Riding (Too) High on Christian Imagination

Over at the John Jay Institute, there’s a symposium happening on the topic of “Christian […]

Mockingbird / 10.1.14

Over at the John Jay Institute, there’s a symposium happening on the topic of “Christian imagination.” One of the papers submitted was a guest post by our own Will McDavid. The entire thing is available at their site, here, but an excerpt below:

“James K.A. Smith, a recent lynchpin of smart Evangelicalism in America, has embedded a myth in the conversation about imagination and desire: “compelling visions, over time, seep into and shape our desire and thus fuel dispositions toward them” (Desiring the Kingdom). This idea lay behind Smith’s defense of Christian schools in the wake of a Christianity Today blogger making an apology for sending her kids to public schools. Smith:

That’s why, based on the evidence, we keep pointing out that a Christian education is a ‘public’ education and serves the common good—more, in fact, than so-called ‘public’ (i.e., state-run) schools do. If we want to change the social architecture for future generations, we need to seriously consider educating them in Christian schools… The vision of Christian education is rooted in a conviction that learning is always informed by some worldview or faith commitments, which is why we should be intentional about teaching and learning from an explicitly Christian starting point.


The idea flows naturally out of Smith’s linear, accretive view of desire-shaping. Master Koolhaas’s Academy for Kuyperian Youth can feed children the “right” images, appeal to right desires, and shape their imaginations accordingly. The public-school child’s Christian imagination lags just a bit behind; on average, he is less interested in the common good.

Obviously, if this linearity were true, it would be problematic for public school children. But we needn’t worry, because the Spirit works often through counter-formation. That is, our imaginations are sometimes repulsed by what they consume or envision, and this movement – the biblical shorthand would be ‘repentance’ – is perhaps even stronger than Smith’s accretive mechanism. Sometimes we rebel against the good: Thomas Mann, a Nobel Laureate, wrote a famous story, Death in Venice, about an acclaimed author enamored of the true, good, and beautiful, who, after a long life of austere discipline, becomes equally enamored with a ten-year-old Polish boy on the beach, and dies as a result. William Inge wrote a play, with echoes of the Prodigal Son, in which a man tells his wife, truly, that her vision of domestic order makes him want to go out and raise hell all over again, just to prove to himself that he’s free. And in personal experience, we all know of people who went to Christian schools and are now in the most fervent rebellion…

There is much to commend in the Christian ideal of setting our minds on what is good, but if spiritual formation becomes yet another technique, yet another results-driven process, yet another thing to be controlled and carefully manicured, we risk glossing over the recognition of our frailty which lies near the heart of the Christian message.”