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Interfaith Voices: The importance of imagination in faith

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This past March, Ideas, a Canadian radio show and podcast, explored how imagination could help ward off human extinction.

Citing the role of speculative fiction (novels and short stories that imagine the future) in this concept, author Vandana Singh explained: "Climate catastrophe, which is also a problem of the imagination, makes us think that whatever future is in store for us must necessarily be an extension of current ways of thinking, living, organizing societies.

"I call this the reality trap. Speculative fiction [shakes] us loose from this trap of the imagination so that we can think about other realities and other futures."

As a Christian pastor with grave concerns about climate change, Singh’s words made me wonder about my own faith tradition’s relationship with imagination. If today’s world needs to imagine new futures, are we doing that? Do we help shake people’s imaginations loose so that they can “think about other realities and other futures?”

The question unfortunately brought back memories of my Christian uncle and aunt who banned the "Chronicles of Narnia" — explicitly Christian fiction — from their household because it wasn’t “real.” And while they may be an extreme example, it didn’t seem far from many other experiences I’d had while growing up in a predominantly Christian community.

Christians, I’m sorry to say, haven’t always earned the reputation of being great with imagination. All too often, we’ve treated it as a threat to doctrine and dogma.

But as Christmas inches closer, I’ve circled back to whether or not this aversion to imagination was always there in my faith tradition. I’ve especially thought about it as I’ve reviewed the Christmas story as the Gospel of John tells it. While the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke tell the versions of the story you might know from pageants and Nativity scenes, John blows the imaginative doors right off. In fact, I dare you to even try to capture his version in a pageant!

“You see, there’s this Word,” John explains (and yes, I’m paraphrasing here), “and this Word has been with God forever. And this Word has life and light in it. And this Word shines into our darkness, but our darkness still hasn’t understood it.”

Can you picture the costuming challenges of staging a pageant for something this imaginative? What exactly does an eternal “Word” look like, let alone one with life and light inside of it? And how does one depict a darkness that never understands. Should there be a charcoal-grey dunce cap involved?

But even if John seems to be the outlier in the Christmas-pageant and Nativity-scene circuit, there’s no question that he’s rooted deeply in the Judeo-Christian tradition. John is riffing on inventive images taken from Hebrew scriptures, including the profoundly imaginative poetry of the Psalms.

And that imaginative riffing is still heard loud and clear in the book of Revelation, which we place at the end of our Bibles. Imaginative expression — both descriptive and speculative — has been there all along, from start to finish. We wouldn’t have a Bible without it.

What John’s inspired Christmas story can highlight — which can sometimes get lost among the sheep and camels in the Nativity scene — is that Jesus’ arrival should be an invitation to imagine. If Christmas invites us to imagine an eternal word shining with life and light and God as a baby, it most certainly invites us into a posture of active imagination — imagination that can extend to how we treat one another, how we treat the Earth, how we do everything.

If we actually allow a story like this to capture our imaginations, it could only be a matter of time before we find ourselves in awe of what it can birth next.

Peter J. H. Epp is the pastor of Albany Mennonite Church. He, his partner Shanda, and their oldest two children, Oliver (6) and Ruthie (4), have been changed forever by a year of homeschool lessons about beans, countless FaceTime bedtime stories from Mimi and Papa in Canada, and the arrival of their very own COVID baby, Sophia Lucille.


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