White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

A Cruciform Imagination, Part 1: Literature and Christ’s Call to a Cross-Carrying Life

Published Wednesday, July 15, 2020 By Anthony G. Cirilla

The question I pose to the students in my literature classes is, “If the unifying premise of a college or university is the pursuit of knowledge and truth, why do we study literature in such a setting?” Of course, knowledge of literature is information, but it is, at first blush, knowledge of the imaginary, of things which are not true. This question is even more pressing at a Christian college. The core answer I offer for consideration is that the mental faculty of imagination is an integral part of our God-given nature, and learning the craft of directing our imaginations is not secondary but essential to the Christian life. Developing a cruciform imagination, therefore, is the aim of studying literature within the Christian university setting, but also to the call for every Christian to love God with, in addition to our whole heart and soul, our whole mind.

Cruciform is, of course, an architectural term for the traditional structure in which a church is built.[1] In liturgical churches across many denominations, crosses and crucifixes customarily decorate the front and center of the sanctuary, so that when the individual enters the sacred space, the first thing seen is a reminder of Christ’s finished work on the cross. The pulpit may have a cross, as may the benchwork, and typically there is even a cross hanging over the exit so that Christ is kept at the forefront of one’s mind even as the worshipper leaves the worship space. The cross is often printed as well on the bread of Holy Communion itself, signaling the central attention which is thus placed on the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice for every facet of our attention, from the small details to the larger structure of our position in the world. Hence the cruciform shape of many churches in this tradition are not simply a nice design touch, but a pedagogical tool for shaping our imaginations into a Christocentric attitude.  In such a church, it is not possible to see the cruciform shape in its entirety from many of its vantage points – standing in a pew in the back, for example, one remembers the cross-shaped space and completes it through memory. This basic principle of design becomes a physical metaphor for how we ought to imagine our lives, the world, and history itself – as cruciform in their fundamental structure.

Christ calls us to cruciform living as Christians, when he is reported numerous times throughout the Synoptic Gospels as exhorting his disciples to “take up the cross and follow me” (Mark 10:21, KJV). The structure of this command is not trivial – to fully obey Christ, we cannot simply follow him, nor can we simply pick up our crosses. To do the former only risks the error of antinomianism, living without recourse to our moral duties, and the latter risks the error of Pelagianism, making ourselves the primary referent of our moral improvement. You could say, in literary terms, that Christ provides a plot for the trajectory of our characters: we must do the work of taking up our crosses as a part of the process of following Christ, the author and finisher of our faith. Of course, in three of the synoptic parallels where Christ’s command is recorded (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, and Luke 9:23), he is preparing his followers for the inevitability of persecution and, more specifically, for the possibility of martyrdom in his name. However, in one of the three parallel moments, Christ specifies that the would-be disciple must “take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23, KJV). This suggests something beyond the exclusive sense of readiness for the possibility of martyrdom: it suggests a way of life. Indeed, when Christ speaks this proverb for the first time in Matthew 10:38, it is not to strengthen his disciples in the face of persecution, but to underscore the need to develop a perspective which puts Christ before anything, including familial relationships. That Christ intends the attitude of Christians bearing their crosses in pursuit of a life centered around him beyond the possibility of death is even more clear in Luke 14:27, where he says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple,” and compares this perspective of bearing our crosses towards His cross to the work of planning out the building of a tower or a king overseeing the affairs of his kingdom:

For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace. So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14: 28-33, KJV)

Yes, Christ prepares us in these verses for the possibility of a cruciform death, but he also impresses upon our imaginations the call to a cruciform life.

Christ thus imports the power of metaphor to the cross, turning a literally gruesome form of execution into a concept that is imaginatively far afield from crucifixion’s associations familiar to the culture of his disciples. As Susan Gallagher and Roger Lundin point out in Literature through the Eyes of Faith, “The two words translated as cross in English are xylon and stauros in Greek, and before the crucifixion of Jesus both words pointed primarily to the shame and degradation associated with crucifixion in the ancient world” (21). In the passage from Luke 14, Christ not only uses the metaphor of carrying one’s cross to help his audience understand what following him requires; he explains that metaphor with two illustrations: the process of building a tower and a king’s duties when considering waging war. The metaphor of carrying the cross thus gives way to narration, hence “the word cross emerged with dramatically different, rich, and authoritative meanings which would have profound significance for Christians through the ages” (Gallagher & Lundin, 22). It might be surprising that Christ uses metaphor at the juncture of defining what it means to be his disciple, until we recall that he used around thirty-six parables throughout the Synoptic Gospels – indeed, parables make up nearly a third of the entirety of Christ’s recorded utterances.[2] Metaphoric narrative resounds throughout the teachings of Christ, and so there is a strong case to be made that both the production and appreciation of literature can have a robust place within one’s walk with the Lord.

That being said, if literature is to be a part of the Christian walk, including Christian education, it must contribute in a meaningful way to the cross-conforming work of a Christ-centered life. Arguments which start with literature itself, however, begin in the wrong place. It is not in the nature of literature, but in the nature of humans, where the value of encountering literature can be perceived.[3] The integral place of imagination within human nature manifests in the Creation story as well as within Christ’s teaching of the two great commandments. When we read in Genesis 1:26, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion… over all the earth,” we learn that image-making, the fundamental meaning of the word imagination, is the conceit which God employed in our very creation, and that just as we mirror God within the structure of the natural world, we also signify the natural world in our role as stewards over it.[4] Humans, as medieval writers would put it, are a microcosm of the earthly and divine. In other words, we are the imaginative reflection of the unity of Creator with His Creation – or we were, at least, before the Fall. As John Anonby puts it, “The supreme Creator, God himself, has endowed human beings with creative propensities which reflect, in a small measure, his image in us” (233).[5] Imagination is thus central both in our worship of God, because it is the faculty by which we identify the pattern of divinity that he placed within us, and it is the faculty by which we perceive the pattern of godly behavior that ought to guide our actions in regards to others. This is made explicit in Christ’s teaching of the two greatest commandments: “And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself” (Luke 10:27, KJV). If we are to fulfill Christ’s commandment of loving God with our whole nature, then we must include within it our capacity for imagination, for our hearts and minds operate in virtue of that essential power. Of course, therefore, to love our neighbor as ourselves we must envision through imagination what constitutes a godly self-love and enact that love with equal measure towards others – so we must behave towards others in a way which conforms to our imaginative apprehension of the Imago Dei which they reflect in the same way we do. It is in the careful study and cultivation of love for “the wonder of written language” (Anonby, 234) wherein this capacity can be profoundly advanced.

In the second part of this discussion, we will consider more closely the nature of the imagination and its role in the Christian life of the mind.



Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.



[1] See Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, for a fuller discussion of internal and external church architecture and its historical developments.

[2] See J. Dwight Pentecost, The Parables of Jesus: Lessons in Life from the Master Teacher, for a fuller discussion of the role of the parables in the Gospels.

[3] I think this is the cause of much of the confusion behind the postmodernist questions of literature, which at best ignore or at worst assault the fundamental conceptions of human nature to be found in the Judeo-Christian worldview.

[4] I do not of course mean to suggest that imagination is the only, or even the primary, theological sense of what it means to be made in the image of God – that would be deeply reductive in comparison to the discursive history of the term. I only mean to say that imagination is clearly a component of what is imparted by Scripture in this – our capacity for imagination is indispensable for the production of images, and is itself necessary to begin to contemplate what Scripture means by this teaching. See Richard J. Middleton, The Liberating Image: the Imago Dei in Genesis 1, Grand Rapics, MI: Brazos Press, 2005 for a relatively recent interpretation of this fundamental notion.

[5] “A Christian Perspective on English Literature,” in Christian Worldview and the Academic Disciplines: Crossing the Academy,233-247 .

  • Anthony G. Cirilla