Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Faith and Imagination

Have you ever thought about the role imagination plays in your faith?  Um...not me.  

I am girl with imagination.  Tons.   When my girls were babies I spontaneously made up dialogue for them and spoke both parts.  My husband contends that they were early talkers out of self-defense.  My kids have survived many a long bus or train ride by begging, "Tell us a story!" I am a long-term lover of novels, poetry and finding the pictures in clouds.  

But when I recently read Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster, I stumbled with some suspicion over his emphasis on imagination as an important part of meditation, prayer and Bible study. "Isn't using our "imagination" the exact opposite of knowing the truth?  We don't need to "imagine" things about God," I mumbled to myself, "because he revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ." 

The book was intriguing though, so I had to read more.  Foster points out that imagination allows us to both study and meditate upon the Bible properly.  No one who loves history fails to indulge himself by imagining what it would be like to stand by as Caesar declares, "Veni, vidi vici."  Standing in the middle of S-21 prison, my imagination was inundated with the sounds, smells, and horrors of the past.  Don't we picture the Bible in the same way?  

If we don't read with imagination, the text will be dead.  Not only impossibly boring but impossible to understand.  The Bible is by majority either story or poem with an important smattering of doctrinal teaching.  Stories demand we participate via our imagination.  When our children are born, we understand what Mary must have felt in the stable when her tiny son came into the world? (Luke 2)  We've found ourselves crushed by the crowd as the roof comes up and dirt rains down. To our surprise a man is lowered through the hole. Didn't we heard him declare the man's sins forgiven? (Luke 5) Surely as we gather around the table at communion, we envision ourselves standing at the foot of the cross the sun dark, the earth quaking, the bloodthirsty crowd calling raucously (Matthew 27). 

Without imagination, not only are stories cold but "figurative language"- in other words the language of poetry, parables, and metaphor- is out of reach. The doctrines of God as our Shepherd, Jesus as our vine, or the Spirit as our helper invites us to imagine the parallels. 

Foster also encourages the use imagination in prayer. This was even more difficult for me to understand because there was no obvious parallel (like the connection between normal imaginative reading and Bible reading).  Prayer seemed straightforward to me. What imagination is needed really?  But then I got to thinking about some Biblical prayers-including the psalms (Check out Psalm 28 for an example of imaginative prayer).  The prayer/songs we sing also call for mental imagery. Sanctuary, for example, calls us to imagine ourselves a temple and asks the Lord to direct the preparation.  

Still, in my personal prayers, how could imagination help me?  Foster says this, "Frequently our lack is not faith but compassion.  It seems that genuine empathy between the pray-er and the pray-ee often makes the difference...Compassion was an evident feature of every healing in the New Testament."  James says that effective prayer is fervent (James 5:16). Where does that fervency come if not from compassion?  And outside of imagination, compassion (literally imagining that the other person's suffering is our own) is impossible. 

I received Celebration of Discipline on loan from a friend who found it foundational in his personal journey into the Christian disciplines.  It was a deep and worthy book. I'd recommend because it changed my mind. That's a rare quality in a book, to challenge our preconceptions and win.  I find that these days I am engaging more of my mind as I read my Bible, tell Bible stories to my children, pray or meditate.  I haven't left reason behind but added more warm imagination and my soul is better for it.    

Helene

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. 

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