As a kid, I was often described as having an “overactive imagination.” I still remember playing “elf war” with my childhood friends, frolicking in their backyard with bows and arrows made out of sticks and shoestrings. We pretended to have dragon eggs, which were actually water balloons carefully placed in shoeboxes, that we protected from evil dragon hunters. We’d jump around fallen trees and piles of leaves protecting the kingdom, fighting the bad guys, raising the dragons.
When I told my parents I wanted to be a writer, they weren’t surprised. The older I get (and I know, I’m still a child—wide-eyed, frivolous, silly, unbelievably loud), I realize how instrumental my imagination, now appropriately expressed in writing rather than backyard frolicking, has been in shaping my worldview. Images of kings and warriors, dragons and princesses, all things fantastical, have become the images through which I understand the world, and by extension, God. My imagination informs and influences my perception of creation, the Creator and my place within it all.
Steeped in the creativity of religious imagery and language, my understanding of religion is influenced by the fiction stories I heard or made up. Growing up in the church has had that effect—it’s difficult for me to separate imagination and belief. And the more I learn about writing and language, specifically figurative language, the deeper that connection roots itself.
Language gives voice to and defines reality, provides meaning and understanding to complex ideas and gives humanity a mode of communication beyond feelings and bodily expression, like laughing or crying. Figurative language is used to simply voice a deeper reality, one that cannot be easily named.
God is one such reality. He cannot be easily named or simply defined. That isn’t to say he can’t be defined at all; the entire Bible is an exploration and definition of God. However, figurative language is the most common form of explanation and description given in the Bible when one is faced with the question, “Who/What is God?”
In answering that question, imagination is vital, because understanding God is not a concrete science; rather, it is a method of merging mystery with God’s desire to reveal himself to humanity. He speaks the language of humanity, drawing from pictures and emotions that people can understand in order to connect.
Avis, an Anglican Priest and writer, wrote in his book “God and the Creative Imagination: Metaphor, Symbol and Myth in Religion and Theology” that “the role of the imagination is crucial to understanding the true nature of Christianity. Unless we attempt to do full justice to the part played by the imagination, we cannot understand the Christian faith and we cannot ourselves truly believe.”
Expressions of God, salvation, grace, love and so forth are most often conveyed in the Bible through metaphor, analogy and other figurative language. Without understanding these elements of creative expression, we’d miss out on the nuances and truths laced throughout God’s word.
God is too big, too complex, too “other” for us to comprehend, but he graciously describes himself in ways we can understand, though our language is flawed and lacking. In a fallen world with a fallen language, God uses human references and experiences to relate to and connect with us.
Metaphors like king, shepherd, rock and father each express one aspect of God’s character. Alone, they do not come close to providing a definition of God; but together, they paint a more intricate, expressive picture of the infinite God who desires to be known by his creation. And as a result, the images are cemented in our minds, providing context and meaning to the boundlessly complex being of God.
Without a healthy imagination, one brimming with possibility and creativity, we cannot fully experience or understand God as he is and as he reveals himself to us.
The symbols, images, metaphors, analogies, even adjectives, adverbs, nouns, perfectly strewn throughout Biblical literature, show us our infinitely creative God and call us to be creative with him. They call us to imagine ourselves as princesses and princes carrying out the calls of the King, expanding the kingdom, protecting the vulnerable, setting free the captive, all while wearing a full suit of armor—as fanciful and childish as it may sound; to allow our own imaginations to be informed by our understanding of God; to allow Biblical imagery and figurative language to inform our imagination.
Expressing this, Avis wrote, “Christianity is embodied in figurative language and cannot exist in abstraction from it. The imagination is the matrix of Christian faith.”
Imagination and language are gifts from a perfect God to his imperfect lover, creation.
Losing ourselves in the beauty and intricacy of a well-constructed poem can become a form of worship. Expressing the intense emotions that accompany a personal relationship with Christ in song or story or painting or sculpture or any other form of art is worship. And through these acts of worship come redemption and renewal.
In his article “Art, Faith and the Stewardship of Culture,” founder and editor of “Image” journal Gregory Wolfe writes, “It is my view that the imagination itself is the key to the cultural and spiritual renewal we so desperately need.”