Sanctified Imagination: Part 3 – Scriptural Imagination

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the positive place imagination, and specifically a sanctified imagination, can have in the life of faith. The first post in this little series looked at why imagination has been controversial within Christianity; the second looked at the role the imaginative symbols of visions and dreams have played in the mystical tradition. Today, I’d like to turn to using imagination in Scripture reading.

Like the visions we thought about last week, the Scriptures — both specific practices like Ignatian Gospel contemplation, but also the general hermeneutical approach of Pentecostalism and Black Christianity — have been a place where Christians have met with God. While far from the academic, ‘crack the kernel’ hermeneutics of the academy and fundamentalism, this represents in its own way a very “High” view of Scripture: It understands Scripture as the living and active Word of God for today. It has something to say to us today, and that something may have little or everything to do with the original intent of the passage.

It is easy to dismiss these approaches as “playing pretend,” since they seem to erase the boundary between text and interpretation. This is no small point, and I’ll return to it later. But, when it comes to imaginative readings of Scripture, the proof is, as they say, in the pudding. (Or as Jesus put it, the tree shall be known by its fruit.) I have known people whose lives have been changed by these practices. One story in particular stands out.

A young woman, whom I’ll call Abi here, had been shamed and ostracized at her Christian high school after a sex scandal. She carried this shame with her into her early adulthood, believing that she had alienated herself from God. But in a Gospel contemplation on John 8, the story commonly known as “Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery” (though it should probably be renamed “Jesus Opposes a Patriarchal Vigilante Mob”), she imagined herself there in the dusty streets, hearing the screams of the mob, and her fear of imminent death at their hands. And then she saw Jesus step in between her and the mob. She realized in that moment that her actions as a teen had not separated her from God at all; God had not been standing with those who had turned against her and shamed her, but had been instead standing there defending her. This was more than a simple application of the text. It was the smell of the dirt, the screams of the mob, the taste of her tears — it was becoming the woman in the story that allowed her to embody its message of grace. While few of us would have such a dramatic experience of that text, Abi’s Gospel contemplation produced a beautiful and healing — and therefore true — appropriation of the story.

There are two truths I’d like to draw out from this story. First, using the imagination allows us a fuller engagement with the text. It’s not just thinking about it, but in a sense living it. Just as visualizing the perfect routine or play has been shown to improve athletic performance, so too can we use our imaginations to give us a more fully sensory and embodied experience of what we read in the Scriptures. We can in this way read these stories with our whole self and not just our minds. And because our bodies remember our pain and trauma, this can have a revolutionary impact.

Second, as I mentioned the other week, much of Christianity’s suspicion of the imagination is rooted in the question of knowledge and the interplay between what is and what is not. But, Abi’s story demonstrates a different — and opposite — way we can understand this tension. Her imagination allowed her to flip the script she had been given by her community. In this way, the tension between what is and what is not can allow us to see alternatives to what it is, and become a source of hope, resilience, and resistance. We’ll revisit this idea in the next post in the series.

So, in at least these two ways, imaginative approaches to the Scriptures can be beautiful and beneficial allies in our life of faith. But, the criticism remains: Don’t they erase the boundary between text and interpretation in a problematic way?

For me at least, the answer is both yes and no. No matter how much I may appreciate imaginative readings of Scripture, the personal encounters with God they can inspire remain just that: they are God speaking to the reader in their present circumstances through the Biblical text, which must always retain its own meaning and interpretation that is distinct from, and perhaps quite different from, that experience. These experiences can inform our more general reading of the text, but must not overwhelm it.

Sarah Bessey writes of this sort of experience in her book Out of Sorts. She grew up in a third-wave charismatic church and as a child, her parents had given her a Bible verse to be her “Life Verse”: “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord.” In context, this verse would have little to say about the life of a middle class Christian girl living on the Canadian prairies. They are not generalized words of promise; but rather a specific message delivered to the Judahite leaders exiled in Babylon, containing both harsh words of discipline as well as specific words of promise. Bessey writes of how important the words were for her as a child, of her disillusionment with them as she came to a more critical understanding of the text, and then of how she came to reappropriate them and of the significance they played in her life as she dealt with miscarriages and chronic pain. The text was, is, and forever will be about God’s promises to God’s people living in exile; and yet those words also articulated the biggest, best, most sanctified dreams her parents had for her, and she was able to appropriate their message of God’s faithfulness and providence as her own.

Separating text and interpretation is important because we all have the tendency to universalize our own experiences. And nowhere is this more relevant and dangerous than in our theology. But, this isn’t just a problem for people we think of as more mystically or imaginatively inclined. Martin Luther had a powerful experience of God, but then proceeded to claim that his experience was the fundamental issue facing all of humanity (It’s not), and read the entire Scripture and all of Christian theology through that (faulty) lens, thereby severely misinterpreting both Paul and Judaism, and passing that misinterpretation down to pretty much all of the Protestant tradition. And so, the warning about not confusing text and interpretation is just a solid hermeneutical principle, not something that specifically opposes more creative, imaginative ways of engaging the Scriptures.

If we think of my four-fold integral hermeneutic framework, our readings which emerge from such practices remain firmly in the first step, which must be fleshed out, challenged by, and integrated within the insights provided the steps which follow: who we encounter in the text, what we can learn from the historical and literary context, and what cultural baggage both we and the text are bringing to the table. Our readings are at most just one small part of what the text means. (And this is true even if you’re Martin Luther.) As the Jewish saying goes, the Scriptures are “black fire upon white fire” — we would be foolish to limit them to one meaning (especially if it’s our own); they are powerful, wild and unpredictable and should be treated accordingly.

And so this post is going to end with both encouragement and challenge for everyone who reads and loves the Scriptures. By all means, take and read — by whatever means the Spirit leads. But also, keep in mind the limitations of our personal readings. Our experiences of God in Scripture are beautiful and can change our lives; but the Scriptures are bigger than them. And thank God for that.

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