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How often do those of us who are Christians stop to think about the place of imagination in reading the Bible? Among big ideas like exegesis and hermeneutics, where does imagination fit in? With most books, it’s unremarkable to say that we need imagination to read them well. But Christians sometimes get nervous about imagination and the Bible. Doesn’t using our imaginations mean we’re going to be making up a lot of stuff in our heads that isn’t actually there in the text? Isn’t imagination the pathway to fanciful speculation, even to false teaching and heresy?
But when the Bible calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (see Rom. 12:2), it isn’t just talking about mind in a narrow sense of the intellect. The Bible has an integrated view of the human heart, which encompasses not only what we think and believe but also how we feel, imagine, and desire. What’s more, imagination helps us steal past what C. S. Lewis called the “watchful dragons” of overfamiliarity and the sense of obligation to feel the “right” responses to the Bible that can freeze feelings.1 Let’s explore the place that imagination plays in engaging with the Bible.
Invention vs. Understanding
First, it is necessary to distinguish between different senses of imagination. We use the word imagination both for the faculty of invention but also in a sense that underpins the faculty of understanding. Imagination often means invention, creating new ideas. This kind of creativity is a wonderful thing in many contexts — but invention is misplaced if it is the source of our philosophy or theology. If we’re serious about the pursuit of truth, then we need an external reference point less malleable than our own imaginations. For Christians, we seek to ground our beliefs in what we believe to be God’s revelation to us, in the person of Jesus Christ and as recorded in the Bible as His inspired word, rather than our own speculation or desires. “I’d like to believe that…” can easily lead to wish-fulfilment versions of Christianity (or other belief systems). The Bible calls this kind of wish-fulfilment belief idolatry, and the prophets criticize those who “walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations” (Isaiah 65:2 NIV) or that “prophesy out of their own imagination” (Ezekiel 13:2, 17 NIV) — that is, they set up their own invented ideas as a source of spiritual truth.
Non-Christians typically view Christian beliefs as being “invented” in this way. Space does not allow me to explore the historical and factual evidence for the truth of the Christian story in this article. But I will observe that I find the Christian faith to have a counter-intuitive quality that defies any easy explanation as mere wish-fulfilment. Religion can be a form of mere escapism if it’s rooted in imagination alone, unmoored from any principle of truth, reason, or empirical enquiry. But Christianity in its healthy and biblical forms grapples with the big questions of reality through use of the imagination, seeking to understand and embrace truth as revealed to us by God.
This brings us to a wider sense of the term imagination: imagination as a means of understanding, of bringing truth to life vividly. The Bible is full of stories, metaphors, images, poetry, and other literary techniques that engage our imaginations to bring truth to life. Here the imagination is anchored in God’s revelation to us, engaged in receiving it in full technicolor. Imagination in this sense is an essential part of theology, a way of fully understanding, embracing, and fleshing out truth in all its dimensions.
Part of evangelism and apologetics is encouraging non-believers to enter the willing suspension of disbelief needed to experience the Christian story, and really understand what Christians believe. Before any claim can be believed or disbelieved in an informed way, we need to enter into it and let its claims have their impact on us emotionally and psychologically.2 You need imagination to understand what any claim means before you can evaluate its truth. An important part of the work of apologetics and evangelism is simply inviting people to encounter the gospel story in all its fullness and beauty.
Tuning Our Imaginations
How does imagination work, exactly? One way of thinking about imagination and reading is that the words on the page are like the musical score for a story, and our imaginations are the instrument on which the story is played. But like a musical instrument, our imaginations can be in tune or out of tune, played well or played badly. We might be out of practice or not have developed good habits for bringing the text to life in our heads as we read.
How can we make sure that we have well-tuned imaginations, which are led and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, capable of grasping the goodness, beauty, and truth of the Bible, in all its rich variety of stories and songs, histories and epistles, poetry and prophecy? A big part is immersion. The more we familiarize ourselves with the storyline of the Bible, with its repeated images and motifs, the more our imaginations will attune themselves to the melodies of God’s Word. The Bible communicates spiritual truth through material means. Think of gardens, trees, snakes, water, fire, blood. All of these are key themes and images that run through the Bible. All of them are things we can touch and feel and imagine. Like a musician practicing day after day, the more we use our imagination to grasp the good, the true, and the beautiful, the more in-tune the instrument of our imagination becomes.
There is much that could be said about this, but I want to suggest four key aspects that will help us engage God’s Word with more understanding and deeper delight and worship:
- Pray for God to speak to your whole person. The imagination isn’t an end in itself; nor is the Bible as a text. The Bible is a means of God’s communication to us; it is a means to the end of relationship, obedience, and love. The point of using the imagination is to connect more deeply with the One who is speaking to us by His Spirit in His Word. So, pray that the Holy Spirit will guide your imagination and help you to engage more deeply with Him through your whole person — heart and mind and soul and imagination — responding to the Bible.
- Practice reading it aloud engagingly. Sometimes Bible reading in church or other contexts is, sadly, rather perfunctory and not given the attention or preparation that, say, music or preaching is. But reading aloud with expression and understanding is really helpful for letting the Bible play in our imaginations as we read or listen to it being read. You don’t need to ham it up with different voices or shouting out loudly — though for the right passage and done well it can be fun(!) — but simply attentively and with care.
- Read large chunks quickly. Often Christians read the Bible in tiny little devotional chunks, a few verses or perhaps a chapter at a time. Or they jump around, reading a bit from here, a bit from there. To some extent that’s understandable — the Bible is a library, not a single continuous work (though there is a connecting story arc). But such habits are also very unnatural ways of reading a book, particularly the narrative sections of the Bible. You can better enter a story and get caught up in it by reading longer sections at a time — reading whole Bible books in a few sittings, like you would any other story. Read fast, get the flow of the story!
- Chew over details slowly. Reading both fast and slow helps us see the text in different ways. Once you’ve got an overall sense of a Bible book or story, using the imagination to savor the details can be a rich way of meditating on it. Focus in on a particular image, like that of God’s Word as honey, or a particular scene or event, such as Moses before the Burning Bush. Use your imagination to engage your senses, to taste the honey, or to feel the heat of the fire. Let the text come to life in your mind, so that you can dwell deeply on its meaning and implications and let yourself be moved by the story.
Imagination and Experience
Imagination also helps close the gap between the truths the Bible communicates and our own experience. One aspect of this is empathy — imagination allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of biblical characters and to see the connection between their actions and stories and our own. This was the prophet Nathan’s technique when he confronted King David about his adultery with Bathsheba. The prophet didn’t begin by tackling David’s sin head-on, but by telling a parable, a story through which David could empathize with the person who had suffered injustice at the hands of the powerful (2 Samuel 12). Imagination engaged David’s sense of justice and compassion — and then turned that sense back on himself, making him realize that he was the bad guy in the story.3
Another example, discussed by Andrew Peterson and Tim Mackie in their Hutchmoot Podcast discussion of “The Trees at the Heart of Creation” is that of metaphor.4 When the Psalmist talks about God’s Word being sweeter than honey to the mouth, we understand more deeply the truth of this if we take the time to imagine and bring to mind the taste of honey, sticky and dripping, filling our mouths with sweetness. It connects an aspect of God’s creation that we experience through our senses with our experience of receiving God’s Word. Metaphorical language connects us to the spiritual reality of the goodness of God’s Word.
The trouble is that many images become so familiar that we gloss over them. Let’s take a non-Biblical example — when something is easy, a writer might use the phrase “like a knife through butter.” But do you actually stop to bring in your experience of knives and butter to bear on your reading of that? On a cold day, or if you have kept butter in the fridge, it can be quite tough to put a knife through butter! It’s become a stock phrase, a cliché that no longer evokes the sensory experience it refers to, failing to deepen our understanding.
Past Watchful Dragons
Some biblical metaphors have likewise become worn out or have references that are unfamiliar today. How many of us really understand shepherding or sheep as much as Jesus’ first hearers? One of the ways we can enrich our understanding of the Bible is to seek out the realities that it uses as metaphors. We need to attend well to God’s creation, so that biblical metaphors hit home with their intended force. Consider the sheep on the hillside — if you have observed their wanderings, it adds depth and dimension to Jesus’ parables!
Or if we can’t get out and about to experience it, then stories or vivid historical description can help fill out the meaning of biblical images and metaphors. This is where Christian artistry and imagination can play a tremendously important role to make different images and ideas unfamiliar — to explore them in new ways that, as noted, steal past Lewis’s “watchful dragons” of overfamiliarity. Think of Aslan, and how the Narnia stories refresh and revive the way we imagine lions, kingship, and power. How many Christians have had their sense of awe at God’s power deepened through the understanding that Aslan is good but not tame, because he is the King?
We fuel our imaginations by experiencing the world in all its richness. We sharpen our imaginations by encountering art that gives us fresh eyes with which to see the world. We tune our imaginations to the song of God’s story by immersing ourselves in the biblical narratives. We can then imagine what the kingdom of God might look like in our own lives and in the life of the world. Imagination isn’t meant for escape, but for transformation — so be transformed by the renewing of your imagination.
Caleb Woodbridge lives in Cardiff, Wales and is Publishing Director of IVP Books UK (www.ivpbooks.com). He sees his calling as engaging creatively and critically with culture for Christ and writes about the intersection of faith, imagination, and story in his newsletter Bigger on the Inside (www.biggerinside.co.uk).
- C. S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say What’s Best to Be Said,” in Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1966), 37.
- We owe this too to other worldviews, to imaginatively enter into them to understand them, though care is needed not to lose our grounding in a biblical view of reality — see also my previous article “Choose Your Own Enchantment: Freedom and Conscience in What We Watch,” Christian Research Journal 40, no. 02 (2017), available online at https://www.equip.org/article/choose-your-own-enchantment-freedom-and-conscience-in-what-we-watch/.
- For more on the connection between empathy and imagination, see Mary McCampbell, Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022).
- Andrew Peterson & Tim Mackie, ‘The Trees at the Heart of Creation’, The Rabbit Room, https://rabbitroom.com/2022/01/hutchmoot-podcast-video-the-trees-at-the-heart-of-creation/.