Religious Education and the Imagination

Another write up of one of the 7*7*7 presentations (7 topics, 7 speakers, 7 minutes) from last year’s Anglican Schools Australia conference in Hobart.  

The question of how to engage all students in the beauty of the Christian life, is one that many of us who teach Religious Education have spent time, effort and energy in investigating. The challenge of addressing our students, who have views of Religion that are shaped by their parents, their culture and their developmental stage and consequently approach the subject with something between apathy and antagonism, is both nuanced and difficult. Which raises the question, how do we allow students to experience the joy and beauty of the Christian life when their first reaction to Jesus and the Christian faith is often scepticism and disdain?

At my school we have found that the imagination can be a significant asset to teachers in this quest to show the beauty of our faith. Firstly, because it shows the students something of what it means for faith to be lived. There is, of course, a role for an analytic response to the gospel, but that is relatively straightforward and as trained educators, I don’t think it is difficult to teach concepts about God and who he is. But knowing about God is only a small part of the Christian faith, and we want students to capture a vision of the beauty and joy, to be undone in awe and to be overcome in wonder.

Secondly, students need to be taught skills in engaging with the transcendental. I am a science teacher, and a classic example we use in class is that in Russian there are 2 words for the colour blue, consequently Russians are much better at accurately identifying and describing blue objects (For a full explanation, try this Radiolab podcast – https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/segments/211213-sky-isnt-blue). If we want students to accurately identify and describe their response to God, we need to give them vocabulary and skills to do so. If students are never given words to discuss personal faith, or an opportunity to practice using these, then how can they access those ideas?

Finally, It is non-confrontational, in asking students to engage imaginatively we do not ask students to believe what we are telling them, rather we are asking them to understand and empathise. Thus, in class we debate the historicity of the resurrection, which is fun and interesting and important but by its very nature involves opposing sides. But it is actually the meaning of the resurrection that we really want to invite students to understand. To allow them capture a little of the hope that death is overcome, which can be done by every student using their imagination.

So at my school we have developed a four part framework for our use of the imagination. Which is then a tool we use to examine units of work and to some extent Chapel programs to check that we are offering this opportunity to our students.

Imagine you are in the story of the Bible

This is relatively straightforward and is based on the Ignatian practice of Gospel Contemplation. An example would be in a year 7 class where students are invited to listen to the story of Jarius’ daughter and the woman with bleeding from Luke 8. We read the story three times and during each reading the students are invited to enter into the story from the viewpoint of a different person, a member of the crowd, Jairus & the woman. This allows the students to meet Jesus in a very real way. And by moving through the characters of the story, it also drives an emotional response to who Jesus is and the wonder of what he is doing.

Imagine you are someone for whom the Bible is relevant

In these activities, we ask students to imagine essentially they are a different person, one who is a Christian. This seems to be most powerful, where we teach about ideas that the students feel are missing in their own lives. For example in our studies of justice with year 8, we ask the girls to say if you were a Year 8 student at our school who took Biblical justice seriously then what would you think, feel and do. When we debrief this activity we see that the girls really admire the person they have created. Or we use sequence of activities (particularly at the end of a unit) in which the girls are asked to invent a Christian Kambala student and then explore how she would respond to different scenarios, backing up their ideas with the content studied in the term and verses which different groups have been allocated. By doing this with everyday kinds of scenarios, the students are confronted with the difference of the hope and joy of the Christian life. It allows them to see that there is great freedom and power in imagining a God who is relevant, and that he is an answer, and a truth that deems your worth as intrinsic.

Imagine the Bible has relevance to your life.

The difference between this and the one before is that the former is about imagining the faith of other people, this part of the framework invites students to imagine what a faith of their own would look like. A simple way of doing this is to invite students to write prayers, regardless of their beliefs on the efficacy of prayer. Or in asking students to imagine how they would feel if they believed a concept, verse or idea to be true. In Year 9 we do a term long project where we invite the girls to research an area of passion and how that relates to Christianity. This allows them to see the relevance of faith to themselves, and invites them to glimpse what it is to understand an aspect of yourself in relationship to the divine.

Using a common imagination to explore the transcendental in their own life

This fourth aspect asks students to imaginatively enter into a common narrative and use that to critique the narratives that they live in everyday. Alison Millbank (the British Theologian) has explored this in detail with ideas about how schools can use the Harry Potter universe for this purpose (For more of Milbank’s ideas try this podcast https://www.studycenter.net/making-strange or this article https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-anglican-studies/article/deeper-magic-reengaging-the-virtues-in-school-and-parish1/9E68370CDAF3BB7E523BAD82AEAD94C4).

Drawing on some of her ideas we introduced an option into our Year 10 ethics assignment last year in which students had to identify a theme of Christian ethics within the novels, and then were asked if they would want to apply that same ethic into “muggle society”. I suspect many schools use this kind of framework regularly with examples from films and novels, and film studies in classes; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe being a classic example.

I have found imagination to be a powerful and beautiful tool in opening the gospel to teenagers. Feel free to be in touch if you would like any more detail about any of those examples or to talk about it more.

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