The life of imagination
When you stop to think about it, it is surprising how full the Bible is of pictures and imagery. For a book full of words, and that speaks of a God who speaks in words, those words speak of pictures. God, and his people, are described in dramatic and vivid language: rocks, storms, anchors; heat, desert, dryness; shepherds, sheep, wolves; wives, husbands and weddings.
Pictures are powerful because they stick in our memories. We can be told an abstract idea (‘God is stable’) and we might likely struggle to remember it. But when that idea is described in picture language (‘God is our rock’) that image lodges into our brain, especially when we picture the image in a vivid way.
But I think more than that, the Bible uses imagery to engage our imagination. When we have a simply stated fact (‘God cares for me’) we can assent to it, but refrain from really engaging with it. It can stay an intellectual fact that we know but not a transformational truth that we live.
On the other hand, using imagery allows us to enter the story and engage with it in our lives. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ invites us to picture a shepherd and his sheep, and to place ourselves as one of those sheep under his care. We are drawn into the image being painted and so become one with it.
Not only that, but the image is both memorable and transformational. So, when I am feeling lonely or uncared for, the picture of the Lord as my shepherd is brought forth by my mind much quicker than the fact of ‘God cares for me’. And as I engage with the imagery of sheep and shepherds, I see how God’s care relates to my situation of loneliness and isolation, as my imagination engages with the imagery and brings it to bear on my life.
Because of all this, it is rather sad that we can often come to God’s word with a purely intellectual goal. We seek to understand the passage we are studying. Now that is good, and necessary, but I would argue it is not enough. We must also seek to engage with the passage, and enter into it with our imagination. What imagery is used? What does that convey? How does that appear in our mind’s eye? How can we bring that to bear in our daily lives?