There is something incredibly powerful about good fiction, yes? The craft of it. The story itself. And the imagination required to make it come alive.
I have a long and torrid love-affair with imaginative writing; an infinite and ever-expanding list of “sacred” texts:
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
- A Wrinkle In Time by Madeline L’Engle.
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
- The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd.
- And despite my disappointment in J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter.
I could easily and endlessly go on…
What is it, do you think, that makes these novels, these texts, more permissive of imagination than traditional sacred texts?
Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts.
Many of us have been taught to think about sacred or spiritual things (and texts) as “absolute truth.” Concepts are concretized and imagination is, for the most part, disallowed.
My go-to example is the Genesis story: The Garden of Eden. Eve and Adam. The tree. The serpent. The fruit. The bite. It is an imaginative answer to the question of why (not how) the world was created. No committee or panel of experts sat down to write it. No one debated about what should be included or not, what was allegory and what was literal, what was to become rigid rule vs. remaining narrative technique. It was first imagined, then recited, then recited again. It changed every time it was told based on the storyteller’s imagination, perspective, mood, language, and audience. As every good story should!
Somehow though, over time, this story (a poem, actually) became a text and the text became a treatise and the treatise became a theology and the theology became something to enforce. (This sounds a lot like the nursery rhyme, “There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…”)
Even though I know exactly how all of this happened, it breaks my heart.
What happens when our imagination is no longer encouraged, even allowed as it relates to our spirituality? My quick answer: We lose interest and leave it behind. And though this may be the healthiest and best of decisions, there is still a loss. A gap exists where these set-in-stone beliefs once resided. It’s hard to heal.
What happens when we reintroduce imagination into the spiritual aspect of our lives, into the deepest and most sacred aspects of our very self and soul? My quick answer: We are passionate, connected, and deeply moved by any and everything that touches our hearts and others’.
All of this is on my mind because I just completed the final edits on one of the chapters in my upcoming book (which still feels strange and amazing to say…and…if you’re keeping up with the countdown, will be published on 10.3./23). It’s the story of a woman who is desperate for Jesus to heal her daughter. Rather than just doing so, he is incredibly rude. (I don’t know how else to explain it.) He says things that are both dismissive and derogatory. Nevertheless, she persists. She demands. She will not be deterred. And in the end, he heals the girl because of the woman’s faith, a mother who fiercely loved.
As you might imagine, endless effort has been extended over the years to rationalize Jesus’ behavior — everything from naming his responses as a sophisticated rhetorical device to saying that he was *merely* testing her faith. Bullshit. (Sorry.)
No question about it: this is an incredibly confusing and unsettling story. But what if we stopped trying to make it fit some rubric of sensibility and instead, saw it as expansive opportunity to imagine something different, something more, something profoundly sacred? What if we let go of the demand for solid answers when it comes to things-spiritual? It’s almost as though we can’t allow the divine to be anything other than perfect. We’re nervous about tarnishing God’s image. Which, ironically and ridiculously, assumes that it’s up to us to maintain! What if the sacred, in any and every form, can handle its own PR? Imagine that!
OK. I digress. Well, not completely. This is my point, after all.
What happens when our imagination is no longer encouraged, even allowed as it relates to our spirituality? We cannot handle ambivalence or contradiction or complexity (all of which, in my personal opinion, are the stuff of life almost all of the time).
And what happens when we reintroduce imagination into the spiritual aspect of our lives? Even into the sacred stories that we’d often far-prefer to leave behind? We can handle so. much. more. We can feel so. much. more. Our spirituality becomes so. much. more.
Here’s the so. much. more. that shows up for me when I give myself free reign to imagine this story (and the divine/sacred) in new ways:
- I imagine a god to and with whom I can actually relate when all requirement of perfection disappears.
- I imagine a spirituality in which I can argue, fuss, and fight for what I most deeply desire and deserve.
- I imagine a life that is like this woman’s: passionate and heartfelt and persistent and alive and awake and deeply, deeply committed.
- I imagine an experience of the sacred that is shaped by the stories of the women — their voices, their lives, their faith.
Even this cursory imagining spins me into a million more imaginings beside. Every one of which feel sacred and spiritual and divine and real and true and worthwhile. Now that I think of it, it feels a lot like the novels I poured through this week. Immersive. Impossible to put down. Transported. Transformed.
Mmmmm. As it should be, yes? As we would want and hope and intend when it comes to the deepest and most sacred aspects of our very self and soul… I thought about taking this further, but then thought again. Your imagination (and thought) is way more interesting and what matters. So, I hope you’ll do just that! Imagine. Imagine. Imagine!
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