The Importance of Imagination, Part 9


Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, and Part 8.

A Biblical Example

In the last couple of essays we have distinguished the primary from the secondary imagination. We have also considered one example of the imagination being exercised, William Wordsworth’s “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.” Now I would like to examine a biblical example of the imagination in action.

The Bible is full of imaginative literature (by imaginative I do not mean “made up,” but rather “literature that makes its appeal to the imagination”). Much of Scripture is cast in the form of stories. Several biblical books are devoted exclusively to poetry, and others employ poetic forms extensively in their composition. Parts of the Bible are apocalyptic, and whatever else apocalypses may do, they appeal to the imagination (specifically, the speculative fantasy).

If we want to discuss the use of the imagination in Scripture, we find ourselves nearly stymied by an embarrassment of riches. Where shall we turn? For the present discussion, I propose to select a work that is widely known and can be easily recalled. We shall discuss the Twenty-Third Psalm.

David begins this psalm with the line, “The Lord is my shepherd.” This line is worth pondering for what it assumes. Clearly, David has been contemplating shepherds—no surprise, since he spent his youth performing the work of a shepherd. When David thinks of a shepherd, however, he is not merely thinking of a man doing a job. For David, shepherds point to something beyond themselves. They are symbols, and what they symbolize is something like the notion of provision and care.

This point is so important that it bears restating. David has already been “looking through” shepherds before he begins to associate them with God. His vision of a shepherd is what controls the analogy of Psalm 23. For David, God is not so much like an actual shepherd whom one might meet in the field (sweaty, grimy, and bored, for example) as He is like what a shepherd represents to David.

What if David had thought of shepherds differently? Suppose he had viewed shepherds from a different perspective, perhaps as those who profit from the flock. Given this understanding of a shepherd, it simply would not have worked to suggest that “the Lord is my shepherd.” The image would have said all the wrong things.

In other words, David is making a double move within the primary imagination. First, a shepherd is a symbol of provision and care. Second, temporal provision and care is a symbol of God’s provision and care for His people. This double symbolism is essential to the success of the psalm.

The poem gives evidence that David has pondered exactly what “provision and care” must mean when applied to God’s relationship with His own. The balance of the poem teases out these ideas. All of this is primary imagination.

The poem itself is a virtual textbook in secondary imagination. David has a way of shedding new light on familiar notions. He does not simply say, “the Lord provides and cares for me.” Rather, he chooses word pictures that evoke images of pastoral delight: the Lord causes him to lie in green pastures and leads him beside still waters. He is comforted by the shepherd’s rod and staff. Even the calamities and uncertainties of life (the valley of the shadow of death) pose no threat, “for Thou art with me.” All of these images are packed into the inclusio that opens the psalm.

David supplements this inclusio with a depiction of the Lord as host. Some have taken this depiction as a shift in metaphor from shepherd to host. Since a shepherd is a kind of host to his flock, however, the two pictures are not entirely distinct. Also, the image of the shepherd-king is well known within ancient Near Eastern literature. David may be drawing upon this stock image.

At any rate, the images are colorful. David speaks of a banquet in front of enemies, a head anointed with oil, a cup overflowing. Then, in his closing summary, David employs a vivid picture: personified goodness and mercy follow him “all the days” of his life. David’s poetry displays a grain and texture that draws the reader into the poetic world and alters his awareness of ultimate realities.

David’s technique relies on a framework of word pictures and evocative language. He erects these pictures upon a foundation of parallelism that conducts the reader from one image to the next and underscores exactly the points that he wishes to emphasize. These are the marks of a master of the imagination, an expert poet who knew how to use the tools provided to him by the secondary imagination. The popularity of this psalm through times and cultures is proof of David’s success in evoking within his readers the same vision of God that he himself enjoyed.

I have here given the most cursory analysis of the Shepherd Psalm. Much more could be said. Furthermore, every one of the psalms could be subjected to similar examination. So could the other poetical books, not to mention the prophets (especially Isaiah!) whose work relies so heavily upon poetry. The same kind of scrutiny can also be performed on the other imaginative literature of Scripture: the parables, the narratives, the apocalypses. By its very nature, Scripture invites us to take the imagination seriously.

Christians of all people must be interested in the operations of the imagination. It is an important key to understanding Scripture. Indeed, it is the key to understanding God Himself.

For this reason, the exercises of our imagination must be subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny. Nowhere is this examination more important than in our worship of God. We have no non-imaginative ways of meeting God. Therefore, we have no non-imaginative modes of worshipping Him. Engaging the imagination correctly is at the heart of our calling.

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)

THE irresponsive silence of the land,
    The irresponsive sounding of the sea,
    Speak both one message of one sense to me:—
Aloof, aloof, we stand aloof, so stand
Thou too aloof, bound with the flawless band
    Of inner solitude; we bind not thee;
    But who from thy self-chain shall set thee free?
What heart shall touch thy heart? What hand thy hand?
And I am sometimes proud and sometimes meek,
    And sometimes I remember days of old
When fellowship seem’d not so far to seek,
    And all the world and I seem’d much less cold,
    And at the rainbow’s foot lay surely gold,
And hope felt strong, and life itself not weak.

This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Aaron Blumer's picture


I see Ps23 more vividly than before... and feel its meaning more deeply. Thanks.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Charlie's picture

I think it's safe to say that, at least in Post-Reformation Protestantism, the cognitive realm and the propositional value of Scripture have often been privileged beyond warrant. That is, many people, when faced with imaginative literature, actually want someone to come along and "demythologize" it for them. So, when they hear a sermon on Psalm 23, they want the preacher to read the text and say, "God provides and cares for us." This attitude, which I think is reinforced by much of the corpus on expository preaching, views literature as propositions hiding in gaudy clothes. The goal, it seems, is to take the magic out of the passage.

Here, I think Bauder shows us a better way. Perhaps the best way to preach a passage such as this one is not to come into the pulpit with a list of points. Rather, the speaker ought to ponder how he can evoke in his audience a state of heart and mind similar to the author's when he wrote the text. Such preaching may not explicitly rewrite pages of people's private systematic theologies, but it does adjust their analogies - how do I relate to God? what is the Christian life like? - by which they make sense of things on a deeper than propositional level. To use an simile of my own, our thoughts and attitudes toward God might be summed up as paintings hanging in a gallery with label plates next to them. Most Christians have a painting in their gallery labeled "God is my shepherd." Though the labels are identical, the paintings differ greatly among Christians. One Christian may have a stick figure sketch entirely lacking in detail or depth. Another might have a crude expressionist rendition - many striking pieces, yet disjointed and disproportionate. A third may be a virtual masterpiece - crisp, colorful, deep, and moving. Of course, it's also possible that a Christian may not yet have acquired "God is my shepherd" for his gallery.

Most young preachers (including myself) are more comfortable with "didactic" literature. We can simply do grammatical and logical analysis to reproduce a Pauline argument, throwing in explanatory notes and personal illustrations where appropriate. This easy to replicate, rules-based approach leads to enervated and artificial sermons whenever the text falls outside the epistles. It seems to me that imaginative preaching can be learned, but not by the application of a grid or series of steps; it takes exposure to preachers naturally gifted in this way. I'm sure there are many great imaginative preachers, but I can recommend my own pastor as an example. It took me a while to get used to his preaching, but I've found that it brings to life the Bible and areas of my relationship to God in ways I have neglected. To hear an example, I'd suggest you go to and click on the April 04 sermon, "Christ the Firstfruits." (Don't worry, he doesn't preach very long.)

My Blog:

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Aaron Blumer's picture


Most young preachers (including myself) are more comfortable with "didactic" literature.

I have found that to be the case in my own experience.
And I agree this can be a problem, though not to the degree you apparently do.
Alot depends on your audience. If you have very sophisticated listeners, you don't have to bottom shelf applications to the same degree you would for, say, children or adults who are not very reflective or deep thinkers.
I would have no qualms at all about going to "God cares for us" from Psalm 23 for most audiences I would preach to, though I would try wrap it as much as possible in the imaginative/poetic richness of the text. But I find it far, far easier to lay things out logically. It's just how I'm wired. The "artistic" in my preaching is never going to be what I do best.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Charlie's picture

I'm not particularly great at the more poetic genres myself; I have some friends that are. Some of the old-time gospel preachers who couldn't write a systematic theology to save their lives were fantastic at it. We are misaligned, though, if our minds and souls are such that we only really relate well to about 1/8 of the Bible (the epistles and Proverbs). I know one layman who preaches regularly, but always out of Proverbs or James, because he can't articulate the Bible in any other form than, "You should do this; you shouldn't do that." There are whole layers of Scripture (and I can only assume his preaches indicates something of his personal experience) that are closed to him. I think what Bauder is saying is that growing in Christ is going to develop dimensions of our souls that we under-emphasize.

So, I don't think it's wrong if you go to "God cares for us" for Psalm 23. It's all about how the picture "God cares for us" gets painted in your listener's souls. When they walk out the door, what does "God cares for us" mean to them? I am learning this from my pastor, who has a deeper grasp of imaginative preaching than anyone else I've sat under. I am amazed at how theological his preaching can be without his ever mentioning a theological term. Tim Keller's A Prodigal God is a great example of this. I think Philip Ryken is good at it. The point is that Jesus is more than simply a teacher, and the Bible is more than raw data; our mystical union with Christ changes us in the deepest level of our souls. When your parishioners walk out of church, are they the same people who know a few more facts, or has the preached Word opened them to new realities of life in Christ?

My Blog:

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

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