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Cultivating a Biblical Imagination

Theological imagination is an essential part of the church’s life. As Rodger Nishioka points out, it is what enables us to begin to comprehend the invisible God. When we reach with our minds toward the ineffable, or when we see God at work in the world around us, we inevitably use our imaginations. And it is often the case that many ways of imagining illumine our understanding more than a single act of the imagination could. The images of God as the sanitation worker and God as the elderly woman are richer together than either one would be alone.

But when it comes to reading the Bible, many Christians have been trained to believe that imagination is no longer essential. Using one’s imagination to interpret the Bible would strike many as foolish. It may be harmless for children, who learn by acting out the stories or drawing pictures. But for adults, imaginative interpretation is likely to yield strange and self-justifying results. What is more, adults should not seek more than one good interpretation of scripture, but a single fixed answer that will not change.

In support of Nishioka’s views, I see imagination as an essential tool for understanding and interpreting the Bible. The church needs to remember that, far from being unnecessary, the imagination is required for faithful interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, without the imagination, it is hard to see how the Bible itself would exist. Furthermore, like the early Christian witnesses to Jesus, the church needs to cultivate the biblical imagination of its members. Coming to understand how the biblical story is our story is an act of imagination that enables us to discern God’s presence in our midst.

The New Testament itself is a product of the faithful imagination of early Christians. Imagine yourself as one of the first believers. You have experienced something amazing: the life and teachings of Jesus, who was executed and now has been seen alive by many of his followers. Empowered by the Spirit, these followers preach the good news of God’s reign and perform powerful signs. How will you articulate to others what it is you have experienced and what you know to be true? You do not have 2, 000 years of Christian tradition and confession to guide you. It is your job to articulate what God has done in terms that others can understand. Who is this Jesus?

That the NT writers have various answers to this question attests to the imaginative process at work. Each of the Gospel writers, for instance, gives a different way of understanding Jesus. Mark’s Jesus, I would say, is a powerful and divine force. Understanding him always lies just outside the human’s grasp. Matthew’s Jesus, by contrast, is easier to understand, because he is an authoritative teacher who understands the Jewish law as an expression of God’s mercy and teaches people to follow that difficult path. Luke portrays Jesus as a prophet mighty in word and deed, a prophet God raised up, through whom the church is empowered to similar mighty acts. John’s Jesus is distinctive in the sheer variety of metaphors John brings to the task of understanding him: he is word, bread, shepherd, gate, and vine, to name only a few. Each of these writers’ distinctive vision of Jesus is a gift to the church. They are powerful and foundational witnesses to Jesus Christ.

Paul’s letters show the pastoral imagination of one whose preaching encountered practical questions for which there were no set answers. For example, many Christians in Paul’s day were asking, “Should Gentile Christians be circumcised?” Paul’s answer in Galatians is a remarkable work of imagination. He sees in the work of Jesus a parallel to the promises God made to Abraham long ago. In his answer Paul engages scripture, his understanding of the good news, his experience of the risen Jesus, and the specific problems of the churches to whom he writes. Articulating the gospel message in a new context like Galatia required the creative combination of all of these elements.

These early Christian witnesses used their imaginations to interpret what had happened in Jesus. Led by the Spirit, they recognized God at work in the world and they made connections with scripture and culture to articulate the significance of these events. They also looked to their on-going experiences in the church to discern the same power of God active among them.

Modern Christian interpretation of scripture is no less an act of imagination. Imagination is required on a number of levels. First, because we understand the NT writings as products of the first century, reading the NT requires us to set aside our own ways of viewing the world and to imagine ourselves hearing the scripture as the first readers might have.

Consider 1 Corinthians 6:18-19: “Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” It is difficult not to interpret these verses from the perspective of twenty-first century readers. We understand the “body” Paul refers to as the individual human body involved in sexual acts. Imagining what the Corinthians likely heard in these words requires a new way of seeing. Paul speaks in these verses not of individual actors, but of the corporate body of the church. In the Greek, Paul uses a plural “you/your” but a singular “body,” indicating that the group he addresses is one body and that corporate body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is not the individual body that is tainted through sex with a prostitute, but the church itself, the body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 6:15-17). Individual sex acts have corporate implications. Where we might view sex with a prostitute as a health threat to the individuals involved and a problem of personal morality, Paul expresses it as something that pollutes the church, making it less holy.

Because this is not our own natural way of thinking, coming to comprehend Paul’s message is an act of imagination. We transport ourselves to another time and place, and to another way of seeing the world. We try to listen with ears that are not our own.

In addition to the imaginative act of leaping across time and space, reading the Bible engages the imagination because the biblical writers ask us to imagine Jesus and ourselves in a variety of ways. Like Paul’s metaphor of the church as a temple, all of the NT writings involve metaphorical expressions. These metaphors have sometimes been considered to be merely fancy window-dressing: they are pretty but inessential. But such metaphors are better approached as ideas that supply much of the theological content of the writing and that require imagination to apprehend.

Consider Jesus’ long conversation about bread in John 6. The crowd approaches Jesus and asks for a sign: “What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:30-31). Jesus proceeds to interpret the cited scripture. He claims that manna is not only a miraculous gift of the past. Manna is an on-going gift of God that is now available in Jesus: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35).

Understanding what it means for Jesus to be bread involves applying what is said about the manna to the life and ministry of Jesus. John’s language does not spell out precisely what this means, but points the reader to the details about the manna that are most relevant for understanding Jesus. For example, Jesus says “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33). Like the manna that rained down from heaven daily to sustain the hungry Israelites, so also Jesus is given by God, a life-giving substance for those in need. Just as the Israelites had to follow God’s instructions, gathering only enough manna for each day, except the day before the sabbath (Exod 16:16-30), so John also indicates that those who come to Jesus do so because they have been taught by God (John 6:45). To comprehend Jesus as manna, John’s readers must reflect on the details of the manna story and make connections with John’s portrait of Jesus. Each of John’s metaphors is a rich theological resource that can only be apprehended through the imagination.

Fears of the “shadow side” of the imagination (as Nishioka puts it) are not invalid. But the answer is not to deny that imagination plays an important role in interpretation. Instead of rejecting the imagination, we should begin to cultivate and discipline the imagination.

In my experience this best takes place in a community of interpretation that learns to attend closely to the words of scripture. When we import our own prejudices into scripture, we often fail to really notice what the text says. The scripture itself can provide a check against our misdirected imaginations. Interpreters who can read carefully can call each other to account—not simply on the basis of personal preference, but by turning attention back to the words of scripture.

What happens is something like the following: a group gathers to interpret Mark 2:1-12, the passage in which Jesus heals the lame man who is lowered through the ceiling by his friends. One learner immediately sees confirmation of her prior understanding that faith in Jesus heals. However, another notices that the faith of the lame man is not mentioned. Jesus sees the faith of the friends (Mark 2:5) and responds. A third participant pushes further. In this story, Jesus’ first response is not healing but a declaration of forgiveness. The healing that follows is a response to the controversy over Jesus’ authority to forgive.

A discussion ensues, with each participant pointing to and finding meaning in the words of this passage. At the root of their discussion is the question: What is the relationship between faith, forgiveness, and healing? They do not solve the question once and for all, but neither do they leave the conversation thinking, “It doesn’t matter,” or “Whatever you think is okay.” Instead, they explore the passage for answers to complex theological questions with personal implications. Their conversation may draw them closer to an answer, and it may leave them with new questions. In either case, their study draws them into deeper relationship with the word of God in scripture.

Unless we employ our imaginations we will never understand how the stories and letters, poems and visions of scripture relate to our lives. In my own experience as a teacher of the New Testament, I find that the greater problem is not that we exercise too much imagination in interpretation, but that too few people have a religious imagination that is grounded in scripture. The writers of the NT texts were so steeped in the stories of the Old Testament that they see at every turn in Jesus’ life some new relationship to the stories of scripture. He is the new Adam, the seed of Abraham, the glory of God shining in the face of Moses. He heals like Elijah and Elisha. He is a prophet like Jonah, calling the wrong sort of people to repentance. His righteous blood was shed like that of Zechariah son of Barachiah. He will come again suddenly, as the flood in the days of Noah.

As they sought to understand the new thing that God was doing in Jesus, the New Testament writers turned to scripture. As we discern the presence of God in our world, we need people whose vision of the world is shaped by their knowledge of scripture, who see in the events of their communities the presence of the God of Israel. We need not one leader with a single answer but many witnesses, each with a richly fueled biblical imagination.

Questions for reflection:

1. What are some of the biblical texts that you associate with imagination–whether because they talk about it or because some character exemplifies it? What do these texts share and what imagination is required on your part to make sense of them?

2. Imagination sometimes seems to require hearing multiple perspectives on the same event, much as the four gospel writers each reveal their own perspectives on Jesus. What are some of the implications that follow from having multiple perspectives in the same Bible?

3. Can we use our imaginations as a basis for evaluating ideas as well as stimulating them? If so, how? If not, why not?