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Recovering the Power of Biblical Imagery

Despite the best efforts of smartphones and broadband Internet access, people still long to stand transfixed before an image of power and beauty, to walk on the beach at sunset, or to sit quietly in prayer.

Behind these contemporary hungers lie deep reasons why Protestants ought to allow contemplative practices back into their spiritual lives—to unlock their churches to their affective lives. It has always been strange to me that Protestants, people who invest significant time and energy in the study of Scripture, should often ignore the way the Bible encourages the contemplation of light and beauty.

Contemplation, says John Navone, is “a vision kindled by the act of turning toward something in love and affirmation” (Toward a Theology of Beauty, Liturgical Press 1996, p. 6). I believe this expresses the heart of what the liturgy and spiritual practices are meant to do—to kindle our love for God.

Indeed, Navone believes that all true love and friendship require the practice of contemplation. He writes, “There can be no true love without approving contemplation” (p. 25). Contemplative practices, especially in the Catholic tradition Navone represents, are meant to stimulate an active awareness of the presence of God. But Protestants will find ample stimulus for this in Scripture itself. To illustrate we could choose from many images in Scripture: from the dream of Jacob, Moses’ encounter on Sinai, and Isaiah’s calling, to Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly temple. But here let me offer an example from the book of Revelation.

While in exile on Patmos, on the Lord’s Day John has a vision. Listen to his description: “I saw,” John says, “one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters” (Rev. 1:13-15). Commentators typically spend their time deciphering the symbolism—the Ancient of Days from Daniel 7, the imagery from the Temple, and so on. But of the two dozen biblical commentaries I consulted, only George Caird refers to the aesthetic intent of this passage. He notes that John’s allusions are used not only for instruction, but for the “evocative and emotive power” to “set echoes of memory and association ringing” (A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine, Harper and Row, 1966, p. 25.)

In other words, this vision of Christ is to appeal to our imagination and emotions as much as to our intellect. It is to spark desire.

When he was confronted with Christ’s splendor, John tells us, “I fell at his feet like a dead man” (v. 17 CEB). The brilliance, whose only parallel John can think of is the noontime sun, was overwhelming. This vision recalls, and probably stands behind, John’s words in his gospel: “And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Clearly the instructions to the churches that follow in Revelation are meant to embody this vision—“write what you see” (v. 11) the Lord tells John. The one who was dead and is alive forevermore, who has the keys of death and hell, stands over our life and work. This Lord is to be seen, feared, loved, and contemplated. This is a vision to which we are to return again and again, as John does in Revelation. In one sense, this vision is a cumulative series of images that draw their strength from this vision of Christ. That this vision is meant to kindle affection as well as awe is evident from the fact that John’s language parallels that of the description of the bridegroom in Song of Songs 5:10-16: radiant, gold, altogether desirable.

At the very time when our culture is moving in the direction of symbolic and poetic richness, our churches continue to express a symbolic and poetic poverty.

And why is it that we return to such a vision? Because, John tells us in another place, this vision of God is the end toward which our pilgrimage moves. Though we don’t know what it will be like to stand in God’s presence, John writes, “What we do know is this: we will be like [God] for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). This vision of God obviously stayed with John throughout his whole ministry and surely worked on him on many levels. There is no question that when appropriating biblical images we devalue meditation of the vision over against the obedient response, as though the vision were a distraction from the business of obedience—both are valid levels of response. The biblical visions are meant to enable and encourage active obedience. By indwelling the vision, Christians are transformed into people who see through the events that surround them to what is actually present in them, that is, the work of God bringing about the future.

John’s vision enabled him to see through the events of his day to the future place that God had prepared for him. But note that this image did its work not merely through providing specific details about that future, but rather by sparking his imagination with the glory that God has prepared for those who love him.

But here is our challenge: at the very time when our culture is moving in the direction of symbolic and poetic richness, our churches continue to express a symbolic and poetic poverty. One important reason
for this, I believe, is that we have not allowed the images of Scripture to stimulate our imaginations and animate our worship experience.

In his instructions to young monks, On Christian Teaching, Augustine makes the critical claim that the reading of Scripture and our way of interpreting it is important not just for our understanding of what the Bible says but for the way these habits determine how we interpret and live our lives. In other words, Augustine seems to say: show me how you read Scripture and I will show you how you read your life.

As I implied, I am often dismayed by how our commentaries treat the powerful imagery of Scripture. In the case of John’s image, the focus is entirely on obtaining the precise meaning of the various symbolic elements so we can understand the message of this image. But to narrow the impact of Scripture to this single level, something that is encouraged by the dominance of the historical-critical method of reading Scripture, risks missing how Scripture confronts us at many levels—intellectual, affective, and volitional.

I think it is helpful here for us to recall John Calvin’s notion of accommodation and rhetoric. For Calvin, preaching was close to what today we call “performative” utterance. That is, preaching was meant to embody the truth that it announced, and, since it was tied to the activity of the Holy Spirit in worship, it was meant to effect in worshipers what it embodied. At its best, Calvin would agree that preaching resonates with the aesthetic and moral charge that stimulates contemplation—but it is more. It becomes in its performance an instrument of the Spirit. But why should this performance be limited to preaching, (or, as often today, to singing)? Why not insist that the whole of the place of worship be reoriented around the notion of the performance of faith, around practices and objects that embody something of the glory that belongs to God, and that is celebrated in Scripture? Why not allow Scripture to be read, sung, heard and acted out on all its many levels?

If what Augustine claims is true, learning to read Scripture with our imagination as well as our minds will translate into a richer interpretation of the events of our lives. We may have fresh eyes for those experiences or practices that recognize, construct, and celebrate the relationships in which we have been created—our connections with each other, with creation and, ultimately, with God. Having a biblically informed imagination should enable the believer not only to live a morally transformed life in the Spirit, but also one that fulfills and satisfies the longing for beauty. It should enable the believer not only to do good, but to see and enjoy it.

Learning to indwell biblical imagery is one way that we discover God’s own imagination. And living inside God’s imagination can allow us to construe the world according to the figural splendor that creation embodies and the beauty toward which the Spirit moves it.

Surely Christians are not the only ones to recognize the splendor of the sunset or the wonder of great art, but if our reading of Scripture does not stimulate an appreciation of these, it has not connected us properly to its Author. Moreover, if our corporate worship does not stimulate a love for beauty and goodness, it is not the Church of Christ the creator. For God not only endowed creation with great beauty but gave to us the ability to celebrate and enjoy it. A beautiful Celtic prayer expresses this:

How wonderful O Lord, are the works of your hands!
The heavens declare your glory,
the arch of the sky displays your handiwork.
In your love you have given us the power
to behold the beauty of your world in all its splendor.

—David Adam, The Rhythm of Life: Celtic Daily Prayer (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1996). local 221.

May our Spirit-led experience
with scriptural imagery give us
fresh eyes for this beauty.

For Further Reading

Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life, by William Dyrness (Eerdmans 2010)