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A Healthy Scriptural Imagination

Learning to Read in the World
Forming and re-forming a healthy scriptural imagination requires us to be readers in the world, not just of the text

A central work of churches and Christian leaders is to help people discern the difference between a scriptural imagination that is healthy and one that is diseased. Christians have imagined themselves carrying out biblically warranted actions in ways that have been stunningly beautiful, like caring for the poor and sick—and grotesquely brutal, like supporting segregation or oppressing women.

A healthy scriptural imagination builds from that great insight we find in Calvin’s Institutes that the Scriptures are the spectacles through which we see God’s world. The Bible pulls us into a strange new world in which we are captured by a God who knows us and is transforming us into the image of God’s Son. A healthy scriptural imagination attunes us to this work of the Holy Spirit. And in order for this imagination to be healthy, Christian institutions must cultivate Christian readers, people who read the world as Christians.

The goal is to cultivate not a Christian reading of the world, but Christian readers in the world. Why not a Christian reading of the world? Because any time Christians have claimed to have the Christian reading of the world, we stop seeing the world—especially the world God has never ceased to love. The claim to have the Christian reading of the world inevitably draws us toward seeing the world simply in need of correction and Christians as those who can do the correcting, rather than seeing the world as the site of overwhelming divine desire. A healthy scriptural imagination creates people who read knowing they are creatures who stand in need of their Creator at every moment. These are readers who believe in the Holy Spirit and the resurrected Lord, and because they believe, they move through this world in faith, love, and hope. Indeed, faith, love, and hope mark the lives of Christian readers in the world, and they can be cultivated by Christian leaders who commit themselves to three crucial tasks.

First, we must help people learn to read only Scripture as Scripture . People read all manner of texts as though they were scripture. The question for Christians is not whether we have a high or low view of Scripture but whether we have a disciplined view of Scripture. The U.S. Constitution is not scripture, but many people treat it as such. The business plans of corporations and the policies and protocols of the financial markets are not scripture, but many have made them unquestioned guides for public life. Only the word of God stands forever, and a sound Christian reader spies out the counterfeits, those textual authorities that claim an unexamined permanence in our lives. Christian readers are not antinomians or anarchists, but they understand the grave dangers of the legalist habit of mind.

The legalist habit of mind lives inside the constant refrain, “It says here . . . and we must obey.” It quickly esteems official pronouncements and documents of those in power, even when they create or increase suffering and destruction. It does not discern when others are exploiting biblical language. When laws or amendments are written to sound like Scripture without the life-giving effect of Scripture, Christian readers must call them out for what they are: signatures of the anti-Christ, not the Christ. To learn to read only Scripture as Scripture is to learn that all laws, policies, and procedures of every institution must be judged in the redemptive light of Jesus and, when necessary, challenged and/or changed. Learning to read only Scripture as Scripture means cultivating that critical eye of faith that will not misplace faith. It is faith always turned toward love.

Second, we must help people learn that they are readers together with other readers. We follow others who struggled to understand what they read. We read alongside other readers, all of us together struggling to understand what we read. We are being followed by readers who are watching us in our struggles to understand what we read. When we are reading Scripture, we never read alone, and the struggles of any reader are the struggles of every reader.

This shared sense of being readers together often goes missing in the obsessions over biblical interpretation in Christian communities. If it is cultivated, then we might realize that what is most important is not finding consensus on interpretation of texts but sharing in each other’s struggles over reading. Many have been marginalized by a harmful use of Scripture, and as we join the struggle over reading we are joined to women readers around the world who suffer in societies and cultures that have woven the words of the Bible into patriarchal systems of oppression. We are joined to suffering readers who have been baptized with a hermeneutics of despair, believing that the word of God seems always to agree with the words of the powerful.

Our Savior stood among the readers of his day and reminded them that they were creatures straining to understand a God and a world more mysterious than they could imagine. This straining toward knowledge and understanding marks the journey of life that God has ordained. This is a grand work of love, and it is the calling of Christian leaders to help God’s people imagine themselves as loving readers. We should invite people into the joy of seeking knowledge together, not simply gaining knowledge as a commodity. We should equip the saints to defuse the wars of biblical and cultural interpretation by pointing them toward a dream of communities of readers who read together in hope.

Third, we must help people see things as they should be, not as they are. Here the words of Scripture capture this aspect of a healthy scriptural imagination. Christian readers are disciplined by hope. One of the lessons that all Christians must deepen in their lives is that hope is always active, never passive. The Holy Spirit prods and pushes us to think creatively toward new possibilities. We are often tempted to read the world through a hermeneutics of decline, morbidly anticipating when things will fall apart. That way of reading the world is turned toward death, not life. But the life and craft of Christian leaders must be marked by belief that God brings life out of death. Christians schooled in the ways of the life-giving Spirit are attuned to and anticipate the surprising ways God can bring life out of death, and they invite others to see a world that God has pulled and is pulling from death’s power.

We must draw people to this question: how might my life, work, passion, and vocation bear witness to God’s victory over death? This pivotal question can be posed and answered only by readers who can analyze the agents of death that seek to destroy the creation. We want to cultivate and invite readers to yield the soil of their lives to the seeds of hope planted by the Holy Spirit. Imagine forming Christians who can look out on their worlds, and see beginnings where others only see the end. Imagine followers of Jesus who can look into the nothingness and, moved by the Spirit, create what had been seen only by the eyes of faith. The world is in great need of such people with a healthy scriptural imagination.

This essay is adapted from a presentation in response to a paper by Mark Noll on the occasion of the inauguration of the president of Calvin College.