There is a great misuse of the imagination that is leading many Christians astray. Imagination is important and vital in discernment, even in interpreting scripture.
I think the problem arose from our overly literal approach to the bible (because we believe the Bible is the literal word of God – a reaction to the liberal theology or maybe to the abuses of allegory), so that many outside of the evangelical circle thinks we are very narrow or sometimes narrow-minded. We tend to slap people with bible quotes as though it already is the truth on the matter at hand.
I wrote before about the need to hide the bible when we preach. When we hide the Word, this way we tend to make scripture a part of our reason or logic internally. But also, when we learn to hide scripture, we also grow to become more aware of where scripture is hidden in the world around us. We are able to see scripture truth where we never saw it before or in places we thought we would never see it like in Dostoevski’s The Idiot or even in simpler literary works like the Velveteen Rabbit.
After the wild book of Eugene Peterson, Reverse Thunder, it is no longer difficult to see how imagination plays an important part in Scripture reading. Peterson in that book discussed how imagination is able to draw out the mysterious messages of Revelation, a book many are unwilling to read. What message do the apocalypse horses hold?
James Hudson Taylor, a respected missionary of the past generation wrote a beautiful book about the Song of Solomon, although still a bit inhibited, it managed to uncover some of the sensual undertones of the book and direct us to a God who is not just all brain (nerd). See for example the famous passage, kiss me for your love is sweeter than wine.
I think Taylor was well-advanced of his time because he was able to grow out of the Puritan mindset to write that book. We have made spirituality the realm of head bashing control freaks, priggish and prudish. I remember Oliver Cromwell who was the first in Europe to organize a professional army –with salaries paid from the public coffer and officers appointed based on merits not bloodline. The rules of the army included at the top, no spitting, no drinking, and no cursing. We came from the Puritan era where the discussion on sex has become taboo. I think because of this, porn has proliferated. It is the built in dynamics of sin that when something is hidden or made taboo, evil will grow like mushroom in the dark.
Our imagination has been drastically curtailed or driven into the underground. We read the bible now with squinted eyes and prudish hearts.
Without imagination, it would be extremely difficult to grasp some parts of Scripture like Revelations and Song of Solomon. Flying animals with six wings will boggle us. The chimera, combination of three or four animals into one, makes us draw back from scripture, and sometimes, we relegate those portions as the superstitious vestiges of the Bible.
I listened once to a sermon by a Jesuit Priest, about 1 Peter 1.16, where God tells the readers, “Be Holy for I am Holy.” For many, this is seen as a command. For that priest however, in his sermon, the verse was not at all about a command as much as it was a sweet invitation from God to us sinners, to take part or partake in or be nourished by God’s Holiness – meaning, it was a call to enjoy His holiness.
When it is seen as a command, often, people take it as a burden because it creates a pressure and sometimes, guilt. In the mind of that priest, the invitation is basically a call to enjoy and rest in God’s Holiness.
Many evangelicals will argue that there is nothing in the text that would merit that kind of interpretation used by the Jesuit priest. Coming from a very narrow literalist interpretation (only textual), it is actually hard to disprove or prove the priest’s way of looking at the verse. The measure we use is totally inadequate to judge how the world looks at truth (epistemology).
Of course, we need to read the Bible first in its literal sense before we move to its figurative or symbolic sense. We have to establish a groundwork by reading the text with logic and reason and with that raw material, we can now engage it fully, not just as text but a Living Word, a person.
Many evangelicals have reduced the bible to merely a text. Some say the Word became flesh and the evangelicals have made it into words again.
There are many things we miss in Scripture when we are narrowly textual only. One is the physical description in scripture which is often absent or silent, like the facial expression of the characters in a story. What for example was the facial expression of the father in the story of the prodigal son? What was the facial expression of Thomas when he said I will not believe until I have placed my finger inside His wound? Was Thomas sneering and cynical? Or was he anxious and uncertain?
Some people actually claim that the quality of the theology of Rembrandt is of the highest kind. When one views his masterpiece, for example, The Prodigal Son, acclaimed by many as one of the best in the world, we see Rembrandt supply the missing part, the facial expression.
We can now see the expression on the face of the characters in that story through Rembrandt’s painting, which when we are narrowly textual, we would not be able to see at all.
Rembrandt of course supplied this by a very biblical imagination.
Another missing portion in scripture is the sound or tone of the voice of the person talking in the dialogue. For example, when Jesus told Peter in Matthew 14, “You of little faith…” –
28 Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” 29 And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and *said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind stopped. 33 And those who were in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son!”
What was the tone of Jesus’ voice? Was it harsh, condemning, gentle, inviting, neutral, excited, or sad?
Here, we can easily inject our own paranoia or psychopathology in interpreting the tone. Because we have anger issues, we think Jesus in that story was harsh or his tone was angry.
The tone and facial expression are things we supply simply with our imaginations but of course, we need biblical imaginations, not just any imagination.
Sad thought that for some, it is not even important because even in their own lives, they have no more imagination. They have narrowed their own self-awareness following the principle that the less they notice, the more manageable their life gets.
We need to come to the Word as a whole person, not just use our mind. just as we are called to love with all our hearts soul mind and strength. We need all of ourselves, together, so also when we come to the word which is a person, we have to engage the Word as a person also. After all, it was God who gave us our imagination.
It is actually our humanity that supplies the missing elements of Scripture such as the facial expression or the tone of voice. Our humanity is not singular but comes from community. We believe that we need to become human and we are most human when we are in community. It is the consolidated image of Christ drawn from community meaning all our perspective combined to form Christ that becomes our lens in reading Scripture. We proceed very interdependently, believing that we form together the whole Body of Christ and only when working as one Body are we able to see (when all the parts work perfectly, together the Body matures).
Some people will argue against an emphasis on experiential engagement with scripture, insisting that such an approach would be subjective and therefore not accurate nor reliable. I agree. It is not reliable nor accurate but that is not the only measure we have for knowing truth just as the reason or the mind are inadequate measures for appreciating relationships – how we love our spouses or how we enjoy worship.
Imagination comes often in the middle, between accuracy and deep engagement. Scientific accuracy is not the only measure for knowing love or knowing God. I grew up where the first question in our bible study was, what does the verse say (very cognitive – uutakin). In the Ignatian tradition, the first question is, what do you feel?
We need to study the Word but we also need to engage it. Study to get knowledge is important but that is only the first step. As we get to know the meaning of Scripture, we can now come to it to connect with God, the Living Word.
The Ignatian lectio divina is one such way. After the reading of the text, usually just a short passage or a short story, the group or the couple (in case of spouses) will then tackle 4 questions.
- what do you feel or what did you feel as the word was read to you? There is a big difference between reading the bible ourselves using our eyes and having the bible read to us, hearing with our ears. The tendency in the former is for the Word to go to our mind and become an idea. The latter tends to bring the Word to the heart and void becoming academic.
- What word or verse stood out for your, what came alive as you listened?
- What is God telling you or saying to you?
- What is your response?
In case of story, the leader could lead the group into entering the story:
- in the first reading, use your body or skin to listen. What did you experience as you listened to the story? There are answers such as, I felt the hot and dry air around me or I felt the sand in my feet or I felt crowded or pushed by the many people around.
- In the second reading, use your heart or emotion. What did you feel as you listened to the story? Some answers are, I felt sad, or I felt excited. I sympathized with one character.
- In the third reading, use your mind or reason. What did you hear, what truth was conveyed to you? Some answers are: God is clear and direct, God wants me to love, I need to open my heart to Him.
- In the last reading, see if you can identify with a character in the story. Who are you in the story? Why did you choose that person?
I have done this several times and I have seen very powerful results. People are impacted by the Word and literally connect with the Truth.
But imagination can be used without any grounding in reality also. It happens when imagination is misused even abused. For without a firm grounding in reality, our imagination becomes merely fantasizing.
When people pray, once they close their eyes, immediately their imagination takes over and they try to picture or imagine God. Their mind with their eyes shut will try to describe God, using their imagination, trying to figure out the tone of His voice, His facial expression or His movement as He touches them.
To be grounded in reality, the imagining being done here must be coming from a self that is highly self-aware and totally present. The raw material or ingredient of this imagination in prayer comes from the body, the soul, the mind and the heart that is together and that is present to God. The sensing comes from the entire being of the person praying, not just from his mind. We must connect with God first as a whole integrated person who is present to God before we can use our imagination.
I know God is present because my body and my heart and my soul and my mind tell me so. In other words, I first sense God relationally before I use my imagination. Then, the imagination can grow from it or within it but imagination without the input of a self that is present and integrated can only mislead and deceive.
It is the same as when one tries to will something to existence, using just pure concentration – like a little child wishing Santa Claus to appear. Or a worse example, it is like the man who has an orgasm looking at porn which is nothing but inanimate pixels (the relational sensing cannot discern a person in those pixels, in other words, when we try to be present to the porn video, we cannot no matter how hard we try, sense that a person exists in those pixels even if we use HD).
Tolkien’s imagining in fiction in The Lord of the Rings is a good example of biblical imagining. Once when interviewed by a journalist, he was asked if his fiction did not encourage escapism (people read fiction to escape from reality. Many Christian housewives are addicted to soap opera like Marimar because they want to escape the reality of their boring marriages). This is the kind of fiction that leads to escapism.
Tolkien’s answer is classic. He said, some fiction do that (make people escape from reality) but some fiction actually encourages people to engage reality with more force because it makes them realize for example that this is not the world we were meant to live in. God meant for us to live in a better world, to live as better men with a noble mission.
Imagination without such grounding in reality can lead not just to escapism but also to fantasizing and finally to displacing God with a human invention, a mere figment of our imagination as they say. Imagination like any tool we use must be informed by Scripture. We do not just exegete the Word, we also exegete our own selves (to avoid reading our psychopathologies into our interpretation of Scripture). We must seek first to be fully human (integrated our heart soul mind and strength) before we can become truly biblical. Once we are fully human and present, we must let God’s Word illuminate that concept of humanity that we hold. Are we human in a biblical sense, in that our humanity or human image is one that mirrors God? We must also remember that we are most human when we are living in interdependence with other, meaning we are most human in community. Bonhoeffer wrote correctly, that the closer we are to one another, the clearer Christ becomes.
Those who teach the Bible who do not have community are most likely suspect. We cannot know God except through human relationships. For how can we say we love God whom we cannot see and not love our brother/sister whom we can see?
So here, our imagination is informed by Scripture, grows from our humanity, leans on community and flies with poetic license.