ReImagine: Love as the art of imagination

A friend said to me recently, “If you Methodists could get your act together, you’d be dangerous.” I replied, “If Jesus’ followers could get our act together, we’d be contagious AND dangerous.”

To be contagious and dangerous is not so much about getting our “act” together as it is our hearts. “As you think IN YOUR HEARTS, so you are” wrote the ancient sage (Proverbs 23:7). Methodists use their hands to bring the head and the heart together. It is not just what we think about Jesus that matters. It’s what we think “in our hearts” about Jesus that matters. When John first met Jesus, both yet unborn, Luke 1:44 says John “shouted” or “leaped for joy” in his mother’s womb. Putting aside the question of whether John the Baptist may have been a closet “shouting Methodist,” are our hearts dancing and shouting in the presence of Jesus? To be contagious and dangerous, our hearts need a heart-warming. We need to fall in love with Jesus all over again.

Love is the greatest act and art of the imagination. Yet our churches are some of the most unimaginative places around. Has our ecclesial imagination gone anemic from feeding off a diet rich in the abc’s of consumerism and celebrity (attendance, buildings, cash)? What has caused the church’s imagination to go dormant, or idle in the doldrums? Either our imagination has the gout so that it limps, or we lack all gospel gall and gumption.

Much of what passes for love is rooted in fancy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge made a famous distinction between “fancy” and “imagination.” “Fancy” and its derivative “fantasy” is an abstraction from reality. Imagination is an incarnational way of perceiving and receiving truth. Imagination is the faculty that puts us in the shoes of another and robes us in empathy. Living “as if” is an act of fancy and fantasy. Living “in Christ” and “as Christ” is an act of imaginative faith.

Jesus greeted everyone he encountered as the original, sacramental, transfigural apple of his eye. His imagination shows us the image of God in every person. Can we share in the Jesus imagination? God’s image in another is the crowning achievement of the imagination. That’s why love is the greatest act and art of the imagination. Maybe that’s also why Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) called imagination “the philosophical name of the Savior.”

A church without imagination is a dead church. A church with an atrophied imagination incentivizes decline. General Electric (GE), one of the most creative corporations in the US in the past fifty years, banners the slogan “Imagination at Work.” What if the church’s slogan were–“Imagination in Love” or “Imagination at Worship” or “Imagination in Mission”? Can our tribe be imaginatively on the move in ministry and mission? Can we ditch old dreams and hitch new hopes to imaginative horizons that find their passion in Christ? Perhaps it’s the pathway for us to be dangerous and contagious again.

Leonard Sweet, UMR Columnist

Dr. Leonard Sweet is the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew University, Madison, NJ and a Visiting Distinguished Professor at George Fox University, Portland, Oregon. He is scholar of US/American culture; a semiotician who “sees things the rest of us do not see, and dreams possibilities that are beyond most of our imagining;” and a preacher and best-selling author who communicates the gospel with a signature bridging of the worlds of faith, academe, and popular culture. You can learn more about Len at his website,

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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