Lockdown, Imagination and Reality

Added about a year ago by Jock Stein

GUEST BLOG: #BookOfTheMonth author Jock Stein explores the nature of reality and imagination in Scripture and his own writings. Can we be “locked down” all too often by words without fully grasping their meaning?

I got a good bit of help from Jean Sharpin when I was writing From Cosmos to Canaan. She is an imaginary character, and before she retired, Jean taught philosophy and religious education at a posh Edinburgh school—I would have said girls’ school, but that would have located it too accurately. During lockdown I have been writing a second book in the series, and Jean is back in post, probing me and sharing something of her unusual life—which, naturally, is related to the seven books from Ruth to Lamentations I am now writing on.

Members of my own family read From Cosmos to Canaan. One of my sons-in-law started discussing the book with me, and I was gobsmacked when suddenly he grasped that Jean was not a real woman, and expressed his horror that a minister like me could tell lies in print. I should perhaps add that he only reads non-fiction.

Most of us take the role of the imagination for granted, and it is a relief to know that it is there in Scripture also, whether we are thinking of the two wonderful creation stories at the beginning, or the “writings” which I am working on at the moment. But it raises a very important point about what is real, or really true.

A simple way in to this is to say that there are three views. The first is instrumentalism (or post-modern anti-realism if you like jargon), which holds that words are only used to communicate something in the mind of the speaker or writer; they do a job, but need not relate to anything real—truth has no independent existence. The opposite of this is fundamentalism (or naïve realism), where truth is locked down in the words themselves, as when you claim that Scripture is inerrant—although there may be athletic scholars who hold to inerrancy but would not wish to be thought fundamentalist. A wiser and to my mind truer view is the third option of critical realism, where words point to something which is real and true, but beyond themselves. An illustration of this from John’s Gospel would be Jesus’ complaint that his assessors heard his words (lalia in Greek) but got locked down with them, and did not grasp his meaning (logos).

That is putting things simply. If you want to pursue it further, I recommend the second volume of Alister McGrath’s A Scientific Theology.

Now, we have all experienced lockdown, and we know that coming out of lockdown is a lot more tricky than going into it. I wrote a poem for the book of Job recently which uses ideas from lockdown, and also raises the question of how we use words to lock things (and people) down, or free them up. You can appreciate the story of Job whatever your take on reality, but for those of us who write or preach, Jean Sharpin would be telling us to make sure we use words in a kindly way, let them point faithfully to the pain, wonder and mystery of human life, and help people to live with the twin poles of lament and celebration rather than oughtery and mustery, trudgery and drudgery, somewhere in the mean locked-down middle. Enjoy!

Cycling (Job 4–26)

Lockdown takes me round the block
of Job, for exercise;
I ride and think, I think and ride,
my thoughts go round and round.

- - -

1) How wise the words of Eliphaz,
how sharp the crit of Bildad;
jagged answers Zophar gives
to Job, left on the ground.

A vision comes to Eliphaz,
a poem to his friend,
elenchus to the third, so near
to pinning Job aground.

- - -

2) ‘You’re just a windbag, Job my friend,
God punishes the wicked.
Pay attention to the wise,
we speak from hallowed ground.

This virus that has knocked you down
is what all sin deserves;
it eats the skin, it shrivels up
the roots beneath the ground.’

- - -

3) ‘God is on high, beyond the clouds,
so make your prayer to him;
agree with God, and be at peace,
he’ll raise you off the ground.

It’s up to you, Job, take our word:
repent, and turn to God.
If not, you maggot of a man,
you’ll stay down, and be ground.’

- - -

Locked down in the book of Job,
his friends have turned the key,
and left him pleading innocence
all through three cruel rounds.


Jock Stein is the author of From Cosmos to Canaan, our September #BookOfTheMonth, which introduces the first six books of the Bible through a combination of poetry, conversation and commentary. Sometimes humorous, often challenging, and always accessible, this book is perfect for anyone who doesn’t know where to start with the Old Testament. Get your copy today.

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