Fathom Mag

Recovering Imagination

How re-imagining our world can help redeem it

Published on:
October 24, 2016
Read time:
4 min.
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We need stories. They explain things to us, give us direction, help us make sense of life, validate our way of thinking, and sometimes just help us escape. The reality is that everything around us is telling a story. Everything. Even when I go to yoga, the instructor invites me into a story. I am a happy baby. I am a mountain. I am a dancing warrior.

Yet sometimes stories can offer us false realities. Take the world of advertising, for example. In many ways, it’s built on the premise of selling us the stories we crave. If we could just have this or do that, then we would be happy. Lovin’ it. Satisfied. America would be great again. #blessed. The problem is that none of these stories can deliver what they promise, ever. But, they will never quit trying.

Both the world and the Word are after our imaginations.
Caroline Smiley

Craving stories is a part of the human condition. If we read Genesis 3 we’ll find that the very first rival story was offered up to Eve along with a piece of fruit. And just like the first one, these rival stories are sneaky, crafty, deceptive. Without us realizing it, they lure us into a hamster wheel to chase after something just out of reach.

To come alive in the gospel is inherently to be re-storied according to the good news: it’s opening the letter from Hogwarts, pulling the sword out of the stone, stepping through the back of the wardrobe. But unfortunately for us, it’s not quite so black and white—we may have our ticket for the Hogwarts Express, but we are still living at 4 Privet Drive.

A Renewed Mind

Paul speaks of being renewed in the knowledge of our Creator, being conformed to the image of Christ, setting our minds on things above. It is the knowledge of God that is humankind’s highest good, and therefore the only way out of the hamster wheel. But this kind of knowledge is not merely factual, it’s experiential—a thoroughly lived-in doctrine. 

But how? How do we develop this knowledge of God into something deeper than mere data? How does a renewed mind connect to a renewed heart? We have to find a way to behold what we cannot see, to re-write the narrative we’re living in, to break the spell the world has on us. . . . We need to use our imaginations.

Not just for children, the imagination is a powerful muscle and tool that allows us to transcend the visible and material world. It is the primary medium through which we understand our story—where we are, where we’re heading, and how we’re going to get there, which is why both the world and the Word are after our imaginations. 

The Bible invites us to use our imagination in three significant ways: to apprehend the vastness of God, the transcendent; to invest eternal significance in the thoroughly mundane, the immanent; and to give us a narrative of how we live in this in-between world.

Transcendent Intimacy

When Job questions God, both Elihu and God himself respond with sweeping, figurative language that invites Job to lift his eyes up and remember who God is. According to the book of Job, God spreads out the skies as a cast metal mirror, he shakes the skirts of the earth, walks in the recesses of the deep, keeps storehouses of snow, binds and looses the stars, numbers the clouds, tilts the waterskins of the heavens.

We train and tether our minds by letting the Bible teach us to imagine.
Caroline Smiley

The Book of Revelation is another exercise in imagination. John’s visual language invites us to close our eyes and picture a figure who is like a man, whose hair is like white wool and snow, whose eyes are like fire, whose feet are like burnished bronze and whose voice roars like the plummeting of many waters. This truth is meant not to be merely memorized, but to help us grasp both the goodness and greatness of God.

Because we cannot see God, our imaginations are indispensable in helping us apprehend God’s magnitude in every way. However, the Bible is concerned not only with helping us understand that he is the very God of the universe, but also that he can number the very hairs on our head. 

When we get to the New Testament, Jesus brings together God’s vastness with his nearness. The incarnation is intimate—God demonstrates that he desires to dwell with his people. In that vein, Jesus uses very mundane objects, stories, and situations to point us back to God. Sparrows and lilies have a whole new meaning. Mustard seeds, day-laborers, bread—nothing is ordinary anymore.

Imaginative Living

Our visions of the good life may be reoriented around the One who is Good, but how do we deal with the tension of living in light of the conclusion while being stuck in the middle chapters? The writers of the epistles understood the difficulty of daily living in a world that desires to lure you into the hamster wheel, and they appeal again and again throughout their letters to our imaginations.

How do they suggest we should live? As runners, running a race to get a prize. Like athletes beating our bodies, putting sin to death as Israel conquered the land in the conquest. As though this life were a mere tent. Cheered on by a cloud of witnesses. As God’s masterpiece, never quite done until he comes again. Wearing the armor of God. Ambassadors. Prisoners. Slaves. Soldiers. Shepherds. Children.

Like any muscle, the imagination needs training to be able to see the God of the Scriptures in a daisy. Or an endless pile of dirty laundry. Or a dead-end job. Or a difficult marriage. Or a tragedy. And like any powerful tool, it must be used carefully, lest it veer off into the land of make-believe, unfounded in right doctrine. We train and tether our minds by letting the Bible teach us to imagine. Like an artist studies classical techniques, or a musician practices her scales, or a writer reads the classics, we meditate on the scriptures with our mind and our affections, letting our imagination steep in its imagery.

Whereas the stories of this world tend to put us at the center, The Story reorients the center around God in both the big and the small. When yoga class gets difficult, my instructor reminds us we can always rest in child’s pose—arms outstretched, halfway prostrate, halfway on our knees. For a moment, the physical world grows strangely dim and I lose myself in a story about a child and her Father.

Caroline Smiley
Caroline Smiley is a mother of two beautiful girls and a minister at The Village Church. She is a bibliophile, logophile, and logos-phile, with a heavy preference for nineteenth-century British fiction and magical realism. If she had free time for hobbies, they would probably be furniture restoration and mountain climbing.

Cover image by Jannes Glas.

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