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Christian Imagination Can Change Our Culture Wars… – ChristianityToday.com

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Political division and “culture wars” are alive and well in the pews of American churches, and while some ministry leaders have joined a side, others are trying to remain faithful without capitulating to the Right or the Left. Many feel alone, worried about keeping their jobs, and ill-equipped for the decline of both church attendance and self-identifying Christians.
How do leaders model a life of Christian faithfulness, fruitfulness, and resilience when many of those we lead are primarily formed apart from Christian virtues? Many times, it seems easier and safer to choose a side culturally or politically rather than walk in Christ’s footsteps. But living by the rules of the culture wars robs the church of its power and witness. To effectively lead through cultural change, pastors and leaders need a renewed Christian imagination for both themselves and their congregations.
Christians are people of the Book, and as such, we are meaning-making and story-inhabiting creatures. Several writers, such as Karen Swallow Prior, Tim Keller, and Austin Carty, have argued that a redeemed imagination creates fertile soil not just for Christian conversion but also for keeping us in the faith. And it is the job of pastors and church leaders to lead the way.
This pastoral call and challenge is not new. Yet as pastors do the work of Christian imaginative formation—the slow weekly work of the liturgy, frequent conversations, meals brought, prayers prayed, a quickness to repent and mourn—we reckon with newer obstacles. While desiring unity within and among our churches, we are increasingly distracted by technology, angered by media, and heartbroken or cynical over the church’s failures. The long, slow work of spiritual transformation can appear too tame and ineffective in contrast to picking a side in the culture wars.
What does it look like to develop a renewed Christian imagination? This idea can feel a bit squishy or hard to define, especially since so many of our Christian resources and discipleship programs tend to focus primarily on acquiring knowledge or changing our thinking rather than on following what Jesus’ disciples called “the Way.”
But more information hasn’t helped us find a path toward transformation. Knowing more facts hasn’t changed us into more fruitful Christians. More information does not help a pastor or church member become more resilient or live as a non-anxious presence in an anxious world. Our imaginations need reformation. Our affections must be retuned.
Augustine’s famous words that “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee” remind leaders that we, too, are tempted to turn to lesser loves to tell us who we are. When we do, we reap the consequences of restlessness: self-deception and incongruity between our outer and inner lives.
It’s no surprise then that, as Peter Wehner recently wrote in The Atlantic, when we are afraid, we also deceive ourselves and fail to repent and change. “What we human beings don’t do nearly enough,” he said, “is change our behavior so that it aligns with values that are estimable and ennobling.” Instead, we distract ourselves from our moral turpitude.
Others may emphasize emotion as key to fostering a renewed Christian imagination, believing that expressing ourselves emotionally is how we might grow and lead well. Therapists, counselors, and spiritual directors are invaluable third parties to advise, listen to, and care for those who care for others.
But we often approach self-examination with the same emphasis on mental change: “If I can just think rightly about X, Y, and Z … ” or “If I can just understand the wounds of my childhood, then I can change.” While naming our wounds is important and feeling our feelings can provide relief, these alone cannot lead us toward repentance or resilience. These efforts may help us understand our malaise, but they will not cure it.
Stories and parables can feel superfluous or expendable when we face pressing, concrete concerns. But they might lead us closer to the cure. Simeon Zahl writes in Mockingbird about spiritual change happening best through “technologies of the heart,” in “novels, stories, movies, illustrations.” Consider the number of stories Jesus told, how he’d stop to listen to the stories of those who needed healing, how he inhabited the stories of the Torah so much that when he was at his lowest, he spoke words of poetry from Scripture.
Cultivating a renewed Christian imagination means steeping ourselves in the scriptural text—giving ourselves to reading, praying, and meditating on Scripture—as we might steep a tea bag in a cup of hot water. The text becomes embedded in us as we not only study but also simply read, sit with, and let the words become ours.
Stories are the mode of a Christian imagination; biblical stories can provide a framework for how we can live and lead well in our time. The culture wars in much of America attempt to see the nation’s past as a sort of promised land. But if we are marinating ourselves in Scripture, we see that the scriptural motif of exile can be a powerful imaginative reframing for our lives.
We see this theme of exile throughout the stories of Scripture, from the exodus from Egypt to the world’s redemption by Jesus to the coming of the Holy Spirit and our final union with Christ that is to come.
We might find a solution to culture warring, disunity, and restlessness in the paradigm of exile and the paradigm of the Exodus, Mark Labberton, former president of Fuller Seminary, told my husband and me on The Cartographers podcast. The Exodus paradigm is always headed toward a promised land, while the exilic pattern in Scripture emphasizes God’s goodness and grace even as he leads his people into exile.
Jeremiah 29 shows God’s vision—a renewed imagination—for living in exile: God’s people are to plant gardens, have children, and live for the shalom of their enemies (vv. 4–7). “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper,” Jeremiah prophesies.
Culture-war faith believes we’ve already arrived in the promised land, or that we are trying to return to it—functionally equating the comfort of American culture with God’s blessing. But I believe exile is a more profitable way to think about living and leading in this cultural moment.
Exile means we live as strangers in a strange land. Exile means our lives don’t go up and to the right (or left), but down and to the cross. Exile means that as leaders we will likely be misunderstood, viewed as strange, and probably passed over. But exile also means that living a resilient life independent of our circumstances is possible. As Labberton put it, “When circumstances have decimated your identity, now who will you be?”
The only way that we can sustainably live in exile is for our imaginations to be steeped in Scripture as we attend to the stories of our cultures, our neighbors, ourselves, and our congregations. This cultivation can seem like boring, slow work. But it will reap a harvest generationally. This is what fruitfulness and resilience look like. It is what our 21st-century culture war tendencies desperately need as an antidote.
We are to follow God’s instructions for his people in exile, what Jesus describes as the life of discipleship in the Sermon on the Mount. We retell the exilic stories in Scripture and we practice their wisdom.
Build houses, plant gardens. Rather than trying to win a culture war, living faithfully in exile enables pastors and Christian leaders to help their people settle into a place. We are to care for people, places, and things. We build things that will last. We commit to staying. We care for the earth. This has been part of the creation mandate from the beginning.
Settle down, marry, have families. Rather than building brands and platforms, faithful presence within an exilic paradigm means we do the mundane place-making tasks well. We commit to a long, generational view of faithfulness. We might commit to a spouse; we raise our children in the faith. And nuclear families expand to include those on the margins and those who are single, widowed, or divorced in a new household of faith.
Pray for your place and seek its prosperity and its peace. When we commit to praying for our place and act for its good, we get a little less detached from depending on metrics of ministry success to measure our worth. As Gregory the Great wrote in his sixth-century Book of Pastoral Rule,
[Prosperity] often corrupts the heart through pride, while adversities purge it through suffering. In the one, the soul becomes conceited; while in the other … it humbles itself. In the one, the man forgets who he is; while in the other, he is recalled, even unwillingly, to know what he is.
Knowing who we are as pastors and Christian leaders isn’t just knowing information or our emotions. It is born of a renewed imagination. It comes through the slow work of generational story-making and place-making, as we help shape congregants in the way of Jesus amid the culture wars. It’s small work and yet, like seeds or yeast, it changes everything it touches.
Ashley Hales is an author, a podcast host, and a cofounder of The Willowbrae Institute, a new religion and culture think tank. She is also the producer of The Russell Moore Show, a CT podcast. Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column.
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