Like many children, I grew up with a robust imagination. Our quarter-acre backyard, quite large by suburban standards, offered ample room for my imaginary commando missions and adventures with my Lego sets. Indoors I spent many an afternoon draped over the recliner in the living room, book in hand, losing myself within the walls of Redwall Abbey or escaping to another era through the Magic Treehouse. It was wonderful.
As I grew up in church and began to take my faith seriously, however, this imagination began to choke up as my interest in theology grew. I was presented with a stark picture: the Bible was the inspired Word of God, infallible in all it affirmed, and the only source of ultimate truth in the world. Everything and everyone else was suspect, including my own heart. I was told that my impulses and even most of my longings were expressons of fleshly desires that needed to be tamed and brought into alignment with God’s commands.
There was little room for imagination in this framework that felt like it prized theological correctness above everything. And good theology, by these standards, was strictly within the bounds of Scripture. Anything that deviated from that, that struck even a different tone than the particular biblical narrative I was taught, was—again—suspect. For several years I became an ardent critic of much purportedly “Christian” rehtoric, whether it be a lyric from a CCM song or an offhand comment from a friend, that ran counter to or fell outside the bounds of what I understood the Bible to teach.
It was not until an undergrad postmodernism class that my beliefs began to significantly evolve. I was still attending an institution that held and encouraged a more dogmatic reading of Scripture, but this particular professor had a reputation as a bit of a maverick. He argued that the Bible only offers us a narrative, not a metanarrative. It does not and is not intended to provide a comprehensive, systematic theology or a complete worldview, per se, he said. Instead God’s revelation comes to us through specific, particular stories—genres like historical records, poetry, personal letters, and accounts of visions.
This seemed obvious enough to me, and over time I began to read Scripture more as a narrative than a textbook. This was both frightening and freeing. The Bible’s teachings, to the extent that it had them, did not seem nearly as clear to me as they once did. At times I felt adrift in a sea of doubt and uncertainty. I was afraid that God might judge me or cut me off if I strayed from the supposedly “clear” teachings of Scripture.
But I also found my imagination begin to revive. I found profound truths in stories told through literature and music and film—even the ones told by so-called “secular” folks. I began encountering the firsthand, lived experience of myself and others and started genuinely grappling with how to reconcil their feelings and lives with my own theological assumptions. I began to open myself to insights and wisdom from other denominations and wisdom traditions.
Several years ago I found a view that resonated with me in a paper by N.T. Wright exploring the question of how the Bible can be authoritative. He encourages the church to read the Bible more as a play in which we are given the first four acts and a glimpse of the ending of the story, and now face the joyful, creative task of working out the fifth act for ourselves. This is not a matter of simply contorting ourselves back into the shape of a 2,000-year-old text so as to be “biblically faithful.” It’s more about finding ourselves in its story and creatively living out the next act in relationship with a personal, dynamic God. Granted, this God never changes, but the Triune Godhead is nonetheless always in motion, always at work in some way creatively working out redemption in the world and wooing our hearts.
This involves a both/and posture. We look to the traditions and wisdom of the past to know where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. Yet at the same time we also need pastors, prophets, and artists who are capable of holy imagination—who can bear witness to the presence of a God who is real and alive and active right now, all around us, not just in the pages of Scripture. As T.S. Eliot said, every generation needs its own poets. I’ve come to see that we need our own contemporaries in the church to sing their songs in their own way, to reimagine the story of our faith afresh and attune to the ever-new mercies and whispers of the Spirit.
To that end, here are three examples of holy imagination in music that have profoundly enriched my worship and devotional life over the past year:
In the ruins of my heart you preach to the poor
Turning over stones to show me there is more
More than all I ask more than I’m looking for
In the ruins of my heart
I don’t know the story behind this song or how Assad went about writing it, but I am convinced that when she composed the bridge she was directly tapped into the Spirit of the living God. In these anthemic lines my heart is imagined as a ruined wasteland in which God has come to speak to all the broken, downcast parts of me and dig through the rubble, unearthing the seeds of redemption and new life. In my mind’s eye I can see Jesus, much like he wandered through all the cities and villages of Galilee, “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” I see him turning over stones and calling me to come and see that there’s more to the parts of my story that I’ve given up on—that where I see wreckage and despair he sees buried treasure.
There’s also a distinct echo of the Psalms here, of a God who offers refuge in the shadow of his wings and lifts up the broken hearts of the widow and the fatherless. If the Psalms were written today, I bet they would sound a lot like this.
You hover over waters of my heart
Skipping stones on the bank where the tides rises and depart
You know I’ve got, I’ve got your sun reflecting off my skin
I feel you hushing every storm again
The first line here is a reference to the opening of Genesis, which speaks of the Spirit of God hovering over the formless and void waters of the earth. But there’s something “extra-biblical” here in the lyric too: this picture of the Spirit at play, in a state of leisure and familiarity, skipping stones on the shores of our heart like a friend utterly comfortable in our presence. It feels like what I imagine it would be like to be with God, at peace and at home. It catches the divine vibe. It’s the kind of thing I’d expect from someone who has a track record of playing in the mud to heal a blind man or making breakfest for his friends after they were out fishing all night.
I also love how this image of leisure and friendliness goes hand in hand with an experience of divine glory and power. The holiness of God lights up the singer, like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, and the power of God hushes the storm, like Jesus at sea with his disciples. But these magnificent displays of glory and power come to us with a felt sense of life and peace, like a ray of sunshine on warm spring day, or a friend skipping stones on the banks of our most tender, vulnerable selves.
The dead will rise and give you praise
Wood and nails will not hold them down
These wooden tombs, we’ll break them soon
And fashion them into flower beds
You won’t find this specific imagery in the accounts of the Hebrew prophets, but it rings profoundly true all the same because it poetically captures the heart of redemption itself. The very tombs that imprison us, the instruments and markers of death, will become the materials for our new homes and vocations in the kingdom. It’s the hope of swords being fashioned into plowshares contextualized for the present day: tombs to flower boxes. Either way the beating heart of redemption is the same: it is the concrete, tacticle things of everyday life in today’s broken world that will hold the beauty of new life in the coming kingdom.
I imagine (I use the term here intentionally) that if Isaiah were prophesying today, he just might receive a vision like this one. This is poetry for today’s generation, nothing less than a prophetic vision of a flourishing kingdom. This is language that moves a Seattle-dwelling millennial to tears. I long for home, to walk through uncursed gardens in a body that’s has become even more substantive and sensual than I already am.