Monday, June 13, 2005

Feeding the Imagination

This is the time of the year when I tend to add signficant amounts of fiction to my diet of reading, because it is at the end of a busy program schedule that I realize that my imagination is starved and needs reawakening. Pastoral ministry is a vocation that demands creativity from its practitioners, but most of us do not either cultivate it or even exercise it because we have sapped our imaginations of all their content and energy. Remember the great scientists like Einstein credit their imagations for their discoveries, just as much as their research.

I don't get a chance to listen to a lot of my colleagues' preaching these days, but one observation of what I hear now (and what I have heard in the past) is how ho-hum it often is. Not only is preaching usually poorly prepared with Scripture used in a vacuous or wooden manner, but it is also unimaginative, and therefore does not engage the heart and the mind. My own fiercest critic, my wife, knows when my batteries are beginning to run down because my preaching starts to become bland and colorless. I would have to say that as far as I am concerned, yesterday's preaching fitted into that category, reminding me that the time is here for refreshment.

It really doesn't matter what novels you pick up and read, as long as they engage you and feed you. Right now I am reading quite a long recently-published book that is both fascinating and wryly funny called "The Time Traveler's Wife," by Audrey Niffenagger. I have been fascinated for a long time by stories and ideas that seek to find their way around our captivity to the sequentiality of time. Here is one about a guy who has this chronological instability disorder and goes to and fro between past and present, during which time he becomes a friend during her childhood of the woman he will marry and, as it were, helps to raise her!

I have never been much into westerns or mysteries, but I love good science fiction, as well as books that explore characters and their identities. From time to time I will pick up a classic like a Jane Austen or something like that, but always what I am looking for is something that will engage me, entertain me, enrich me, and nourish that part of me that gets drained dry by the daily round and the common task. Perhaps in the summer I will read 10-12 novels, whereas for all the rest of the year the total might be half that number.

Novel-reading has so many benefits. Firstly, it introduces us into another's universe -- the way they think, what they believe, how they react to changing circumstances, and so forth. When we can see the world through someone else's eyes, then we are usually given fascinating raw materials for health and growth. Secondly, it allows our mind to escape into a world that is not ours. For example, I always find it particularly fascinating, as at the moment, to read materials written by women because the female perception of reality is significantly and often subtly different from the male. I would confess, however, that 75% of what I read is usually written by men.

A third good reason to read novels is that they are often a fine window into the mindset and worldview of the age in which they are written, and the way in which authors looks out on all that is around them -- whether they are setting the book in the present, the past, or the future. The Canadian, Robert J. Sawyer, is one of my favorite science fiction writers, who seems to have a pretty good grasp on the science of what he is writing about. He is someone who has opened my eyes to the implications of some of the things being explored in labs and research facilities today, as well as the yearning for the eternal that haunts postmodernity.

I have also developed a habit of reading the books upon which movies I might have seen are based. A few weeks ago I watched "Somewhere in Time," a movie that is something of a minor cult classic starring Christopher Reeve before his riding accident. It is a time traveler story with a twist, but on the screen is rather one-dimensional. So, I got hold of the book on which it was based, written 35 years ago by Richard Matheson. Reading the book was like being at that moment where Dorothy enters Oz and everything goes from black and white to color!

Some time in the winter, on one of the Encore channels we get with our satellite package, I saw the movie "Eniga," based on Robert Harris's book set at Bletchley Park, England, in the Second World War, and built around the encoding an encryption made possible by the Enigma machine the Germans used. The movie wasn't bad, but the book was a thousand times better. The characters had greater depth, and the interplay between them was so much richer.

I try each year to read a balanced diet -- plenty of theology, philosophy, and church history, but coupled with it is some stuff on management, a lot of history and biography, as well as some of the latest stuff that comes out on trends and the life of the church. I have to say that a lot of church-related how-to books I find pretty boring -- and only once in the while are they constructive and creative. However, I do read them (or scan them).

The preacher is called to be faithful to Scripture, and what God reveals of himself within it. But being sound does not mean being indigestible and unengaging. Novel-reading shines new light into our imaginations, but it also gives us models of ways in which we can use the English language. It helps us to see the world from a different viewpoint, one that we can then chew on and mull over in those spare moments we have driving the car, walking the dog, working out, or sitting with a cold drink on a beach staring into space.

So, if you are a physician of souls let me encourage you this summer to take on board some novels.

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