Imagination As Resurrection

I have always loved to read. As a child my parents would often punish me by not allowing me to go to the library. I loved every kind of writing, from poetry to prose, high literature to paperback novels, science fiction and fantasy to mystery; even nonfiction and biographies were interesting to me. I devoured books, and I always yearned for more. My teachers would have to force me to put down my book during class, and I would often race to finish my school assignments so I could get back to the story.

These pages brought my imagination to life, allowing me to fight dragons or fly spaceships or explore thousands of feet under the sea. Even the books that others found tedious could spark my imagination, allowing me to not just read about the French Revolution but to see myself within the history itself. And I know what you are thinking … yes, I was a nerd! One that played multiple sports and had lots of friends, but a bookish nerd nonetheless.

I was even excited to devour the pages of Scripture. When I was in high school I began the practice of reading my Bible daily. I would read at least one chapter, but often two or three. I fell in love with the word of God, learning about the history of Israel and the life of Jesus and the ministry of the early church. It became a passion for me, one that I couldn’t let go. I yearned to read God’s word. By the time I graduated high school I had read the New Testament more than ten times and the entire Bible at least twice.

So, when did it become such a chore for me? Why is it that reading my Bible now can feel so tedious at times? Did this come about as I learned how to exegete the text? Was it as I began studying homiletic theory, thinking more about how to preach the text than internalize the text? Was it through countless hours of seminary classes studying the very book I once devoured? Is it because reading and explaining the Bible is now my job and not just a life-giving activity? Honestly, I don’t know. To be fair, I don’t feel this way every day. I have days where I am in love with the text, when it really connects with my heart. But there are days when reading my Bible feels more tedious than treasured.

The particular Christian fellowship in which I grew up and, now, within which I minister has always held the Bible close to their hearts. We were known as “people who knew the word.” We could quote it “book, chapter, and verse.” We could spout off Scriptures and weave together narratives to explain our arguments. We “owned” the text … but it is possible that the text didn’t always own us. For many it became a tool in a well-reasoned argument, “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but possibly not making us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” nor “thoroughly equip[ing us] for every good work.” [1]

I can’t speak for anyone else, but that is the way it can be for me from time to time. From conversations with other friends and ministers, I know that others feel the same.

A few years ago, however, I came across the writings of Ignatius of Loyola. Many of us know Ignatius for his Spiritual Exercises, particularly the practice of “Ignatian Examen.” But an integral part of Ignatius’s spiritual formation revolves around the idea of contemplation. Ignatius believed that Scripture wasn’t just to be read but also experienced through imagination. For Ignatius, it was a form of prayer that also engaged the emotions and imagination of the prayer. The goal of contemplation is to immerse yourself in the text as you read. What might you notice if you were there? What could you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? [2] Maybe it is the heat of the day, the dust of the road, or the braying of animals. Maybe it is the satisfying taste of a cool sip of water drawn from a deep well or the warmth of freshly baked bread or the sweetly bitter taste of wine on the tongue. As we allow our imaginations to take control, we can lose ourselves in the narrative and place ourselves in the scene. For example, if you were standing with Jesus in the dead of night talking with Nicodemus, what might you notice? How do you read the text differently? The goal isn’t historical accuracy, diagraming the theological discussion, or thinking about the original language of the text. Instead, it is about seeing the scene like you might shoot a movie, allowing the words to come to life off the page and incarnate in your mind.

I love to call this practice “Redemptive Imagination.” On one hand, it is redeeming the mind from the ways we often use it, whether in mundane or even profane ways. As Paul states, we ought to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” [3] But it is also redemptive for me because it is bringing back the primacy of Scripture in my life. It comes to life in my imagination as I place myself in the scene, and I am able to experience a familiar text in a new way.

So, where do we begin? Ignatius has his practitioners contemplate the story of Christ from his birth through his passion and his resurrection, culminating in his second coming. Others might work through a particular Gospel, taking each pericope as a guided meditation. There is a wonderful imaginative guide provided by Creighton University as a starting point. [4] Or simply take a favorite story or passage of Scripture, one you know well, and see how it comes to life anew.

Albert Einstein once stated, “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” [5] Most of us know the text intimately; let us now see what might happen if we can imagine the text. How might God bring Scripture back to life for us?

[1] 2 Tim 3:15-17.
[2] Ignatius, Spiritual Exercises 121-126.
[3] Rom 12:2.
[4] http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/Imagination/
[5] http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2010/03/20/history/post-perspective/imagination-important-knowledge.html

Daniel McGraw is the senior minister of the West University Church of Christ in Houston, Texas. He is married to Megan and has two daughters, Hannah and Lydia, who teach him more about the love of God than any of his theology degrees ever has. He is a passionate, but wholly average, runner.

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Author:  Publish Date: February 23, 2017

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The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

2017-18 CHARIS Editorial Board:
Dr. Carisse Berryhill
Dr. Jason Fikes
Karissa Herchenroeder
Mac Ice
Chai Green
Tammy Marcelain
Molly Scherer
Dr. John Weaver

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