The human imagination is both a blessing and a curse.
When I say “imagination,” I am referring to the human capacity to create images in our minds. Not just picture images, but full sensory experiences. It is a blessing in that I can imagine a warm, freshly baked apple pie. The smell. The taste. The soft, flakey texture. It is a curse in that I can also imagine, at 2:00 in the morning after binge-watching Stranger Things 2, that there are demodogs pacing around my house, ready to devour my family.
But more than simply experiencing these images in our minds, our imaginations trick our bodies into thinking that these experiences are actually happening to us in real time. In the case of the former example, my mouth begins to water and my stomach begins to growl; in the case of the latter, my heart begins to pound, sweat begins to pour, and my fight-or-flight response is ready to jump into action.
Because of this strong link between the mind and the body, the imagination can be therapeutic, in that we can essentially train our bodies how to behave. For instance, someone with anxiety can imagine themselves feeling comfortable and at ease in what would normally be an anxiety-inducing situation, which can help them feel more comfortable and at ease next time they find themselves facing that situation. This concept can also be devastating, for constant worry trains our bodies to always expect the worst case scenario.
But this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the imagination’s full potential, for we are not always isolated in a dark room, thinking about food and fictional monsters. We humans are social creatures, and the true power of our imagination is revealed in community, in the interaction of minds.
Here’s what I mean: don’t think about pink elephants.
You’re doing it. You’re thinking about pink elephants. You can’t not think about pink elephants, because I am, in one sense, controlling your mind. But not really. I’m just typing words, which in and of themselves are completely useless. However, these words signify something for you, and the result is that your imagination is piqued. There is nothing you can do to stop it from happening.
You see, the imagination is not only inevitable in communication, but it is necessary. It is how I can get you to experience my experience, and how I can in turn experience your experience. Which leads to another important human capacity that exists at the root of relationship: empathy. It is the power of the imagination that allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they feel, to hurt where they hurt, to laugh when they laugh. When we interact with other people, we are given the opportunity to see the world in a whole new way. We can widen our imagination and deepen our understand of the human experience.
And this is why the Bible is such a powerful book.
When we read the Bible, we come in contact with ancient people, from another time and another culture. This in and of itself is enough to completely change us. As we get to experience the experience of ancient humanity, we learn more about ourselves in the process. But this is true when reading any piece of literature written in another time and culture. The true uniqueness of the Bible is that we come in contact with God’s people.
As we read the Bible, our imaginations allow us to experience Eden and God’s presence. We experience the destruction of the fall and the growth of sin. We live the grace of God as he brings his people back into his presence, and we live the judgment of God time and time again. We live in the ministry of Jesus and feel the full weight of his fulfillment. As our imaginations interact with these texts, the experiences of the people we read about begin to shape our own experiences. We begin to see the world not as a 21st century American sees the world, but as an ancient Israelite does, awaiting the hope of a Messiah and basking in his glory. We see the world not through our own eyes but through the eyes of God.
I have adopted a term originally used by C. S. Lewis in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. While he was still an atheist at the age of 18, he purchased a book by George MacDonald called Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women. Even before C. S. Lewis acknowledged Jesus, his imagination was baptized into a Christian way of thinking.
“That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer” (Surprised by Joy 172).
Our imaginations are an important part of us as humans. God created us with the ability to create. Allowing ourselves to think imaginatively allows us to fully embrace our humanity. I believe that our reading of the Bible should take place across our whole person. It should not merely be an intellectual endeavor, but a creative one as well. It should not merely stimulate our spirits, but it should stimulate our imaginations. This is not something to be feared, but something to be embraced.
Because here is the bottom line: the Bible doesn’t just offer us another way of understanding the world; the Bible offers us the way of understanding the world. The world as it was meant to be. And the more our imaginations are broadened by that view of the world and of God’s Kingdom, the more we are shaped into the people that God intended us all to be.