The Bible: An Imaginative Book

by Andrew Fox

The Bible is not what we want it to be. Perhaps this is why we struggle to read it. I believe it is a marvelous work of imagination. Yes, imagination and I will offer you three reasons why.

First, as a singular book comprised of 66 books, the Bible belongs to the realm of literature. I know that may sound trivial, but when we accept the Bible comes to us as literature in all its translations, it becomes less deified as a book to be worshipped.

Neither does it come to us in the form of abstract doctrine or theology. While looking for truth and meaning to make sense of our own lives, we encounter three distinct literary forms: drama, poetry, and prose. Within these three forms, we find secondary forms like songs, riddles, fables, parables, proverbs, comedy, lists, reports, prayers, liturgies, creeds, and hymns. They appear to dress-up the content where we can access truth and meaning within them.

If the literature of the Bible is understood this way, what takes place when drama, poetry, and prose with their secondary forms are turned into doctrine or theology? Is anything lost when we do this?

Take drama, the form that tells a story like a performance on stage using dialogue between the characters. Does “He said” “She said” “They said” and “God said” matter in any of the Gospels when Jesus either corrects, rebukes, and affirms at the end of the story? Then take poetry. In what way is the divine inspiration of the Bible enhanced or diminished in Psalm 119 – the longest Psalm – by coming to us in the form of an acrostic? Do the lines and stanzas hinder or help the message being conveyed? And then take prose, particularly in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Are these Old Testament books, and more, behavioral tutorials on how to make God happy? Certainly not.

Was the drama, poetry, and prose from Moses, Ezra, Nehemiah, David, Solomon, any of the prophets, the Gospel writers, Paul, or others who wrote epistles come from God or from the person writing? Did God supply the content and leave the literary forms to the writers? The Bible tells us that “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). And undoubtedly, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). But it seems that as they were carried along the literary element came from the writer.

So, why is the Bible difficult to access truth and meaning in places? Why isn’t the Bible an exposition of itself?

All these questions strongly suggest the quality of the Bible as exquisite literature.

Second, what happened between God’s inspiration and the various forms in which it was written required imagination on the part of the writer. To be “carried by the Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21) probably falls very short of a clear explanation of what it was to be inspired by God to write.

I cannot help but feel empathy for John when he recorded the instruction of the angel, “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later” (Rev. 1:19). Then later he notes, “I was about to write” but a heavenly voice told him “…do not write it down’” (Rev.10:4). It could not have been an easy task to be inspired by God.

Equally true is the imagination on the part of the reader. I may sound trivial again, but literature has no soundtrack from Hans Zimmer or John Williams to manipulate the reader, or Scorsese and Spielberg giving direction where the reader should look at any given time.

Be honest, we tend to read the story of Moses and the miraculous parting of the Red Sea from the standpoint of this great Israelite leader. That is, until a Nigerian student explained to me how broken Pharoah must have been to see his men drown. And when the same student became frustrated by the four men who tore open the roof of someone’s house to lower a crippled man to Jesus, I began to understand my own lack of imagination as a reader of the Bible.

Consequently, if literature cannot be written or read without imagination, the Bible is an imaginative book. Gutsy, tenacious, bold, audacious, and sometimes subtle.

Third, the greatest imagination of all strides from eternity into the book of Genesis in the story of creation. The earth was formless and void. It did not lack materials, but a complete lack of order and function. In fact, all ancient cosmologies insist that darkness, seas, and deserts described chaos. But God brings order into chaos.

If esthetics involves form, design, and beauty, the earth was void of it. No order and no function, therefore, no identity whatsoever. But God shaped creation and gave it form, therefore identity. Everything God created was good. On the last day of creation, he said it was very good. So, esthetics is not a matter of dressing something up to hide rawness like a steel frame, but a proclamation that what God created was good, even very good.

God came to Adam to see what he would name the birds and animals. Then God said to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). The greatest imagination delegated his ability to Adam and Eve, and though fallen, we retain the image and likeness of God. Our imagination is made in the image of the imagination of God, and it is still with us.

So, the literary forms of drama, poetry, and prose and their secondary forms are not accidental or meant to dress up the content that God inspired. They required imagination to write, and equally require imagination to read. Any other approach is simply uninspiring, or to put it another way, simply boring. Maybe this is the reason we do not read the Bible, if at all.