A failure of imagination (part 2)

At this moment, as I write these words, here are two sentences that are absolutely true:

  • This morning, my wife left for the weekend to visit relatives, leaving me home by myself.
  • For dinner tonight, I ate half a bucket of fried chicken.

Here’s my question. As you read those sentences, did you make a connection between them? Did you start to write the beginnings of a story in your mind?

Maybe you thought, She probably doesn’t let him eat fried chicken, or at least not that much of it! He must have used the opportunity to indulge.

Or perhaps the story went like this: He really misses her (even if he can’t admit it). When he’s upset, he eats to feel better. Fried chicken must be his comfort food!

Notice, though, that I didn’t actually make a connection between the two sentences. I didn’t say, “Therefore, I ate half a bucket of chicken,” I just stated the facts in the order they happened.

Now let me add two more sentences, again, both true:

  • The chicken was left over from last night’s dinner.
  • At the place where we bought the chicken, half a bucket is three pieces (and believe me, they’re not huge).

Does that change the story at all?

Here’s what’s happening. “Half a bucket” sounds like an unusually large amount of chicken to eat — it’s something that needs to be explained. The fact that it’s actually only three smallish pieces would serve the purpose, but without that information we have to hunt elsewhere. Thus, in our imagination, the first sentence becomes the explanation for the second.

Neither of the interpretations (When the cat’s away, the mice will play, or He’s depressed and soothes himself with food) is true, even though they’re plausible. Here’s the real story: we bought the chicken for dinner with my mother, at her request; I like fried chicken much more than my wife does; we bought extra so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with cooking while my wife was gone, and she wouldn’t have enjoyed it anyway.

Boring, but true.

It is normal, expectable, and oh-so-human to take events and information and stitch them into stories. Imagination helps us navigate the world by learning from experience, using the past to explain the present, and the present to predict the future. And we don’t even realize we’re doing it until we’re forced to admit that our explanations and predictions were wrong.

Sometimes, imagination fails us. But like it or not, we are using it all the time — including in the way we read Scripture. We do not come to the Bible as blank slates waiting to be stamped with biblical facts and principles. We bring our own stories with us to the reading, and if we don’t recognize that the Bible has its own story to tell, we will impose our stories upon it.

I’ll try to make good on that claim in the next post.

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