Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
This is how I read Scripture. I’ll consume it in small portions, sometimes in a structured setting (at church) and sometimes on my own. There are moments when certain passages, even if I’ve read them before, will leap off the page and I am inclined to believe the words are naturally speaking to me.
Once I read in Isaiah 43 “you are precious in my sight and I love you,” and it felt like a love letter placed in my hands. Of course I am the loved one. Of course I am the precious one. I printed up the words and carried them around for days.
Not everyone, I’m learning, has this comfort level with the Bible. I understand. The text as a whole is daunting and intimidating. So many people, it seems to me, require a well-equipped leader to interpret or provide context before they are willing to delve in. And even then they are like a group of hikers hunkered behind a person tricked out in a headlamp helmet, walking poles, safety gear and trailblazing tools. I can see how such guidance is useful but I wonder—is it always necessary? Why not take a turn at the front? Why not walk a little on your own?
Recently I discussed this with a friend who also happens to be a seminary graduate. I told him I didn’t get why it was so hard to engage with Scripture.
He said, with a smile, “Yes, but not every one has your imagination.”
I was stunned. Does faith require imagination? Do I have some sort of “in” because I’m a writer? Is it possible I can more easily accept God’s vision of the world because of the worlds I create on paper every day?
As I considered this further certain parts of Scripture took on new meaning. Is this why one must be like a child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Who is more expert than a child in the ways of imagination?
When my son was six and attended Sunday school for the first time he was asked to draw a picture of God. I was surprised and fascinated by how he had no trouble doing so. By the way, in case you’re wondering, God has big googly eyes, long golden jewelry hanging from large ears and rows of rings on outstretched fingers. I’ve kept the picture so I will remember.
If a child can imagine God so easily, then it must work both ways—God has imagined us, after all. We are creatures of divine design. I think the writer Frederick Buechner stumbled upon this concept in an interview when he referred to a “merciful, loving and imaginative God.” When the interviewer asks him about the imaginative part, Buechner, who seemed surprised himself, said, “I’ve never used that phrase before.” But he played with it, rolled it around like a bit of clay he’d discovered in his hands. He eventually came up with this: God is “imaginative in the sense that you can’t outguess him, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.” Buechner used the Parables as examples, how the stories never turned out how you thought they might. He referred to them as “evidence of the profound and enchanted imagination of Jesus.”
I love this vision of godlike play, of imagining helpful stories. But I’m uncomfortable with it in the human sense. What we imagine usually isn’t real. But my faith is real. My engagement with Scripture is real. I don’t want a faith of pure imagination, a bauble I’ve crafted myself like a short story or a poem. Such a creation would easily crumble like a sand castle especially, I’m certain, in a time of trouble or tragedy.
Imagination has a dark aspect too. The author Charles Baxter whose latest collection of short stories, There’s Something I Want You to Do, is divided into virtues and vices, recently observed in an interview, “In the land of imagination, you think at first that it’ll all be peaches and cream… But if you’re going to cast your vote for the imagination, you had better be ready for the darkness and craziness, because that’s going to be part of the imagination’s landscape, too.”
He continues: “Having and using the imagination is like living under a spell, and sometimes it’s the case that having a good imagination makes your life worse, not better. And the visions you have can come close to killing you. We shouldn’t kid ourselves about the imagination’s power. It’s a fire. It can burn you.”
I know something of this because when I was about nine or ten years old I imagined myself into a world that called for me to stop playing outside. I remember the moment precisely. That afternoon my siblings and I were next door, where my father’s sister lived, playing “colored eggs” with our cousins. This was a game where one child would be “the fox” who would come to the hen house to ask for colored eggs. The rest of the kids played the eggs and each had secretly chosen a color.
If the fox asked for blue, that “egg” had to run across the yard, touch the gnarly brown telephone pole by the side of the street, and get back to the hen house without being tagged. If the egg got tagged, that person became the fox. I loved this game because I could see it playing out like a movie in my head with all of us rainbow-colored eggs resting in batches of straw in some cozy little chicken coop.
That day, just as I was generating the make believe fox-and-egg world in my mind, another thought intruded. I thought of my father who was in our house asleep in his tattered recliner and the next thing I knew, the movie in my mind changed. In this one I saw him waking up from a post-dinner nap, wondering where everyone was, making his groggy way into the kitchen to find dirty dishes in the sink, the garbage can overflowing and the clutter that was ever present in our tiny house darkening every corner. He would get aggravated, then angry, then he would be looking for us, his belt in hand. I remember thinking, “We’re going to get into trouble.” It snapped me out of my colored eggs daydream.
Even worse, it made me see the game as false and futile, especially since it could only lead to us getting our butts whipped. It was like all the colors had drained away and I saw a stark black and white picture that told me the truth of the world. Something in my brain shut off and I couldn’t bring myself to the carefree place in my mind where I could play. I walked away from the game—I’m not even sure if anyone noticed—and never went back. The only thing I could do was go inside, do the dishes, and sit and wait for my father to awaken.
As I think back on this now I see how my imagination failed me on two counts: I couldn’t imagine the game, but I did imagine getting into trouble, even though it didn’t happen. And I continued to live the expectancy of that dark imagination coming to fruition.
So does this mean imagination is too dangerous, that I should leave it to my fiction and ban it from my spiritual life? Well, no. Imagination does play an important role.
Imagination for me is like a springboard or a launch pad. It provides the required lift to propel myself into faith. But after that initial leap there must be something to grab, something to hold on to. What is that something? I think it’s recognizing where God is at work in my life. But even this recognition requires a kind of flexibility.
In this I’m like a trapeze artist reaching out to the guy swinging through the sky to catch me. A few years ago I actually did this at a Club Med in Florida. I climbed 3-4 stories up the ladder, despite a fear of heights. I swung from the bar and even managed to hook my knees over it so I could swing by my legs and reach out to be caught. But I couldn’t execute the maneuver. My back and shoulders weren’t flexible enough to bend the way it needed to lengthen my reach and make me catchable.
Perhaps my imagination provides this bit of flexibility faith requires so I can reach across the chasm of disbelief. I can take what might seem like coincidences, or moments of good luck and imagine them as blessings. I can bend farther, make the reach, leap from the bar and have confidence the Lord will catch me every time.
But you have to look in order to make the grab. Even more so, you have to see, see the love and blessings are real. If I had done this when I was younger I would have focused not on the colored eggs game, but on what was present and real: the feeling of sun on my skin, the joy of being in the company of my siblings and cousins, the lightness of being temporarily free from adult supervision. All this could have upheld me, I think, even if my father had given us all the belt. I might have thought it was worth it.
What do you see? Do you only see a false and futile world full of meaningless coincidences and random twists of fate because a lack of imagination makes it impossible to believe someone could love you so much—so much that he would look after you, bless you, die for you?
And how do you flex your imagination so you can come to believe this impossible thing? As the Queen in Through the Looking Glass says, you must practice. You practice with prayer. You practice with listening. Frederick Buechner, in The Sacred Journey, wrote “If God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks.” Practice noticing the impossible, wonderful gifts: when a friend you miss suddenly communicates with you; when help shows up when you need it; when blossoms bloom after a hard winter. Notice and know your faith is real. Then hold on.
Sophfronia Scott lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, with her husband and son and where she continues to fight a losing battle against the weeds in her flower beds. She holds a BA in English from Harvard and an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's author of the novel All I Need to Get By; her work has appeared in Killens Review of Arts & Letters, Saranac Review, Numéro Cinq, Barnstorm Literary Journal, Sleet Magazine, NewYorkTimes.com and O, The Oprah Magazine. She’s completed her second novel and is on the faculty of Regis University’s Mile High MFA. Her essay, "Why I Must Dance Like Tony Manero," appears in Issue 33 of Ruminate. She blogs at www.Sophfronia.com.