After I wrote my entry yesterday on Praying in the Dry Times, I continued to think about this topic and recognized that I suffer from a limited perspective on how one hears from God. As I said yesterday I was raised in a tradition that strongly emphasized the importance of a personal devotional or “quiet” time. While it was not always explicitly stated, the underlying assumption was that if you consistently spent time reading the Bible and praying each day, you would hear from God. God would speak to you through the text and through prayer and you would be led to do God's will. How exactly this might happen could never be pinned down. Sometimes it might be that a particular verse or passage “spoke” to the reader, or that in prayer God somehow spoke. In my tradition there was little expectation that God would speak in an audible manner or through words of prophecy or such things, although it wasn't specifically ruled out as a possibility.
I will set aside for the moment questions about how one can know that God is speaking through a text or in prayer as opposed to me projecting my own thoughts or other possibilities. Although I recognize that God could possibly speak in other ways, my background has firmly engrained in me the idea that these are the two primary means by which God speaks with us in the post-ascension world. I am slowly understanding that God has a lot more creativity and can guide and speak to us through a variety of means and forms. Prayer and reading the Bible are still two foundational means and I do not remove them from consideration. But God can speak to us through art, through literature, through nature, through the word of a friend (and yes, even through an enemy!) I've written before about how the Protestant approach to spirituality really truncates our experience of God. Unfortunately, attempts to revive a deeper appreciation for the fullness of God's creativity and communicative capacity evokes great alarm in certain circles, where people appear to fear that anything that doesn't directly quote a Bible verse or make explicit reference to Jesus is the first step down a slippery slope that will lead us away from the foundations of our faith. Not necessarily so. In fact, we do God a great injustice by limiting God's voice to biblical text and explicit acts of prayer.
I think that Eugene Peterson gets at this idea in his book Tell It Slant. Speaking of the use Jesus makes of apocalyptic imagery, he writes: “He is training our imaginations so that we will be able to participate appropriately in the great salvation drama that is taking place right now --- not world events of the future but the presence of the kingdom right now,” (emphasis mine). I like that thought: training our imaginations. My mind has been trained by the Church in many ways, but training the imagination has not generally been among them. On the contrary, the imagination has more often been something to avoid, something too open and uncontrolled to allow the faithful disciple to engage too actively. I see indications of this in the way the Church approaches the creative arts. Where possible, the current trend in conservative American evangelicalism is to establish a separate, “Christian” expression of an art form. So we get “Christian novels” and “Christian films” and “Christian music.” Where we haven't figured out exactly how to christianize a form of artistic expression, we're generally still uncomfortable with it and avoid it, except perhaps in the case of obvious classics that somehow have managed to affirm their value despite not invoking the name of Jesus.
Through authors like Jeffrey Overstreet, Eugene Peterson and N.T. Wright, through blogs from writers such as Kathy Escobar and Rachel Held Evans, through music and film and a growing number of new avenues I am becoming aware of the way in which the messages of grace, redemption, transformation, hope and other core Christian themes can be effectively and powerfully communicated in creative ways that don't require an overt expression of Christianity that will only alienate a large portion of the potential audience. One of the most powerful stories of redemption and transformation I've ever read is Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (which, I recently learned, the same Jeffrey Overstreet has never read, though I trust he will rectify that eventually). It's not a Christian book in the modern American evangelical sense, but it's a powerful Christian book in that it portrays the transforming power of forgiveness and redemption. Why do we limit God's creative expression? Surely he or she is larger than our limited concepts and the boxes we want to put her or him into.
God speaks beyond the words of the Bible and beyond moments of focused prayer. God is speaking to us regularly in various ways, if we will train ourselves to hear and experience and receive the messages. I want to open up my imagination to allow God to develop in me a holy creativity and a responsiveness to the creativity God has put into others.