Reviving the Church’s Imagination: A Review of Kevin Vanhoozer’s “Pictures at a Theological Exhibition”

pictures at a theological exhibition

In the eyes of a fair number of Christians today, the imagination doesn’t seem to count for very much—or at least that’s how Kevin Vanhoozer describes the current landscape in the introduction to his new essay collection Pictures at a Theological ExhibitionHe believes that many evangelicals unfortunately view the imagination essentially as “a factory for producing images of things that are not there” (p.18). “Maybe it’s important for telling good stories at night or writing gripping novels, but it’s not that important for theology,” they might say.

When the imagination isn’t considered theologically useful, it seems like the value of analytic activities like systematic theology tend to get over-emphasized while artistic expressions like poetry get marginalized. For Vanhoozer, though, both systematic theology and poetry have important roles to play in the Christian life. He writes, “We need both the clarity of crisp concepts and the intricacy of lush metaphors in order to get sound, life-giving doctrine” (p.13). His overall indictment is that many contemporary believers don’t think having a developed biblical imagination matters. In a world where “many Christians are [simultaneously] suffering from malnourished imaginations, captive to culturally conditioned pictures of the good life,” this is a sadly ironic state of affairs (p.20).

Recovering the Imagination

Therefore, Vanhoozer wants to bring about a genuine renewal of the biblical imagination in the hearts of his readers. If the common conception of the imagination held by many Christians is wrongheaded, or at least incomplete, what might be a better way for them to think of it? Well, this is the kind understanding that Vanhoozer wants to cultivate in his audience:

Augustine speaks of the “eyes of faith,” which comes close to what I mean by the believing imagination. Theology is faith imagining, seeing everything that was, is and is to come as related to what God the Father has done in his Son through the Spirit. (p.27)

If we are successfully persuaded by him, we will begin to see the biblical imagination as “the sum total of the metaphors and stories by which a holy nation lives” (p.35). It’s a “formative” power; Vanhoozer describes the imagination as, “a vital aid in discerning fittingness—the way parts ‘belong to’ a whole” (p.24). He goes on to say, and I think rightly so, that this kind of imagination is what’s needed for the people of God to have the “eyes of faith” to perceive God at work in the world and to participate in the renewal of all things in Christ through the Spirit (p.34).

We often think of the imagination in visual terms, but he also highlights the importance of the its verbal dimension, including metaphors and other figures of speech (pp.26-28). When it comes to how Christians think about the Church, a number of possible metaphors suggest themselves. Vanhoozer insists, though, that, “We need to return to the New Testament and let its images for the church continue to nourish our imaginations” (p.30).

A Theological Art Gallery

The title of the book alludes to the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s 1874 work Pictures at an Exhibition (p.30). Therefore, a bit of historical background is in order. According to Vanhoozer, Mussorgsky and his friend Viktor Hartmann were both proponents of distinctly Russian art and were resistant towards the “westernization” of Russian culture that they saw happening around them. Following Hartmann’s tragically young death (at the age of thirty-nine), “an exhibition of over four hundred of his works” was organized in tribute by many of his friends” (p.30).

This inspired Mussorgsky to compose a musical rendition of ten of Hartmann’s pieces of art, “‘drawing’ in sound selected scenes from Hartmann’s travels and observations of everyday Russian life” (p.30). Vanhoozer writes that “The Church, as a ‘holy nation,’ should also resist westernization to the extent that it conflicts with the culture, as it were, of the kingdom of God” (p.31). He adds, “As Mussorgsky’s rendering of Hartmann’s pictures aided the cause of Russian national culture, so pictures of the people of God (ordinary Christian ‘folk’) in the biblical exhibition are there to edify the church” (p.31). As this comment shows, Vanhoozer isn’t interested so much in writing an abstract, theoretical treatise on the imagination as in sketching scenes of ecclesial life that show the imagination being faithfully used.

Like the collection put together by the friends of Viktor Hartmann, the book’s chapters are organized like an artistic exhibition. After strolling through the foyer where “prolegomena” are discussed—things like suggestions for thinking imaginatively about Scripture and what it means for it to be authoritative—readers encounter three galleries:

Each gallery contains various biblical exhibits: essays that depict various scenes of the church’s worship, witness, and wisdom… The first gallery focuses on the church as a royal priesthood and examines scenes of the church’s worship. The second gallery looks at the church as a school of prophets and focuses on Christian witness. The third and final gallery visits scenes that dramatically test the church’s wisdom. (p.44)

A Few Common Themes

There sadly is neither time nor space to dig into all of these essays. Suffice it to say that I found nearly all of them to be illuminating and thought-provoking. I do, however, want to look more closely at a few of the themes that Vanhoozer suggests can be found throughout this essay collection. These themes lend an overarching sense of unity-in-diversity to the contents of each of the books “galleries.” The first is “a common concern for the well-being and edification of the church, as well as a high view of the church’s task and the pastor’s vocation” (p.45).

In his essay “What Are Theologians For?” Vanhoozer presents to his readers a number of metaphors for the task of doing theology in church communities. Theologians, like farmers working the soil, are in the business of cultivation. However, they (unlike farmers) are called to cultivate and tend to humanity (p.50). “Theologians are farmers of men and women, and the particular crop they grow is the next generation of disciples” (p.68). Elsewhere in the same essay, he compares theologians to doctors in that they are tasked with promoting the health of the Church through the good medicine of sound teaching. How does this connect to the unifying theme of the church’s task and pastor’s vocation? This can be seen in his insistence that the roles of pastor and theologian must not be driven apart (p.62).

Many of the early Reformers, including John Calvin and John Knox, distinguished between pastors and “doctors of the church” (pp.60-61). Calvin, for instance, believed that Ephesians 4:11 (The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers (NRSV)) referred to pastors and teachers as separate offices. Vanhoozer notes, though, that centuries prior to Calvin, the Western Father Jerome commented on the same verse and said that “No one ought to assume to himself the name of pastor unless he is able to teach them whom he feeds” (pp.61-62). Vanhoozer aligns himself with Jerome rather than Calvin in this matter, contending that, “What the church needs now are pastor-theologians” (p.62).

Another essay that addresses the theme of the Church’s vocation, and helps articulate the importance of a renewed ecclesial imagination is “Worship at the Well” (p.107). Many people can gladly affirm that both worship and theology matter, but the relationship between them is sometimes left unexplored. Following the old latin motto of “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” Vanhoozer writes:

Theology both emerges from and leads us back to worship. Conversely, worship must be theological: it must reflect faith’s understanding of who God is and what God has done. Worship must also be corporate, for one of the great things that God has done is precisely to form a people. (p.119)

In the same essay, he unsurprisingly turns to the role of the imagination as an important cognitive faculty in genuine worship. After all, it is the imagination itself that “helps us conceive of God in terms of rich biblical metaphors like ‘Father’ and ‘Son’ (p.115). Hence, it is far from irrelevant when it comes to integrating theology and communal worship practices.

Another theme worth bringing up is Vanhoozer’s claim that, “Theology is less an intellectual achievement to admire from afar than an embodied interpretation staged by the believing community” (p.46). In his previous books (especially The Drama of Doctrine and Faith Speaking Understanding), he has advocated for a “dramatic” conception of theology and discipleship. He does the same in the essays of Pictures at a Theological Exhibition. For instance, in “Three Ways of Singing Sola,” he compares Scripture to (among other things) a script. He explains that this claim doesn’t mean that the Bible necessarily gives a “detailed blueprint” for how we should respond to every situation. Instead, it gives a metaphor for how Christians can think of Scripture’s role in their lives:

The Bible is like a script in that disciples are to act out what is in Christ. The word of Christ dwells in us richly as the script of our lives. Being biblical means living by the story of the Bible—the gospel—rather than other narratives… Scripture is never more like a script than when it directs disciples in their roles, enabling them to act out the story of Christ. (p.103)

These same themes come up again further on in the book in his essay “The Drama of Discipleship.” In this piece, he points out that the call to discipleship “requires a response” and that this response cannot avoid action of some kind. Hence, “There are no armchair disciples” (p.182). These things are inherently dramatic because we don’t merely read about God but are (through Scripture) addressed by Him and thereby drawn into the action (p.190). I think that Vanhoozer would suggest that the category of drama preserves the best of narrative frameworks for theology while more fully highlighting the participatory role of the Christian life.


Pictures at a Theological Exhibition makes heavy use of imagery taken from the art world. As we near the end of this review, I want to briefly shift from art to the culinary realm. This collection of essays feels like a nourishing, satisfying, and colorful theological banquet. The subject matters addressed are richly varied, ranging from the nature of scriptural interpretation to the significance of the art in the Church. From beginning to end, we see Vanhoozer employ multiple metaphors for different ways of thinking about whatever matter is at hand.

In the book’s opening pages, he confesses that his overall hope is to “rehabilitate a biblically invigorated imagination as a means and mode of doing theology… as a key to healing the breach between knowing, feeling and doing” (p.10). Vanhoozer is a gifted writer, and I think he has quite successfully accomplished these aims. If you’ve never read anything by Vanhoozer before, Pictures at a theological Exhibition, being a collection of essays, might be a good place to start. I deeply enjoyed it.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 


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