The Biblical Imagination

Editor’s Note:  This is the first post in our conversation on “cultivating the holy imagination” at the Patheos Book Club this month.

“Come follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”

Mark 1:17

Of all the mysterious moments, Jesus seems most approachable at this particular moment, most inviting, most available, most human. We imagine the would-be disciples looking up from their nets and fish, smiling at his creative figure of speech. It is a warm Galilee spring day. It is silent, not even the sound of a bird. The sand is warm between their toes. It is an inviting moment, almost cozy. We have imagined this scene during 100 sermons. The excitement of the disciples’ hearts resonates in ours. If we had been there on that 29AD morning, we would have left everything too. If, like me, this is how you first imagined that long-ago moment, like me… you would have been completely wrong.

We “imagine…” What do you mean when you say those words? More importantly, what are you really doing when you “imagine?” As created beings, one of our greatest treasures, perhaps the dearest fingerprint of God in us, is our ability to imagine. But inevitably, whenever I speak about the “biblical imagination” someone will object, “Isn’t the imagination a bad thing? Doesn’t the Bible say our imaginations are “evil?”

It is a pervasive opinion and there are understandable reasons for it. I think it is founded in the fact that whenever the King James Bible uses the word “imagination” it does so in a negative sense. (e.g. “…every imagination was evil…” Gen. 6:5) Clearly, if we are going to seek to use our imaginations and speak of a “biblical imagination,” we need to address this valid concern.

In the Old Testament, King James uses the term “imagination” five times. (Gen. 6:5, Dt. 29:19, Jer. 3:17, Prov. 6:18, Lam. 3:60) In four of the five references, the Hebrew word heart (lav) is used. Literally, the Old Testament speaks of the “conceptions” of the heart (Gen. 6:5) or the stubbornness of the heart (Dt. 29:19, Jer. 3:17) or the evil plots of the heart (Prov. 6:8). In Lamentations 3, though the word for heart does not appear, in verse 60 the same word for “plots” of the heart that is used in Proverbs 6 appears (mahashbet). Though “lav” or “heart” does not appear we can safely say it is implied. In the Old Testament “plots and evil schemes” happen in the heart. There is no singular word for “imagination” in Hebrew.

In the New Testament, the word “imagination” appears three times in King James; Lk. 1:51, Rom. 1:21 and II Cor. 10:5. In these references, two of the three also speak or refer to the heart (kardia).

In the first reference, Mary is singing. She rejoices at the radical reversal her baby boy will eventually bring to the world. In verse 51 she sings literally:

“[By] his strong arm he has thoroughly scattered

the arrogant intelligence of their hearts” (authors translation)

In Romans 1, Paul, speaking of the coming judgment of God, says of the wicked:

“their reasonings were futile and the understandings

of their hearts were darkened.” (author’s translation)

In the final New Testament reference in which King James uses the word “imagination” (II Cor. 10:5) another form of the word “reasonings” from Romans 1:21 is used. (logismos) Again though the word “heart” (kardia) does not appear, it is safe to say it is implied. In the New Testament, as in the Old, the place where “dark reasonings” occur are primarily in the heart. The problem then, is not in the simple use of the word “imagination.” The problem is one of the heart. The Word of God is seeking to recapture and redeem our hearts for God’s glory. Is the heart wicked? Without a doubt… yes! Should our hearts be involved in understanding the Bible? Without a doubt… yes!

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