The Biblical Imagination

"Come follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." ~ Mark 1:17

Michael CardOf all the mysterious moments, he 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 29 A.D. 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; 2 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.
(author's 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" (2 Cor. 10:5), another form of the word "reasonings" (logismos) from Romans 1:21 is used. 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!

Back to the first question . . . When we "imagine," what is it we are doing? I don't pretend to fully understand the mystery of the human heart, but I believe it is safe to say that when we "imagine," something is taking place in our hearts; literally our minds are working with our hearts to create images (hence image-nation). But the heart and mind must work in concert; they must be connected by a bridge. In my thinking, this is what I call the imagination. It is a bridge between the heart and mind. It seeks to re-integrate and reconnect them, since they were fragmented by the Fall. The imagination that has been surrendered to God for this process of listening to the scriptures, I call the "biblical imagination."

(Before we move on to the next point, you might want to stop and think about what's been said thus far. Take time to turn it over in your own heart, to go back to the biblical references above to confirm this notion of the surrendered heart and the biblical imagination.)