Some notes from this interview with Thomas Troeger:
The imaginative process can be likened to the art of sailing a boat. Two realities are at work: the wind (over which you don’t have any control), and your own senses, with which you can survey the situation and set your sails accordingly.
Three kinds of imagination: conventional, empathetic, and visionary.
Conventional imagination is that which is inherited and shared. Hymns such as ‘Silent Night’ at Christmas and ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today’ at Easter form part of the way we imagine the faith.
Empathetic imagination is the ability to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It enables us to connect with our hearers.
Visionary imagination helps us to see what God is doing in the world and what he might do.
We develop our imagination by being attentive both with our eyes and our ears. The trained eye sees things (certain flora and fauna, for example, on a country walk) that the untrained does not notice. The trained ear is sensitive the music of speech – its rhythm, pitch, volume, inflection and so on.
The ancient Jewish practice of Midrash prompts us to see more in biblical stories than is actually on the written page. While honouring the spirit and truth of the story, details may be added, or difference perspectives taken, by judicious use of the imagination. A sermon on the Wedding at Cana, for example, might be told from the point of view of the couple looking back to their wedding day many years later.
The parables of Jesus are models of imaginative preaching. They are based on close observation of everyday life. Few are directly ‘religious’ or obviously ‘theological’ in any conventional way. They do not avoid ambiguity.
Like any good gift, imagination can be abused. Of course, the solution is to use it well, rather than to fail to use it at all. Does not God himself model superb creativity in the universe he has made?
With imagination, the preacher can show, not merely the results of his journey with the text, but actually take the hearer on a journey with him. If, for example, the preacher’s first reaction to a text is, “That’s hard to believe!”, let him allow his hearers to share that reaction.
Preaching with imagination is not without its hazards: it may become merely entertaining, or even manipulative.
Don’t be too tidy. It may be right, sometimes to leave things open, ambiguous, or unresolved. Our Lord did not shout to the Rich Young Ruler, “Come back! Let me make it easier for you!”
Your job as a preacher is to take people to God. When you have done that, it’s time to sit down.