An old paleontologist walks though the Western badlands, looking for fossils. His eyes fall on an outcropping of rock that contains what appears to be the outline of enormous teach and a jaw. He is staring at the fossilized jaw of a T Rex. While he would be interested in any fossil, this one makes his heart skips a beat. He has never been more excited in his life–not just a dinosaur skull, but a T Rex!
In his mind, he goes back to memories of childhood in his room with toy plastic dinosaurs, staging mock battles on the carpet. The plastic tyrannosaurus from the 1960s looked nothing like what he now knew T Rex to be. It was heavy and tall, dragging its tail behind it, unlike the quick, birdlike creature imagined by modern paleontologists. Even so, those plastic toys of childhood changed his life. Even with all their inaccuracies, they sparked his imagination and curiosity. Without those early dreams, he would not have chosen the scientific pursuit that became his life’s work.
If this paleontologist were younger, the plastic dinosaurs of his imagination might have resembled the CGI creations of Jurassic Park or feathered beasts in modern children’s books. Even so, their shape did not matter. They would have performed the same purpose, to lead him to this place of discovery. If he had lived a hundred years before, he might have read the first books on paleontology, which imagined the same animals as looking like elephants, rhinos, or “terrible lizards.” If he had lived three hundred years earlier, he might have looked at those bones and thought they were dragons, griffins, or giants. The bones would be the same, the pictures they suggested in his imagination would be different. Still, they would have produced the same effect, to conjure up images laid down in childhood and spark the same desire to learn and explore. The discovery of ancient fossils is an invitation to challenge our present knowledge and explore new possibilities in the world. Even if our reconstruction of the past is incorrect, this invitation is valid. The bones lead us to seek a more excellent knowledge of what came before us.
There are two ingredients needed for passionate discovery–the bones themselves and our dreams about the bones. The bones represent the truth. To dig out the bones is to accept the truth as it actually is. The bones do not lie–they exist, and all our thoughts are built around it. But the bones remain dead until we apply imagination to them. They just lie in the ground unless we can see them moving and growing. The bones give us the skeleton, but our vision provides the meat. Our reconstruction of the bones is never completely accurate. In fact, it is filled with error, but unless the bones are dug out and reconstructed, they do not move us to action. But when we dream about the bones, even when our dreams are wrong, we come to love them, and our love of the truth causes us to keep searching, discovering, questioning, and surmising. A faulty theory may be corrected, but a refusal to speculate may never be corrected. The bones of the truth stay in the ground.
So it is with our quest to understand the Christian faith. The “bones” of God’s truth are found in the Bible. They are true and accurate, to be sure. Even so, they stay dead to us, unless we are willing to apply our imagination to construct a framework of life, thought, and behavior. It is essential to be accurate in our understanding of Moses, Paul, and Jesus, but it is never enough. The images must come out of the page and live. “What really happened?” is an important question, but so it “What does it mean to me?”.
We will never know the answer to the first question with complete accuracy, but it is good to keep asking it. Sometimes our pictures of Bible stories little resemble what actually transpired. Nevertheless, imagination is necessary for knowledge. In every generation and place, the ancient must be given new clothes. But the bones are the same, and the message remains. New formulations of the truth make the old Word fresh and keep the wonder and mystery of God before us.
The nativity scenes we all saw as children are wildly inaccurate. Jesus was not born in a snow-covered barn surrounded by fir trees, nor was he born in a single house in the desert. The star did not shine a spotlight on the barn, and there were no kings lines up a row. In reality, it probably happened in the back stall of a camel pen inside a cave. But if our picture of the night is wrong, we are not wrong to imagine it in new, culturally relevant ways. The act of imagining causes us to ponder the miracle of God coming as a human being, into the world in which we live. As we grow, we may develop a more technically accurate picture, but the real figure will never be fully known. Technical accuracy is less important than our experience of God’s mystery and wonder. Our images of the Bible do not always have to be accurate, they only exist to help us fall in love with God and His Word.
Some Christians have a problem with imagination. They are concerned to stick to facts and avoid speculation, for fear that overuse of our imagination may warp our understanding and lead to idolatry. If we are honest, we must admit that those who insist on strict accuracy have a point. There is a danger of mistaking our imaginative reconstructions for the actual truth. But I would argue that those who think this way are far more likely to become idolaters than those who do not. A picture is only an idol when we assume it to be accurate. If we think a picture of Jesus’ face is really Jesus’ face, then all other images must be wrong. When we say, “No, you’ve got it wrong. Let me tell you what really happened,” we assume we actually know what happened. Then we may have done the same thing we accuse another of–making our mental image a definitive expression of God. If a storyteller knows he is writing fiction, he does not believe it incontrovertible fact. But a person who tells their version of a story and thinks it entirely accurate is just being arrogant.
Speculation about the events of the Bible does not have to be completely accurate. Its purpose is to spark the spirit-led imagination to make us study and explore God more deeply. It is not idolatry unless we can no longer tell the difference between our image and reality.
If, as a child, our paleontologist believed that everything he wanted to know about dinosaurs could be learned from the plastic dinosaurs in his toybox, then why would he ever become a paleontologist? Would he need to read a single book about dinosaurs? He would believe and be content to think that dinosaurs always dragged their tails.
If our knowledge of God stopped at children’s Sunday School, why should we ever pick up a Bible or reexamine our beliefs? If we learned the creeds and catechism, why should we seek to know God better? The only reason to keep questioning would be to more effective squelching innovation and speculation. We cannot grow in understanding because there would be nothing more to understand. We stop asking questions because we fear that our answers might be wrong. The brain shuts down, but even worse, our joy of learning shuts down first.
We can never fully fathom all the wonder and mystery of God and His Word–there are always new insights to discover. Dreams, fantasy, and speculation do not take away the need for truth but only make us want to look deeper and study more.
Beneath our inaccurate understanding, one evident and infinite truth of God shines through. It is this–that the infinite God came into a finite world, that He loved us enough to want to be one of us, share our sufferings and forgive our sins. Our stories may differ in the details, but the message of the Gospel remains the same. We keep reading and telling the stories not to produce the smugness of certainty, but a greater sense of wonder. The drama of the Gospel is a greater truth greater than we can ever know, given by greater love than we can ever imagine.
The bones of the truth remain, waiting for us to find–a manger, a cross, the records of miracles, and an empty tomb. How we put it all together may change slightly, but the truth remains the same. For as long as we live, we should never lose our excitement to dig into them and lead us into a more profound mystery.