Imagination and Ministry

“The Bible is a book of the imagination.” So writes Harvard’s Peter Gomes. One reason why Peter is such a great preacher, and biblical interpreter, is that he has a fertile imagination. It is as if Scripture has as its purpose to stoke, to fund, and to fuel the imagination, thereby to make available to us a new heaven and a new earth.

Therefore, I think the best preaching from the Bible is that preaching that is evocative, suggestive, and thick, rather than that preaching which, in wooden fashion, merely lays out principles and precepts, abstractions and rules. We pastors are those who are called, in great part, to open up the imagination of our congregations to what is possible and probable now that a creative God is determined to get back what belongs to God. Too often we preachers think that our job is to take a biblical text and narrow the possibilities of that text, force it to speak univocally, and reduce it to the one authoritative, right interpretation. More creative, and perhaps more faithful, biblical interpretation and exhortation seeks to multiply the possibilities, to open up new perspectives, and to help us see something that we would not have seen without the imaginative stimulation of Scripture.

Professor Carol Zaleski of Smith College, herself a wonderfully imaginative interpreter of the Christian faith, writes that what is possible for us as Jesus’ disciples is directly proportional to what we will imagine:

Every institution with which we deal – our schools, hospitals, courts, theaters, newspapers, stores, playgrounds, and even our churches – tells us by signs overt or subliminal that the dramatic parts of the Christian story are over; except for some commotion at the end on which it’s best not to dwell. We know this can’t be right, and yet these blandishments, claiming to be the voice of reason, whisper in our ears so continuously that we begin to suffer imagination fatigue. Imagination fatigue doesn’t directly attack the Christian faith; instead it diminishes the power of the Christian story to quicken culture. “The heart is commonly reached,” as John Henry Newman wrote, “not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.” But if imagination is fatigued, faith is surely in jeopardy, and even testimony begins to falter.

— Carol Zaleski, “Faith Matters, Habits of Hobbits,” Christian Century, June 14, 2003, pg. 37.

Be sure to join Tony Campolo, Dr. C.T. Vivian, and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6 if you are in Birmingham, Alabama. Remember, the event is free but please register so the planning team will know you are coming. I hope to see you there!

William H. Willimon

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