Scripture stirs our religious imagination

Published: August 18, 2018

This is the seventh column in a 10-part series.

By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study

En Español

In the Gospels, the kingdom of heaven is likened to a mustard seed that grows beyond measure and a bit of yeast that expands the dough (Matthew 13:31-33). The repentant sinner is compared to a lost sheep worth searching for, a misplaced coin that must be found and a son who squanders it all but is forgiven by his father (Luke 15:1-32). The stormy sea is calmed with a simple rebuke (Mark 4:35-41), and a few fish and loaves of bread are blessed and multiplied to feed a hungry crowd (Mark 6:34-44).

The words and deeds of Jesus demonstrate that he is a master teacher who knows that stories and images have the capacity to capture the imagination of those who listen and watch. A good story helps us to paint a picture in our minds, to “see” the elements and “meet” the characters, all of which help us to remember and to find meaning.

Using stories in the cause of evangelization is a practice that permeates not just the Gospels but the whole of Scripture. Israel’s writers and prophets preserved a wide variety of colorful stories — accounts of creation, flood, tribal wanderings, sin and redemption — to communicate their own experiences of God.

The psalms, written as poem prayers, retold many of the ancient events making them fresh for new generations. Jesus would have been schooled in these stories and in the methods of putting stories and prayer to memory, and even to music.

Stories and images help us to recognize that learning is more than simply digesting information. Learning, especially the type that leads to conversion and discipleship, requires that we engage our imaginations. This “imagining” is not equivalent to “make-believe.” Rather, it acknowledges that there is more to reality than what meets the eye and more to faith than what we describe as knowledge.

Albert Einstein wrote, “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.” In the realm of biblical faith we may rightly talk about “religious imagination” as the ability to discover and describe those aspects of divine encounter that cannot be directly observed in the physical world. We acknowledge that God works in the world that we see and understand and also in ways that are beyond our normal means of comprehension.

Take, for example, the very notion of forgiveness. We may sense the need for it and feel the effects of it, but still not know how to describe it. Jesus steps in with the story that is sometimes known simply as the parable of the Prodigal Son. Through this story, we are presented with the opportunity to respond in a way that involves not just our intellect but our emotions, our will and our imagination.

We might feel the tug to be like the father who was lavish in his love and forgiveness; we might imagine the difference an embrace may make; and then we might even reach out to offer forgiveness to someone who has hurt us.

Parables are a particularly effective tool for teaching, and so we hear of a would-be prophet spending time in the belly of a big fish before obeying God’s command (Jonah), potters reworking soft clay just as God will work with the clay of our lives (Jeremiah 18:1-6), trees being given a second chance to produce fruit (Luke 13:6-9) and a good shepherd who is willing to lay down his life for his flock (John 10:1-18).

The biblical writers were expert at recording or creating such stories as a way of reminding God’s people of the many ways God acts in their lives, in our lives. The images found in these stories are not themselves the reality; they serve as metaphors and open us to new layers of understanding and meaning. This is one of the reasons we read and re-read Scripture. Those stories and images stick with us, and in revisiting them, we begin to see familiar patterns of how God works.

One of the gifts of reading and praying with Scripture is to discover that God did not just communicate with people centuries ago in a distant land. God uses the Scriptures to speak with us now, stirring our imaginations to envision our world beyond what we now know.

Study Questions

  • Review in your mind some of the familiar parables of Jesus. Which of them captures your attention and imagination most at this time in your life?
  • As a way of considering the powerful way that Jesus taught, read through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5?7) and make note of the language that would appeal to people’s imaginations. Remember, we are speaking of imagination as a way of envisioning God’s movements beyond what seems obvious.
  • How would you describe the role of imagination in your faith life?
  • How does a musical setting of Scripture help you to reflect on it differently than simply reading the passage? (The psalms are often set to music as are other passages of Scripture. For example, the song “Canticle of the Turning” is based on Luke 1:46-58; “One Bread, One Body” is based on 1 Cor 10:16-17; 12:4; “I Know that My Redeemer Lives” is based on Job 19, etc.)

This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic Aug. 18, 2018. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.