Tapping the life of the imagination

“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

“However, as it is written:

‘What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived’—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)

The word translated arguments in the first quote (Greek logismos, NIV translation) is rendered as the archaic imaginations in the 1599 Geneva Bible (GNV), in obvious contrast and opposition to “the knowledge of God.” I’ll discuss some of the negative aspects of imagination in the next post. This is about the positive.

Strictly speaking, what we know of God is not a product of human reasoning or imagination. It is “revealed to us by his Spirit.” Revelation is from the Greek apokalypsis, a disclosure, but rooted in the sense of uncovering.

Why is uncovering significant? Because mankind’s default condition apart from God has saddled all of us with “futile thinking” and “foolish, darkened hearts” (Rom 1:21). The mind needs renewing, the heart enlightenment.

(For the theologically challenged, incidentally, total depravity doesn’t mean totally evil; it means every aspect of our being is affected by sin, including our hearts, which are just darkened, not eclipsed.)

But the creative aspect of our mind—the imagination—never stopped functioning. It doesn’t depend on the senses, although it can springboard from a sensory perception (e.g., the smell of fresh-baked bread might conjure up images of your mother’s kitchen). It’s creating all the time, if we let it. Our self-image, for example, is at least partly a product of our imagination (image/imagine).

The most prolific and accomplished users of imagination are artists: painters, sculptors, composers, novelists, playwrights, etc. Gershwin’s American in Paris mimics the sounds of street traffic with musical instruments. Edvard Munch’s The Scream reminds me of my childhood visits to the dentist. (I’m kidding. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho does.)

But imagination may contribute to the kind of revelation I’ve mentioned as the pipeline of the Spirit to convey the knowledge of God. The imagination can create vivid word-pictures or images in “the mind’s eye” that help to pierce the darkness of our understanding.

An example from literature: In King Lear, the king notices Gloucester, who has been blinded, squinting at him. He hands him something to read.

“Were all thy letters suns, I could not see one,” Gloucester replies (IV, vi).

With my Economy Muse, I would probably say something like, “Darkness has fallen on my eyes,” comparing the loss of sight to day turning to night. Shakespeare’s choice of words is so powerful it’s the first line I think of when I hear the name King Lear, not a line more thematically significant like, “More sinned against than sinning.”

That depth of impression is important, too. As I was thinking this week about the Spirit’s guidance and infusion of wisdom as I blog, I realized that some of you may think I’m just blown all over the place, like a sailboat with its rudder lifted out of the water and its sheets flapping.

There is an overriding purpose to what I’ve been doing in the last couple of months—laying down a broad understanding of the kingdom in words to articulate what I’ve been living for many years. A discipleship syllabus, if you will. The thematic “clusters” shouldn’t worry you. I think there is a precedent in the way Jesus taught.

The gospel accounts are not conventional history like Bruce Catton’s books on the Civil War or David McCullough’s on everything from the Wright Brothers to the Panama Canal. John wrote,” Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25), indicating the gospel record is incomplete (which is different from inaccurate).

So there is editorial organization to the collected episodes of Jesus’ life and ministry, and not necessarily following contemporary practices. I’m saying this to qualify the observation that Jesus’ teachings sometimes come in clusters, not always in the neat, poetic cadences of the Sermon on the Mount, and certainly not organized like a work of systematic theology that a student might read in a Bible college or seminary.

For some of you, I am going out on a limb, but I think Jesus knows how we learned the things we’ve never forgotten, and it wasn’t as cut-and-dried as the way it’s packaged today. The prodigal son, the good Samaritan and “let him who is without sin cast the first stone” are instantly recognized by even those who haven’t darkened the door of a church in decades (or “darkened my towels,” as Groucho Marx once said).

Not only are the uses of language concise and loaded with meaning, the stories themselves are short enough to remember and long enough to convey the vital truth. (And tell the truth, when you read the second half of that sentence, did you think, just for a moment, of that joke about grandma’s nightgown? That’s imagination working, too)

But one of the best examples of the creative use of the imagination is the story of Nathan and David. After his sordid encounter with Bathsheba, David adds to his treachery by orchestrating the death of her husband, Uriah, in battle. “The sweet singer of Israel” had descended into awful darkness.

But Nathan’s approach is genius. A “darkened heart” did not shut down David’s imagination. It’s worth remembering that this “runt-of-the-litter” shepherd composed numerous psalms. In his range and variety—praise, lament, confession, earnest plea, even imprecations—he was as prolific and imaginative as Lennon and McCartney.

So Nathan told him a story—aiming right at the faculty that David used so well—his imagination. (I know you know the story; you can re-read it just as quickly as I can summarize it.)

But the important thing is its effect. Unlike movies that generally post a disclaimer about how the story is fictional and resemblance to any actual person is pure coincidence, this was about David from beginning to end. But David didn’t know it because his thinking had become “futile” and his “heart darkened.”

Even so, his imagination kicked into high gear, projecting such a vivid picture across the screen of his mind that it was as if he was hearing a prosecutor arguing his case in court. But of course Nathan was doing just that. “You are the man!” he said.

The story is dramatic and unforgettable. The fruit of it was as well.

Part of it is Psalm 51: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise” (v. 17). There might be a better expression of true sorrow for sin somewhere, but I can’t imagine what it could be. David could.

More on who I am and what motivates me:

The name, the photo and the reason I do this

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