Image #55 (Fall 2007) ran an interview with the notable Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann that led off with some questions on the role of the imagination in Biblical faith. His remarks, excerpted below, could serve as my own manifesto for how I read the Bible as an artist and a Christian. (The full article is not available online, so buy the issue and read their symposium on “Why Believe in God?” with Wim Wenders, B.H. Fairchild, Doris Betts and others.)
…[W]hat we always do with the biblical text, if we want it to be pertinent or compelling or contemporary, is commit mostly unrecognized acts of imagination by which we stretch and pull and extend the implications of the text far beyond its words.
I have come to the rather simplistic notion that imagination is the capacity to image a world beyond what is obviously given. That’s the work of poets and novelists and artists–and that’s what biblical writers mostly do. I think that’s why people show up at church. They want to know whether there is any other world available than the one we can see, which we can hardly bear.
The intrusion of the word “infallible” [into the biblical debate] is misleading and unfortunate. The endless temptation of orthodoxy in its many forms is to receive a glimpse of gospel truth and then try to freeze it as an absolute formulation. I think the creeds of the church and the catechisms are important, until we start treating them as absolutes. Then we cover over all the generative force of the biblical testimony and make it a package that we transmit to each other and use as a club on each other.
Now, I am not finally a relativist: I don’t think that any idea is as good as any other idea. I believe that there are truthful statements, but the truthful statements have to be continually restated in order to stay truthful. I see orthodoxy as an ongoing interpretative process; we never reach an end point in it. I would not want to say that imagination contradicts orthodoxy, rather that it contradicts certain temptations of orthodoxy to freeze and absolutize. If these texts bear witness to the living God, then we cannot freeze and absolutize the good word of the living God.
On a related note, Anthony Esolen at Mere Comments has been watching a lot of Bible movies and wondering why it’s so hard to avoid dreadful sentimentality in Christian music and film:
[S]entimentality — which is but a parody of deep feeling — is deadening. Nowadays, in mass entertainment, it comes in the really noxious form of easy, “sentimental” cynicism, when a banal remark with the form of a sniggering comback is supposed to elicit the cheap thrill of superiority, an easy confirmation of despair and meaninglessness, as of rich kids slumming in the precincts of hell. Yet I think there are connections to be drawn between that kind of sentimentality and the cloying, smothering sort that characterizes bad religous art, including the bad religious music we’ve discussed here before.
How to explain? We also watched a couple of movies by a director who, I think, is a great deal less cynical than he appears to be, as he is instead a fantastic storyteller with a heart for human shame, absurdity, and, occasionally, love and heroism — Billy Wilder (we watched The Apartment and Witness for the Prosecution). There’s no sentimentality in Billy Wilder, but there sure is a lot of sentimentality in what passes for Christian pop, and that sentimentality is the kissing cousin, or maybe the drippy smooching cousin, of easy cynicism. (By the way, I want to preserve a distinction between kitsch, which retains a bit of childlike innocence to it, and the self-indulgent sentimentality of our hymn writers, who do not even bother to affect innocence.) So when Bob Hurd writes, “What are you doing tonight? I’d really like to spend some time with you,” referring to the Son of God as if he were a very nice teenage date, he’s far less honest, and far less reverent, than Wilder is when he dares to show the hollowness of a man who wears decency like a well-tailored business suit (Fred MacMurray), to be taken off when convenient. Wilder is sharp, incisive, dogged; he wants the truth. But bad religious art, like bad art generally, flees from the truth. Wilder may not see what you’d like him to see, but he strives to see, and to show you what he sees.
In my opinion, the difference between good and bad Christian art, just like the difference between good and bad biblical interpretation, generally comes down to trust. Do we trust that the world is infused with Christian truth, or is Christian truth something foreign that we have to inject into the unredeemed facts? Do we believe that by following the road of honest inquiry wherever it leads, we will ultimately find a truth congruent with the gospel (and be forgiven for our missteps along the way)? Or are we so afraid to leave the church’s well-trodden conceptual paths that other outside sources of knowledge, such as evolutionary biology, are forbidden or irrelevant?
Today in church we heard the story of the apostle Thomas (John 20:24-29). We call him “Doubting Thomas” because he famously said he would not believe in the resurrection unless he touched the risen Christ’s wounds with his own hands. This has made him a hero to many liberal Christians, who look at fundamentalist fears of science and the artistic imagination, and see some truth in the secularists’ stereotype of the courageous freethinker versus the timid believer. Interestingly, Christ does show up in response to Thomas’ demand for personal proof, so perhaps he was making a point that healthy skepticism keeps the church brave.
But Thomas also knew when to stop doubting, recognizing the risen Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” He did not remain a perpetual doubter in order to congratulate himself on his open-mindedness; he wanted to know the truth, more than to feel good about himself. Jesus then says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We’ve traditionally heard this as “more blessed”, but perhaps no dichotomy is intended. Somewhere between blind faith and bad faith is Christian imagination, which fearlessly probes the unknown, and submits to the truth it finds.