Journeying With Scripture – Part Two – Use Your Imagination

What is imagination? Can/should we use it when reading the Bible?  This post is the second in a series about “Journeying with Scripture”. It is an opportunity to explore further how and why we read the Bible. It will also uncover some of the thinking behind the Bible study books “Journeying With Abraham” and “Journeying With Nehemiah” and how they might differ from other approaches.

For some, “imagination” might seem to refer to fiction or ideas that have simply been made up as opposed to “reality” or “truth”. Christianity accepts that God needs to reveal Himself to us for us to have any grasp of who God really is. So, isn’t using the imagination resorting to making up our own ideas about God?

If we were starting from a position of no revelation or choosing to ignore all revelation of any kind then imagination would risk being nothing but a human construct, fabricating its own “god” in whatever image suited us. However, we don’t start from a position of no revelation or encounter between God and us. God has spoken and revealed Himself. But, isn’t the use of our imagination still liable to undermine that revelation?

When God reveals Himself to us, it is done in ways that we can at least partially comprehend. Yet, so much of this revelation falls short of the fullness of who God is. For example, God is not a man – so Jesus both reveals God to us and at the same time can’t reveal everything. God in all fullness is beyond our capacity to understand.

Much of the understanding we do have utilises metaphors (e.g. God as Father, Rock, Fortress, etc.). Metaphors encourage the use of the imagination. They put two things together and invite us to explore the resulting picture. An act of the imagination is required to connect the two – metaphors are by their nature not usually completely literal or logical. Yes, they may engage our rational faculties, but they also require creative thinking.

Escaping the boundaries

Creative thought is an essential part of being human; it is how we solve problems. Scientific research and discovery may appear to be totally absorbed with rational thought, yet it too requires leaps of the imagination. We imagine a solution beyond our current position and this helps guide our endeavours. We imagine new possibilities and then begin to create them.

Empathy is understandably a highly prized characteristic. Like creativity, it demands (whether consciously or otherwise) acts of imagination. We see circumstances, relate them to our own experiences and imagine assumed connections. Often these connections are absolutely correct. So, the imagination is not simply for creating an artificial reality or lies, but for helping us perceive truth.

When it comes to reading Scripture, empathy is a useful skill to have. It can enable us to enter into stories and begin to understand why people react the way they do. This is not just true of narratives, where we might sympathise or empathise with the main character or other players in the text. It can also help make sense of letters and Psalms, for example. If we can in some sense discern why Paul is upset or frustrated or why the Psalmist is singing for joy, then this helps us to connect with the text for ourselves.

Empathy may also help us to discern the unusual or unexpected turns in a story. If we can imagine how a character would probably have felt or wanted to react, then maybe the fact that they don’t do so becomes more apparent and hits home more. We can sometimes perceive more clearly  what it is that is unusual about the person or story and what we might learn from them.

Imagination is also important when it comes to our future hope. None of us has seen what is beyond this life, nor does the Bible give detailed, clear descriptions of life after death. But, our imagination, which extrapolates from the data we do have, can help us perceive that which our faith then clings on to. The little snippets that Scripture does give us about resurrection and the life beyond are sufficient to fire our imaginations and kindle hope.

None of this means that imagination is an infallible tool. It can go wrong – we can imagine things which are unhelpful and not true. However, rational, logical thought can also lead us up blind alleys or down into the dark as well as out into the light. Imagination is not an inferior part of who we are. It can be used together with other skills to help us grow towards the truth.

If imagination is so closely linked to creativity, then it wouldn’t be all that surprising if in some sense God wants us to know Him through our imagination. It may be that the ideas, the possibilities we imagine are planted in us by God. After all, surely it is only someone who can imagine a better world that works towards one?

How about you? What role does your imagination play in your life of faith? Do you see a need to listen to your imagination or do you mistrust it?

© Joe Lenton, July 2013


Reading the Bible – 2 Simple Questions

Open BibleReading the Bible can sometimes seem very complicated and confusing. The huge distance in history and culture may cause us to wonder if we can make any sense of it without specialist knowledge.

There are many tools that can be learned to help us study Scripture. In the main, they basically tend to boil down to 2 key questions that we can ask:

1) Why?
2) So what?

The first question, “why?”, relates to the text and what has fed into it. We ask why the author might have wanted to write this – what kinds of circumstances may have caused them to think this piece of writing useful or essential? Why is it structured the way it is? Why has it been included in our Bibles?

There are various resources that can help us to address the “why?” question. Historical and cultural studies may be of some value and so consulting commentaries may be useful. Also, when we come to think of how the text is written, an appreciation of literary technique – their skills as a writer – may come into play. If these feel too much like the tools of the expert for use in dusty studies only, then we can often get similar results by using our imagination – try to put yourself in the place of the author/first readers.

Answering the “why?” question is not an exact science. We simply cannot know for sure what the circumstances of writing were or what was going through the author’s mind. Using historical or literary tools may help us to understand better, yet in essence what they do is inform and feed our imaginative leaps at grasping “why?”. We trust also that God’s Holy Spirit is involved, speaking to us as we wrestle with the text.

The second question “so what?” is very similar to our first. The slight difference is that it concerns itself more with our present circumstances. What significance do our findings from the passage have for us today?

This cannot help but be a subjective exercise. We cannot judge what matters to us today without already involving our own cultures, theologies and preferences.  Moreover, our present situation and experiences will in part dictate what is “important” to us at the time, meaning that the “so what?” aspect of a passage may vary depending on when we read it.

If we don’t ask the “so what?” question, then we risk being left with historical artefacts or dry doctrines and systematic theologies. These things can be learnt and even agreed to without them having to affect us or the way we live. Everything is abstract rather than concrete. Asking “so what?” helps to ground our interaction with the text – we are coming to it with a purpose, not just to dig up a load of information.

The 2 questions do not always operate separately as we read. They can and do blur. For example, we can weigh up the usefulness of the answers we find to “why?” by constantly asking “so what?” – there can be a constant interaction between the past and our present.

A great deal of Bible reading involves the imagination and is an “art” not an exact science. Even if we don’t delve into “scholarly” methods, we can still help ourselves to get a lot from each passage simply by asking why it is there and what the significance is for us. If we can’t find any, then maybe we either need to work harder or come back another time as it isn’t speaking to us right now.

© Joe Lenton, September 2012