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A Hermeneutical Key to the Book of Hebrews 3

Liminality, the limbo of statuslessness one experiences in rites of passage the world over, is a fitting interpretive grid through which to read the cultic depiction of Christian existence in the book of Hebrews. To be sure, it is not the only valid interpretive grid, but I think it is a fruitful one. We have seen how the concept of liminality provides a key to Hebrews’ attitude toward outward forms of religious devotion. In this post I want to explore a somewhat more esoteric topic: the imagination.

Attitude toward Imagination

The author of Hebrews boldly asserts that his readers have in some sense already drawn near to the heavenly realities to which they aspire (they have “tasted of the heavenly gift” and of “the powers of the age to come,” 6:4, 5; see also 12:22-24). However one is to understand this assertion theologically, in practical terms it invites an engagement of the imagination on the part of the reader. Rituals operate on the level of symbolism and imagination. They move people, individually and corporately, into a realm where humanity’s creative energies are given free rein to renew society. In this sense all rituals are more or less liminal. Similarly, the cultic spirituality of Hebrews seeks to tell us something that cannot be apprehended through rational means.

Authentic spirituality should be about helping to foster the creative, right-brain aspects of existence. (It is certainly about more than that, but it just as certainly must include that.) Although the content of the Christian message remains the same, it is up to each new generation to embody the tradition in creative and imaginative ways. We must not, however, confuse imagination with one particular misuse of it, which is fantasy. Fantasy preys on human desires and fears, and is thus earthbound and egocentric. A healthy imagination, in contrast, is self-transcendent. Hebrews models a vital interplay between tradition and imagination that does full justice to both.

As but one example, consider the writer’s lavish use of the Old Testament texts, especially the Psalms, in explicating the meaning of the Christ event. A former professor, Dr. Harold Songer, once related how he had assumed the author of Hebrews had more or less randomly drawn on words and phrases from the Psalms that he thought referred to Christ, and that it would be fairly easy to find additional verses with a similar thrust. Then he put this assumption to the test. After combing the book of Psalms, Dr. Songer later became convinced the author of Hebrews had in fact exhaustively compiled every possible allusion to Christ in the Psalter. I’m not prepared to vouch for Dr. Songer’s thoroughness in reading the Psalms for potential christological types and allegories (although those who knew him would question his attention to detail only with great trepidation!), but I can attest to the author of Hebrews’ encyclopedic knowledge of the biblical texts, familiarity with classical Jewish and Hellenistics methods of interpretion, and ease of expression within the accepted canons of Greco-Roman rhetoric. The author knew his tradition inside and out, but he creatively re-appropriated it in the service of his proclamation of Christ.

While the imagination needs the support of a tradition to be fully creative, the tradition also needs new imaginative insights to stay alive. Unfortunately, the spiritual traditions of the West often prefer, like the first audience of Hebrews, to live in the past. Edward Robinson describes the problem in terms that one would easily identify with the crisis in Hebrews:

Tragically, our spiritual tradition has almost entirely become obsessed with self-preservation and a wholly disproportiate veneration for the achievements of the past. Unless the grain fall into the ground and die… A tradition that is not ready to see all its outward structures destroyed, all its conventional forms of expression abandoned, to give room for growth of the new, is already moribund. (“Enfleshing the Word,” Religious Education 81 [1986] 358)

Another aspect of this issue is that of “holy leisure.” Celebration, play, and even humor have oten been a part of ritual in preindustrial cultures. Christian worship as well owes itself to be playful from time to time. Some of this playfulness may be seen today in the festive, childlike atmosphere we embrace at holidays like Christmas (for Christians) or Purim (for Jews).

Finally, the role of the arts in the spiritual life deserve a closer analysis. Christians can stimulate the imaginative, creative side of spirituality by fostering a deeper appreciation for drama, music, and the visual arts as means of religious expression and religious encounter.

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