What is the difference, if any, between writing that is spiritually inspired and writing that is imaginatively inspired?

I ask the question because to me the Luke infancy narrative ( which was probably added as a later preface to the original narrative) strikes me as a wondrous piece of literature of a depth that is both. Conservative readers of the scripture would tend to see it as directly God-inspired so that all of it is both historically and spiritually true. On the other hand -as explored in an earlier post “Inspiration: What Does It Mean to Say Writers Are Inspired?”– inspired writing is not necessarily simply Biblical or spiritual. We remember those writers who say with Blake: “though these works are mine I know they are not mine”. Perhaps both sets of writing are deeply imaginative: though the Biblical is more deliberately God-focused with an apparently definite historical background rather than being seen as simply imaginative.

There are possible difficulties, of course, with the phrase “historical background”. The problem stems from the lack of assured source material. Luke was working with material thirty or so years before the start of the ministry of Jesus. For the birth stories he would have relied on oral testimony traditions that were more distant and obscure. Moreover, for some like the encounters with Gabriel, the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth there was no one to report the details. Again how was it known what the angels declared to the shepherds? The amount of historically unconfirmed material, therefore, as well as imagined material made to fit in with Old Testament prophecies was high. But for generations of readers and hearers to whom the stories are vividly satisfying to their imaginations, the lack of precise historical evidence is neither here nor there.

For I would suggest that it is profoundly meaningful to them that:-

  • the mother of the Man, who was to be raised from the dead, is presented as a virgin (a post on the meaning of the virgin birth will follow soon).
  • that the birth of the child was of the most humble nature, not in a human residence but in a cave.
  • that the birth was greeted both by the most common( shepherds were frequently looked down upon) and the most learned, by shepherds and by Wise Men (though the story comes from Matthew, not Luke).
  • that in the background is the reign of Augustus Caesar, who stood for worldly power the alternative Son of God who has established along with Roman rule the Pax Romana under which the new religion of Jesus will spread.
  • that the birth was into a world in which power holds terrifying destructive potential as revealed in the Matthew story of Herod’s destruction of the innocents.
  • the tale kept true to Old Testament prophecies: the supposed birthplace of the Messiah at Bethlehem, the later connection with Nazareth.

Luke, that is, gained enough from oral sources to weave together a profound tale whose meanings for two millenia have been found to be inexhaustible, inspirational both imaginatively and spiritually.

Within the Infancy narratives there are some beautiful intimate touches:

For Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart in her heart”

This follows on the visit of the shepherds. Mary is storing in the depths of her mind her experiences and deeply reflecting on them. Luke’s insight here into the female mind and indeed his very dwelling upon it is astonishing.

The reader is invited by the focus on Mary to identify with her imaginatively and seek to understand her feelings.

That verse however does not stand on its own within the narrative. Consider:

“And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying , and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be”. (Luke 1:29)

Here again the reader is invited into Mary’s experience into shock and puzzlement at the angel Gabriel’s opening declaration.

Again later this time in the childhood of Jesus following the return from Jerusalem after Jesus was lost and found and after his pronouncement “Know ye not I must be about my Father’s business” Luke switches his attention to Mary once again: “but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart” (Luke 2:51) .

Imaginative identification includes the wonderful presentation of Elizabeth:

And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost” (Luke 1:41).

There follows Elizabeth’s salutation Blessed art thou among women, the exalted tone of which leads directly to Mary’s inspired response in the speech known known as the Magnificat.

It is obvious that we as readers are not simply being given an account of what happened back then, we are being asked to read with imaginative insight, opening our minds to seek to understand what is going on in the minds of Mary and Elizabeth. The prose is of an astonishingly sustained reverential, annunciatory level that causes the reader to identify with the way in which it is crossing normal boundaries bringing together the divine and the human. The Bible as a whole does this but these stories, in particular, reflect an assurance that there is such a meeting ground.

In their intimacy, in their close identification with the two female characters, they show not only an author deeply in tune with the need to give voice to women, we are also given reading matter that invites spiritual reflection in the reader. You may have heard of the reading and prayer form of Lectio Divina a deeply contemplative form of Bible reading. It is passages like these which make a merely factual reading of the Bible inadequate; rather they require reading much more akin to that of reading poetry, necessarily imaginative.

Again in Luke’s infancy narratives speeches which could not have been passed on verbatim are used to present, again imaginatively, the thoughts and expressions of various characters from the angel Gabriel’s “Hail Mary”, Elizabeth’s acclamation of Mary, Mary’s own Magnificat beginning My soul doth magnify the Lord, the angels addressing the shepherds, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people followed by the later Hymn of Simeon-the Nunc Dimitus : Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word…….

It is little wonder that such passages, as the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimitus have been for centuries incorporated into Christian worship, that Handel used the material in addition to apt prophetic Old Testament passages for creating the unfailingly popular music of The Messiah, that the Nine Lessons and Carols still continue to draw huge congregations, and that fom medieval times the common people created joyous folk carols to celebrate and relive the the time when human and divine were brought together in a way that remains permanently meaningful.

Perhaps that is what Matthew Arnold meant when he spoke of “The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry”(see previous post). But does that dispose of what Arnold suggested was its failure to represent believable fact? I have given my case for believing not. For it is in the nature of Luke’s inspiration that the imagination meets spiritual truth within a particular historical and religious context.

For the fact is in the meaning and the meaning is the fact.


Verily , verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the earth and die it abideth alone: but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.”


Curiously, although brought up on the Bible, I never noticed this saying until I read Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov where it is used as an epigraph. The power of the saying acting with the creative insight of poetry immediately struck me.

The saying relates, of course, to Jesus preparing his disciples for his death and its consequences. The single grain of corn if left on the surface is unfulfilled. The buried seed is as dead, but contains new life bringing forth new seeds of growth.

If this sounds like great poetry bringing out the deepest meaning, is this what Blake meant when he distinguished Jesus as an artist? For Blake this did not mean that Jesus expressed himself through the arts. Like Socrates, Jesus produced no written work. Blake sees, however, in Jesus a power of creative imagination central to being an artist or a poet. The Imagination is the quality which Blake, rather like Coleridge, appears to see as the supreme gift.

For creative imagination we might single out his “sayings” or his power of vivid speech. He speaks creatively not by presenting rules or flat statements or simple directions but by utterances that involve us in seeking to puzzle out what he means. Whether it is by direct teaching or by telling stories, as parables, he leads us into re-thinking. His sayings are ever memorable: think of a few of dozens:

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man hath not where to lay his head”,

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,

Ye are the salt of the earth but if the salt hath lost its savour wherewith shall it be salted”,

He is an artist as shown by his pervasive story-telling. (But without a parable spake he not unto them. Mark 4.34). Think of the parable of the prodigal son, called the most perfect short story ever told. How he gets us to enter into the state of mind of both sons! with the younger: And he fain would have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat and also with the elder But as soon as this thy son was come which devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf . But he also takes us into the mind of the Father, not directly by thought, but by action: But when he was yet a great way off his father saw him and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him. At the end the Father sums up the reason for joy which the elder brother has to decide if he is going to come to terms with : This thy brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost and is found. In the shortest compass we have been invited to use our imaginations to access three minds and work out our own feelings.

Or think of the parable of the of the Good Samaritan ever an inspiring tale, exposing bigotry, of a person of rejected background acting with charity as against those with official religious duties who passed by on the other side. It is a tale that runs so deep in our culture that we use the phrase, to be a good Samaritan.

The imaginative power that enables Jesus to create such tales also enables him, with supreme quickness, to see into the minds of those seeking to bring him down. Think how he deals with the challenging questions of those seeking to trap him: “Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar or not? and Jesus’ answer ” “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. Always he seems equipped through his imaginative understanding of the questioner and what is at issue to answer in a way that, instead of falling into the trap, he puts the questioner on the spot.

But it is not only his speech and parables that show creative imagination. He also acts creatively on those who need healing. He is sensitive to the touch of the woman, who, afraid to speak to him, touches his robe. He brings her forward, in fear, but having “made her whole” he reassures her beautifully: Daughter be of good comfort; thy faith hath made thee whole. To those whose illness or mental disturbance is caused by awareness of sin he is again reassuring: Son thy sins be forgiven thee

His imaginative capacity to see beyond limits means he refuses dogmatism. Brought up in the Jewish tradition he naturally respects the Law but is also daring enough to challenge its whenit limits thinking.”Ye have heard it said “Thou shalt love thy enemy and hate thine enemy”, But I say unto you, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” To those who would condemn the stoning of the woman taken in adultery he challenges” Let him that is without sin among you cast the first stone”.

With creative power and highly developed critical understanding, he challenges conventional attitudes both towards sinners , and exposes the self-righteous. Once heard who can forget the story of the Pharisee and the publican?: The pharisee thanked God he was not as other men are. and he is contrasted with the publican who stood afar off and would not so much as lift his eyes to heaven but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me , a sinner

Creative people prize spontaneity and have a natural love of the openness of children. Jesus held up children :

Unless ye become as little children ye shall in no wise enter the kingdom of heaven”.

And also he held up those devalued by society : much to her amazement, St John has him in long conversation with the ostracised Samaritan woman at the well:”Give me to drink” and then proceeds to tell her what she needs to know:

Whosoever shall drink of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give them shall never thirst; but the water I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.

His imaginative action is also declared in his life purpose, his journey carrying his sense of God’s calling. We might pick out particular actions of dramatic power: the Palm Sunday parade on a donkey, the cleansing of the Temple protest, the passover meal, the washing of his disciples’ feet . These are all acts of a man who understands the power of dramatic teaching pointing us to understanding of the meaning of what he is doing.

Wondrously he sees himself not only as a prophet but also the point, God-guided, towards which the Jewish tradition is leading him. On tradition T.S.Eliot is helpful here: by understanding the way in which he, in his art, has been shaped by tradition he develops the awareness of the way in which he can extend the tradition. Jesus steeped in the Scriptures- in the Psalms ( quoted on the cross), in the prophetic understanding of Isaiah and Daniel and Zechariah-understands in what direction he must go, even though that direction leads to the Cross.

To call Jesus an artist is not to delimit him but to point to the nature of his creative power.