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The Formation of Scriptural Imagination and the Renewal of the Church

A Panel Discussion with Richard Hays, Ellen Davis, and Stanley Hauerwas

Ed. note: View the entire panel discussion on YouTube.

Greg Jones: Richard, since this is a theme that you have made a signature focus for your deanship, what do you mean by scriptural imagination and what do you think it has to do with renewing the church?

Richard Hays: Scriptural imagination is the capacity to see the world through lenses given to us in Scripture—but when we see the world through such lenses, it doesn’t just change the way we see the contemporary world but also changes the way we see Scripture. There’s a hermeneutical circle between the reading of the text and the reading of the world in which we find ourselves. Scriptural imagination is the capacity to have our imaginations transformed by the encounter with Scripture in such a way that we see the world in light of God’s revelation, fundamentally through God’s revelation in the election and call of Israel and the death and resurrection of Jesus as redemptive events for the world.

Hauerwas, Davis, Hays, and Jones discuss scriptural imagination.Now that’s a formal description. I think it is crucial for Christians to imagine in this way because our imaginations are constantly being bombarded and shaped by other kinds of stories that we encounter through the popular media, through the circles of society that we happen to move in or the culture we happen to move in. Scripture can interrogate those stories that we’re told and cause us to think differently.

I think it will be most helpful if I just give you an example of what I’m talking about. T. S. Eliot wrote Four Quartets from 1936 to 1943, and particularly the later ones were influenced by his experience of living through the bombing of London during World War II. Near the end of the Four Quartets Eliot writes these lines: “The dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror / Of which the tongues declare / The one discharge from sin and error. /  The only hope, or else despair / Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre— / To be redeemed from fire by fire.” That’s a complex example, but let me unpack it. He’s taking the experience of London being bombed by planes diving out of the sky and casting fire on the city, and he’s reading it in conjunction with the story of Pentecost in Acts 2: “the dove descending breaks the air / With flame of incandescent terror.”

He interprets the experience of suffering and destruction that his city and culture are experiencing as possibly a kind of purgation that can have a cleansing or transforming effect in light of the Pentecost imagery, but he’s also rereading the Pentecost imagery so that we understand that the coming of the Holy Spirit is not just a nice, happy event where we have children dance around the sanctuary waving banners. There’s a terror in the Spirit’s descent. Acts 2 uses the language of violence. There was the coming of flames and the rush of a violent wind filling the room. Eliot has juxtaposed those images in a way that causes us not only to read the Acts 2 story freshly but also to rethink the bombing of London at the same time.

That’s an example of the kind of thing I mean by scriptural imagination. If we in the church could recover a greater capacity to think with that kind of imagination, it would enrich our preaching and it would inform our practice in ways that would cause Scripture to permeate our life together so that we’re not blown about by every wind of polltakers who come to us and ask, “Are you liberal or conservative?” We’re thinking in light of a different set of images and categories.

Jones: Ellen, you’ve spent a lot of time in the last several years in South Sudan, a rather different context from here, a place where they’re rebuilding educational institutions. How does scriptural imagination as an image and the renewal of the church come to life for you as you’ve taught Scripture in a context like South Sudan?

Ellen Davis: In 1996 the person who is now the archbishop of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, Daniel Deng Bul, was my student at Virginia Theological Seminary. I found that lecturing to one bishop who then became the archbishop of Rwanda following the genocide and to another bishop whose country was in the middle of genocidal warfare really forced me to think about what I wanted to bring out of these texts that would make a difference. I am impressed that the Christians with whom I am working in East Africa have a very strong sense that they are participants in the biblical story, and I don’t mean that in a naive way that we might identify as literalist or fundamentalist. As Archbishop Daniel said to me, “We live in the Old Testament. My people need to know this story.” I understood what that meant only when I went to what was then Sudan in 2004. Not only that there is a cultural similarity—an agrarian, village-based society, the importance of kinship, a Semitic language—but more importantly that their faith was formed and firmed in a crucible of suffering. The Sudanese understand that suffering is part of the witness of faith. It’s part of the life of faith and is not a threat to faith. That they should be suffering is just part of the deal. That’s what they’ve read about in Scripture. If one can speak of a “canon within a canon,” the Old Testament and the Passion narratives are the core of their faith in many ways.

Hays: I heard you tell a story once, Ellen, about your experience of working with a group of young mothers with regard to care of newborn infants and the way in which you were helping them think about that in light of the story of Moses. Could you recount that story?

Davis: I was doing a lot of teaching that year in several different places and was traveling with my colleague Dr. Peter Morris, who is a graduate of Duke Divinity School but also was at that time the chief medical officer of Wake County. He’s been coming with me to Sudan since 2007 as a public health doctor and a pediatrician. On that particular occasion, he had been speaking to a group of both men and women at a theological college in Renk in what was about to be South Sudan. As you can imagine or perhaps know, there probably is not a higher rate of infant mortality and maternal mortality in the world than there is in South Sudan, so he was giving a public health lecture about this situation to a group of theological students because they are the opinion leaders in their culture. Their faces were absolutely impassive to what he was saying. Afterward we went back to the guesthouse and did an overview of the day and I said, “How do you think it went?” And he said, “Not very well!” I said, “We’re going to a new town tomorrow. Let’s try a different approach there.”

We opened the next day by looking at the first two chapters of Exodus and asking two questions: first, what does it take to keep the baby Moses alive; and second, what does it take to birth the people of Israel? It completely changed the conversation because suddenly they were in charge. We were having this conversation about half a mile from the Nile, and these are people who were very familiar with having baskets with babies in them taken off their heads by soldiers and, if it was a boy baby, seeing him bayoneted and thrown into the Nile. This was familiar territory to them. What does it take to keep the baby Moses alive? It takes midwives. It takes the cooperation of a community. It takes people adopting children they did not birth. They could just instantly get there, and then it wasn’t hard to extrapolate from there to what we would call public health practices to support those things. In terms of birthing the new nation, it takes leaders who are willing to take responsibility for the wellbeing of that people, and for them Scripture is the key to how they take responsibility for their nation. As one bishop said on that occasion, “We have lost everything.” The infrastructure was destroyed in 50 years of civil and genocidal war. “We have lost everything. If we don’t have Scripture, then everyone will do”—and he put out his index finger—“everyone will do the one thing that seems right to them just now.” I cited to him, “And there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in their own eyes,” and he said, “Exactly. That’s where we are.”

 Jones: Stanley, you’ve spent a lifetime reflecting and writing about, among other things, how Christians are formed—sometimes malformed—and how they ought to be formed. As a theologian, what does the term scriptural imagination suggest to you, and why do you think it’s important both for forming Christians and for shaping people who will be pastors leading Christians?

Stanley Hauerwas: You think you learn Scripture here from Richard and Ellen, but when you go into theology, you no longer are dealing with fundamentally a scriptural discipline. But theology within the tradition of the church has always been fundamentally an exegetical task. I’ve always thought that fundamentally what I do is teach speech, and I hope the speech that I teach is shaped by Scripture. I want to read a quote from David Hart’s Atheist Delusions: “Every true historical revolution is a conceptual revolution first, and the magnitude of any large revision of the conditions or premises of human life (to say nothing of the time required for it to bear historical fruit) is determined by the magnitude of that prior spiritual achievement. Considered thus, the rise of Christianity was surely an upheaval of unprecedented and still unequaled immensity.”

I call attention to Hart’s statement about concepts because I think it helps resist appeals to the imagination that associate the imagination fundamentally with the mind and fantasy. Imagination is a material reality as concrete as the words we are forced to learn through the habituation of the tongue and therefore it is absolutely not just thinking. It has to do with the placement of where you are in the world that forces you to read the Scripture with the radicality that Hart suggests. Just think about every time you tell people that you’ve been convinced by nonviolence by reading John Howard Yoder and they say, “How about Romans 13?” Never forget what it meant to be a German in 1933 reading Romans 13. Never forget how that makes a difference for how the concept is to be used.

The revolution that Hart suggests is at the heart of the Christian presumption about time. Christians are shaped by the biblical imaginative logic, to use Hart’s phrase, “to believe in history.” Think about what a strange phrase that is, to believe in history. That is, time, history, has a narrative form in which the disjunction and revolutions move toward an end quite different from the beginning. That’s what it means to be shaped by an eschatological imagination. Think, for example, what it means to have the word creation and how one of the things that is so tempting in our times is to substitute the word nature for creation and how hard it is to maintain what you mean by “In the beginning, God created.”

Scripture shapes our imagination and, by the very language that we use, an imagination so shaped makes possible, indeed demands, the testing of our imagination by Scripture. That is what Richard was suggesting—it is always a dialectic. It is a never-ending process that, done well, you will never tire of, because one of the things I assume that you will discover through your ministries of engagement with Scripture to preach every Sunday is the absolute inexhaustibility of the text. It’s never finished.

Therefore, we dare not forget that Scripture is not a dead text out of which we must force meaning. The very idea that you’ve got to come up with the meaning is already a deep mistake. Rather, as John Webster puts it, “A dogmatic account of the creaturely activity of reading Holy Scripture does not entail the suspension or retirement of language about divine action but rather its furtherance.” Put differently, the ontology of the text, its nature as creaturely servant of revelation, presupposes the Holy Trinity and its condition of the act of reading. When you’re reading Scripture, you’re reading God’s engagement with yourself and with the community. It is not like somehow we have to make sense out of these historically conditioned texts that we no longer can understand; rather, the church itself is about the formation of a people through the Holy Spirit. We cannot live without having that Spirit talk to us through the texts. That’s what it means to engage in scriptural imagination.

Jones: If people are convinced that cultivating a scriptural imagination for the renewal of the church matters, what one discipline or practice would you suggest would be a way to help to do that beyond the courses that they’re taking and the overall formation that occurs here in the school?

Hauerwas: Come to morning prayer.

Davis: Hear or read Scripture in the context of prayer. 

Hays: If you do read The Art of Reading Scripture, there are nine theses in the beginning of the text that offer some practical tips, and one of them is this: faithful interpretation of Scripture invites and presupposes participation in the community brought into being by God’s redemptive action—that is, the church. I think that reinforces what Ellen and Stanley have said—that the most important thing we can do to promote the kind of imaginative reading of Scripture we’re talking about is to read it in community, to read it in dialogue with friends, colleagues, brothers, sisters who are also engaged with you in the task of wrestling with this question of how Scripture addresses their lives.

Now, that community that we read in dialogue with is not just the people you happen to know now but it’s also the communion of saints. We read Scripture in dialogue with the long history of faithful Christian interpretation that gives us patterns and examples of what faithful reading looks like.