So, let us begin with part one.
Imagination doesn’t receive much respect in many Christian circles. In fact, as we see fantasy and sci-fi on the rise once more in the culture, we have also seen a rise in the imagination being placed under siege by the church. Perhaps this is because many cults and new age groups embrace the imagination and make it seem very mystic in nature. Because of this, and because some people think the imagination is not rooted in reality, some Christians believe it must be bad.
However, as we have seen over and over again, the Devil likes to take beautiful things and pervert them. Our imaginations aren’t any different. Because of this, it is my aim in this post to counter the damaging viewpoint that a neglect of the imagination is healthier for a child than to foster it within them.
As created beings one of our greatest treasures, and perhaps the one that most vividly displays the fingerprint of God on us, is that of our ability to imagine, and thus the ability to create. However, not only does our imagination help us tap into an aspect of the Creator’s creative traits, it also helps us understand truth by taking what is abstract and making it concrete.
That’s right, I maintain that our imagination is actually a tool the Lord has given us to be able to understand truth. How, you might ask? Well, before we deal with the how, I’d like to establish the fact that the Bible itself promotes the use of our imagination. Don’t believe me? Let’s have a look.For starters, let me ask you all a question. What is the definition of an imagination? Don’t know? I’ll tell you. An imagination is defined this way by the modern dictionary:
1. The faculty or action of forming new ideas, images, or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.
2. The ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.
And an imagination is defined this way in the 1828 dictionary:
1. The power or faculty of the mind by which it conceives and forms ideas of things communicated to it by the organs of sense.
2. The representation of an individual thought.
3. Our simple apprehension of corporeal objects, if present, is sense; if absent, is imagination.
4. Imagination, in its proper sense, signifies a lively conception of objects of sight. It is distinguished from conception, as a part from a whole. The business of conception is to present us with an exact transcript of what we have felt or perceived. But we have also a power of modifying our conceptions, by combining the parts of different ones so as to form new wholes of our own creation. I shall employ the word imagination to express this power. I apprehend this to be the proper sense of the word, if imagination be the power which gives birth to the productions of the poet and the painter.
5. We would define imagination to be the will working on the materials of memory; not satisfied with following the order prescribed by nature, or suggested by accident, it selects the parts of different conceptions, or objects of memory, to form a whole more pleasing, more terrible, or more awful, than has ever been presented in the ordinary course of nature.
Now that we have a proper understanding of the definition of our imagination, we can continue.You know, I find it somewhat humorous that so many people look at the Bible as a theological outline with proof texts attached to it, when in fact the Bible is not that at all. It is overwhelmingly literary in its form. Not that it is fiction, but that it is literary. It is told in story format. Why is the natural question that comes to my mind. I mean, why did Jesus, when asked to define "neighbor," tell a story instead of just giving a textbook definition. He spoke, as He so often did, using images and metaphors to convey His meaning to His audience.
Here is a sampling of examples:Hebrews 4:12: -”For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”
Jeremiah 23:29: – “”Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
Psalms 119:105: – “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light for my path.”Matthew 4:4: – “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
1 Peter 1:25-2:2:”But the word of the Lord stands forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.”
1 Peter 1:23: – “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.“
James 1:22-25: – “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.”
Or how about scripture verses like the ones found in Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34-- “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”
"I am the light of the world."
"You are the salt of the earth."
“As iron sharpens iron.”
The lists could go on, but I think we get the picture. The Bible is replete with so many metaphoric, and literary, statements.
So, back to my earlier question. Why?
Why is the Bible so literary, and why does the Lord use so many metaphoric phrases which require our imagination in order to comprehend. After all, the most customary form of expressing God's truth to a child (be it an actual child, a babe in Christ, or the unsaved who have not even undergone birth in Christ yet) is not through a sermon or theological outline, but through literary form which feeds and fuels the imagination. In fact, the truth of the matter is, not only does the Bible allow for the imagination to be used as a form of communication, it also sanctions the imagination as a tool by using this tool in its own pages.
Think about it. The poetry of the Psalms, the images and metaphors of the New Testament. The stories of men and women of the faith which the Old Testament is replete with.
See, in order to answer the question of why, we have to remember that our Creator knows every intricate detail surrounding how our brains works. In fact, He created our brains to work the way they do. So this leads us to wonder, does the Creator know something about our brains that we do not? If He is the creator and inspiration behind The Word of God, then surely it was no accident that He wrote it in such a way that it appealed to not only the logical side of us, but also the imaginative side of us, right?
Truth is not merely conceptual and propositional, as we so often like to think. In fact, there is a whole other side to our brain by which people assimilate and know truth. The right side of the brain.
Recent brain research shows that the two hemispheres of the human brain respond to stimuli, and therefore digest, understand, and integrate reality, in different ways. The left hemisphere is active in logical thinking; i.e. grasping abstract propositions and dealing with language. The right hemisphere is dominant in processing visual and other sensory experiences; i.e. in seeing whole-part relationships, in grasping metaphor and humor, and in experiencing emotion.
So, isn’t it interesting that if the Bible were merely a dissertation on theological truths, only the left side of our brain would be taking in and receiving the word of God? Whereas the way in which the Lord has chosen to have the Bible written not only targets both sides of our brain, but it allows both sides of our brain to process what is being ingested.
We erroneously think that our Christian world view consists only of ideas when in fact a Christian world view consists not only of doctrines, but also word pictures that can only be processed through the imagination. We are influenced in our Christian lives by pictures of Cain and Abel, Mary and Martha, David and Jonathan, Joseph and his brothers, as well as doctrines of providence and justice.
The Westminster Confession of Faith defines providence thus: "God the Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence."
That is one way to grasp providence. That is the left brain’s way of grasping providence. The right brain, however, grasps providence by reading Psalm 23 which fills our imaginations with the images that comprise the daily routine of a shepherd and his sheep, thus demonstrating to us in a real and tangible way our relationship with our Lord.
Moral instruction is not simply about knowing factually what’s right and wrong (though that’s part of it); it’s about learning to feel affection toward certain virtues and revulsion toward others. When you think about it, that’s how the Scriptures often work. The Proverbs, for instance, paint a vivid picture of the revolting tragedy of adultery (Proverbs 7).
Another example is that Jesus doesn’t simply speak about God’s forgiveness in the abstract. He tells a story about a prodigal son, designed to elicit sympathy and identification. The apostles do the same thing. They employ literary, visual language meant to appeal not just to the intellect but also to the conscience through the imagination. Think of the Apostle Paul’s language of “laboring until Christ is formed in you,” or his use of literary themes in the OT like the fruit of the Spirit, and so on.
Fiction can sometimes, like Nathan the prophet’s story of the lamb (2nd Samuel 12), awaken parts of us that we have calloused over, due to ignorance, laziness, or inattention to our sin.
My brother is a good example of this. Everyone knows the basics about my brother. They also know he died two years ago, and they are okay with that knowledge. It’s not that they don’t care; this information, the fact that my family has endured the loss of a child, is just very easy to take in on the left side of the brain. It’s a fact. Samuel died. But, if I start talking about Samuel, if I tell stories, if I dig into the emotional aspect of having lost my brother, that is when this information passes over to the right side of the brain. That’s when my brother’s death really sinks in and makes an impact on people. That’s the side of the brain that takes truths to heart. That’s also the part that most people don’t want to hear.
All human progress has been born out of imagination -- the ability to "see" things differently than they are. Without our imaginations, we would be unable to imagine things. Without the logical side of our brain, we would be unable to put those imaginings into action. Both sides are needed. The logical and the imagination.
But, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying our imaginations are perfect and shouldn’t be bridled. Our imagination didn’t escape the fall or its effects. It is neither more depraved, nor less depraved, than our own minds and intellect. While I do believe that our imagination is one of the greatest gifts and tools given to mankind, I think that also makes it quite susceptible to, and capable of, sin.Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr said that "we are far more image-making and image-using creatures than we usually think ourselves to be. Humans are creatures who grasp and shape reality with the aid of great images, metaphors, and analogies".
When we revile the imagination, we spit on one of the greatest blessings, and assets, the Lord has given us. And in an effort to suppress it, we often take away some of our greatest recourses for teaching children. Resources like fairytales and fantasy, which is what we will discuss in part two of this miniseries.