the dangers of the imagination: the conservative response to Christmas, Undocumented

Some time ago, my friend and writer George Elerick asked his readers if the church has a future, and if so, what would it be? My response was instantaneous.

Imagination.

And I think it is precisely what is glaringly absent from many of our churches today in America. Now, I’m not talking about using our imaginations to come up with trendy, hip or innovative church models, not even progressive ones. Don’t get me wrong, these are vitally important, but I can’t help but feel that they are attempts to patch holes in a capsizing boat.

What I’m talking about is something different. It’s about allowing — trusting — our imaginations to connect us with something infinite and transcendent and to allow our imaginations to merge with that something that is both within us and beyond us.

And in this meeting place, where our infinite imaginations meet the infinite God the result can be an explosive outpouring of creation, of new languages with which to encounter the Divine, a modern-day pentecost.

And perhaps this is precisely what makes opening up our faith and sacred texts to our imaginations so threatening to some. Because in doing so, it turns us all into creators and it imbues us with the responsibility to create and the responsibility for what we create.

And what has been created by so much of American Christianity of late has been utterly toxic.

But when we allow our imaginations to open up the story of God, Christianity is no longer something only received, only handed down from tradition, from parents, from culture, but something we also create, author and live within.

Imagination seems absent from much of American Christianity, and no surprise, it’s art has begun to wither where it once flowered. Some of the most powerful Christian art comes from centuries past. Nowadays, when someone mentions Christian art, we more likely to think of the saccharine work of Thomas Kinkade or a schmaltzy Christianized imitation of a romance novel than a truly sublime and transcendent piece of art that can transport us, challenge us, or move us. I’m not saying my work is necessarily any better (I hope it is!). But I am saying I hope Christians artists and writers move in a more invigorating direction that deals more with the imagination and less with theological systems.

Now, I understand that historically, Christianity has done as much to restrict art as it has to empower it and that, freed from the strictures of religion, art and imagination have themselves moved in stunning directions. So perhaps Christianity has always feared where the imagination would lead the faithful: to become creators.

But imagination, when put to the stories of our faith, breathes life into them again and helps us to fall into their rich, deep and complex narratives. It transforms them from a rule book or an ethic of life to a story of ourselves and of God that we live into, in wonder, in awe, in doubt, in faith, in our imaginations.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that it was not any of my intentionally provocative, questioning essays I have written that has drawn the ire of a few conservative Web sites. Rather it was a piece of short fiction I wrote, intended as a Christmas gift to my friends who have supported my writing, that has provoked a response. As I perused the responses yesterday, I was struck by how threatened many of the commenters seemed to be, not only because of the political implications of Christmas, Undocumented, but also because of how I engaged with the Nativity story imaginatively and turned it into a piece of fiction, or what our theological forbears might call midrash.

So, here are my favorite responses with a few editorial comments:

1. Exactly. Those that use GOD instead of worshiping HIM will pay for their misdeeds. <smh>

2. Leftist BULL$HIT!! Here’s what Jesus did say about illegal aliens: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” John 10:1 <Actually, no. But the Bible does have some important thing to say about how we treat “illegal aliens.” Essentially it says to love them, like a neighbor. Wait, that sounds familiar.>

3. To make a contemporary story, all mexican families would be ordered to return to their land of birth for a census, and Jesus would be born in Juarez. Good luck with the 3 Wise men and a virgin … <Let’s see, racist and sexist. If only there were something homophobic in there, it would have been a trifecta>

4. Well baby Jesus was ‘Hey-soos’, Joseph was ‘Jose’ and Mary was ‘Maria’. I guess the 3 Wise Men were Democrat politicians giving gifts and pandering for votes. Mean old Herod was like a Sheriff Joe Arpaio then…. it all makes sense when you lower the IQ to the level of a leftist liberal lunatic analogy maker…. <see other comments>

5. From Mark Tooley, president of the Institute for Religion and Democracy, writing at American Spectator: “At Christmas time, should the Nativity story be interpreted as a tale of solidarity with illegal immigrants? Some religious voices, anxious to push some version of liberalized immigration policy as a Christian imperative, describe Jesus and the Holy Family as the most premier of illegal immigrants. … The temptation to extract politics out of the Nativity account should be resisted.” <extract ignore the politics of> “One recent blogger for the Progressive Christian Alliance even crafted a novelette called “Christmas Undocumented: Anunciación” about a pregnant 14-year-old girl named Ave who is smuggled across the Texas border so she can get to her boyfriend in Alabama.

6. And finally, these gems from Dana Loesch, editor of Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism site (ironic that a piece of fiction is being criticized on a “journalism” site):

“The American Spectator does a nice job of deconstructing this ridiculous piece from a progressive blogger over at the Progressive Christian Alliance. The gist of the piece is this: Jesus was an illegal immigrant baby, thus if you are against illegal immigration, you are against Jesus and the entire story of the nativity is one big political story.” <Swing-and-a-miss>

They are situational Christians: they love the Bible when they think they can cherry pick the Word and support leftist beliefs but are suspiciously silent on Scripture where it concerns life, marriage, law, and worship. <Strike two>

If you’re going to condescend to preach to the flock, you must preach all the Bible for consistency, as even the Devil can quote Scripture. A warning from Scripture to these so-called “progressive Christians” and their perversion of His Word. <Strike three>

Yes indeed, we will know them by their fruits. <And yours are rather low-hanging>


About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com Jas-nDye

    First half is genius and necessary critique on bringing imagination to life in the contemporary Christian world.
    Second half = ughhh. These people are so vile. Anything printed on anything of Breitbart’s is lacking in not just a good imagination (surely, there is HORRIBLE imagination there), but decent logic.

  • http://leftcheek.blogspot.com Jas-nDye

    hey, your links iz broak!

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      I think I fixed the links to Breitbart’s site.

  • Sue

    Hi David,
    I must admit I wasn’t sure what to think when I read your Undocumented piece, until I remembered Jesus in Matthew where he talks about visiting the sick and those in prison and those actually being him. Then I had an ah-ha moment.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson David R. Henson

      You made one the exact connections I was going for! Thanks for sticking with it and giving it a chance!

  • Robert

    Well said.

  • Amanda

    This article is perfect in every way! :) I am a Christian artist, and I’m going to send this to my friends who are also Christian artists. Thank you!

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      Please do!

  • Motstraumen

    It’s amazes me that when “progressive Christians” see their side of politics in Scripture it is always cherry picking, when “conservative Christians” see their side it is being “consistent”. When Rev. Wright says “G__ D__ America” it is leftist socialism, When Robertson and Falwell say it’s “Amen, Brother.” THank you for you piece.

  • Elizabeth Cox

    He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. Deuteronomy 10:18

    Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Deuteronomy 24:17

    “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. Malachi 3:5

    There, some proper Cherry Picking.

    ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

    They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:42-45

    Please note that stranger, foreigner and alien are synonyms. :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robert-Flynn/1127168095 Robert Flynn

    Jesus sent his disciples out two by two. He sent them as strangers or outsiders without out means of support and told them that where they were not received they should leave. And that it would be more tolerable for Sodom than for the inhospitable village. The sin of Sodom was inhospitality.

  • Anonymous

    I loved the story. Jesus breaks down every dividing wall we can build. the conservative responses had me simultaneously laughing out loud and wanting to scream in frustration.
    Imagination as the future of the church? May it be so!

    • http://www.facebook.com/unorthodoxologist David Henson

      No. 3 really got me, laughing and screaming!

  • Matt Matthews

    “Doing” theology requires playfulness and creativity, yes? Try my novel “Mercy Creek.” It is an attempt to tell a story–not a sermon–where justice matters and the protagonist claims his role as an agent of grace in a world of hurt.

  • Anonymous

    I’m impressed… you got the attention of both the IRD and Breitbart. Must mean you’re doing something right. Keep on keepin’ on, David. #solidarity


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