One of the many effective ways to let the Word of God indwells us is to read the bible using our eyes, minds and imagination. Imagining ourselves present at the scenes of the event in the bible text, either as an active participant or passive observer may have a powerful effect on our spiritual life. This way of reading makes the biblical text come alive, giving substance and texture to the sentences on the page. It allows the Holy Spirit to work not only on our minds but also through our senses and feelings. We also become more sensitive to the text and to the nuances of the Holy Spirit in the text. However we must control our imagination and not let it run wild! The imagination in imaginative reading is confined to what the text says and should not create new stories or narrative that is not found in the bible or is contrary to biblical teachings.
One example of imaginative reading is to imagine being present when Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. We imagine we are present when Jesus sat down on the mountain to preach. We are at the bottom of the mountain and we look up to the man seated on the slope. There are many people close by also looking up. We can feel the cool morning breeze that comes from the Sea of Galilee. The grass felt moist under our sandaled feet and the sun warm on our skin. We look up again as a voice sounded, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…” We mediate as we continue to read the text in Matt. 5:3 onwards.
Alice Fryling in her book Meeting God Together shares her experience of using imaginative reading in her spiritual direction session and encourages her directee to imagine being an active participant with her imagination. Alice writes,
For example, I was meeting with someone who had been struggling with the same problem in her life for years. Nothing seemed to help. As we talked, I began thinking about the man who waited by the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years for someone to help him get into the pool and be healed. I read the passage, John 5:1-8, to my friend, and I asked to picture herself lying there by the pool, struggling with her desire to be healed. Then I asked her to imagine Jesus approaching her. How would she feel? What might Jesus say to her? How would she respond to Jesus? By entering into this story in Scripture, my friend was able to experience God’s love in a new way in her own situation. The Spirit touched her life in a quiet way, but one as real as the way Jesus touched the lame man. The Spirit’s touch was personal and unique, well suited to her particular needs (72).
Following this experience with her friend, Alice also experienced a similar encounter herself with the text John 5 which she shares,
I had been praying about a number of relational entanglements that were draining life and energy from me. As I prayed, I talked with God about all the reasons these entanglements had gone on for so long and why I couldn’t do anything about them. The passage in John came to mind. Reading the passage for myself this time, I was struck by Jesus’ words to the ill man. Jesus said, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” These were familiar words to me. But this time, I heard the Spirit say to me, “Just walk!” And with that command came an invitation to let go of my need to figure things out and instead “just walk.” All that week, when I was tempted to spiral back down into the entanglements of the relationship, I heard, “Just walk!” Just get going. Live as though you’re healed. Don’t lie there anymore. Those words seemed to guard my heart all week (73).
Imaginative reading provides different experiential encounters facilitated by the Holy Spirit for different people, and even for the same person, it will be different at different times in his or her life.
It is reasonable that some Christians are cautious about these approaches. Two major concerns are that we are not employing the proper hermeneutic tools here in our bible reading, and that we may be reading the bible out of context. These are valid concerns and are interrelated. Hans Frei argues in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in 18th and 19th Century Hermeneutics(1980) that the ‘proper’ hermeneutical which are the historical-critical method, the grammatical method, higher criticism, and systematic theology in current use actually intellectualized and subdivided the texts, and located their meaning outside the text! Frei contends that any interpretation of the Scriptures that discounts the realistic, historical narrative will result in distortion. According to Frei, we are already reading the bible out of context. Maybe lectio divina and imaginative reading will lead us to the context in which the bible is written.
A further comment about the common bible reading tools we use nowadays is that they date back to the Enlightenment and Newtonian science, which sought knowledge by breaking everything into its smallest pieces. Lectio divina and imaginative reading of the bible have been utilized by Christians since the time of the early church and is still being used down the centuries by some traditions of the Christian faith.
Basically it boils down to our willingness to believe that God can use the bible through our imagination and emotions to speak to us. If we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, then we should feel secure to use our imagination for the Holy Spirit will guide us into the truth. Whatever we receive will need to be checked with a more mature Christian and against the teachings of the Christian faith. This is where the spiritual director comes in. Lectio divina and imaginative reading need to be discerned through the lens of biblical teachings and a second pair of eyes is helpful. The revival of these ancient practices of reading the bible will enhance our spiritual encounters with God through his word.