by Henry Neufeld
There are those who wonder why Energion Publications publishes fiction. We do this both with our Christian fiction category, our imprints Enzar Empire Press, and Eucatastrophe Press. We don’t require that this fiction be Christian themed. On January 13, 2016 we will start a new blog for our fiction authors, Nurturing Creativity. We celebrate the imagination as a good thing. Why?
Some years ago I was teaching a class on Bible study. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is the first chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet’s call vision, with its extremely vivid and difficult imagery. I have often used this chapter to talk about visions and how to go about interpreting precisely because of the complex presentation and the difficult elements of the chapter. (I took a full quarter of independent study just on this chapter in college, and I’ve recently discussed it in my Thursday night Bible study.)
Frequently when I talk about this chapter the response is blank looks. The audience just doesn’t get it. No, I don’t mean they get lost in the complexities of the imagery, though they sometimes do, but rather they just don’t get the point. Commentators even seem to fall into a trap here and discuss the chapter as a literary composition. Walther Eichrodt, who wrote an excellent commentary on the book1, reconstructs the text of the chapter in such a way as to make it shorter and clearer. The resulting chapter is an excellent literary composition. The question is whether it is in fact an accurate portrayal of what the prophet felt and what he intended to convey.
In my class this time there were a number of young people who had been involved in revival here in Pensacola and who, themselves, had charismatic experiences. Some of them testified to such experiences of their own. I’d ask, at this point, that readers lay aside any prejudices about mystical experiences, their source and value, and simply note that such things were part of these students’ spiritual life.
As I tried to describe what I imagined Ezekiel would have felt, and why he described his vision as he did, their faces lit up. They understood what I was trying to say. To some extent, I would say, they understood it better than I did, because it related to something they had personally experienced. It was easier for them to imagine what Ezekiel felt and why he might present it in this way because they could relate it to their own lives.
Much more recently I was discussing keys to understanding the Bible with my Sunday School class and, in response to a question, I told them that getting to understand people better had changed my way of interpreting scripture much more than learning ancient languages. Ancient languages are very helpful, along with the history they open up. In fact, learning ancient languages has helped me learn about people. In turn, understanding people has had a massive impact on how I understand ancient texts.
To some extent modernism, and fundamentalism that arose in reaction to modernism, suffered from a similar error. To the modernist, the purpose of a text was to provide data. Getting the most accurate information was the goal, and to the extent that the text failed to provide that information, it was a failure. An interpretation that did not connect the text to current data points was obviously incorrect. A text that failed to produce data points, a text that entertained, stimulated the imagination, comforted the spirit, or expressed emotion was, by nature, less valuable than one that provided clear information. I may be stating this in an extreme form, but many commentaries from the 19th and 20th centuries show signs of this approach.
As an example, a modernist, whether a believer or not, wants Ezekiel 1 to convey detailed and precise information about God. Each element of the vision should not just be a component of an emotional state, mood, or situation, but should somehow be convertible into a doctrinal statement about God.
This sort of result is all very interesting, in its own way, but I think it fails entirely to consider the person involved. Ezekiel is in exile, in Babylon, far from the temple that represented the presence of the God of Israel. There, in Babylon, he had a vision, a theophany. Far from the temple, God appears. In that simple statement we have much of the doctrinal content, and it wasn’t new content. It had been said before. But just because something has been said doesn’t mean that people understand it, or more importantly make it part of their own lives, their own being. For Ezekiel, far from home, there was doubt. Was God still with his people? The vision is an emphatic “yes” in answer to that question. To a modernist, the vision seems unnecessary after that question is answered. Unless it provides more information, why is it there?
This is like asking an artist to stop painting when the essential outlines are finished. They vision itself is an emotional experience, evoking Ezekiel’s imagination of what heavenly things might be like. He’s aware of how far he must be, even in a vision, from understanding, which is why he doesn’t call it “God,” but rather “the appearance of the likeness of the glory” of God.
To participate with Ezekiel in that experience one needs imagination. Imagination is sometimes seen as detrimental to real, practical things. Some take it more positively and see it as a tool. I see it as a simple part of being human. Yes, it is certainly constructive. Human invention starts, I believe, as imagination. Serious, factual discussions often start by imagining. Even a good hypothesis starts by imagining how something might work.
But imagination is also a fundamental part of being human. There can be simple pleasure, joy, and peace. One can settle one’s mind and spirit through acts of the imagination. Imagination can be practical, but it isn’t justified just as something practical. Our emotions, hopes, dreams, and visions are every bit as important a part of us as our analytical abilities and the conclusions we draw from them. I can identify the imagery from which Ezekiel draws in his vision. How much did he see and how much did his mind fill in? We cannot know. But identifying the imagery doesn’t fill in the picture. For that I need to be able to imagine myself there, to try to feel what he felt, and to ask—no, to absorb–how that feeling relates to me.
That is why, I believe, God so often engages the imagination in interacting with people. Imagination leads to change and growth. Imagination allows us to see things we cannot analyze and perhaps incorporate them into our lives. Analysis is a good thing; it’s just not the only thing.
There’s a joke that has made the rounds of the internet in several forms. A philosopher is like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. The punchline? Under the same circumstances the theologian will find the cat.
I don’t find it insulting at all. Knowing God is not just difficult. It is impossible. Even with the best sources of revelation, in scripture and creation, I cannot scratch the surface of understanding God. I experience, I imagine, I find a black cat that isn’t there. I feel it and know it even though knowing it is impossible.
18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:18-19, NRSV
1Reference: Eichrodt, Walther, Ezekiel: A Commentary. Trans. Cosslett Quinn. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1970.