The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon
You’re probably like me in at least one way. When you learn a new word, you suddenly start hearing and seeing it everywhere. “Where have I been?” you think to yourself, “everyone else talks about ‘folderol’ all the time.”
Such perceived ubiquity is something that scholars call the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. The name is a mouthful, and now that you know it, you will probably hear it everywhere. You’d think Baader and Meinhof were the surnames of some psychologists who studied such selective attention, but not so. Rather, back in 1994 someone left a comment on an e-discussion board for a newspaper in St. Paul. The person posted how, having heard about a German terrorist group called the Baader-Meinhof, he then heard about it a day later. The phrase took, and in 2006 a linguistics professor in California made it all official. There’s even a Facebook page devoted to it: “The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon,” it reads, “a situation when you didn’t see a thing and then, after seeing it for the first time, you see it everywhere.”
Imagination and the Bible
Baader-Meinhof describes my exact experience in relation to imagination and the Scriptures. As a result of reading the book of Ezekiel, I became convicted about the importance of the imagination in Ezekiel’s ministry, and, by way of extension, the Christian life. Suddenly I started to see imagination (meaning the ability of the mind to think in pictures) everywhere in Scripture.
Think of this (in)famous line from the King James, describing the world before the Flood: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5).
Ouch. That’s not the best place for me to start convincing you that imagination is everywhere in Scripture. But it is realistic. The human imagination, like everything else about us, is sinful; it needs to be redeemed. And once the gospel takes root in the heart, everything, including one’s imagination, begins to change.
An Important Part of Our Discipleship
An imagination under the influence of the gospel is strategic to the life of discipleship, both individually and corporately. Let me share with you just a few of the many reasons why I say that:
An imagination under the influence of the gospel is strategic to the life of discipleship, both individually and corporately.
1. Imagination plays a big part in how we conceive of God.
If the gospel were simply a matter of agreeing to some facts on a page, then all we’d need to respond is reason. But the gospel is about a Three-in-One God who invites us to trust and relate to him personally.
Frankly, it’s impossible for us to relate to those we love without engaging our imaginations, especially when we can’t see them! That’s why Hebrews speaks about “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). So let’s make sure our mind’s eye—our imagination—is robustly biblical in its view of our saving God!
2. Imagination plays a big part in our struggle with temptation.
In his wisely practical book, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices, Thomas Brooks, a seventeenth-century English pastor, talks about how Satan likes to paint the picture of temptation well. “You will not surely die,” says the Tempter. Instead, “you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5).
Imagine that: being like God! What an attractively colored painting. But it’s an illusion! Knowing the particular ways that temptation feeds on our imaginations is part of the well-discipled life—as is the knowledge of what we could be like if, in Christ, we resist.
3. Imagination plays a big part in either unravelling or tightening our prayers.
When golf was first introduced to India, monkeys made a mess of it. They would snatch up the balls, play with them for a bit, and then drop them back down. All sorts of attempts were made to discourage such “interruptions” to the game, but to no avail. In the end, the rules had to be changed: “play the ball where the monkey drops it.”
So it is with prayer, and the back-and-forth between our ordered structures and our imagination’s wanderings. One way forward is to incorporate the monkey into the game—to pray the necessary prayers where our imagination drops us.
I could go on and on with how our imagination connects to empathy, perseverance, counseling, preparing for death, pursuing vocation, and planting a church. But I won’t because hopefully my point has been made: imagination is everywhere in the Christian life.