Review of Imagination Redeemed by Gene Edward Veith Jr. and Matthew P. Ristuccia

If asked to enumerate the virtues of Matthew Ristuccia, the senior pastor of my church, many in my congregation would be quick to mention his skill in preaching. Not long ago, Pastor Matt (as we call him) preached a series of sermons on Ezekiel that exhibited, even by his standards, exceptionally perceptive and creative theological insight. It is therefore a pleasure to see him capture those insights in book form, where they can benefit a wider audience.

Pastor Matt’s co-author, Gene Edward Veith Jr., begins his introduction to the book as follows:

This book had its genesis when Matthew Ristuccia, pastor of Stone Hill Church of Princeton (formerly Westerly Road Church), gave the Biblical Emphasis Week lectures at my school, Patrick Henry College. He spoke on the book of Ezekiel, showing how it addresses the issues of the imagination. I had never heard that take before. As a literature professor, I was interested, naturally enough, in the imagination, having studied its literary manifestations, and knew about the imaginative biblical meditations that shaped Christian poetry. Matt was providing, for me, the missing links to the Bible and the Christian life. In the course of our subsequent conversations, he referred to John Piper’s book Think, about “the life of the mind and the love of God”; and to Matthew Eliott’s Feel, about the proper role of emotions in the Christian’s life. Matt saw a gap that begged to be filled, a book he initially entitled Imagine. After a while, we resolved to collaborate in writing that book.

The four core chapters of the book center around four of Ezekiel’s visions: the vision of God in Chapter 1, the vision of Israel’s sin in Chapter 8, the vision of the valley of dry bones in Chapter 37, and the vision of the temple river in Chapter 47. At first glance, this series of visions might seem to be an unlikely choice for a sermon series that is geared towards the average Christian. Pastor Matt himself admits, “These visions are not easy to read or understand.” He continues:

In fact, for decades every time I neared the end of Jeremiah in my “through the Bible in a year“ reading plan, a dread would descend upon me. I knew that Lamentations was next, a set of dirges that could darken even a Florida sky. And after that, as I knew only too well, loomed Ezekiel. Year after year I could barely make it through the book. And my dislike so intensified over time that at a certain point I felt I was dishonoring the Lord.

He prayed earnestly, and “over a period of four years God turned my heart. Ezekiel opened up to me. In fact, so complete was the turning that I could hardly wait to get there in my annual Bible reading.”

Why the change of heart? In a nutshell, Pastor Matt came to realize that through the book of Ezekiel, God was teaching vital lessons about an oft-neglected part of the Christian life, namely the imagination.

This is a good point to pause and describe the structure of the chapters of the book. Veith begins each chapter with a short essay, part of the purpose of which is to explain what others have written about the imagination and to clear away the misconceptions that many Christians have about the imagination. This paves the way for Pastor Matt’s exposition of the Ezekiel text. Each chapter then concludes with a colloquy that invites the reader to engage in an appropriate spiritual exercise.

Veith points out that Christians, especially Protestants, may be suspicious of the imagination for various reasons. There are several Bible verses that speak of the evils of the imagination, and the imagination may be associated with controversial topics such as the veneration of icons and holy relics. Veith responds by agreeing that the imagination is fallen, but argues that the way God made our minds to function, we cannot help but use our imagination, and the only question is whether we give it over to sin or allow God to sanctify it. As for the potential dangers of idolatry and graven images, Veith distinguishes between “religions of the Word and religions of the image.”

Thus, a Christian imagination comes, above all, from reading the Bible continually, studying it, meditating on it, and just saturating your mind and your imagination with the Word of God.

Veith gives a helpful historical summary of the way theologians have viewed the imagination, and also has some interesting philosophical insights on the topic. The part of the book that I enjoyed most, however, was Pastor Matt’s treatment of the four aforementioned visions. I cannot do justice to it here, and will content myself with a vignette from each vision.

The first vision is a vision of God. Clearing away incorrect visions of God is a necessarily preliminary to any deeper understanding. Pastor Matt suggests that we may harbor false notions of God as a “cruel and heartless taskmaster” or as a moralistic therapeutic deity. We put God in a box and think we have figured him out. As a computer scientist might say, the seeming incomprehensibility of Ezekiel’s vision of God is not a bug, but a feature. It reminds us of God’s transcendence and our inability to ever fully know or comprehend God.

The imagination does not in itself press us to figure something out. … This not-knowing aspect of our imagination can be called a “negative capability,” and it is of great value to our faith. … Faith’s negative capability is engaged when we are willing to not understand, not do something, not explain, not act, not challenge or doubt or complain. Like the weaned child in Psalm 131, we are content to sit in the lap of God and not demand anything—except God’s presence itself.

At the same time, Ezekiel’s vision does convey something concrete and understandable about God. God is sitting over Babylon, and the vision is saturated with symbols of God’s power. The message is, “Babylon, beware! Exiles, take heart!” Pastor Matt compares and contrasts the Lord’s appearance to Ezekiel with the Lord’s appearance to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The difference, of course, is that Moses sees God on the holy mountain, Mount Sinai, while Ezekiel sees God over the plains of Babylon, a city in opposition to God, Babel, the eventual harlot of Revelation. But God is still seated over the anti-city, and his decrees and power are still operating down on the face of the earth through all the layers of wind/spirit and creatures and wheels turning. Ezekiel’s vision, in other words, is about a God who, by means of his providence, is just as much the warrior God as was the God of Moses. The Lord is just as much in control of the events of the world, even in God-forsaken Babylon, as he was at Mount Sinai and the Red Sea.

The second vision is a horrifying vision of Israel’s sin, particularly the sin of idolatry. After taking us step by step through the scenes in this vision, Pastor Matt draws the connection to the imagination.

The main reason idolatry has such totalizing power is that, at bottom, idolatry is an act of the human imagination. If you temporarily put to the side the very real demonic component of idolatry, what you have left is chiefly its imaginative side. Idolatry is an attempt of the imagination to take the divine and make it visible, to make it understandable, to make it manageable. It is one’s imagination that gives life to what have been called “counterfeit gods”: false realities that, if consented to by one’s imagination, gain such existential, religious, and life force that they function as powerful (and empowering) deities.

The third vision is perhaps the most famous of the four, namely the valley of dry bones. As Christians who live daily in the hope of the resurrection, we may miss how dramatic this vision would have been in the days before Christ.

Ezekiel is asking his contemporaries to imagine a world in which God is able to do what is the “impossiblest” thing, to raise dead corpses to life. To be more stark, he is asking them to imagine a world in which God is able to raise corpses that have been dead so long that they are just piles of sun-bleached, dry bones with no flesh on them at all. The spiritual benefit of imagining such a God is immense. If and once the exiles have done so, and if and once they have believed in their hearts that the Lord God has this sort of beyond-the-bounds, life-rendering power, then it would be an easy step for them to find hope in the midst of their exile.

The fourth vision, of the new temple, is a longstanding puzzle in biblical interpretation, because its painstaking attention to physical details makes it seem like a vision of an earthly temple, yet no such temple has ever been built, and Israel has never shown any inclination to use it as a blueprint. Pastor Matt interprets the vision as a sort of segue from the old Mosaic covenant to the new covenant of Jesus Christ. He focuses particularly on the part of the vision that concerns the river.

And so the link between Jesus’s promise in the Gospel of John about the rivers of water and Ezekiel’s river vision (along with the briefer texts of Zechariah and Joel) is sharpened to a point when you take Ezekiel’s words into the realm of the Christian imagination. The river vision has found a major piece of fulfillment in the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon his people. There is more fulfillment to come once the Messiah returns and establishes his kingdom. But like so much else in the New Testament work of the Messiah, the age of fulfillment has already been inaugurated and in an unexpectedly different sort of way. Ezekiel’s temple and river have become, for now, the new temple of the people of God, from whom the river of the Spirit and his grace flow to the parched world around them.

These brief quotes barely scratch the surface of a text rich with spiritual insights and practical guidance. I hope they whet your appetite to read the entire book.
Posted December 2015

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