When it comes to our understanding of the Bible we make the same mistake. Some conservative students of the Scripture get nervous if a teacher or author urges them to use their “imagination” to understand a passage. I submit it’s not because using the imagination is a bad idea but because of erroneous notions about imagination, akin to the monster under the bed variety. My point? Imagination has very little to do with truth or fiction. It is more accurately a description of how we experience truth or fiction than of the facts themselves. In other words, do we experience it vividly and personally (hence with “imagination”) or do we experience it from a cold lifeless distance?
In this article I want to explore some aspects of imagination, how it functions and particularly its significance when it comes to studying and experiencing the Bible. It is my contention that our failure to properly use the imagination in our Bible studies, our sermons and our personal devotions accounts for much of the cold and lifeless experience with it. How can the Word of God be “living, and active, and sharper than a two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12) if we don’t learn to properly read or hear it? I submit they cannot. And part of proper reading involves a correct use of the imagination.
What is Imagination?
To answer it simply, “imagination” is, as the word suggests, “images” in the mind. Technically, the suffix “ation” suggests a process of creating or forming them. So the first thing we need to realize is that imagination is all about pictures or images.
An interesting side-discussion here would be to contrast an “image-based” culture with a “word-based” one, as Neil Postman attempted to do in his classic sociological study, Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he critiques the modern rejection of concepts in favor of images. Basically he says that an image-based culture is inferior to a concept-based one because images are more limiting in the amount of information they can carry. Like I said, this is an interesting discussion but somewhat afield of where I want to go. But I did want to mention Postman’s criticism because not all scholars agree that we should put a high value on imagination.
Back to the question though: what is imagination? And further, how does it work?
If imagination is understood as images in the mind that contain information then we can understand why some have developed a suspicion about it. When I say it’s “in the mind” that implies it may not be “real.” Thus, the fear that imagination means “imaginary” or fake. We certainly don’t want to start suggesting that Bible stories are “imaginary!”
Technically speaking, an imagination is an electro-chemical impulse in the neural fibers of the brain. In this way, it’s very similar (perhaps identical) to a memory. Again, with a topic like memory there are a hundred side-trails we could take and I will avoid the temptation. What is memory? How do memories develop? How are memories lost? Those kinds of questions. But one side-trail I believe is germane to this discussion relates to the neural processes involved in imagination. Aside from the fact that I love brain science and it’s a favorite hobby of mine, I want to explore these neural contours because I think they might yield some helpful (and dare I say “imaginative”?) suggestions about how to use it more effectively in the study of Scripture.
Many experts would scoff at my oversimplification, but I’m going to give you the Reader’s Digest version of how imagination works. To do so I want to introduce you to my favorite part of the brain. It’s a tiny organ called the Hippocampus. The Hippocampus (the name literally means “seahorse” because of its shape) is located in the middle of the brain in a region called the Limbic System. I call the Hippocampus the Navigation System of the brain because it’s so essential in navigating (getting around) from one place to another. The Hippocampus controls our sense of time, motion and space. It enables us to locate ourselves in a given spot and then figure out how to get to the next one.
For decades researchers have recognized the role of the Hippocampus in short term memory. Think of it like the Random Access Memory (RAM) on your computer. RAM, in case you didn’t know, is short term memory—in contrast to your hard drive which is long term (permanent) memory. So, as I type words on my keyboard I have to save my work periodically or I could lose it all if my computer crashes. I believe God designed the Hippocampus for a similar purpose: to gather various bits of information and hold them until the other regions of the brain can fully process them.
Another interesting function of the Hippocampus is dreams. Some researchers believe that dreams are reflections or expressions of the Hippocampus at work. Much of the work of the Hippocampus, related to short term memory processing, is conducted while we sleep. Brain studies show that even though other sections of the brain go into rest mode during sleep, the Hippocampus stays very much active suggesting it is involved in memory processing while we are asleep.
I’m sure you’ve noticed how disconnected and bizarre dreams can be. It’s because the Hippocampus is actually trying to consolidate memories and put them in some kind of meaningful pattern. But some things just don’t fit. So, the Hippocampus cobbles them together as best it can. Think of dreams as the potpouri of the brain. It’s comprised of the left overs from various experiences. But for some of them, the Hippocampus can’t figure out what to do with so it strings them with other random memories and tries to make something useful of them.
A few years ago I was stunned by a book I read by computer genius Jeff Hawkins.
Hawkins is one of the inventors of handheld computer devices like the palm pilot and smart phones. An amateur brain scientist like me (okay, not quite like me!) he believes that if we can learn how the brain processes data it will help us design more efficient computer systems. Particularly, he researched the Hippocampus and how it utilizes “predictive intelligence.” Again, I’m tempted to take one of these little rabbit trails of knowledge but I’ll resist and just get to the point: the Hippocampus takes individual bits of data (experience) and attempts to arrange them in some kind of “meaningful” picture or perception. When it doesn’t have enough data to fill in all the gaps it creates or predicts what should or could go there based on past experiences. This is how the Hippocampus is involved in the imagination process. It connects the dots of data and tries to make them into some kind of meaningful arrangement.
Remember those old dot to dot coloring books? What looks like a mass of confusing dots on a page, upon closer examination, is a mass of confusing dots with tiny numbers beside them. Only when you draw a line from one to the next, following the numbers in order, does the real meaning become evident.
This is what the Hippocampus does. It connects the various dots of experience and data. By “various dots” I want you to expand your understanding of what I mean to encompass just about everything you’ve ever learned. You think you know what a tree is? Well, you know what trees are because your Hippocampus has assembled an image of trees. That includes everything from the colors in a tree (green, brown, black) to their texture (rough bark, smooth leaves, hard surfaces) to the smell (woody? I don’t know, how do trees smell?). The image in your mind of a tree is actually a composite of dozens, even hundreds of various data points of information assembled in one meaningful picture. The Hippocampus is where that takes place.
Hopefully you are beginning to understand what this all has to do with studying the Bible. Without a robust and dynamic appreciation of imagination, how can you really understand a passage of Scripture? For example, when Psalm 23 says “the Lord is my shepherd,” can you really even get what that means without some understanding of shepherds? And sheep? And pastures? And valleys of dark shadowed death? Without prior experience with these facts the words of the psalm will just be words on page.
I want to also throw out another issue with these data points of experience. Though in a dot-to-dot coloring book there is only one way to connect them (following the numbers) this isn’t always so straightforward in real life learning. In fact, we don’t even possess all the dots. This is where Jeff Hawkins talked about predictive intelligence. What does the Hippocampus do if it is lacking some of the dots? It fills in the gaps with “predictions” about what could or should be there. According to Hawkins, that’s how intelligence works. It is always making predictions (we also call them assumptions).
Part of the reason is because data is incomplete. Part is for efficiency. By making reasonable predictions we save computing time. We don’t have to figure out how to ride a bicycle every time we get on one. Memory and habit all play into this. It makes life a lot easier.
So, as marvelous as imagination is, there are some risks. In the absence of all the data, we’re going to make some guesses. When it comes to Scripture this is inevitable. But it’s also why there are so many different understandings of the Bible. Because we are filling in the gaps with our own assumptions and interpolations we’re going to do so in different ways.
Expectations and Experience
One other thing I want to say about the Hippocampus and the Navigation System: because it utilizes predictive intelligence it is also the basis for what we generally call expectations. In other words, it has a significant part in the control of our thoughts about the future. Are you a pessimist? Do you see the proverbial glass half empty? Are you an optimist? Do you see it half full? The reason is likely to be found in the way your Hippocampus has learned to expect or predict the future. And the reason it does so is related to the way it arranges and orders the various data points of experience.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you are a worrier or are plagued by anxieties and dread you know what I mean. What we think is going to happen (or what we dread might happen) shapes not only our view of the future but our experiences in the present. And, in some ways, those expectations become what experts call “self-fulfilling prophecies.” If we think the future will be dark and discouraging we are seldom disappointed! Our expectations of dread end up coloring the experiences themselves and make them seem all that much worse. But to repeat my point: pessimistic expectations of what may happen come from somewhere: they come from the way our Hippocampus connects the dots of experience. Only when others hear us verbalize our gloomy worries does it become evident (at least to others) how incorrectly we are connecting the dots.
I would say that one of the most important reasons to study the Bible is to help us connect the dots of experience more accurately. In other words, to transform our expectations. By the way, the Bible has a wonderful word to describe this process of transforming expectations. It’s called “hope.”
The Sanctified Imagination
So, what do we have so far? We have imagination, which is essentially images or pictures of ideas in the brain. And we have learned how these images are formed. I have also suggested that if we learn to use imagination correctly it will enrich our study of God’s word and renew our hope. So, the remaining task is to figure out how to actually use this information in studying the Bible. Of course, we need to be careful in this process. Just because we have an imagination doesn’t mean we will use it correctly. Imagination is a powerful dynamic in the brain and, like all powerful forces in this world, can be used or abused.
Let’s try to keep this simple by looking at three ways we can cultivate what various authors describe as a “sanctified imagination.”
Analyze the Word
In order to use this marvelous tool God has given us and enrich our own study of the Scriptures we must first of all make sure we have enough “dots” in the Hippocampus to connect together. The more dots we have, in general, the more complete the image. So, how will we do that? By studying and analyzing it.
As important as imagination is in the meditation process it doesn’t occur in a vacuum. As we’ve seen, the Hippocampus “builds” imagination from the raw material of data. The only way we’re going to have that raw material is by the time consuming and demanding task of analysis. I’m not saying you have to be a Greek scholar to study the New Testament (though it certainly doesn’t hurt). But you do have to have more than a passing knowledge of what the words really say and mean. This is why all Bible study methods involve various forms of “exigesis”—pulling the meaning from the words themselves.
Though you can take short cuts in the analytical process—reading what others say in commentaries or study notes or sermons, for example, you won’t get as much that way. The more work you put into it the more imagination you’ll be able to build. I’m not going to spend time here describing basic Bible study methods but you can find any number of practical resources on this topic.
Visualize the Word
As I’ve said, the imagination involves creating mental images or pictures. This is what I mean by the second step in the imagination process. I’m going to use the word “visualize” to describe it. It’s probably pretty obvious how we visualize some passages of Scripture. For example, in Psalm 23, referenced earlier, you can understand how you might draw mental pictures of the Lord as a shepherd (visualize a middle eastern shepherd, leading a flock in the desert). This is probably why most of us find Bible stories easier to read and study than more didactic portions.
So let’s talk about those portions a bit more. How can we visualize and create mental images for them? Let’s take the Book of Romans.
I’m not possibly able to visualize the entire Book of Romans in this article! But I will suggest ways you could visualize the first few verses as an example of what I mean. Here are the words themselves:
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God-- 2 the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures 3 regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life[a] was a descendant of David, 4 and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power[b] by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from[c] faith for his name’s sake. 6 And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. 7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you want to meditate on this passage you must first analyze it. I know that sounds like a lot of work and it is. As I said, you’ll get out what you put in. So, you’re going to need to use whatever analytical tools you can to begin inserting data points of understanding into your Hippocampus. Thus, you have to know something about Paul. If you don’t know much, you may need to read about him and his story in other passages of the Bible (for example, The Book of Acts). When I say “visualize” do I mean you have to have some kind of picture of Paul in your mind? Well, yes. And no.
We obviously don’t have photographs of Paul! So we don’t know exactly what he looked like. But the shape of his face or whether he was bald or had a beard is only part of this. It’s where we have to fill in the gaps, somewhat. But there are plenty of other things we do know to give us a picture. We can know what town he was born in (Tarsus) and we can know where he went to school (Gamaliel) and approximately how old he was when he wrote these words (most likely around 50). Do you see how we visualize? It’s like building a tower with blocks: one piece of information at a time.
Going on, you need to know what it means when he calls himself a “servant of Christ.” What about this word “servant”’ why does he use it? What does it mean? Unless you’re already a Greek student you will probably have to look it up in a Bible dictionary to find out. But that’s not hard. It just takes time.
As you continue collecting bits of information from these words you will, at some point, need to string them together, connecting the dots you have so far. It is here the process of visualization becomes so important. I’m not going to pretend it’s a simple thing. Especially in these didactic portions of Scripture you can already see how much data you’re going to have in just a few verses. Keeping it all straight in your mind won’t be easy. Frankly, this is why so few people do it.
But let me emphasize the importance of visualization. Realize that each bit of information you collect is a kind of picture or image. A classic Bible study tool was written years ago called “Word Pictures in the New Testament” by A.T. Robertson
I love the title! That’s exactly what words are: pictures. And Robertson’s classic work does a great job of drawing those pictures for you, showing the origins and meanings of Greek words and giving you mental images to add to your collection.
Personalize the Word
If you’ve analyzed and visualized a portion of Scripture you’ve already made a significant effort in learning to meditate on the Word of God. However, there’s more you can do. I call this step “personalization.” Here you use specific strategies to insert yourself into the text.
Let me give you a simple example. I’ll try to make this an exercise in analysis and visualization as well. Here is a famous painting of a familiar Bible story:
You probably remember Jesus’ parable about the shepherd and the 99 sheep. He tells it in Luke 15:4:
"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?”
The first step in this passage would be to analyze it. That means making sure you understand various things about the history and meaning of the words. You know what sheep are. You may know about how middle eastern shepherds did their jobs and the equipment they used (like the staff in the picture). You might need to bone up a bit on what the phrase “open country” means and even expand your understanding of how shepherds carry sheep (I suspect that picture is fairly accurate).
I reproduced the famous painting of Jesus carrying the sheep at the beginning of this article to assist you in the visualization process. You can now picture the sheep and the shepherd carrying one of them, and even the grassy hills. But in order to personalize it you need to insert yourself in the picture, as it were. For example, instead of visualizing the sheep on Jesus’ shoulder (the sheep that no doubt wandered away from the flock and had to be rescued) picture that sheep as you. You wandered away from the flock. You got lost in the desert. Jesus had to go looking for you. And when he found you he put you on his shoulders to carry you because you couldn’t make it back by yourself.
I know this sounds very juvenile and like something a Sunday School teacher might do with toddlers. But honestly, I think we all have to approach the Scriptures this way. When we fail to personalize them we lose our connection to them and, eventually, our knowledge breaks down.
There are other steps in the overall process of meditation on Scripture. I’m only focused here on the use of the imagination. But I don’t want to leave you without putting it in the larger context. I’ve talked about the importance of the background and the details. But I can’t fail to emphasize the need for application.
In the Book of James we are warned that those who read the Bible (even study it) and fail to obey it are like people who look in a mirror but then forget what they really look like (James 1:24). Without obedience, Bible study is not just an exercise in futility. It actually makes our state worse than if we didn’t read it at all. Jesus promised that if we know the truth the truth would set us free (John 8:32). But the only way to really “know” the truth is to experience it. That’s literally what the Greek word for “know” means: to know by doing. This implies obedience and action.
I will say in closing that the only way obedience to truth is even possible is a work of God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God, equipping us and enabling us to do what it says. We can’t do it on our own. But that’s another article for another time.