation, is now warped, twisted and bent inwardly with trespasses and sin. Within each Christian dwells the reality that in this life we are both saint and sinner. This reality affects both our intellect and our imagination. At times we use our imagination for great evil, and yet, at times, and by God’s grace, we use our imagination for great good.

How, then, do we catechize our imagination? Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms come to mind. Luther famously declared that his reason was held captive to the Word of Christ. The same is true of our imagination as baptized people of God. In Christ, our imagination is held captive to God’s Word. There is no better place to go than to the Scriptures. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As Gene Veith writes, “The Bible awakens the imagination of those who read it. It can, as we say, ‘capture’ the imagination, God’s Word uses imaginative means – recounting true stories, accounts of people’s lives, parables descriptions, visions, symbols, and typology – so that its truths, through the Holy Spirit, cut deep, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit. Thus a Christian imagination comes, above all, from reading the Bible continually, studying it, meditating on it, and just saturating your mind and your imagination with the Word of God.” (1)

As lifelong catechumens, the two best places for the Christian to catechize their imagination is in the congregation of saints and sinners, and in our homes. For in the congregation we receive God’s word and sacraments. In our Lord’s house, we read, mark, learn, hear, and inwardly digest God’s word, and our imagination is captivated by the Word of God. We pray, praise, give thanks, and our imagination is turned toward Christ and our neighbors in need. We rejoice in, listen to, and meditate upon God’s word in the hymns we sing, and all the while our imagination is filled with the praises and promises of God. We are surrounded by sacred artwork and architecture which points our imagination to Christ. We taste and see the Lord’s body and blood, where we what we eat – the true body and blood of Jesus – becomes a part of us in Holy Communion. Here God’s invisible, unimaginable love, grace, and mercy is made visible and imaginable for us. Here you truly are what you eat: redemption, rescue, and restoration in Jesus.

The same word of God that fills our ears, hearts, minds, and imaginations on Sunday in the Lord’s house is present with us in our own homes as well. Scripture captures our imagination and fills it with the image of God in the flesh in Jesus and all that he said, taught, and accomplished for our salvation. Jesus’ words, like his I AM statements – I AM the Good Shepherd, awaken our imagination while also catechizing our imagination in the way of Christ crucified and risen.

This is the best way to catechize our Christian imagination. As St. Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Col. 3:16).

(1) Gene Edward Veith and Matthew P. Ristuccia. Imagination Redeemed: Glorifying God with a Neglected Part of Your Mind. Crossway Publishing, Wheaton, IL. 2015, p. 111.