fbpx Skip to Navigation Skip to Main Content Skip to Footer

The Disappearing World, Part 1: Imagination

Derek Caldwell

Absolutely not!

That was my response to the question posed by my American Church History professor, John Woodbridge, when he asked whether aesthetics in a church had any significance. To my mind, the less stuff on the wall, the better. By the time I became a Christian, the prevailing model for churches was the “seeker-sensitive” type, in which things that might make a church look like traditional church—religious art, prominent crosses, altars, worn vestments, steeples, and stained-glass windows, among other things—were scrapped for flat-screen televisions, sleek graphics, and fog machines. Perhaps some of us still resonate today with one of the major influences upon American Christianity, the Puritans, who were known for their bare-walled sanctuaries. Religious garb just distracts us from worshiping and focusing on God, they suggested. Whatever the tradition, when I became a Christian in 2005, there was a general feeling in the air: there is something wrong with religious symbols on the church walls (except maybe a cross or, in older congregations, Walter Sallman’s “Head of Christ”[1]).

But on this day, Dr. Woodbridge—the epitome of a lovable rascal—had a smirk on his face, as if waiting for something to drop. The lecture hall sat uncomfortably quiet for what seemed like ten minutes. My fingers rested on my dusty laptop keyboard, eagerly ready to type new notes on the next topic soon. “Well, actually,” said a student in the back from Eastern Europe—where the churches are known for being beautifully ornate—“I think what a church looks like does matter.”

I can’t remember if there was an audible gasp in the room, but I know that there was an audible thud when my jaw hit the desk. We were attending Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Did he not get past the word Trinity? No one called him a heretic, but the concern was certainly there. In the context of the conversation, we knew what he meant. Having religious imagery covering the walls, stained-glass windows, and maybe even “smells and bells” was somehow, in his mind, good. I couldn’t wait to hear how he would explain this monstrosity of a belief. Dr. Woodbridge, always happy to challenge perceptions, eagerly asked the student to continue.

“There are some spaces created in such a way that one cannot help but worship when they enter them.”

My heart was seized and strangely warmed by his comment. It tapped into a desire I didn’t know I had, that made me aware that something was missing—something that had been there once but had disappeared. A voice from within me cried out for a space like that, where as soon as I entered, I could not help but to fall on my knees, awe-struck at the sublime vastness of God. It was nothing I had experienced before, and yet I intuitively understood what he meant. In a moment, my ideas were challenged, and through the years since, they were changed.


We live in a distracted age. The New Yorker’s Joshua Rothman writes that “we’re distracted because our souls are troubled.”[2] The traditional answer to distractions was to eliminate them—but without filling the space with something more beautiful, good, and true to remedy the disquieted soul. However, sometimes distractions are removed by addition, not subtraction. But how do we know what adds and what subtracts? How do we know what to add?

Part of our predicament as human beings is an emaciated imagination. The problem is more pervasive than we might think. The imagination is the faculty of heart, will, and feelings. We are not purely rational creatures—actually, we seem to be more like purely imaginative creatures who like to imagine that we are purely rational. The imagination informs us of how we should feel; it incorporates us into the world we want to exist. In truth, what we think is most often defined by our imagination—or lack thereof—rather than the other way around. The imagination is closely related to the heart, which in the Bible “usually refers to the integrative control center of our lives—including our reason, emotions, and beliefs.”[3] Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer writes that “analytical reason takes things apart; the synthetic imagination puts things together.”[4]

When Jesus elevates the moral law to not just what we do but what we think, He is doing so because He knows how integrated our fantasies, thoughts, and actions truly are. The violent urge, the lustful flight of fancy, and the insatiability of greed lead us to objectify another human being, who then becomes an object or instrument of our wrath, pleasure, or prosperity. Our hollowed-out relationships and morality end up hollowing out our imagination as well, limiting our capacity to empathize with others. For those who have believed that the intellect is the helm of the ship, it can be sobering to discover that it is instead a sail. The intellect may give us the reasoning power to discover new worlds, but it is the imagination that steers us there.

But the imagination is a God-given faculty capable of and created for great good. When Jesus elevates thoughts of sin to the level of acted-out sin (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28), He also teaches us to pray to “our Father, who art in heaven,” and helps us to visualize our “treasures in heaven,” for where we visualize our treasure, “there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The poet Malcolm Guite remarks that imagination can “restore our faculty of awe.”[5] Let us not fail to notice that the Bible itself is full of imaginative engagement: literature such as poetry, epic origin stories, exalted visions, and parables; miraculous visual acts like a burning bush, the sun standing in the sky, a pillar of fire, and a beatific vision; songs, pipes, lyres, and choirs of angels. God engages our imagination so often because, as Holly Ordway explains, one cannot be detached from the imaginative approach; like a parable, it is inherently participatory.[6]

Think of CS Lewis, whose imagination was enraptured by George MacDonald’s fairie novel Phantastes. By opening himself up to the imaginative world of MacDonald, Lewis was lured into a world of potentialities. This imaginative world began to remake the world around him and, finally, Lewis himself:

But now I saw the bright shadow coming out of the book into the real world and resting there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged. Or, more accurately, I saw the common things drawn into the bright shadow. Unde hoc mihi?[7] In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer.[8]

But the time did come for Lewis. God was presenting Himself and Lewis was responding. Lewis felt “the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I had greatly feared had at last come upon me.”[9] There was nothing more he could do. Finally, in 1929, he writes, “I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”[10]


Worship is the act of placing our imaginations before the cross and asking God to resurrect them. It is our prayer to God that He make us whole, integrated persons who do not do what we do not want to do, but that which we do want to do.[11]

Worship is, at its heart, about God and to God and for God, but He does not need it. God is not the one who needs our worship, we are. God is not diminished if we don’t recognize His glory, we are. The goal of worship is to be drawn into God’s glorious presence. As we worship, we are standing before God to be reminded of God. Andrew Louth, in a comment very similar to the young man in my class, wrote that since God is everywhere, we are always standing before Him, “But there are places where, from a human perspective, the presence of God is more apparent to us, places where it is less easy for us to forget that God is here.”[12]

God has called us to worship Him—to feel His love and comfort in song, to hear His words of mercy to us, to see His majesty, to taste His new covenant, and in our oldest traditions to smell the pleasing aromas of incense, like those used on the altar of incense in the wilderness and bestowed upon the infant Jesus as God, and to see rising smoke as a visualization of prayers rising to God (Revelation 8:3-4). It is our opportunity, nay our great privilege, to touch the hem of God’s holiness and glory. God is the only being in existence who is worthy of such maximal praise (Revelation 4:11).

God doesn’t need worship, but that doesn’t mean that the goal of worship is to center ourselves for our own sake. Worship is for our relationship to and love of God. It is for our survival, our connection to the source and giver of life Himself. It is for us to be who we were meant to be. In worship, God provides us with a treasure chest where we may place our hearts.[13] As much as it can, worship gives us the sights, sounds, tastes, and scents of Heaven. By inhabiting this space, we participate in forming the heart of Heaven in our communities. To be reminded of from whence we came and have our lungs filled with the air from where we are going, we are made capable of living today.  

This is part 1 of the Disappearing World Series. You can read part 2 here.

Instead of a having comments section, we invite you to contact us here.

[1] See “Head of Christ,” The Walter Sallman Collection, accessed February 25, 2022, https://www.warnersallman.com/collection/images/head-of-christ/.

[2] Rothman, Joshua. “A New Theory of Distraction.” The New Yorker. June 16, 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/a-new-theory-of-distraction

[3] Joshua D. Chatraw, Telling a Better Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020), 44. Emphasis original.

[4] Kevin Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness, and Wisdom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 24. Quoted in Chatraw, 44.

[5] Malcolm Guite, “Telling the Truth through Imaginative Fiction,” in C. S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner, edited by Michael Ward and Peter S. Williams (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016), 20.

[6] Holly Ordway, “Looking ‘Along’ the Problem of Evil: Shakespeare’s Macbeth,” included in Evil and a Selection of its Theological Problems. Ed. Benjamin Arbour and John Gilhooly, (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017), accessed March 3, 2018 from PDF (included in Holly Ordway’s APOL 5310: Apologetics Research and Writing class at Houston Baptist University), “Looking ‘Along,’” 2.

[7] Latin for “How has it happened to me,” taken from Jerome’s Latin translation of Luke 1:43.

[8] CS Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1955), 181.

[9] Ibid., 228.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See Romans 7:15-20.

[12] Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 4.

[13] It is proper to offer God our finest simply because of who He is, even though He doesn’t need it. He isn’t like other gods who rely on humans and swarm around their sacrifices like blood-starved mosquitos or flies (see Tremper Longman III, “Gilgamesh” in Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher L. Reese, and Michael G. Strauss (eds.), Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 330-32.)