Theological Imagination

Several years ago, I drove across the country with my brother. He was moving, and I flew out to help him drive back east after living several years in the Pacific Northwest. We decided to take our time in order to meander down the West Coast. The beauty of the coastal lands of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California has to be seen to be believed. Lush greens from the grasses and towering trees spill over into the gorgeous blues of the Pacific Ocean. On most days, as well, a canopy of cornflower blue-sky sheltered us.

What a contrast awaited us when we turned our car towards the Southeast and came to Death Valley in the Mojave Desert. The lush greens of the coastlands were now shades of brown and tan. What green was there consisted of the sparse Joshua trees and cacti. As far as the eye could see an ocean of sand, dust, and tumbleweeds stretched on and on. Yet, as day gave way to night and we continued to drive through this desert sea, lights began to appear in the distance. A city was ahead—a city that was built in the middle of the desert.

Here, in this desiccated land, developers envisioned the oasis that has become modern-day Las Vegas. And even though the city is synonymous with gambling, ever-expanding development has turned it into playground for adults akin to Disneyland. The city has become a mecca for fine dining, great entertainment, and deluxe hotels. Regardless of how one feels about Las Vegas, when one compares the surrounding desert landscape with this vibrant city, the creative imaginations that envisioned it never fail to amaze.

How could anyone have envisioned a thriving city in the desert? How is it that a lush oasis was imagined when the only landscape was a sea of brown desolation? I asked myself both these questions as my brother and I approached the city lights—and as we left it—back into the vast spaces of emptiness in the desert.

In the ministry of Jesus, those who sought to follow him as disciples, curious onlookers, or hesitating skeptics were invited see the world in a whole new manner. Just as the first developers of the city of Las Vegas saw possibility beyond a desert land, so Jesus encouraged those around him to see their world differently, and to envision the kingdom of God breaking in around them in creative and imaginative ways. He often concluded his teaching stories with the exhortation, "Those who have ears to hear, let them hear..." which is simply another way of inviting his listeners to new understanding. He invites those with eyes to see, to see beyond simple presentation to potentiality.

But the realm into which Jesus extended an invitation to enter was a topsy-turvy world by the standards of what was expected—both of the Messiah and of his kingdom. Those who awaited the Messiah narrowly envisioned a political and military leader who would expel the Roman government and reestablish the nation of Israel. They expected a Messiah who would clear their land of sinners, of the immoral, and of all those who were seen to upset the social order.

Jesus would shatter all of these expectations and in so doing highlight a lack of theological imagination. This is illustrated in the Passion narratives of Mark's gospel where Jesus tells his followers that he will be crucified.(1) After the disciple Peter's bold statement, "You are the Messiah," Jesus issues an exhortation not to tell anyone who he is. He then tells his followers that the Messiah would suffer and die. Peter began to rebuke Jesus. His protestation is perfectly warranted given his vision of Messianic identity and function. But, Jesus turns and rebukes him—even calling him by the name "Satan" because he opposes this new Messianic vision.

Later on, even after telling his followers that he would be tortured and killed, James and John come to him asking to sit on his right and left hand in his Messianic kingdom. Jesus upends their expectations of glory by telling them that "even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."

It is easy to see how the first followers of Jesus couldn't envision anything different than the world they knew, that familiar terrain around them that only seemed to offer one possibility. The cultivation of imagination and vision seems as much a discipline as it is part and parcel of a creative spirit. All too often, the same narrow vision overtakes us. Instead of seeing a vibrant city or oasis, we see only sand and dust. We quench the imagination of what could be because we inhabit a world that seduces us toward a tunnel-vision that only sees the realm of our own needs and interests.

Yet, how does a person envision lush possibilities in the midst of life's vast desert experiences? Upon hearing that their friend, their mentor, and the one they believed to be the Messiah would be crucified, how could anyone following Jesus have foreseen the resurrection? Indeed, like the disciples, one might start out to see a world of opportunity, but the circumstances of life often conspire to hinder vision and crush imagination.

Still, just like those who envisioned a thriving city in a landscape of dusty sand, we are encouraged to take another look—to look long and hard at the desert landscape of our lives—and to imagine new life. Whether we are active followers of Jesus or seekers after him, his life and ministry invite us to expand our vision for what could be, to create oases in the desert, and to enter into the challenging new reality he offers.

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Seattle, Washington.

(1) See Mark 8:31-35; 9:30-37; 10:32-45

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