I got into a curious conversation recently that keeps my imagination humming.
It almost seemed too trivial at first. I almost didn’t take it serious. I guess you could say it was beneath my contempt. After all, I don’t come to Jesus looking for what YOU think.
Okay, let me unpack that statement. I am sure it doesn’t make sense yet.
I don’t get invited to too many Bible studies anymore. So maybe this is just a trend whose time has come and gone, but perhaps you know the experience yourself.
Often a deacon or Sunday school teacher charged with leading a class winds up turning the session into a “discussion” of a text. (So far, so good.) But the “discussion” boils down to a few people talking about “what the text means to me”.
I don’t mean to suggest that is a bad thing. But it’s not, really, a goal. It’s not the end game. It’s not the point. I mean it’s a good start (not a necessary one, but a good one). You read a text, and part of absorbing it is reflecting on what it means, and your own opinions and ideas are the first stop in that process.
But really, we want to know what IT means. What did this text mean to the person/people who wrote it?
I am thankful to have the text translated into English, even thankful there are various versions of it in English, but those who wrote it, who were inspired by God to offer it, did not write in English, not even Old English. They were not Americans, and thus not part of this culture, not expressing the message in American idioms and so forth. There was an original context, and getting to the meaning of a text means getting familiar with it, as best we can, rather than settling for “what it means to me” or to Mrs. Wilson, or to Mr. Johnson.
So often we treat the Bible like its our slave, and read a passage completely out of context, ask what it means to us, and settle for what ever FEELING it gives to us or to someone brave enough to speak up in the “discussion”.
Like, I said, I see that as a good start, but not a good finish. We have tools, experts to consult, and deeper meditative reflection at our disposal than Mrs. Wilson’s opinion. And even if some texts always remain mysterious to us, we can treat them with more respect than that. (But let me hasten to add this caveat: In our day-n-time, it is fashionable not to even open a Bible anymore in some circles, and I want to commend anyone who at least does that much!)
And so when I got into this conversation recently, it sounded like this kind of exercise in futility to me – at first. But we weren’t talking about Bible study – per se. On the contrary, we were talking about Christian IMAGINATION. Engagement with the heart. And here was the suggestion:
Imagine, for a moment, that you are the CARPENTER with a limitless budget. Even with NO SKILLS in the trade, artistic or scientific, take a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and sketch a floor plan for a church BUILDING you think would honor Jesus. I mean, just start from scratch, using only what you know and think about church and Jesus and the world he comes into and dies for as a demonstrations of his LOVE.
Like I said, at first, it seemed too trivial to me. Why would I care what a bum would draw? Why would you care what Mr. Johnson would draw? And for that matter, to my knowledge, no one has ever tried this exercise before, and the church has rocked along for 2000 years without it.
No. Somebody did this. Almost certainly skilled professionals. And every single “church” building you ever entered (almost without exception) is the finished product of someone else’s imagination about what that should look, feel, and function like. Often with millions of dollars devoted to it.
And yet, it’s not been questioned. Just accepted. And the cultural artifact we call “church buildings” guide our Christian imaginations – sometimes setting them free, but sometimes limiting them in ways we NEVER notice.
Would this get us to the bottom of anything?
No. This exercise is not a goal in itself. But it is a good start. One I would like to invite you to engage in for once in your life. And once you do, describe it, and tell why you would build it this way or that. And don’t forget, there is no budget to limit your imagination.