The Christian Imagination

Sharing Options

These are the notes for my plenary talk at the 2021 ACCS conference, delivered yesterday.

Show Outline with Links


The apostle John tells us that faith is what overcomes the world (1 John 5:4), but in order to have such faith in Christ and His Word be genuine, we have to be careful not to substitute in a desiccated faith. A biblical faith involves the heart, mind, imagination, and soul, out to the very tips of our fingers. You are to love the Lord your God with all your strength. And classical Christian education is the process of passing this holy mixture on to the next generation.

If you would like a summary of the main point of this talk right at the beginning of it, here you go. It comes from a tag line at the bottom of George Grant’s emails, and it should really get in your midst. If you ever want to be rebuked real good, just get George to email you about something, and then scroll down to the bottom. And there you will read that it was Thomas Chalmers who said, “Regardless of how large, your vision is too small.”

Under Another Name

The biblical name for the kind of imagination I am talking about is faith, and if this is the case, you should be able to see immediately that a Christian imagination is not sanctified daydreaming. It is not wishful thinking. It is not pious wool-gathering. What is faith? Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). Faith hears the Word, and then sees what the Word describes, whether or not anything can be seen with your physical eyes.

So faith is not faith in your own wishing abilities. Nor is faith a faith in your own faith. When we accomplish anything by faith it is because faith is the instrument that apprehends or grasps something objective, something objective outside yourself. Faith is the instrument that accomplishes, in response to the promise, and is not the ground of what is accomplished. Faith believes the promise. Faith is not itself the promise.

This is why Jesus teaches us that faith the size of a mustard seed can accomplish great things (Luke 17:6). What counts is the faithfulness of the object trusted, not the strength of the one trusting. The strength of the trusting has to be simply enough to commit to the object of faith.

Suppose a frail elderly great-grandmother, who has never flown in her life, is lured onto an airliner with pictures of her great-grandchildren, who live across the country. How much faith does she have? Just barely enough to get her on the plane, and yet she flies across the country, wavering in her heart all the way. Compare this to that man in that vintage video footage, standing on top of a barn with batman wings, a device of his own invention. How much faith does he have? Way more than great-grandmother, and yet she flies and he doesn’t.

Faith is therefore the natural response to the perceived faithfulness of God. Sarah, for example, was enabled to conceive Isaac because she considered him faithful who had made the promise (Heb. 11:11). Abraham, our father in faith, looked forward to the day of Christ—and he saw it and was glad (John 8:56). Abraham dwelt in tents, but in faith he looked forward to a city with foundations, whose maker and builder is God (Heb. 11:10). When all the stars were pointed out to him, he looked up in faith and saw countless sons and daughters in the sky (Gen. 15:5-6). Abraham believed God, who brings the dead to life, and who calls those things which are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17).

And so we are here as his children—building out a portion of the infrastructure of that great kingdom. We build by faith, but the kind of task we have undertaken cannot be done without blueprints—and we have to read the blueprints by faith also.

That is what we are all doing here, is it not?

What Goes Without Saying

A talk on godly imagination in the context of classical Christian schools must of course keep in view the task that all believing educators should have. We don’t simply want to have high standards in our schools, and then make the kids conform to those standards. That is the lowest rung on the ladder. What we are trying to do is impart to our students a love for these high standards. Not just simple conformity, but rather a zeal for the standard.

Not only so, but we are teaching them to have a love for standards in the task that is right in front of them. In the book they are reading, in the poem they are analyzing, and in the choir piece they are singing. This is important, and it is necessary to emphasize when we are teaching students who are not yet old to take in the entire world. That is coming—what you are doing in the classroom is the prep work for that larger vision.

But in doing this, you must not forget that larger vision.

What We Sometimes Forget

If we keep our eyes on the telos, on the end or point of education, of course we should want our graduates to grow up loving Lewis, and Tolkien, and Chesterton, and as a consequence to set their hand to chisels, and musical instruments, and paintbrushes, and keyboards, with intelligence and verve. But at some point in this arduous process of restoring real education—if we believe what our brochures sometimes say—we should be looking for graduates who rival Lewis, and Tolkien, and Chesterton. And this means cultural artifacts that are contributed to the great river of the Western tradition, and these contributions were made—fifty years from now, let us say— because your school was established in the year it was, and in the town where you live.

But as this is a conference of Christian educators, I want to ask you to look up from the plot of ground that God has you tending. All of you, lift up your heads. I want you to look at the horizon. The Christian imagination is not limited to a great book that one of your graduates might someday write. The Christian imagination reimagines the entire world, and the place of our schools in it. If I might be permitted just a little bit of cultural appropriation here, you could say that I’m a dreamer . . . but I’m not the only one.

We do want our students to undertake the tasks we assign to them with love and joy and faith-fueled imagination, as they write that thesis, or compose that poem, or perform in that recital. This is a task for faith-fueled imagination.

This is not going to run smoothly unless we are doing with our tasks what we are asking them to do with their tasks. They are writing a poem, and you will grade it, and you think that all is as it should be.

But you are building a school, and God will grade it. You are building a network of schools, and God will grade it. You are building an education renewal movement, and God will grade it. When this starts to sink in, it would be very easy to start to waver. But don’t waver. God loves to welcome hard-working, overwhelmed servants with an entirely unexpected well done, good and faithful servant. So like it or not, you are the Irish who will save civilization again.

A Brief Excursus

Ten years after Logos School was founded, in 1991, the Lord gave me the opportunity to write a book about what we had learned at Logos, and this book was part of the Turning Point Christian Worldview Series. I owe the deepest debt of gratitude to Crossway for their role in all of this. Crossway has recently released the rights to that book, by the way, and Canon Press is now picking it up. Now other books in that series included works on film, literature, pop culture, and so on. These were great books, but when people read them, the application would frequently be something like going to the movies with a different mindset, or reading classic works of literature more thoughtfully. My book was entitled Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, and so when folks finished it, their reaction frequently was “we have to start a school like this.” And then they would call or write to us, asking for help.

My correspondence about education grew to such an extent that I asked Nancy to take over responding to all such inquiries, and so the beginning of ACCS was Nancy answering letters from our kitchen table. I then had the idea that we should hold a conference there in Moscow, tape the lectures, and then we could use the tapes as an FAQ resource to give out to people. For you younger teachers, “a tape” was a device that we used at the time for recording voices, and you could put such a tape into something called “a tape player,” and then voices would come out of a box. It was all quite remarkable.

So we advertised the conference in Credenda, a magazine I was editing at the time, and the response was surprisingly robust. After that first conference in Moscow, I had the legal papers for ACCS drawn up, and together with Tom Spencer and Marlin Detweiler, we began the organization. The next two annual ACCS conferences were also held in Moscow, and when we moved to Raleigh for the fourth year, that began our practice of moving the annual conference to different locations around the country. And here you are.
As the founder of ACCS, I served on the board for many years as an ex officio member, until a few years ago, when my status changed to educator-in-residence.

Don’t Go Wobbly, George

Now why bring all this up? What began with my wife answering letters from our kitchen table is now an association with over 400 member schools, representing tens of thousands of students. Here we are at our national conference—north of a thousand of you. It brings to mind, or it ought to, the words of Zechariah 4:10, about not despising the day of small beginnings. But please remember that in the economy of God, fat and sassy is far more vulnerable than small and vulnerable. When you are small and vulnerable, you trust in God because you know that you have to. When you grow big, and slick, and professional, you know what happens to Jeshurun, don’t you? Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked (Dt. 32:15).

Allow me to appear as though I am changing the subject. I am not, but it may look that way for a moment. After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said, in an aside to President Bush, “Remember George, this is no time to go wobbly.” Whether apocryphal or not, it remains a quote for the ages. These are words to live by. No time to go wobbly.

The American Cultural Revolution is Under Way

We live in an age when absolutely anyone can insist upon being addressed by his preferred pronouns. Correction: we live in a time when absolutely anyone except God can insist on this. God doesn’t get to keep His pronouns for some reason.

I read the other day that apple pie is now racist. This presents us with no little difficulty.

If you do not believe that we are currently going through an American version of the cultural revolution, you do not understand how the collectivist mind works. The forces of totalitolerance believe that the only thing that matters is power. As far as they are concerned, that is the coin of the realm. Power. They believe the world runs on power, and they believe they currently don’t have it, and they insist upon getting it. They will brook no opposition that stands in their way. This is not a clash between one set of arguments and another set of arguments. This is a power struggle. But our weapons are nothing like theirs (2 Cor. 10:1-4). Our weapons are mighty in the pulling down strongholds of vain imaginations and everything that sets itself against the knowledge of God. Our imagination, grounded on the promises of the Word, pulls down their imaginations, which are built on smoke.

Now faith, the Christian imagination, can see what we are going to be able to do after this battle. We can see beyond the battle lines. If you feel like you need help with this, what you need is what the Scriptures call largeness of heart.

“I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart.”

Psalm 119:32 (KJV)

This is how Solomon was able to understand the world around him.

“And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore.”

1 Kings 4:29 (KJV)

This vision includes the vision of unregenerate men abandoning their lunatic hatred of God, laying it down in repentance, and coming humbly to God.

“Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; Because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee.”

Isaiah 60:5 (KJV)

If you would persuade men, speak to them as Paul spoke to the Corinthians.

“O Corinthians! We have spoken openly to you, our heart is wide open. You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections. Now in return for the same (I speak as to children), you also be open.”

2 Cor. 6:11–13 (NKJV)

And So . . .

We are Christians. We believe what the Word says, and not what our eyes see. Because of this, we are enabled to look beyond the immediate circumstances and see the larger pattern. A larger heart can see the larger pattern.

When we first started this association, we named this conference of ours Repairing the Ruins. Here you are, decades later, laboring away at your sector of Nehemiah’s wall. If you spend too much time staring at the news that tries to troll your faith every night, you might be tempted to think that ever since the founding of ACCS, we have a lot more ruins to look at, and the repair work might seem to be falling seriously behind.

But remember what I said earlier. What does God say in His Word about who wins this thing? The gates of Hades will not prevail against the kingdom of God. And gates are not an offensive weapon. We are not being besieged by them; it is quite the other way. We are besieging the gates of Hades, and they will not prevail. Faith responds to the Word. And we are blessed to see with the eye of faith the outcome of the battle.

So come, stand on this mountain here, like Adam in Paradise Lost. May the eyes of your heart be enlightened, may your heart be greatly enlarged, and may your faith be stirred and quickened.

May God’s Holy Spirit give you the imagination to see what a glorious task you have in front of you.