A failure of imagination (part 1)

It’s one thing to read a story.

It’s another to enter it.

Some stories entertain. Some stories teach.

And some stories create worlds for us to inhabit.

I think I was in junior high the first time I read The Lord of the Rings. Once I started reading, it was hard to stop. I would hurriedly down my dinner so I could run back to my room, flop down on my bed, and get back to the story.

I doubt much homework got done during those days.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth was a fantastical place of dwarves and elves, wizards, and of course, hobbits. It wasn’t a place I simply read about; it was a place I visited in my imagination, joining the characters on their quest. When the quest was over and the tale told, I felt like I had been away on a journey, and was sad to leave my newfound companions behind.

I know. Some of you may be thinking, Oh, he’s one of thoseDon’t care much for fantasy-land myself. 

That’s okay. I get it. I just want you to consider the possibility that the Bible is that kind of story.

It will take some time to explain what that means. So please be patient as I work out some of the main ideas over the next few posts.

To begin: when I say that the Bible is “that kind of story,” I don’t mean a fictional tale about places and creatures that don’t exist in real life. I mean a story that is meant to captivate our imagination, to shape the way we see the world, to mold our hopes and desires.

Sometimes, the word “imagination” itself gets a bad rap. In Western civilization, we have long been in the grip of an elusive desire for certainty and facts, for the kind of truth that can be demonstrated by scientific means. And many of the great cultural and technological advances we take for granted have been the result of that way of thinking.

From that perspective though, using your imagination can become synonymous with living in la-la land. At best, it’s a waste of time. At worst, it’s an irresponsible flight from reality.

What that misses, of course, is the way that we use our imaginations all the time, even in science. Isaac Newton imagined the universe to be precisely ordered and organized, and therefore worth studying in the first place, all as a way of honoring the God who created it. And even scientists who don’t profess any particular faith must envision how their theories would — or should, if true! — extend to new situations that haven’t been studied. No imagination, no hypotheses to test.

Unfortunately, that same prejudice against imagination and story has also been applied to how we read and interpret the Bible, and ironically, the influence can run all the way to opposite extremes. At one extreme is the kind of biblical criticism that imperiously claims to sort fact from fiction: Jesus said this, but obviously couldn’t have said this, and so on.

The other extreme is reactionary. Some fear that biblical scholarship is the same thing as tearing the Bible to pieces. Thus, they retreat into personal piety: the Bible simply means what I think it means on a first reading, and exists just to encourage me in my own walk with Jesus.

That, of course, is a gross oversimplification of a very complicated history, and there are many places to stand between the extremes.

But the point is that something has been lost in all this. The German theologian Hans Frei once called it “the eclipse of biblical narrative.” Where once people read the Bible as a grand story into which we could enter, we now tend to read it as a sourcebook of inspiration and ideas. In much preaching, for example, parables are boiled down to principles: once you get the kernel of “truth” in the story, the story itself becomes merely chaff.

No, I’m not saying that stories don’t have such “kernels” of truth. But I am saying that we lose something important when our main way of reading the Bible is to ransack it for moral or spiritual principles and behavioral rules that leave the big and little stories of Scripture behind.

Stay with me over the next couple of posts, and I’ll spin out more of what this means, beginning with the role of imagination in everyday life.

2 thoughts on “A failure of imagination (part 1)

  1. This speaks deeply to me. My college experience and choices put me on a path of science and yet my faith was strong; so as I get older, examination of the way my mind has worked habitually is necessary and fruitful. I look forward to the next series of posts.

  2. It was interesting, but not surprising, that last Sunday I had a discussion with someone who stated “fiction” was always untrue. I was saying that all good or great fiction, like that of C.S. Lewis, had to be founded on truth. And that is why it can, and does, change the life of the reader. I will try to get a copy of this post to him. Thank you!

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