Biblical art curricula for small groups

As a dedicated church member and art enthusiast, I’m thrilled to see products popping up that are designed to lead church groups—Sunday school classes, outreach classes, midweek Bible-study classes—through masterworks of religious art, fostering visual literacy and an appreciation for the church’s rich cultural heritage. Last year, two of these were released: Imaging the Story: Rediscovering the Visual and Poetic Contours of Salvation by Karen Case-Green and Gill C. Sakakini and “Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story” from London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields. These come after the Through Artists’ Eyes series of Bible-study guides published in 2010 by Standard, which shares a similar intent.

While these are far from the only books/written materials available on the intersection of Christianity and the visual arts, they are among the very few that were created with group participation in mind, which means that discussion questions and/or activities are provided. (Of course, you can go through them as an individual, but a group approach would probably prove more fruitful.) Furthermore, they do not assume any previous knowledge of art history, making them suitable for your average churchgoer. All three reproduce the images in full color and, while not obviously sectarian, were written by Protestants.

Despite the common aim to use biblical art to inspire deeper engagement with scripture, each product takes a different approach. Here I’d like to offer some comparative reviews so that you can decide which curriculum, if any, is right for your small group. (Note: I read these on my own, not with a group, so I cannot offer feedback on the group experience.) I hope these inspire even more offerings in the same vein so that churches will have a wealth to draw from.

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Imaging the Story: Rediscovering the Visual and Poetic Contours of Salvation
Authors: Karen Case-Green and Gill C. Sakakini; foreword by W. David O. Taylor
Publisher: Cascade Books/Wipf & Stock (Eugene, Oregon)
Year: 2017
Product format: Paperback or Kindle
Number of sessions: 10

Imaging the Story

Each of the ten chapters of this book has four primary components: Read, Respond, Reflect, and Make. Like the other curricula, this one brings together scripture texts, visual art, and discussion questions—but unlike the others, it also integrates poetry, and, most notably, places emphasis on making. Projects include mosaic tiles, breviaries (using cards bound with ribbon), still lifes, and others that are even more open-ended, inviting the use of any media, including words. An appendix advises on how to mount an exhibition of the art produced during the course.

One of the authors, Gill, is herself a visual artist; the cover image is a painting of hers, titled Incarnation. Her coauthor, Karen, is a preacher, writer, and former lecturer in English literature. “Making something and then setting it free,” they write,

is to share in something of our Creator’s own respect for what he makes. If God allows his creation to be enjoyed—and interpreted—by others, then we too can set what we make free (be they poems, paintings, sculptures, children, sermons) for others to receive, or reject, as they will. This may seem a risk, but it is one our Creator took long ago! (12)

Because of this emphasis on making, and also because of the discussion of artistic vocation woven throughout, I would recommend this book to artists or “creative types.” The project instructions are clear enough that even those who aren’t accustomed to art making could complete them, and I appreciate the desire to get readers to exercise their own imaginations, but I think “noncreatives” would be resistant to this form of scripture exploration, and probably too self-conscious. It might work for those who already have the inclination to try, but I do not see it working for every small group.

I am not an artist, so I admit, I forwent the art projects, but even without that component, there is still a lot of rich substance in the book. I especially like how the authors guide the reader in looking at a variety of art images—a mixture of famous works throughout history, like Michelangelo’s Awakening Slave and Munch’s The Scream, and contemporary pieces from their circle of artist friends in the Grünewald Guild. Viewing art, they contend, can support the act of interpreting scripture:

One way to enliven biblical exegesis is to read a passage, take time to look at a painting or other artistic interpretation, then return to the text to see how the imaginative encounter has permitted fresh insights. This is a form of artistic midrash (mid, meaning to seek out, rash, meaning to inquire) that still has deep respect for the text. (126–27)

(Yes! This is precisely the approach I use in the Artful Devotion series.)

All the images in the book were chosen with intention and serve to bolster the story line of scripture. And to these are added insightful extracts from poems and theological prose, as well as questions to engage.

Also included throughout is a soft defense of the arts, including a corrective against the thinking that God calls only artists to care about art. Writing about the decoration of the Jewish tabernacle:

Note that everyone participates in the artistic venture—it is not for perceived creatives or for those who choose this activity over another. God invites all the Israelites, via Moses, to offer something in the way of materials in a very accessible manner. The list in Exodus 25:3–7 comprises precious as well as expensive items (“gold, silver, and bronze”) and also readily available ones (“goats’ hair, tanned rams’ skins, fine leather, acacia wood”). (134–35)

In other words, all of Israel was involved in supporting the arts, in ways both large and small.

Imaging the Story succeeds in stoking excitement for the gospel story through the arts, which the authors ably trace from Genesis to Revelation, pausing along the way with prompts for personal reflection and/or group discussion. For example, the questions in the chapter on Christ’s conception include:

  • What is Mary’s spiritual and mental state in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Annunciation?
  • What good news has God “announced” to you?
  • How easy do you find it to nurture a conception in the dark? How might you create a “photographic darkroom” or “nest” in which your own creativity can develop?
  • Why was it so important for Mary to find an Elizabeth?
  • Do you have an “Elizabeth” in your life? Would you like to pray for one?

My one grievance is that there are quite a few copyediting and proofreading mistakes, which became distracting, including typos, comma splices, and inconsistent heading and caption styles and name spellings.

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Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story
Authors: Richard Carter, Jonathan Evens, Katherine Hedderly, James Johnston, Alastair McKay, and Chloë Reddaway
Publisher: St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in association with the National Gallery (London)
Year: 2017
Product format: Digital downloads (PDFs and PowerPoints)
Number of sessions: 22, divided into three terms

This discipleship course was developed by St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a historic Anglican church in the heart of London, in association with the National Gallery, conveniently located just across the street. Divided into twenty-two hour-long sessions, it uses paintings from the Gallery’s collections as a springboard into discussion of key elements of the Christian story and their personal implications. Two of the driving questions are “What does it mean to follow Jesus today?” and “How can I deepen my faith in God?”  

The course is organized by scripture narrative, moving from Genesis to Revelation. (The three groups of lessons are titled “Creation to Annunciation,” “The Life of Christ,” and “Resurrection to Apocalypse.”) Each session contains a scripture text, a fine-art image, a written reflection, and a closing prayer. The facilitator is encouraged to prompt group members to ask themselves,

  1. What do I find interesting, new or challenging about what’s been presented, and/or the text that we’ve read, in terms of understanding the Christian faith?
  2. What does our focus today mean for following Christ today, where I am? How does this bite for me?

For example, the first session opens with a fourteenth-century Florentine panel painting of God the Father holding the world in his hands, and the Genesis account of Creation. From these sources, the contributing writer draws out the blessedness of creation, the vastness (the above- and beyondness) of God, and the problems with visualizing the Father.

God the Father (Florentine)
God the Father, Florence, Italy, ca. 1430–40. Egg tempera on wood, 12.8 × 13.1 cm. National Gallery, London.

All the textual content for the course is very accessible, taking on an appropriately conversational tone. Some reflections are stronger than others, providing helpful context and insights, and some are more closely tied to the images than others, but overall, the content achieves its aim. However, like Imaging the Story, it unfortunately lacks a copyeditor’s keen eye and therefore has allowed in quite a few spelling, punctuation, and grammatical errors, and the design of the pages is not as sleek as one might hope.

St. Martin’s originally ran “Inspired to Follow” on Sunday afternoons from September 2015 to June 2016, and last year they made the materials publicly available on their website at no cost—only the facilitator must register to access them (I did this several months ago and can verify that I’ve received no spam as a result). This process was easy and clear, and the download function enables you to store everything on your desktop and then to print and disseminate it within the bounds of the course. Where I live in the US, the small-group model of Bible education is popular among churches: groups of ten or so people from the congregation (usually formed based on a common geographic location or time availability) meet at one of the members’ homes each week to read and study scripture and to ask questions about it, through the process growing not only in their knowledge of the texts and their love for God but in their knowledge of and love for one another. This curriculum would work perfectly in that setting.

Because of the partnership with the National Gallery, the art selection is confined to what the Gallery owns. The Gallery has a phenomenal collection of western European religious painting, so that doesn’t detract from the quality of art, but it does mean that the selected works are mostly from the Renaissance era, with a few from the Baroque, and all from Europe—a reflection of the museum’s curatorial focuses.

I think it’s great to see a church partnering with a museum to produce content that patrons of both institutions can appreciate: art lovers learn more about the biblical and theological underpinnings of these works, and churchgoers open themselves to being shaped spiritually by the imagination of artists, many of whom were employed by the church to offer just such a service. Such collaborative opportunities between church and museum are largely untapped (perhaps in part for political and/or funding reasons), and I applaud St. Martin’s for blazing a trail there. The theology department of King’s College London also has a partnership with the National Gallery—if only more churches and religious-education bodies would follow suit!

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God’s Word on Canvas: Through Artists’ Eyes—An Exploration of Bible-Inspired Art
God’s Word in Stone: Through Artists’ Eyes—An Exploration of Bible-Inspired Art
God’s Word through Glass: Through Artists’ Eyes—An Exploration of Bible-Inspired Art
Authors: Joe Garland, Cindy Garland, and Jim Eichenberger
Publisher: Standard Publishing (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Year: 2010
Product format: Three paperback booklets
Number of sessions: 6 per booklet

(Click on the link to see sample pages)

Through Artists' Eyes series

This three-part series, each volume covering a different medium, is designed to help you learn about canonical artists and their masterpieces, as well as about the Book that inspired them. Each session is centered on a primary work of art (with three others by the same artist provided for comparison), one or more scripture texts, and a stated theme. A strong point of this curriculum is that it weaves together, in a succinct way, artist biography, historical context, formal analysis (the use of light and shadow, color tones, composition, etc.), and biblical interpretation. The images really drive the curriculum, and the questions prompt you to turn again and again to these images, to spend time looking carefully at them and studying and discussing them. Some sessions refer back to previous ones, encouraging you to contrast the artists’ styles or approaches.

Questions are also much more prominent in this curriculum—a mix of self-reflective, artwork-based, and scripture-based—and the booklet leaves blank space for you to fill in your responses. In the session titled “How Can I Believe This?” in God’s Word on Canvas, for example, the following is a sample of some of the questions asked:

  • Complete one or more of these sentences: (a) Something I thought was true but now I disbelieve is . . . ; (b) Something I could not believe at first but found to be true is . . . ; (c) Something I would like to believe in but still have reservations about is . . .
  • Consider these three words: belief, disbelief, and doubt. How are these three ideas interrelated? What does it take to change one to another?
  • Generally speaking, is it easier for you to believe or disbelieve?
  • Point out some ways that Caravaggio’s paintings are earthier than what one might expect of biblical art. How does that make you feel? Why might other people react differently?
  • Where does the use of chiaroscuro draw you in Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas? How is Thomas’s incredulity (doubt) being addressed in this use of light? How do we often use the word light or images of light in regard to understanding? How does light relate to doubt?
  • Notice the positioning of the heads of Jesus, Thomas, and two of the other apostles in the painting. What might Caravaggio be saying about addressing doubt by positioning his subjects in this way?
  • Read John 1:3–9, 3:16–21, 5:31–40, and 8:12–18. Try to summarize what John was saying by using the terms light and darkness.
  • And about a dozen more

Each session opens up with a group activity, which is supposed to function as an icebreaker. These include completing a set of popular phrases, writing an acrostic, matching brand and product names, and so on. Often these don’t illuminate the lesson much, because they’re only very loosely connected, if at all. For example, take our Caravaggio session: the opening activity is playing the card game I Doubt It (when I grew up, we called it BS). It then jumps from that to “Healthy skepticism is a good thing. We need to doubt now and then to keep someone from taking advantage of us. But what is the cost of doubt in this game? What might doubt cost us in our lives?”

The Caravaggio session is one of the better ones in that first volume. Some of the sessions take a while to get to the meat, and sometimes I wonder where they’re going. (Some are better focused than others.) Some overreach to pull together the designated theme, and some of the questions are slightly awkward. But overall, this curriculum has a lot to offer. I’m impressed by the respect for images it shows—not as mere illustrations of Bible texts but as revelatory in and of themselves, doing theology in their own way. Also, this series was the first product of its kind that I know of, and its production value is high. It’s something I could imagine myself having done in youth group, if it had been available when I was a teenager. The occasionally cheesy activity, an overuse of exclamation points, and overexplaining in parts incline me to categorize it as for teens, but I think adults could benefit from it as well.

With each booklet limited to only six artists, I can understand the curatorial challenge. God’s Word in Glass is admirably diverse in its selection, featuring stained glass from Chartres Cathedral (thirteenth-century France) and Milan Cathedral (fifteenth-century Italy), but also by Tiffany and by modern artists Matisse, Chagall, and Rouault, each with their own distinctive style. While the other two booklets do hit on key figures, I wish they exhibited greater diversity, which could potentially improve reader engagement. (Not everyone’s a fan of Renaissance and Baroque.) But I know that permission costs for artworks not in the public domain can be prohibitive to publishers, which may explain the lack of more recent paintings and sculptures. Van Gogh, at least, makes an appearance!

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