A Faith-full Imagination

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The imagination, so one definition says, is “the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” With imagination, we see what is not visible to our physical eyes, hear what is audible but not in the moment, and consider what is not tangibly before us, yet is in our mind’s eye or inner thoughts.

Albert Einstein, that wonderful scientist who saw things that were not yet clear, and ushered in breakthroughs with his theories of relativity, once said, “Your imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

A lack of imagination is like living in a prison. The inability to grasp things beyond our sense, the inability to move beyond what is available to us, this lack of imagination shuts us inside of our limits. That’s why Muhammad Ali, known for some of his pithy sayings, in reflecting on that, once said: “The man who has no imagination has no wings.”

But with imagination, we can fly beyond our cages. With imagination, we have “the one weapon against reality.”[1]

The New Testament author of the epistle of Hebrews writes:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)

If imagination helps us to see things that are not immediately visible, to fly beyond our limits and the cages of our circumstances, then, in a biblical sense, imagination is important because it is intrinsic to faith. Imagination strengthens us to know the invisible God, to live life with God, and to hope in eternal truth that brings meaning beyond what our senses immediately reveal.

That is why C. S. Lewis wrote:

Reason is the natural organ of truth, imagination is the organ of meaning. [2]

Imagination is important in our spiritual lives because it becomes a resource God uses to help us hear Him in Scripture, pray with faith, and live with endurance beyond what we can see. And that vital place of imagination in our life with God in Scripture, prayer and endurance is what we see in Daniel’s life

Throughout the book, but particularly in his prayer in chapter 9, we find Daniel’s imagination set ablaze by the power of God to fly beyond the cages of his circumstances. Even though Daniel had experienced exile for more than sixty years by the time of his prayer, his vision is not limited by the difficulties in front of him. Instead, he sees with the eyes of faith, with an apocalyptic imagination, who God is and what God can and will do because of His characters and promises.

May God give us a faith-full imagination today, no matter what our senses tell us or how our circumstances threaten to imprison us.

Lord God,
take my imagination
and by the power of the Holy Spirit
set it ablaze with faith,
that the eyes of my heart
might see reality as You see it
and, like Daniel,
rise above my circumstances
in You.

[This material originally appeared in a slightly different form in my message, “Exile Faith at Prayer,” delivered on December 8/9, 2019, at Eastbrook Church.]


[1] Attributed to Jules de Gaultier.

[2] From his essay, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” in Selected Literary Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).; quoted here.

Exile Faith at Prayer [Daniel 9]

We continued our series on the book of Daniel this past weekend at Eastbrook Church by turning to Daniel’s famous prayer in chapter 9. Daniel’s prayer takes place in the first year of Cyrus’ reign, around 539 BC, and references Jeremiah 25:10-11 in recognizing that the time of the exile is reaching its conclusion. Daniel has been in exile for more than 60 years, but his imagination has not been closed in by the suffering of exile. Instead his prayer takes flight through an imagination set fire by the revelations of God.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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Faith and the Baptized Imagination: Biblical Apocalyptic as the Key to Exile Faith

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Apocalyptic literature takes its name from the Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis), which literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘unveiling.’ As some of us may already know, the last book of the Bible, translated with the title ‘Revelation,’ draws its name from the first word of the book, which is this very word ‘ἀποκάλυψις.’ Unfortunately, our reading of Revelation as speaking of the future often confuses us about apocalyptic literature in general.

Andrew Hill describes apocalyptic literature as:

‘crisis’ literature, typically conveying specific messages to particular groups of people caught in in dire situations. . . . Visionary literature announces an end to the way things are and opens up alternative possibilities to the audience as a result of God’s impending intervention in human affairs. Three types of messages are usually associated with the visionary literature of the Bible: (1) a message of encouragement to the oppressed; (2) a warning to the oppressor; and (3) a call to faith for those wavering between God’s truth and human ‘wisdom.’[1]

Reality is often hidden from our ordinary perception, so apocalyptic literature unveils what is truly happening with the simultaneous aim of encouragement, warning, and exhortation.  Apocalyptic is not primarily about the future; it is primarily about the cosmic reality underlying all of human history. This is why Daniel Block tells us that “the intention of apocalyptic is not to chart out God’s plan for the future so future generations may draw up calendars tub to assure the present generation that — perhaps contrary to appearance — God is still on the throne (cf. Dan 7:18, 21-22, 27; 8:25; 12:1-4), and that the future is firmly in his hands.”[2]

What often leads us into the drafting of calendars and the drawing of charts from apocalyptic literature is the dramatic symbolism and the critique that does exist of kings and kingdoms. As adults, particularly in a results-oriented, project-management culture, we often lose our imagination about life. This diminishment of imagination ruins us for hearing the voice of God in the midst of apocalyptic. With apocalyptic literature in His hands, God wants to blow a hole in our stultified imagination so that we can see reality with apocalyptic eyes and consider reality with apocalyptic minds and hearts. Daniel, Ezekiel, and John the Revelator all stand as guides into the apocalyptic imagination necessary to live out our faith as exiles in a world and cultures where we are most definitely not at home.

Tremper Longman, in his commentary on Daniel, outlines six key themes of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions, found in the second half of the book:

  • the horror of human evil, particularly as it is concentrated in the state
  • the announcement of a specific time of deliverance
  • repentance that leads to deliverance
  • the revelation that a cosmic war stands behind human conflict
  • judgment as certain for those who resist God and oppress his people
  • the equally certain truth that God’s people, downtrodden in the present, will experience new life in the fullest sense[3]

Those themes spin around like the wheels of Ezekiel’s visions in the metaphors and images, the dreams and the visions, of Daniel, chapters 7-12. As we read through those chapters we want to keep these themes in mind and let God enliven our imagination through what we encounter. While we should rightly grapple with what each symbol or metaphor represents, we also do not want to become rigorously attached to either outlining plans that are not clearly in the book or woodenly interpreting symbolism that intends to destabilize our ability comprehend. Instead, let us, to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis’ description of how George MacDonald’s fantasy writing in Phantastes affected him, allow Daniel to “baptize our imagination” into grasping exilic faith with a force and freshness we have not yet known.

 


[1] Andrew E. Hill, “Daniel,” in Daniel-Malachi, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Rev. Ed., Vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 131.

[2] Daniel I. Block, “Preaching Old Testament Apocalyptic,” CTJ 41/1 (2006), 52.

[3] Tremper Longman III, Daniel NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 178-179.