The Biblical Imagination: Turning Trees into Theological Reminders
There’s this big old oak tree on the outside of the long corner of North Oak Street Extension that has a big scar on it from where this guy my dad went to high school with crashed his car over 30 years ago. His girlfriend had just broken up with him at the gas station on the corner of Oak and Perimeter Road, and so he jumped in his car (with his friend) and they ripped down the road to that corner, taking it way too fast. They hit the tree at 90 mph: both strong, 18 year-old boys died, instantly.
Every single time I pass that tree, that story haunts me. I look at that scar and I’m sobered. It’s a constant reminder of how foolish are people, how fickle is life, how final is death. And it’s odd that I even remember that story because it’s been over a decade since my Dad told it to me. One day in high school, as we were driving past it, he uncorked that story about that sweet brand new Trans AM, the shock of death, the grief of the family, and the impact it had on him, a high school student, burying his high school friends. The importance of choosing the right friends, of staying sober. The devastation of the ex-girlfriend. The grief. The shock. And I remember it to this day because I can’t look at that tree the same anymore. I can’t drive down that road without thinking about death.
The Power of Story in the Biblical Imagination
There is no better image to me of the power of stories, of local, homegrown stories to teach and change lives than that. My dad doesn’t know that I still remember that story, because we don’t talk about it. We don’t have to. That tree does all the talking, silently, and I’m forever changed because it still stands. I don’t ever think about that story unless I see that tree. If not for that tree, that story would be forgotten to me.
When we tell stories about that tree, that building, that car, those boys, our entire world begins to carry those stories with it. As we drive down the road, instead of being assaulted by billboards and crazy marketers, we’re assaulted by true stories that help us see morals and values in life. And our own little world becomes full of reminders of the Truth: the finality of death, foolishness of rage, etc. Those stories form a second layer on top of reality that helps us live better lives. And it’s been my discovery that this phenomenon, the Biblical imagination, is the most powerful tool we have in fighting evil. And the best exercise of the Biblical imagination is to instill our own little worlds with stories that flesh out those Biblical principles.
The Old Testament is full of these things called “memorials.” A pile of rocks, a well, a mountain—every location in the Old Testament has a memory. They all carry the weight of a story that isn’t just cautionary, it’s theological. Bethel is the place Jacob met God, where God revealed Himself to Jacob. Sinai is where God covenanted with Israel, where Elijah became the new Moses. Moriah is where Abraham (almost) sacrificed Isaac, where God sacrificed Jesus. All across the ancient Near Eastern world, God peppered the landscape with His stories, not just so we could make the connections later on, but so that His people, Israel, would remember, then.
The Bible uses this same type of storytelling all the time, and it’s not always just about Israel. Often those stories are timeless. One example, which truly shapes the way I see the world, is Psalm 19. Specifically Psa 19:4–6. Every single day the sun comes up and marches his course through the sky, and the Psalmist says he does it with joy. Like a strong man, he performs the function he was meant to perform. And that, in the personification of poetry, makes him joyful. He does what he was intended to do; he fulfills his purpose perfectly and that is the definition of joy. So everyday, when I see the sun come up I see him as a strong man, working away at his task, perfectly executing every assignment. And I’m reminded I too am created for a purpose, I am like him; He is my brother. And he inspires me to act like him and find my joy in executing the design God has for me. To find the purpose of life in loving God, loving others, sacrificing myself and my time and energy for God and His mission, to find those absolute concrete purposes in my life and do them…that’s my life goal. And every single time I look at the sun I remember that. Just like that tree, the sun means more to me than it would by itself, because the Biblical Truth has been seared into my imagination—into the tree by a loving father, and into the sun by my Divine Father.
We need to have our imaginations washed with the Word, so that we see the world theologically, and we need to ingrain those theological stories into the minds of our friends, our family, and everyone who will listen.