How Imagination & Artistic Expression Relate to Worship

Evangelical author and philosophy professor Dallas Willard writes, “Sometimes important things can be presented in literature and art that cannot be effectively presented in any other way.” Given the way God has designed the human being and human community, people need all the capacities He created—reason, emotion, imagination, memory, and language, all working together. As mysterious as that transaction is, they need all these capacities so that they may “know” God and not simply know about Him.

In fact, the Bible reveals that people are to know Him so intimately that they ultimately live every minute of each day in a companioning-worship-walk with Him. Jesus pressed this very issue when explaining to the woman at Jacob’s well that, “. . . God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24, NIV). The Apostle Paul presses the same mandate when he urges Christians to, “. . . present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your logical, reasonable worship-way-of-living” (Romans 12:1, author’s rendering).

The Bible reveals that the essence of worship is to find one’s satisfaction in God above all and everyone else. The Apostle Paul boldly declares, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philemon 1:21, NIV).

But based on these submissions, there exists one important question: If humans and human community are to engage in an intimate and interactive involvement with God, how does this interactive transaction actually happen?

Most would say that the goal and essence of worship are both wrapped up in a relationship with God. But still, how do finite people have relational interaction with a Divine God? Is not God unique from humans? Of course. He alone is Divine, Holy, Supreme. But how; or in what way, or in what realm, has God created humans to “experience” in transactional reality, relations with Himself?

At this point it is important to note the biblical role for imaginative expression. God designed finite humans in such a way that the mystery of transactional engagement with God happens through environments of imaginative human expressions.

When people go to worship, whether in groups or alone, God designed them to need to exercise their imaginal intellect as much as any other dynamic of their being—including their rational intellect. When people worship God alone, they “practice” focusing their faith toward God through the gate of their imagination. As they couple their imagination with their intellect, they will imagine the unseen realities they “know” are true in Scripture.

Scripture assures the believer that one approaches God through the work of Jesus. So, when one prays, there is help by imagining Jesus on the Cross; picturing Him on the Cross; picturing themselves bowing before the Cross; seeing with the eyes of their imagination His blood running down the beam, flowing right around their knees. This kind of “mental” exercise—combining the objective historical truth of the Crucifixion with the eyes of the imagination—helps one draw near to God. Bowing the head, kneeling down, closing the eyes, holding a Bible, lifting an arm, looking up to the sky, or any number of other inward/outward practices help us look through the eyes of our imagination into the unseen realities of God.

The mystery is that none of these practices provide in themselves any spiritual merit. But, when worshipers allow their imagination to join their intellect when they worship, they may indeed engage more fully with God.

When people worship in public, their worship is more fully facilitated by their environment, the influences of worship leadership, their understanding of theology, and the cultural contexts surrounding them. People come together, in some sort of “environment,” to participate in human activities that involve metaphors and symbols. When the experience is genuine, fused with reverence and focused faith in God, the worshiper often comes to a point where the “whole” of the experience is greater than the sum of its parts.

When genuine worship is experienced, something goes on that is larger than all the parts of that gathering. It is at this point that imaginative human expression takes place. And imaginative human expression is always present in any public worship context.

Additionally, public gatherings will often be more successful if someone endowed and skilled with more-than-average abilities in artistic human expression is released to plan and help implement the gathering’s process. Whether in private or public worship settings, 1) imaginative expressions help the worship experience; and 2) human expression specialists are strategic in facilitating worship. Therefore, we can be sure that God designed artistic expression to be a central part of the fabric of human life and community.

Along with being spiritual, cognitive, and moral, humans are also imaginative. Animals have instincts, but people have imagination in a highly developed way. And that imagination reflects, in a small way, our Creator. It’s no wonder that Paul reaches the limitations of language in describing the vastness of Christ’s love for us—its width and length and height and depth. He leans into the poetic to more fully express to us that this love “surpasses knowledge,” and Paul struggles to articulate his prayer for us to “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18–19, NIV).

So, when it comes to the activity of worship—worship that must make sense to us in the context of our culture if it is to have meaning at all—that sort of worship demands more than just propositions of fact. It requires symbols and metaphors and rituals that help people connect with the invisible realities of God Himself; the sort of worship that moves people to press toward the edges of one’s human capacity to express themselves. Those kinds of worship activities—private or public—demand that one takes the realities of God and His truths beyond the languages of the head into the languages of the heart. And that realm is the realm of artistic expression.

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