Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Discovering the God Imagination"

I just finished working my way through Jonathan Brink's new book, Discovering the God Imagination. I heard Jonathan speak at TransFORM, and was intrigued by his ideas, so I jumped at the opportunity to help provide some finishing-touch editing--and in the process, gain early access to the book.

Those of us who find our spiritual home in "Emergence Christianity" have been known for our penchant for deconstructing the faith--and for an unfortunate tendency to offer no viable alternatives. This book caught my attention, therefore, because it's a robust attempt at creating a new theological understanding. Jonathan does his best to step back from various inherited interpretations, and then step forward into creative and life-giving possible alternatives.

Though the author doesn't frame it in this way, I think I understood the book best by taking it to be a comprehensive exploration of what it means that we--humans--were created in the image of God, and that God's first judgment of us was that we were "very good." The question then becomes: have either of these two qualities changed? Do we still reflect the image of God? Are we still "very good?"

Historically and theologically, there's been an understanding that "The Fall," described early in Genesis, marked the turning point for humanity. At that point, sin entered the human race and made us, in effect, "very bad." The remainder of Scriptures, and especially the Gospels, address this badness, and our consequent need for restoration. Jonathan challenges this understanding by exploring the early story of the Garden, and concludes that in fact, there is not sufficient evidence to support it.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good & Evil has typically been viewed as a test. But rather than a test of obedience, perhaps it was a test of our understanding, of our acceptance of our God-given identity. The Serpent told Eve that if she ate the fruit of this tree, she would "become like God." Oddly enough, if we believe the account of Eve's creation, she already was like God! Eating the fruit could not make her like God, because she had already been created in God's image. Her decision to eat the fruit, therefore, highlighted a troubling reality--deep down, she had not accepted her god-likeness. That first bite not only defied God's judgment of her, but it reflected (and reinforced) in her the suspicion that she was not, in fact, "very good." Whereas previously she had "been naked, and [known] no shame," she now hid (along with Adam) in painful realization of her nakedness. In essence, taking the fruit was accepting the lie that she must "do something" in order to become like God.

Interestingly, when God showed up after the Tree & the fruit incident, there were no big explosions, no condemnations, not even the word "sin!" Instead, God clothed the two poor souls and layed out for them the consequences of their decision. Jonathan interprets the "curses" as more expository than deprecatory--"These are, plain and simple, the logical consequences of the choices you've made." God then ushered them out of the Garden--a protective measure, lest they eat from the other Tree that would bind them to eternal life, in these lie-bound bodies.

As you can see, such a reading of the early Garden story has significant implications for our conception of the rest of the story. The nature of redemption, for instance, is no longer about ransom, or propitiation. Instead, it is about God's continual reaching out, in love, to restore us to that earliest of judgments: "very good." Sin (a term first introduced in the story of Adam & Eve's children) is understood as the continued choice to reject God's judgment and instead find our own way into acceptance. The Cross becomes crucial because it is God's ultimate evidence that we are, in fact, unyieldingly valued and loved. In a sense, the cross is God's payment to us, incontrovertible evidence that God thinks we're worth dying for. In light of this God-given identity--as deeply loved and judged to be good--we are called into a life that follows this love. We are called to combat the lie that we must earn our own acceptance, and instead live in the freedom that comes from God's perspective. And, we are called to view others in this same light, honoring the image of God reflected in their inherent goodness.

Throughout the reading and editing process, I found myself deeply challenged. How differently might I view the world (not to mention myself) if always, at the forefront of my mind, was the remembrance that God calls it (and me) "very good?!" If this became the dominant paradigm of my life, how radically would I be changed! This book isn't perfect (I'm used to cumbersome footnotes and extensive citations, none of which are to be found here) and some of the arguments didn't entirely win me over. But I think it's an excellent first step, opening up a critical conversation.

In Discovering the God Imagination, Jonathan coins the term "intrinsic mobilizing story," which I think helps explain exactly what this book is about. It takes a fresh look at an old story, and stirs things up in a way that can't be ignored. It challenges the reader to move beyond reading--to wrestle, internalize, and ultimately take action--inspired by God's vision for (and of) us.