**Before I even get started, obviously, I could never begin to explain the ‘imagination of God.” My sole purpose in this blog is to simply point out that our imagination is a God-given gift. More than that, it’s a significant component of being “made in the image of God.” i.e. Imago Dei.
Now, let’s dive in…
Have you ever thought about the fact that our imaginations are part of being made in God’s image?I hadn’t until just a few years ago. But, when I was presented with this as a grad student it was, for me, a paradigm shift.
Our imagination is a gift from God so that, like him, we might be able to create, to connect, and speak to people in ways words cannot.
We all know the adage, “A picture says a thousand words.”
Let’s create a statement and then juxtapose that statement against a picture to see if the picture helps “say” things the statement couldn’t quite communicate.
Statement: Jesus loves you so much he suffered and died for you.
Or, this one…
Statement: When we hurt, Jesus hurts.
Statement: The prodigal son collapsed into his father’s arms, broken and pleading for forgiveness.
We could do this for a while. But, you get the idea.
This applies to any facet of the arts. It’s why we can look at, and contemplate, a piece of art for hours on end. Or be deeply moved by a piece of music.
I remember sitting speechless, tears in my eyes, watching the Broadway musical, Les Miserables, when I, for the first time, heard Fantine cry out in pain in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and Jean Valjean offer his prayer though ‘Bring Him Home.’ I was affected for days.
Like God using sunsets, nature (there are approximately 369,000 species of flowers on earth) and the cosmos, the creator/composer/sculptor, etc., is always speaking through his/her creation.
Have you ever stopped and thought about why God chose the following as the first five words of our Bible:
Oh the creativity – the ‘imagination’ – of Almighty God! Clearly, God places a great deal of importance on artistry. Have you ever been enraptured by, for instance, a mountain range, or the ocean, or a waterfall?
So, does God use artistry in his written Word, as well, to appeal to the imagination he placed in each one of us? (glad you asked)
A metaphor is a figure of speech used to paint mental pictures that help ‘give meaning to the data.’ (I’ll return to that axiomatic phrase often.) And the Bible is replete them: light, darkness, sheep, wine, lost, found, pottery, armor, athletics, agriculture, the list goes on.
Is it any surprise that Jesus is called “the Lamb of God,” or “the Lion from the tribe of Judah” to help explain to our intellect his sacrificial atonement and his power to conquer death? Both of those metaphors are “mental pictures God painted” for us. In John’s gospel alone, Jesus refers to himself, metaphorically, as “the bread of life,” “the gate/door,” “the good shepherd,” “the resurrection and the life,” “the vine,” and “the way, the truth and the life.”
A former professor of mine, Oxford’s Michael Ward, astutely, wrote,
“A metaphor is like a map,…intended to help the reader (or listener) arrive at the truth.”
‘A brief survey of (CS Lewis’) ‘Mere Christianity’ supplies the following list [of brilliant metaphors]: becoming a Christian is like…buying God a present with his own money;…a tin soldier or statue coming alive, waking from a long sleep;…a compass needle swinging to North;…coming around from anesthetic;…like going home.”
(Oh, I love that quote.)
How about poetry? Poetry is the sublime art of literature.
So, it should also come as no surprise that a great deal of the Bible is given to this particular literary genre. In addition to Proverbs, poetry literally fills the Psalms, as well as Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, and sprinkled throughout the rest of the canon of scripture. About poetry, C.S. Lewis said,
“Poetry most often communicates emotions, not directly, but by creating imaginatively the grounds for those emotions. It therefore communicates something more than the emotion… In Science we have been reading only the notes to a poem; in Christianity we find the poem itself.”
“I would think that most educated atheists are much more likely to be suddenly ambushed in the heart by poetry than they ever are likely to be converted by reasoned argument.”
Why did God choose to use poetry, pictures and parables? (Sorry for the alliteration.)
Because, as Lewis observed, it stirs human emotion. “But, emotions are fickle,” you may counter. And you are right. So, that’s why the ‘picture’ we use must always have one single purpose: to give meaning to the data. And that ‘data’ is the Word of God. People will not experience lasting life-change with merely having their emotions stirred. But, when their hearts are moved based on God’s Word, miracles begin to take place. It’s what struck David and prompted his prayer in Psalm 8.
Returning to C.S. Lewis, it only makes sense that this author of such imaginative stories as The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce – not to mention his Space Trilogy – while still an atheist, was captivated by 19th century Christian author, George MacDonald’s, Phantastes, which is a fairy tale that not once mentions Christ or the Bible.
This is the same reason16th century preacher, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the second most read religious book after the Bible. It’s why Tolkien’s Silmarillion is riveting, and his epic tale, Lord of the Rings, is so beloved.
During my grad studies in Apologetics, Dr. Holly Ordway was Chair of the School of Christian Thought & Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She authored a book titled, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination. I consumed it.
She reminds us,
This is why Jesus told parables (stories with a spiritual truth). “It helps give meaning to the data.”
Jesus, being God made flesh, could have spoken in ways his listeners could never have “picked up what he was putting down.”
Instead, he spoke and taught, as Spurgeon once described of effective preachers/teachers: “he put the hay where the sheep could reach it.”
So, it begins to make sense why Jesus told stories about the kingdom of heaven being like a treasure in the field, or a pearl of great price. And why, in the writings of Solomon, God is personified as wisdom in the early chapters of Proverbs. And, why God would often tell his prophets to use visual aids (sometimes bizarre) to help get his point across to his people.
Dr. Ordway observes,
“Tolkien calls imagination ‘the mental power of image-making.’… For Aristotle, and for Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and other medieval scholars and theologians, the imagination has a cognitive function: it mediates ‘between sense and intellect.’
She concludes by, once again, quoting Lewis:
“Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
Of course, the greatest “metaphor,” if you will, is God incarnate, Jesus Christ. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. Or, as I read on social media, “Jesus is God’s ultimate explanation of himself.” (cf. John 1:18)
This is what Paul meant when he wrote,
What a picture.
So, how’s the best way to bring this blog to an end? How about with a story. 🙂 How about two stories? One as an example of providing imaginative insight into the character of God. And, the other to provide an example of someone using the imagination to share his faith with a friend.
Francis Collins is a brilliant physician-geneticist, as well as leader of the international Human Genome Project. In his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, he offers the following story to help give (you guessed it) meaning to the data. In this particular story, Collins is appealing to our imagination in hopes of helping us better understand God’s loving and relentless pursuit of mankind. Enjoy, nw
Once upon a time there was an old woman who used to meditate on the bank of the Ganges. One morning, finishing her meditation, she saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the strong current. As the scorpion was pulled closer, it got caught in roots that branched out far into the river. The scorpion struggled frantically to free itself but got more and more entangled. She immediately reached out to the drowning scorpion, which, as soon as she touched it, stung her. The old woman withdrew her hand but, having regained her balance, once again tried to save the creature. Every time she tried, however, the scorpion’s tail stung her so badly that her hands became bloody and her face distorted with pain. A passerby who saw the old woman struggling with the scorpion shouted, “What’s wrong with you, fool! Do you want to kill yourself to save that ugly thing?” Looking into the stranger’s eyes, she answered, “Because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting, why should I deny my own nature to save it?”
To illustrate how imagination can help us share our faith, I would like to, once again, direct us back to Holly Ordway.
It’s important you know that her journey to faith in Christ was not without potent resistance on her part. In her story of her journey from atheism to faith, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, she, at the time when she was still an atheist and hostile to Christianity, describes her view of Christians:
As I understood it, then, faith was at best a delusion and at worst total hypocrisy… I thought ‘faith’ was a meaningless word, that so-called believers were either hypocrites or self-deluded fools,… [When I began pursuing my Ph.D.,] I began to mock Christians and belittle their faith, their intelligence, their character.
While living in San Diego, CA, Ordway recounts the kind words of her fencing coach, Josh. She found Josh to be, unlike her caricature of many Christians, intelligent, possessing a rational defense of his faith. So, they engaged in off-and-on dialogue regarding the Christianity. As the visits continued over time, she found herself becoming more curious. But, she was still not ready to “lay down her arms,” (taken from a quote from Lewis’ Mere Christianity.)
The following quote from Josh to Dr. Ordway demonstrates not only compassion and encouragement, but also an appeal to Ordway’s imagination and love for medieval literature. Josh said to her:
“It is odd, I kind of know how to speak with people from a different kingdom than my own, I also know how to talk to people in the kingdom I belong to, I don’t know quite what to say to you who are wandering in the countryside of the kingdom. It seems I should just let you enjoy the scenery. It speaks better than I could. I do want you to decide to stay.”
“When we invite people [to consider faith in Christ] we are inviting them to come home and, in so doing, also to explore a glorious new country, where there is always more to discover. We are inviting them to be made truly whole, as unique individuals, and also to discover the joyous ‘fellowship of the [resurrection.]’ [We are inviting them to see] that the universe is profoundly meaningful, that all things are interconnected in and through Christ, and that to be a Christian is to be fully alive, now and eternally. God is the ultimate Artist, and Author, and Composer: in his work, all creation sings, and each of us is called to join in the cosmic harmony.” – Imaginative Apologetics: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith