Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The hermeneutic of imagination

Recently, I finished my first semester at ESR, and my first semester as a full-time student in a very long time. It's been an interesting experience and there's so much to say about it that it becomes too long for a blog, so I will talk here about one piece of it.

The program merges an emphasis on scholarship with a push towards creativity. In both my Old and New Testament classes, despite the rigorous scholarly approaches, we were encouraged to be creative in our final projects. Since I am engaged by both scholarship and creativity, I did both, developing what I call a "hermeneutic of imagination."

The hermeneutic of imagination worked as follows: I first very deeply imagined myself into both the book of Revelation (for New Testament class) and the stories of Abigail and Bathsheba (for Old Testament class). For Revelation, I took to heart Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza's advice to approach the book imaginatively, and as I read, I lived beside John touring heaven with the angels as his guides. It pulled me into John's vision of heaven in a new way. I then took what I "saw" on that journey and used it as an entry point to a scholarly reading of Revelation. What I learned touring with John is that heaven is incomplete without The New Jerusalem: that heaven, a pallid, emotionless space (except for endless praises to God and the Lamb) needs the robust embodiment that earth offers as much as humans need the justice and mercy that heaven offers. It's a symbiosis. This surprised me, because I'd thought of heaven as perfect and complete--that which we aspire to. John's heaven is not. It needs the "juice" of earth and humanity--of God's worldly creation.

I also imagined my way into Abigail and Bathsheba, and soon realized that although they are kept separate in the narratives, they must have known each other, since both were David's wives. I imagined them together and what they might say to each other. I learned from this that both, despite the misunderstandings of the scholars, were empowered by silence, and I learned that you can't impose the same interpretive grid on both David and his wives, because David had a great deal of power and the wives didn't. For people with less power, the ability to operate silently--underneath the radar--is so important. For a person such as David--a king--public displays of power are all important.

I made many interesting discoveries about Bonhoeffer, and somehow intuited that Shakespeare was a lens through which to understand him. This gets back to a subject that has been much on mind: the role of fiction in understanding fact.

Somehow, God is central to this: the God that wants all of us, body, mind, heart and soul, imagination and reason.


Hystery said...

This is all so terrific! When I was in seminary the name of the game was hermeneutics of suspicion...which is also fun. But when I did my doctoral work, I developed a research methodology that was based on an imaginative interaction with my subject matter. I won't explain it here but it was wild...and turned out to be pretty darn fruitful. I like the push and pull of both rational, objective study *and* embodied, emotional engagement with one's sources. Very satisfying.

Diane said...


Yes! I'm so glad you had the same experience. When I was in graduate school years ago getting an MA in English, post-structuralism was ripping through the academy (at least among the students) but everything was still very buttoned down. This is very rich and helpful.

Diane said...


What I mean was, the same experience while working on your dissertation. I think for history that imaginative capacity must be crucially important.