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?”   Continue reading “Biblical art curricula for small groups”