Imagination: Not Just for Kids
The Dream Party
“Michael and Kristi are having a big party this afternoon.” That’s what my granddaughter Eden announced as I opened the front door for her.
“Oh, really?” I replied as she marched into our front hall. “Here? At Nana’s and my house?”
“Yes, Pa,” she said, with an exasperated roll of the eyes. “And everyone is invited. There is going to be singing and dancing and white cake with pink icing and big balloons and lots of fun. Come on, it’s time to get ready.”
What do you say to a three-year old girl with a lively imagination, especially when she is the apple of your eye? I bumbled my way through, not wanting to douse her creative spark while also not trying to make her every dream come true. God and life aren’t like that.
For Grown-Ups Too
As with so many children, Eden has an imagination that is unbound. And that poses a problem for me when I explain to people that I’m writing about imagination and the Christian life.
“Imagination? Isn’t that for kids?” is the standard response. And I go on to explain that, well, no, imagination isn’t just for kids. It’s for grown-ups too. That’s why, down through the centuries, the Church has understood imagination to be something much bigger than the childlike capacity to dream up things that aren’t there. Instead, imagination is the daily, quotidian, often mundane ability of our minds to think in pictures.
When you remember a favorite place, you are using your imagination. When you watch a Mercedes ad on TV and picture what it would be like to drive the latest model, you are using your imagination. When you plan out who will sit next to whom at your upcoming wedding, you are using your imagination.
If you capture someone’s imagination with Scripture, you have captured the whole person.
Lessons from History
Back in the early centuries of the church, a movement flourished whose adherents took imagination seriously in relation to temptation. We call them the Desert Fathers and Mothers, people with names like Pachomius, Syncletia, and Anthony—ascetics who wrote and counseled and fasted and prayed about the ways in which we humans, sinners as we are, fall prey to the evil pictures formed by our unruly minds.
Much later, and more positively, pastors in and around the Reformation developed models of scriptural meditation that engaged the imagination. The English and American Puritans, including Richard Baxter and Edward Taylor, were chief among them. They saw imagination as the bridge between the mind and the heart. If you capture someone’s imagination with Scripture, you have captured the whole person. Jesus put it this way, using the eye as a figure of one’s imagination, one’s ability to “see”:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. (Matt. 6:22-23)
Gene Edward Veith Jr., Matthew P. Ristuccia
Exploring an often-forgotten part of the mind, the authors examine biblical and historical precedents to highlight the importance of the imagination for knowing God, understanding His Word, and living in the world.
Help from Ezekiel
For me, the role of the imagination came home in the middle of reading the Book of Ezekiel. That’s right, Ezekiel! It’s not the book that sits at the top of most people’s “To Read” list. But I was reading it, as I did year after year, as the next step in my “Through the Bible in a Year” plan. I am embarrassed to admit that, for me, the book was drudgery.
And then it hit me. The reason I didn’t enjoy Ezekiel was because of his strange and sprawling visions. There are four of them, and when combined they account for one third of the book! Annually, I would wade through them dutifully but also joylessly.
“Spirit of God,” I prayed, “change my attitude toward this book.” Actually, what I was really praying was, “Open the eyes of my heart to Ezekiel’s imagination. Help me to see what he saw.” Or better, “Breathe life into my imagination. Sanctify it just as much as you do the other parts of me.”
I think a lot of us need to pray that prayer, and not just in relation to Ezekiel. After all, imagination is not just for kids; it’s part of all of us. And it is therefore to be given over to God through his Son.
So Spirit of God, breathe life into the imagination of your people. Redeem it, purify it, fill it, sanctify it. And do so to your glory.
This is the second post (part 1, part 3, part 4) in a four-part series on the imagination.