Have you ever considered reading the Bible with imagination? What does that look like? Is the Bible a manual for life? How do we read poetry in the Bible? Can it be dangerous to use our imagination when approaching the Bible? Keep reading!
Why do you read the Bible? Why did you read it today? And a more complex question: What did it say to you today?
A traditional approach to the Bible:
We believe that the Bible is God’s Word. And we tend to read it like an instruction manual. We ask questions like:
- What does it mean?
- What is the author trying to say?
- What is it about?
- What is the main idea?
- Who is the author?
- When was it written?
- What does it mean for my life?
These are all important questions, but they don’t go far enough. They mostly have factual answers.
Missing the Point
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day did this too. In fact, they were so careful not to miss anything they were supposed to do or get anything wrong that they wrote hundreds of supplementary rules spelling this out. And Jesus told them they were missing the point.
Eugene Peterson, the translator of The Message, writes of his experience growing up with the Bible in a Christian home. He read it, memorized it, learned the “rules” for Christian behaviour, and listened to it as it was reduced to clichés intended to inspire and motivate. “Frankly,” he wrote, “I was bored with it.” It was a course he took in seminary that changed all that. Until then, he had “treated the Bible as something to be used—used as a textbook with information about God, as a handbook to lead people to salvation, as a weapon to defeat the devil and all his angels, and as an antidepressant.”
In other words, as an instruction manual. In seminary, he learned to listen to the voices speaking in the Bible and to enter into a conversation with them, “skilled writers, poets, and storytellers who were artists of language. Isaiah and David were poets. Matthew and Luke were masters of the art of narrative. Words were not just words: words were holy.” (Eugene Peterson, Foreword to David R. Bauer and Robert A. Traina, Inductive Bible Study )
God loves us and wants a relationship with us. He wants us to enjoy him as a person, not as though he were a car or microwave oven. And so, we have to read his Word differently.
We need to read with imagination.
The Bible isn’t simply an instruction manual:
The Bible is full of things you wouldn’t find in an instruction manual.
- Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” (The Jews had trouble with this statement because they took it literally.) See Jn 6:35-52.
- The Lord is my shepherd. . . He makes me lie down in green pastures. Ps 23:1-2
- We have this treasure [knowledge of God] in jars of clay. 2 Cor 4:7
- Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. Ps 119:105
None of these statements makes any sense if we take them literally.
Reading the Bible With Imagination
Are you afraid of imagination? Many people are.
Are you worried that if you use your imagination, anything can mean anything?
No, it can’t because when we read, we bring our own experiences and emotions to the text in front of us. In the examples above, the metaphors—bread, shepherd, treasure, clay jars, lamp—have connotations. Bread is a staple food in much of the world and was in Jesus’ Palestine. It’s nourishing and satisfying. Without bread, we will go hungry. But when we think of bread, different people will think of different things: sliced sandwich bread, homemade brown bread, flatbread or naan. But there is a central idea to these different types of bread. When Jesus said, “I am the living bread,” we think of this central idea, although we may not all have the same picture in our minds.
Of course, some of these things (shepherd, clay jars) are not part of our everyday experience, and this is where a good Bible dictionary can help or footnotes if you have a study Bible.
The answer is not to shut down your imagination and emotions but to bring them thoughtfully to your reading. If that leaves you with uncertainty and ambiguity, welcome them as an invitation to question and wonder. Be encouraged to ponder further. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your thinking. Compare notes with a Christian friend. For if we don’t, we may never know all about God. As Socrates realized, knowing that we don’t know is the first step to wisdom.
The answer is not to shut down your imagination and your emotions but to bring them thoughtfully to your reading.
Knowing that the Bible is true doesn’t mean we know everything for certain.
An example of reading with imagination:
Let’s consider Ps 119:105 and see what it might say to us if we use our imagination.
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
Psalm 119:105 (NIV)
I can understand the Psalmist’s point without much work. Lamps allow me to see. God’s word lets me see where I’m going. I can see if I’m going wrong. So, in that sense, God’s word is like a lamp.
But why does the Psalmist just not come straight out and say, “God’s word will help you do the right thing and correct you if you’re going wrong”? Because he wants to communicate more than that. He wants to engage our emotions.
Have you ever had the experience of being in total darkness? I can remember that just once. I was a teenager and staying with a family in France. We were walking home along a country road. There was no moon. It was utterly and totally dark. I kept waiting for my eyes to adjust. But they never did. There was nothing for them to adjust to. I would have given anything for a flashlight.
Maybe you’ve known a power failure on a winter evening. Remember stumbling around trying to find a flashlight? Stepping on Lego in the living room! And then, oh, the relief when the lights come on again.
In times like these, the longing for light is instinctual. That’s the desire the Psalmist wants us to feel for the Scriptures.
Here’s what Matthew Mullins says in his book, Enjoying the Bible. I’ve shortened it a little, and the bold is mine:
Try this: You don’t know why exactly, but you sit up in bed in the middle of the night. It’s very dark. Is it darker than usual? Why can’t you see light from the streetlamp outside your window? Did something startle you awake? Did you hear a noise in your sleep? Is that just the refrigerator clicking on in the kitchen? Is it raining? You feel a little flush and your heartbeat is noticeable. You instinctively want to turn on the light. The longing is impulsive, even primal . . . Nothing will make you long for light like finding yourself in darkness.
Psalm 119:105 is not only trying to persuade you that God’s Word is illuminating. It is trying to stir up a longing for God’s Word in you.
If you don’t feel that longing, you haven’t understood the verse.
We must cultivate new reading practices that will help us learn to love the Scriptures. We must figure out how to read with our heads and our hearts.
Fun fact: Did you know that Scripture Union’s logo is a lamp because of Psalm 119:105?
Related Articles: The Abide Bible, How to Read Poetry in the Bible.
Family Quest is our newest resource that helps your family engage with God’s Story. It has many prompts to help you read the Bible with imagination. Check it out.