The History channel's mini-series The Bible has been immensely popular despite receiving generally poor reviews and has confounded the establishment as to why this is happening. I have a theory as to why the The Bible is so popular. People love hidden details and the use of "sanctified imagination."
I can't remember where I first heard the term "sanctified imagination", but growing up going to church I heard the stories of the Bible countless times and during many of those Sunday school lessons and sermons the teacher would give an educated guess as to some of the details left out of the stories. These imagined details were always tasty morsels of information because it seemed to give you an insiders point of view and it would often unlock the story as it let you see it in whole context as opposed to bits and pieces.
The Bible doesn't give us all the details. It doesn't tell us exactly what life was like on the ark for Noah and his family and doesn't tell us how God's angels interacted with the people of Sodom and Gomorra. So when someone else fills in these details it makes an already compelling story even better because who doesn't want to think that one of God's angels is a ninja?
When you have great stories re-told through cinema to our visual culture and you imagine in all the bits and pieces that are "missing" in the original text you have the formula for a great drama and ratings smash.
Like most things this can be good and bad and I believe we need to be careful when using "sanctified imagination."
Certainly there are details we can add into the Biblical accounts that we have learned from history and archeology. These are often insights into the culture which help us understand the author's intent thousands of years after the events happend. For example, when Paul is writing to the Philippian church about citizenship in heaven we can talk about how important Roman citizenship was and when we understand the importance of Roman citizenship to those people we understand God's grace in a deeper way when Paul says that his citizenship is in heaven.
But when we add in details and "imagine" up part of the story we run the risk of the imagined part capturing our attention more than the actual text. One example in particular stands out in my mind.
In John 8:1-11 religious leaders confront Jesus with a women who has been caught in adultery. They demand to know what Jesus thinks of this and if he will condemn her to death. Jesus doesn't say anything but instead stoops down and writes in the dirt. When he is finished he stands up and utters the famous phrase "let those of you without sin cast the first stone." And while the main message of the text is compassion and forgiveness that seemed to be lost on me because I remember the teacher telling us that he thought Jesus was writing down the sins those religious leaders had committed and that bit of information fascinated me. It fascinated me so much that all I could think of was that little detail and how cool it was that the teacher had brought that out.
So while I don't think using "sanctified imagination" is necessarily a bad thing as The Bible series has sparked many discussions in our family, we need to be careful to not add to Scripture in a way that draws our attention from it.