Engaging Scripture Imaginatively

I think it’d be extremely revealing if someone were to conduct a study on born again Bible readers to gauge the sensitivity of their imaginative reflexes. Do they enjoy reading Tolkien? De la Mare? Poe? Dante? Or is all of this too fanciful, too unreal? This takes us right to the heart of my concern: How do believers respond to the word pictures the biblical writers paint? If you think this is a non-issue, I’d like you to answer a couple of questions for me: What in the world does “But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-23) mean? What does it mean that God has “raised us up with him [Jesus] and seated us with him in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6)? Or when Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:51)? How does the imagery of these verses point you towards truth? Do they grip at your heart, or are they just needlessly ornate phrases?

What am I getting at? I fear that the absence of a vibrant imagination in an enormous segment of born again churchgoers necessarily threatens their ability to integrate and apply the mindbending realities that the Bible reveals. Dry, lifeless reading equals insipid interpretation. Only imaginatively engaged reading will fuel a vibrant living out of the faith. Let’s examine some principles of hermeneutics to see why that is.

According to philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, truth is uncovered through the fusion of a reader’s horizon (a horizon being an historical, cultural perspective and knowledge set) with the horizon of a text. This fusion takes place when horizons come to terms with each other and find common ground. This keeps the circuit of communication open and unlocks further, deeper understanding and allows the reader to uncover what is there. Horizons never arrive at perfect overlap, but this interactive dialogue facilitates their movement towards a more complete overlap. It is in this kind of dialogical setting that truth, if it is present in the text, will disclose itself for our appropriation.

Of course, it doesn’t always happen like this. Our daily track records of misunderstandings are proof enough of that. As our horizon encounters the horizon of a text, we are frequently “pulled up short,” to use Gadamer’s phrase. A wall suddenly springs up in front of us, blocking our progress and clouding our comprehension. This may only happen a few times if the reader’s horizon and the text’s are mostly similar, but it is guaranteed to happen. It happens because there is a gulf between our horizon and the horizon of the text, a foreignness that reminds us, “This is something other, something that is not me.” Prejudgments are common obstacles to the fusion of horizons because one party will often refuse to make an attempt at dialogue with the other. Another serious obstacle is imagination.

According to Gadamer, imagination is the faculty by which the questionable is unveiled. Imagination allows the picturing in our minds of what can at best be half understood propositionally. Imagination is a vital tool for making the otherness of the text more relatable to us. It gives us what is lacking in our horizon so that we can respond to the text’s demands and continue the dialogue. The gap between the reader and the world of the text must be spanned imaginatively for the spark to flow. The emerging problem is probably obvious by now: What if the demands of the text exceed the imaginative grasp of the reader? We will be pulled up short, but we won’t be able to negotiate the otherness presented by the text. The text’s attempts to reach us will bounce right off, deflected by our feeble imaginations. 

On a flat reading of the three passages I opened this essay with, what value will these statements have for transforming our understanding of what reality is? What our place within it is? Who God is? How does it transform what we think of worship? How God is reshaping us to enjoy freedom and abundant life? I promise you there will be no transformative power unleashed from these passages if they’re simply read and passed over without the mind’s eye grasping what they picture.

What that really means is that if we can’t see what Scripture is describing or apprehend its storyline, we can’t truly believe it. If our imaginations are arid wastelands then the Word won’t take root in our understanding and our reading will be fruitless. It is imperative therefore that believers cultivate their imaginations in order to truly cling to all that the Bible says. Without this imaginative growth, the Bible will not be lit in our understandings beyond the dim flickering of a match. Vague, indiscernible shapes will be seen briefly and then passed over without comprehension. The contents of Scripture will only be seen in their fullness and appreciated when the imagination burns with the brilliance of ten thousand LEDs.

If we really want to do more with the Bible than nibble at it and sample its contents then our imaginations must become well-watered pastures for literary devices to roam about and play within. We must fight the conditioning we’ve been exposed to that tells us imagination is something childish and beneath us. Our minds are burdened with the inertia of our culture’s bland naturalism. What are we to do then? Renew your mind! Purposefully flex the muscles of your imagination with fiction. Nourish it with imaginative novels, stories, plays, and movies, and paintings and cultivate the vocabulary and grammar of imagination. We must not be complacent about this- we must not let our imaginations atrophy in this way if we want to grasp hold of what God holds out for us. 

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