Created to Create: Imagineering Our Way through Life

  • “I am imagination. I can see what the eyes cannot see. I can hear what the ears cannot hear. I can feel what the heart cannot feel.” (Peter Nivio Zarlenga)

  • “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” (Albert Einstein)

  • “If we have learned anything else it is that the ideas of the poets and artists penetrate where everything else has failed.” (Norman Cousins)

  • “The value of the cleansed imagination in the sphere of religion lies in its power to perceive in natural things shadows of things spiritual.” (A. W. Tozer)

  • “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” (Michelangelo)

One of the first things we learn about God in Scripture is that he is creative (Gen 1:1). He is both original and originating. Setting aside the important question of why there is something rather than nothing, the universe as an object to be observed bears the marks of order, design, artistry, and imaginativeness. Have you ever seen a giraffe up close? Or an otter? Or a platypus? Can all such oddities be chalked up to biological happenstance, or is God is the original “imagineer”? It is reasonable to conclude the latter.

Moreover, as human beings made in the image of God, we are people who can create. Don’t pass over that truth too quickly. God creates people who can create! Indeed, we often find some of our greatest fulfillment in life by creating things—songs, poems, paintings, novels, sculptures, clothing, cabinetry, etc. By cultivating our inner lives—by nurturing and living out the image of God in us—we can use our imaginations for the glory of God, leading to much personal satisfaction as a byproduct. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis are a perfect case in point. Lewis was a gifted and effective “imagineer” for the gospel, and writing children’s stories was a great personal delight to him.

Scripture

The Bible itself bears witness to the power of the imagination:

  • The delightful description of growing older in Ecclesiastes 12
  • The curious visions of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and John
  • The earthy parables of the kingdom by Jesus in the Gospels
  • The heartening portrayal of the New Jerusalem as a radiant bride in Revelation

The list is long. Consider the story of David and Absalom in 2 Samuel 17. David has been forced out of Jerusalem by Absalom, who now possesses his father’s throne, wives, and leadership of the army. But in the midst of his achievement, he has a problem. What should he do with his father-king who has escaped into the wilderness? Absalom solicits advice from two sources:

Ahithophel (17:1-4)

  • His advice is “left brain” (i.e., objective, precise, logical).
  • His emphasis is on information, analysis, the factual.
  • His approach is to be a conduit of information.
  • His message is “heard.”

Hushai (17:7-13)

  • His advice is right brain (i.e., subjective, affective, emotive).
  • His emphasis is on the hearer (“you” . . . “your”).
  • His approach is to be a painter of word pictures
    • “as fierce as a wild bear robbed of her cubs”
    • “whose heart is like the heart of a lion”
    • “will melt with fear”
    • “sand on the seashore”
    • “dew settles on the ground”
  • His message is “seen and felt.”

Absalom and his advisors like Ahithophel’s plan, but Absalom still wants to hear Hushai’s counsel. When Hushai is finished offering his (more imaginative) presentation, everyone regards his plan as superior to Ahithophel’s, and that is the plan they follow.

Had they followed Ahithophel’s advice, they would have routed David. Instead, David’s life is spared (17:14). This turn of events is a fulfillment of David’s prayer that God would turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness (cf. 2 Sam 15:31).

Clearly, the impact of a presentation laced with imagination can be profound. Like any other capacity we have, imagination can be corrupted, but as A. W. Tozer noted (above), a cleansed imagination has much power.

Jesus

Jesus himself made use of the imaginative to communicate his message. His parables, for example, were not “Bible stories” when they were first told; they were short, simple, earthy stories invented to communicate important spiritual truths. Regarding these parables, Haddon Robinson writes, “[Jesus] didn’t read them out of a book. He made them up on the spot. He created them out of life. He used his imagination.” In other words, Jesus was not merely propositional in his teaching ministry. He was not static, flat, dull, or uninteresting. He was dynamic and pulsated with divine life. Michael Card, in his book Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity, describes the famous scene in John 8 where the woman is caught in the act of adultery, and Jesus curiously stoops down to write on the ground:

“It was art and it was theater at the same time, but it was more. It was what he did not say that spoke most powerfully to the mob that morning. It was a cup of cold water for a thirsty adulteress and an ice-cold drenching in the face to a group of angry Pharisees. To this day we have not the slightest idea what it was Jesus twice scribbled in the sand. By and large the commentaries have asked the wrong question through the ages. They labor over the content, over what he might have written. They ask what without ever realizing that the real question is why. It was not the content that mattered but why he did it. Unexpected. Irritating. Creative.”

Card goes on to suggest that Jesus’ stooping to write on the ground was his way of drawing the angry stares of the Pharisees and the nosey gawks of the crowd away from the woman and onto himself. The leers and hostility were now falling on him instead of the accused. That’s the gospel. Jesus became her substitute. It was an enacted parable of grace, verified by those climactic and memorable words, “Let he among you who is without sin cast the first stone. . . . Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Wonder

This re-presentation of the text is imagination at its finest, producing a true sense of wonder in the listeners. C. S. Lewis suggested that wonder is “the echo of a song the soul has not yet heard.” That is, it is a song coming to us from the Original Singer who sang all of creation into existence.

In his book Recapture the Wonder, Ravi Zacharias writes, “Wonder is that possession of the mind that enchants the emotions while never surrendering reason. . . . It interprets life through the eyes of eternity while enjoying the moment, but never lets the momentary vision exhaust the eternal.”

Let us, then, be “wonder-full” people. Let us keep creating good and beautiful things that speak well of our Creator, in whose image we are made. Let us imagineer our way through life.

Image Credits: pexels.com; stacksnap.io; saltradioministries.com.

Oh, My Word, Part 3: Little Words and Big Ideas

Words have the power to captivate and communicate, sometimes even better than images do. That’s one of the reasons movie adaptations of our favorite books can fall flat. They deviate from what our own imaginations did with the words we read. Take, for example, this silly sentence from an unknown source: “The bulbous woman ballooned toward me.” No picture is needed for such a sight; the mental image conjured by the words is amusing enough.

Likewise, this famous line from Carl Sandburg needs no help from a video: “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.” Such a scene can’t be filmed; it can only be conveyed by a creative and strategic use of words. Similarly, Truman Capote painted a feast of images with this memorable line: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” I can almost taste the town just by reading the sentence.

My all-time favorite line in English comes from Alexander Pope’s description of Jesus turning the water into wine. The verse he crafted portrays the miracle performed in Cana in a rich and unforgettable way: “The conscious water saw its master and blushed.” 

Here the poet personifies the water, giving it a consciousness, the capacity to see, and the ability to feel embarrassed. The profound theological message conveyed in this one verse speaks volumes about the relationship of the creation to its creator (one of subordinate humility), as well as the exalted identity of the one who performed the miracle (the creator himself, incarnated and living humbly as a craftsman in Galilee). Can a picture do all that? Probably not.

I happen to love words, and I enjoy learning new ones. I also love reading the works of others who use them better than I do, sharpening my own craft in the process. I was an English major in college, so I had the opportunity to read broadly across the literature spectrum. Anchored now in the truths of a biblical worldview, I’m untroubled by reading works outside my own tradition. It expands my perspective and allows me to peer into how other people think and use words. 

I also enjoy the weekly challenge of crafting a “big idea” for my sermons, encapsulating the entire message in a single sentence. Vivid, pithy language with turns of phrases and symmetrical touches can serve the homiletical task well. There’s no shortage of good examples on how to do this.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (President John F. Kennedy)

“Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” (Oscar Hammerstein)

“In the blue grass region, a paradox was born: the corn was full of kernels, and the colonels full of corn.” (John Marshall)

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Steve Allen (though variously attributed)

Factor in the gospel, and there are all kinds of possibilities when it comes to words that evoke vivid images and big ideas. Who can forget the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial? Over time his big idea became the title of his message. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.” Dr. King did exactly that.

Good communicators get this. Andy Stanley writes, “Every time I stand to communicate, I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and know what to do with it.” Finally, as if to model the very technique he advocated for so many years, Haddon Robinson said, “A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot.” Here are some big idea bullets I’ve fired recently on Sunday mornings:

Hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives.

To outlive your life, yield it completely to the Author of life.

Many babies have become kings, but only one king has ever become a baby.

When God stretches your faith, he will also strengthen your heart.

Love God not to get him to love you but because he already does. 

The activation of God’s promise is joined to the asking of God’s people.

If you’re wandering around in a spiritual desert, you need to have a moral compass.

A fake gospel cannot deliver a real salvation.

The grace of God will remove sin, but it will not redefine sin.

Finite human beings are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary.

The big idea of the biblical text must always be located within the Big Story of the biblical plot, lest the forest be missed for the trees. (Big ideas and big stories need each other.) For this reason, I read both exegetical and hermeneutical materials. I do this out of enjoyment but also out of a sense of calling to “tell the people the full message of this new life” (Acts 5:20), as described in a previous post. For me it’s a labor of love.

But sometimes my words are not vehicles of love—toward God or toward others. Too often they’re self-centered or dispiriting. Too often they’re unhelpful or unkind. That’s why this is yet another area where I need to keep making progress. Specifically, I need wisdom, power, and grace from God to eradicate my complaining and eliminate my criticism—even when such impulses remain unarticulated. They’re still under the surface.

How can I properly handle God’s words in Scripture if I continually mishandle my own words in life? The incongruity is a red flag. As Marilyn McEntyre writes, “What is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.”[1]

On those occasions when I become a “negaholic” or a “complainiac,” I’m not using the power God gave me to a good purpose. More on these two verbal vices next time.

Image Credits: krqe.com, wallpapercave.com; cultivatingethos.org.


[1] Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 21.