By JIM NICHOLS
One of my favorite musical shows is Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The first time I saw it I was fascinated how the creative artists put together a charming and important lesson from the Bible featuring catchy songs and great dancing.
It tells the story of Joseph’s life from being (literally) cast out from his family and then after some danger and reward being reunited with his family. Major players in the show are the dreams that Joseph has.
Dreams are important in several biblical episodes as well as key teachings. An example is the prophesy from the book of Joel that says in God’s future “. . . old men shall dream dreams.”
As a biologist, I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon of sleep. Given another life of study, sleep would be one of my potential research topics. Especially for more intelligent animal types, sleep is a central biologic need. I remember visiting a research lab one time where the experimenters had implanted electrodes into the brains of cats to interfere with their sleep patterns. It did not take much effort to cause significant health and behavior problems in the animals. Each of us has personal experiences in which we become sleep-deprived for some reason and the results are not pleasant.
Although the phenomenon of sleep can be investigated scientifically, the accompanying dreams do not lend themselves well to study. Since we spend about one-third of our lives asleep (and, perhaps, dreaming), it causes me to believe that there is a great deal of stuff occurring in our heads or around us that we do not understand. It is almost as if there is an enchanted world and we just dip our toes into it and then arouse and wonder where we have been. For those of us trying to follow God, this may not be as unexpected as it might seem at first glance. There is a great deal of mystery associated with God and perhaps dreams are some venues through which we can view the mystery, even though it is as looking through a glass darkly. Personally, I am wary of individuals offering to interpret dreams, but anything created by God and involving one-third of our lifetime may deserve some consideration. One of the things dreams do for me is to disturb my concept of time.
A few nights ago I had a vivid dream involving, I believe, two pet cats we once had. As usual, I am unable to remember many details, but there was some theme that we were taking the cats somewhere at some precise time. In the dream, I was worried/panicked that we were going to miss the appointment at 3:00. “We are going to be late,” I told others. Just then, I physically awakened and looked at the digital clock next to my bed and it read “1:30.”
I have no idea what was occurring there, but, when my head cleared, I noted that there were two different frames of time involved. On one hand, human time was passing as I lay asleep and, on the other hand, another different time frame was driving the dream. It is all quite mysterious.
It is clear to me that God does not live in linear time as we do. It is impossible to understand for me as a human, but “past, present, and future” may very well not apply to God at all.
C.S. Lewis used an illustration that helps me some. He describes an author at a keyboard (typewriter in Lewis’ time) who is writing about a woman. He types, “Suddenly there was a knock at the door.” At that point, the author stands up and walks to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. After some refreshment, he returns to the keyboard and types, “She says, ‘Come in.’”
Lewis’ point, I believe, is that there are two different time frames occurring here. One is the author/creator time frame and the other is the created character time frame. That does not solve many problems for me, but it does illustrate some truth. Understanding that God is an author/creator and we are the creation, it seems reasonable that time can have different meanings.
People in the Bible seem to have taken dreams much more seriously than we do. Perhaps it is that they lived in a more “enchanted” world of expectation. I say that without prejudice since the problem may be with us rather than with them. Perhaps we live too much in a disenchanted world and are missing important experiences because of it. My friend, Richard Beck, has suggested that we need a more “sacramental imagination.”
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain
I love the idea of dreams’ defying the restrictions of time. I often have vivid dreams of my parents and wake up feeling like I’ve had a visit with them. It’s lovely that they live in my brain.