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Moderns, Post-moderns, and Imagination

I suspect Dr. Nishioka’s fine essay on the benefits and perils of imagination resonates with anyone who lives within the context of the church—especially his arguments about the power of paradigm to frame our imagination of what is possible. Those paradigms, of course, are usually the by-products of the communities which have shaped us. They are the scripts by which we are measured as people, and simply letting go of them is like letting go of the possibility of love. It’s not easy—even if it is wounding us. Thus, we read Dr. Nishioka’s story of a young woman finds herself in danger from her own paradigm of God, and we nod our heads because we all know someone who is holding onto a paradigm of God which is slowing killing them.
We also know, however, we serve a God who invests in new paradigms: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Is. 43:19).

My job as a pastor is largely an imaginative one. I help people imagine rivers in the desert or ways out of their wilderness. I help people imagine these new paradigms using an old text, the Bible. The single greatest goal in my vocation is an act of secondary imagination: to immerse the parishioners in the possibility of living inside the text. But I find that my capacity to do so often turns on the paradigms my people carry with them when walk into the sanctuary or classroom.

An extended example of what I mean might help—a trip to two of my classrooms, my laboratories. One lab is dominated by the paradigm of modernism; the other, post-modernism.

Modernism is that wonderful lie that has driven our culture for generations now: that we can get things done, that progress can be achieved. We can create better schools or end hunger if we work hard enough and straighten out our technological endeavors. We can end the need for back-breaking work and the work on the end of back-breaking need. In the church, modernity manifests as a belief that if we’ll only be the hands of God, then the kingdom can be ushered in. It’s the paradigm that has given us the pre-eminence of science, the demythologization of scripture, and that scourge of homiletics, the three point sermon. It’s responsible for such unqualified successes as vaccines, social consciousness, modern democracy and feminism. Its track record is impressive. Sadly, it has also given us Social Darwinism, nuclear weaponry, the holocaust, and a wicked mind-body split that plays havoc with hopes for wholeness.

Now a trip to my modernist laboratory: in my Wednesday morning laboratory, where many of my students remember rations during the Second World War, I experiment in mixtures of modernists and scripture. In this lab, I must add equal doses of history and exegesis with a half dose of application. I’m an effective teacher if I communicate these elements well enough that the students can articulate them later.

Before each class, I spend several hours in preparation. The first hour of teaching is often a lecture. My students take notes; they read commentaries before they come; they endeavor to be informed. If someone raises a question, they all look at me. I’m the expert, after all.

Post-modernism, on the other hand, is that wonderful lie that modernism has become irrelevant. Its characterized by the suspicion that progress is an illusion, that science has failed us, that people cannot be bettered by knowledge alone. Consequently, post-moderns trade in science for mysticism, results for process, institutions for relationships, things mass-produced for things organic; and, in our work, effectiveness for relevance.

This cultural shift has let loose a river of imaginative energy and has delivered such wonders as a recovery of ritual and story-telling, a zealous commitment to community making, liberation theologies, high-touch technologies, and a new-found respect for understanding how our contexts influence every part of us.

Do not let me coerce you into thinking post-modernism is a cure for what ails us. It has also delivered us into a culture where the curated images of ourselves on Facebook receive more attention than our interior lives, where duty is a word that has been robbed of its power, and where relativism makes us unable to speak with authority about certain social ills as inherently wrong rather than contextually wrong, thereby weakening some of the church’s moral authority.

In my Sunday morning post-modern lab, which looks a lot like Dr. Nishioka’s community in Act 5 of his article, no one ever takes notes. They don’t read books before they come—or if they do, the books are fiction. Questions matter as much as answers, and we settled early on that I was not going to give any definitive ones. (A note: while my laboratories do have certain generational differences, the modern/post-modern split cannot be reduced to a young/old dichotomy. I meet parishioners that defy those expectations every day.)

As for me, I do almost no preparation for my post-moderns. After all, we do not employ historical criticism, we do not consult bible dictionaries, and we do not wonder about Greek verb tenses. In this lab mixture, those elements don’t react. The accelerant this class needs is imagination. I’m relevant in this class only if I can spin the story in such a way that it makes someone say, “I wonder how much Martha was cursing in the kitchen while Mary was out anointing Jesus.” As often as not, someone else will provide this critical element for our conversation.

It is a group that cares about process. I have tried to explain how it works to guest facilitators before, but I usually just sound dim: “Well, we read the scripture, and then sometimes I have them take a specific role, and then I’ll read it again and have them imagine the experience of it. Then sometimes I’ll split them up to talk about it, but usually it just takes off on its own. It’s hard to explain.”

“Do I need to prepare some questions or something?”

“Well, that wouldn’t hurt, but most of the time it just depends on who’s there. The questions are different depending on who’s in the room and who’s imagining what part and who’s in a small group with whom.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know them that well.”

“It’s okay, they know each other already.”

Blank stare.

“Okay, last week,” I say, “we’re doing the story of the paralytic whose friends dug through the roof and a few of class decide to play the part of the paralytic. But he hasn’t any lines, right? So they start to imagine what he might have been thinking. And for some, he’s happy to be healed and for some he’s not. So, there’s an interesting conversation there about what we want from God. It’s not something I would have come up with on my own because I wouldn’t have prepared a lesson about someone with no lines.

“I ask the friends of the paralytic what it’s like to hear that perhaps the paralytic doesn’t want to be healed. Some of them start talking about what it’s like to have friends who are hurting themselves and won’t accept their help—or who think that their approach, which is trusting that God wants something better for their friend, is foolish. So, there’s another interesting conversation. These happen in two or three small groups all across the room, sometimes at the same time. So, just walk around, listen to the conversations, and draw out what you can to the whole group.”

Another blank stare.

“Just start them with something. They’ll take it over, I promise. You and I aren’t that important to the process really.”

Now, to distinguish between my two labs, I’ve had to make some generalizations about their paradigms, but I am often astonished at the differences. Once, as an experiment, I used one of the regular processes from the post-modern lab with my modernists. We were studying the letter Paul wrote to the Philippians. It is a letter, I thought. It is good to hear it in that context. We will have the class imagine themselves as the letter’s recipient—not just in the abstract, but in the particular.

“For instance, Miranda, you’ll be Euodia, and Laura, you’re Syntyche. They’re not getting along, right? When I read this, how does it change the letter to hear your names spoken out loud? How do you feel that Paul has castigated you publicly? Do you think that would change your relationship with Paul, your pastor? How? And you, Mark and Ginny, can be the folks who have worked so hard to gather an offering to send on to Paul. When he gets to the end of this very warm letter, how are you going to receive this language that suddenly goes a little cold and business-like about your gift?”

It was an experiment to move them away from an academic study of scripture and into the lived realities of the early church—into a place where these people have feelings, where Paul is imperfect, where Philippians is not scripture but a pastoral letter. They looked at me suspiciously but submitted to the experiment. After all, I have the degree and the collar.

The experiment was a disaster. The paradigm of how scripture works, did not allow for it to work that way for them. In their small groups afterward, I could tell that they had nothing to say to each other.

These are not people afraid of interpreting scripture. They are not afraid of getting their hands dirty with its context or its ulterior motives. After all, this is what historical criticism has wrought, the notion that we can get behind the text and have a greater insight into what the author intends. My experiment failed miserably because I framed it as an act of imagination rather than an act of inquiry. The notion of deconstruction wasn’t terrible to them. It was the notion of reconstructing the letter with unknown pieces that was the part that felt inauthentic. After all, they had been trained all these years to view the tools of modernity as enough to establish an answer to their questions. Why should they be trying to wrangle something out of a text that isn’t there, that’s imagined?

“Euodia and Syntyche were fighting, that’s clear. It says so right in chapter four. They shouldn’t have been fighting. Paul’s instructed them to make nice. Therefore, we are instructed to do the same when we have conflicts in the church. The whole church, Paul says, should help us if we can’t do it on our own. That’s what the passage says.”
My post-moderns would love this though. I can hear their conversation already, prompted by the question I hear in the text, “Have you ever been shamed by someone you looked to as a spiritual mentor? What did that do to your faith? How does that memory affect you now?”

In the end, my post-moderns aren’t interested in what the text means. They’re interested in what it could mean. That is the power of a paradigm to change how we think about what we do at church.

With these differences in mind, my question for Dr. Nishioka (and the rest of us) is this: We have had centuries of sound, theological guidance for people who interpret the scripture the first way, correctives to keep us from the perils of imagination poorly applied. They keep us from asking why we should wrangle something out of a text when it isn’t there. But if God is doing a new thing, if there are now rivers in the desert, what can we bring forward from our tradition to provide good interpretative frameworks for those who engage the text in a new way?

Questions for reflection:

  1. In what ways does the pastorate seem like an imaginative role? In what ways does that imagination help the pastor? Can it hurt?
  2. What is the advantage of modern processes for making sense of imagination? The disadvantages? What about post-modernity?
  3. Individuals can be imaginative. Can companies/large groups also be imaginative? If so, how? If not, why not?