Dr. Gene Veith says imagination can encourage people to act either morally or immorally.


Dr. Gene Veith says imagination can encourage people to act either morally or immorally.

March 31, 2014

When people think of the human mind, they think of intellect, reasoning and the ability to figure things out. A person's mind also swarms with emotions and feelings.

"But there is another part of the human mind that gets very little attention, especially the last couple hundred years, and that is the imagination," said Dr. Gene Edward Veith.

"Imagination is the ability to picture things in our mind's eye," said Veith, the keynote speaker at a recent conference.

The Canadian Centre for Scholarship and the Christian Faith hosted its third annual conference at Concordia University College of Alberta, March 21-22. This year's focal theme was The Fine Arts and the Christian Faith.

A literature professor at Patrick Henry College, Veith is also the director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and author of more than 20 books on different facets of Christianity and culture.

On his blog, Cranach, he discusses wide-ranging issues of Christianity and culture with a Lutheran twist. He has written extensively on Christianity and the arts.

At the conference, Veith spoke on The Arts, the Imagination and the Christian Life. The talk was based on ideas found in his upcoming book, Imagination Redeemed, scheduled for publication this fall.

He explained art as coming from the imagination, creating something that did not previously exist. All music, poetry, drama, dance and visual arts are created via the imagination.

Veith said art stimulates more than just the intellect and the emotions. Art can also encourage people to moral action, to do something that might be either right or wrong.

"When we read the Bible, we cannot help but form mental images about what we read. We read about Jesus on the cross, we read about his death and resurrection. We're just reading words, but we're also forming a mental picture of our Lord," said Veith.

Our imagination is a storehouse of our experiences, memories and personalities. One's world view is often shaped by what he or she imagines, he said. Music, books, movies and TV shows can have a profound influence on how we envision the world around us, how we contribute to society and how we interact with others.


"Imagination can also hurt us, and be a source of what we struggle with, things like anxiety and worry. When people imagine something, they think of all the things that could go wrong, envisioning them all occurring at the same time."

Flying on an airplane is one example, he said. Passengers fret about the plane being late, missing their connection, or the plane crashing or vanishing without a trace.

"You can just paralyze yourself with worry because you're imagining all of these different outcomes. Our imagination can run away with us, and cause that sort of paralysis, fear and misery."


Imagination can also hurt us morally. The Bible states specific actions that one should not do, such as murder and adultery, but sometimes simply imagining sinful actions can be detrimental. People have hatred for others, which makes the state of their soul the same as a murderer's. Or they commit adultery in their hearts by having lustful fantasies.

"Jesus isn't just interested in our external behaviour, but also our internal imaginations. These can twist us, these can distort us and these can still harm our souls," said Veith.

Likewise, he said, the act of making excuses for wrongdoings is born out of the imagination, which leads people to accepting sin and justifying false ideologies.

Many artists falsely believe that their art will save them.

"Your art is valuable and it's precious, but it's not going to deliver you. The sooner you realize that, the better off you will be. Your art will not save you from despair and hopelessness," he said.


On the other hand, that art is important because it makes people notice things more purposefully. Seeing a painting of a bowl of oranges might make one more appreciative of real oranges. Similarly, reading a story about a marriage might make one appreciate his or her actual marriage.

Christianity redeems the imagination, in which spiritual realities are mediated by means of physical things, he said.

Unlike other religions that focus primarily on abstractions and ideas, Christianity is about the tangible. It's not only about spiritual things, but also material things.

God not only created this physical universe and everything in it, but he also made himself tangible, coming into the world in the flesh. The sacraments are all palpable items: water, bread, wine and the word. Churches have touchable objects, from the altar and the pulpit to the crucifix and the candlesticks.


"The Bible is not abstract doctrines or even commands. The Bible is full of concrete stories, historical narratives, parables, descriptions, symbols and visual images. When you read the Bible, it's not talking to our intellects; it's addressing our imaginations," said Veith.

The Christian imagination encompasses a broad range of sorrow and joy, which can be expressed through all forms of art, including hymns and paintings.

Christian artists with those beliefs can easily employ images derived from the material world in order to communicate their faith. This kind of teaching encourages people to think of Jesus not as being far away, way above in the sky, looking down from a great distance but, rather, as being very close.