Dismissing the imagination from the Christian life will neither save us from sin nor help us grow in righteousness. In fact, all hope of putting off the old man and putting on the new rests in a God-given, Christ-purchased, Spirit-empowered redemption of the imagination.
John Milton captured it well. The author of Paradise Lost, in describing Satan’s first interaction with humanity in the garden of Eden, pictures Satan squatting like a toad, “close at the ear of Eve; assaying by his devilish art to reach the organs of her fancy, and with them forge illusions.”
That Satan tempts Eve by polluting “the organs of her fancy” — or her imagination — may seem like an odd or irrelevant feature of the poet’s rendering of Genesis 3. But Milton’s portrayal of Satan in the garden helps to show the significance of an often-overlooked aspect of sin: the power of imagination.
Sin’s Imaginary World
For sin to be accepted, approved, and even celebrated in our own minds, it must first be nourished by something stronger than just our senses. The seeds of sin, though sown in the flesh, are protected and watered by our imaginations. Sin is supplemented by story, an alternative narrative — an imaginative world in which sin does not afflict the conscience as easily because in that world, wickedness credibly plays the part of virtue.
Imagination puts flesh to the bones of our base desires so that our pursuit of “vain hopes, vain aims, inordinate desires,” as Milton wrote, appears not as sin to be fought but merely reality to be accepted — or worse, virtue to be extolled. Rarely will sin be celebrated as sin. Brazen debauchery may grab headlines, but that is precisely because it is recognized intuitively and openly as wickedness. However, those sins that we celebrate as virtues require sanitization. A large part of this sanitization process is to give the sin a home in a world with more or less of an “inner consistency of reality,” to borrow Tolkien’s language. This is imagination’s enterprise.
Sin is often at root a failure of imagination, the acceptance of an invalid alternative world or story which calls evil good and good evil.
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