“Bearing” the image of God ought to be an active verb, because it’s a mad dash with no finish line. To steal from C. S. Lewis, it continually guides us “farther up and farther in.” God has bestowed this gift and responsibility on all of mankind, but not everyone intentionally pursues it. Even Christians are confused. We assume image-bearing means that God physically resembles us, or that we share His attribute of creativity, so we don’t need to invest much effort. We can just “be ourselves,” throw in a few Scripture quotations, and call what we’ve created good.
That mindset overlooks the purpose God designed us to fulfill and the rich fellowship we can enjoy with Him. Because reflecting our Creator is our ultimate calling, it radically affects all of our other callings. Both the Dominion Mandate given to Adam and the Great Commission given to Christ’s disciples show us how to approach everything in life, including writing. If our views on those two directives are misaligned, our stories might shrivel on the vine.
How do we fix a problem that’s lurking in our subconscious, though? Since I need to lay a sturdy foundation first, most of the practical advice will appear near the end of my article. The payoff, however, should be worth the wait.
Theologians have proposed various interpretations for image-bearing. Historically, the most common has been to contrast man with animals. Our sense of morality, endowed authority, higher intelligence, and awareness of our own souls sets us apart from the beasts of the land, sea, and air.
While these traits are all outpourings of our God-inherited image, they become sterile and inanimate if treated as inclusive—like trying to assimilate a lion’s anatomy by studying its bone fragments under a microscope. Image-bearing holds deeper connotations than a passive resemblance to God’s character.
My favorite little-known fact about the word “image” in Genesis 1:26 is that it’s derived from a root of “shadow.” Obviously, we’re not of the same substance as God. A shadow is not as powerful or dimensional as the being who casts it. But it mimics everything its source does. Ergo, we are divinely sanctioned plagiarists and copycats.
The second implication of image-bearing is that we are signposts pointing to God. John Piper agrees: “Now what would it mean if you created seven billion statues of yourself and put them all over the world? It would mean you want people to notice you. God created us in His image so that we would display or reflect or communicate who He is, how great He is, and what He is like.”
Lastly, our likeness to God enables us to cultivate an intimate relationship with Him. “I pray…that they also may be one in Us… And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me” (John 17:21–23). We can experience close communion with the Trinity primarily because believers are clothed in Christ’s righteousness—but also because we are similar enough to have the potential to function together.
To summarize the concepts I’ve covered, image-bearing indicates that…
- We are shadows of God.
- Signposts to God.
- And suitable for God.
Great Grampy Tolkien combined these three truths into one word: sub-creation, the art of fashioning new wonders out of God’s original masterpiece. It’s a synthesis of reality and imagination, like historical fiction compared to recorded facts or Narnia compared to Earth. We don’t create ex nihilo like God did, but we do introduce readers to places they’ve never seen before. And the yearning to engage in worship underlies each keystroke.
We could draw immediate application from this premise. However, we’ve yet to receive our marching orders. The Dominion Mandate reveals the cosmos we should be building toward, and the Great Commission reveals how we ought to be building toward it.
Defining the Dominion Mandate
Immediately after God brings Adam and Eve together in Genesis 1, He says, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the Earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the Earth.”
When we read this verse, the word that usually pops into our minds is stewardship, and much to Jesus’s chagrin, we’ve been conditioned to equate it with conservation. Remember the parable of the talents? One servant protects the coins entrusted to him instead of investing in a lucrative venture, angering the master upon his return.
When God appointed us as caretakers of creation, He expected us to present it back to Him a hundred times more abundant. The Dominion Mandate does not authorize us to lay claim to our desires, but to advance God’s plans. Remaining static is an act of disobedience.
Defining the Great Commission
Matthew 28:18–20 urges us to convert, baptize, and disciple all nations. Many Christians think the Great Commission is purely evangelistic, but it’s not. It can encompass Bible studies for believers, child rearing, politics, and even demonstrating through our behavior how to follow Christ’s commands.
However, if we focus on the aspects of the Great Commission that appeal to us, we’re not truly honoring it. For example, the friendships we form should lead to conversations about sin and holiness and eternity. The stories we write should comfort and convict believers, not just shove tracts into a crowd. And the decisions we make about when and how we discuss our faith should be based on wisdom, not shame for the gospel and apathy toward the lost. We don’t get to choose only one side of the coin.
A Cord of Three Strands: How These Precepts Flow Together
In the same sentence where God announces, “Let Us make man in Our image,” He assigns dominion to all of mankind. And when Jesus tells His disciples to “go forth,” both the phrasing and the context draw strong parallels to the Dominion Mandate as if the ideas are companions. Image-bearing describes the goal of sub-creation, the Dominion Mandate describes the scope of our impact, and the Great Commission describes the method of moving forward.
United, the trio generates a miniature version of the Christian Storyteller’s Manifesto:
We resolve to write with passion, ambition, and fortitude (Dominion Mandate) in service to Christ’s kingdom (Great Commission); to allude to God’s nature, beauty, and character (image-bearing); to foster a more robust and mature culture (Dominion Mandate); and to abide in God through prayer and immersion in His Word (image-bearing) so that we’ll grow regardless of how much or how little we influence readers (image-bearing) and our stories will be disciple-makers instead of fortune cookies or greeting cards (Great Commission).
Sub-creation begins to overlap with the Dominion Mandate and the Great Commission when we realize that our role surpasses our personal dreams and pet projects. God has called us to be sub-creators of a New Creation.
How Fallible Image-Bearers Can Brew Hot and Holy Stories
When we’re assembling a puzzle, being able to study a picture of the finished artwork fundamentally changes how we sort through the pieces. Similarly, the better we understand our identity as God’s children, the better equipped we’ll be to practice our faith in and through our writing. Our responses to the challenges we face will be more radical, biblical, and confident.
I’m going to tackle some of the most debated topics (all of which we’ve addressed more comprehensively in other articles that I’ll link to), though the list could extend for pages.
Q: How explicitly Christian should our stories be?
A: The popular mantra in the industry nowadays is that stories don’t need to be blatantly Christian, which is a potentially dangerous half-truth. If we classify fiction as “neutral” or “secular,” we destroy our potency as image-bearers. We’ll be lukewarm, and God will spit us out. Our stories, along with everything we do, should aim to fulfill the Dominion Mandate and/or the Great Commission. The breadth and tone is up to each of us as individuals, but we ought to be winning ground for the kingdom in some way or another.
Q: Should our stories proclaim the gospel?
A: Stories can contribute to the Great Commission without even mentioning God. Since we have many options and opportunities for evangelism—which are usually more effective than fiction—we don’t, as I explain in a past article that asks the same question, need to “resort to witnessing on a page corner.” Stories are neither insignificant nor sufficient in and of themselves. We can hoodwink readers into lowering their guards so that they contemplate a worldview they might have auto-rejected otherwise, but we can’t presume to turn our stories into a substitute for preaching.
Q: What issues are we allowed to portray?
A: The Dominion Mandate orders us to take dominion over the whole Earth. The Great Commission orders us to disciple everybody in everything the Bible teaches. How can we deny that we must travel as “far as the curse is found”? Sin-laden situations may be difficult to depict, but someone must brave the darkness to reach the suffering. A few writers will use this as an excuse to indulge in their own or readers’ vices, but it should instead encourage us to expose and crush evil.
Q: What can prevent us from carrying out the Dominion Mandate and the Great Commission in our writing?
A: Inattentiveness to God’s Word will weaken us as His shadows, because we won’t have a frame of reference for who He is. Sanctification is an ongoing process that requires our diligence. We may not get the chance to point someone to Him every day, but we can point ourselves to Him every moment. Through the Holy Spirit’s presence, we are all being made suitable for God, though sin can stunt our fruitfulness. The quality of our Christian walk affects the spiritual quality of our writing.
Until the End of the Page
Our identity as image-bearers touches every jot and tittle of our writing. It’s vast enough that I couldn’t encapsulate all of it in what I’ve typed here. This article is but the first in a series devoted to the opening resolution of our Christian Storyteller’s Manifesto: “We resolve to be passionate and dedicated in our pursuit of excellent storytelling, knowing that we are reflecting the Creator’s image within us and fulfilling God’s commands to take dominion over the Earth, love fellow image-bearers, and steward the resources He has provided.”
Each successive installment will continue to unpack the complexities of image-bearing, the Dominion Mandate, and the Great Commission.
- On January 23rd, Josiah DeGraaf will discuss what taking dominion looks like and why a combative stance isn’t always effective.
- On January 30th, Sarah Baran will refute the misconception that the Great Commission is limited to direct evangelism and show how to love readers through empathetic storytelling.
- And on February 6th, Rachel Gilson will conclude the series with advice on stewarding our skills, experiences, and even our relationships to craft stories that both God and readers will delight in.
We hope that by the end of this series you’ll have renewed clarity and vision for your life and your writing. Christ promised to be with us and work through us—all we have to do is remember who He is.
Return next Monday as Josiah delves into the Dominion Mandate in further detail. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you. How do you want to display your image-bearing status in your writing?
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. To read his books, including one free one, follow him at daeuslamb.com