Teaching Theology to the Imagination

Author’s Note: This is my final post for Transpositions as a regular contributor. I have immensely enjoyed being a part of Transpositions since its inception in 2010. As a scholar and a writer, I am deeply grateful for the interactions I have had with my colleagues who work on Transpositions, and with the readers of Transpositions. Thank you.

I remember attending a conference at Oxford University in 2010 where Michael Welker, a leading German theologian, said that “the two most pressing areas for work in the Christian Church are interdisciplinary research and children’s education.” This statement has remained with me ever since, and it now takes on a new significance for me.

For the past nine months, I have been teaching Bible and theology classes for seventh to eleventh grade students in a Christian classical school in Richmond, VA. It has been a challenging year, but also a very rich year. I want to share some brief reflections on teaching theology in this context, and, specifically, on teaching theology to the imagination.

In her recent post for Transpositions, Holly Ordway offers a helpful definition of the imagination that resists the temptation to oppose it to reason. She writes that the imagination is “the cognitive function that assimilates sensory data into images.” She points out that the imagination is, in one sense, more fundamental than reason. We need to do the imaginative work, says Ordway, before we can reason. She says that the imagination “converts the data into something meaningful upon which the reason can then act, to perform the mental act of recognition.”

For my students, then, the experience of learning theology might be a little bit like walking into a dimly lit basement in the middle of the night. As one explores this darkened space, the imagination makes guesses – presents images – and then one begins the difficult work of figuring out what is real and what is merely imaginary. In situations where there is much that is unknown, the imagination runs out ahead, and reason follows close behind to assure one that the large shadow in the corner is only a pile of laundry.

Christian theology can be like this basement: full of strange shapes and objects that lack coherence and meaning. As a teacher, I want to shed some light upon this murky situation. And perhaps the best thing that I can do is present some images to guide my students, and to help them avoid stubbing their toes.

When teaching theology, I find it tempting to move quickly to a reasoned argument.  Everyone has questions like “Can those who never hear the gospel be saved?,” “How can a good God allow evil?” and “Could Jesus have sinned?”, and it is possible to present some reasonable, even if not completely satisfying, answers. Apologetic and analytic modes of teaching are helpful, but I wonder if they meet my students where they’re at.

Perhaps it would be better to allow my students to sit with a metaphor, image or even a work of art for awhile before moving on to a theological argument. Might it be better to spend more time talking about the crucifixion with the help of Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece? Why not spend more time thinking about sin and grace with the help of Johnny Cash? Or, could John Updike’s “Seven Stanza’s Before Easter” provide a fruitful way to discuss the resurrection?

One reason why works of art and other rich metaphors are helpful in a theology class is that they open up questions where students may feel that they have none.  For example, Grunewald’s crucifixion inevitably raises questions about the presence of John the Baptist.  Students are obviously puzzled about why he would be alive at this point in Jesus’ life, but this easily and seamlessly moves toward questions about the deeper significance of John’s relationship to Jesus.  Similarly, questions about Jesus’ appearance on the cross raises questions about the nature of Jesus’ suffering, and what that suffering means for us. 

Making room for the use of the imagination in theology class also helps us to cultivate a posture of wonder toward theology.  Too often we treat theology as something that we must defend, and not as a great mystery that we are called to discover. I hope that my students will leave with a sense of wonder at the beauty of the Christian faith. I hope that they will leave believing in Christianity like, as C. S. Lewis said, they believe in the sun: not simply because they can see it, but because by it they can see everything else.

This seems very risky. How will my students respond? Where will these discussions take us? What if they don’t “get it”? How do I assess this? But I am hopeful that it is worth the risk.

As I develop my Bible and theology classes for next year, I am asking myself “What does it mean to teach theology to the imagination?”  I’m not asking this question so that I can avoid reasoned arguments about doctrines of the Christian faith.  Rather, I ask this question because I believe that a well-formed and expansive Christian imagination will help my students to understand and articulate the Christian faith in reasonable sorts of ways.

Jim Watkins is a regular contributor to Transpositions. In 2012, he completed a PhD in theology through the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts, and he currently teaches humanities and bible at Veritas School in Richmond, VA.  His  forthcoming book Creativity as Sacrifice: Toward a Theological Model for Human Creativity in the Arts will be published with Fortress Press.


  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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  1. says: David

    Thank you for an excellent contribution to this series, Jim! I grew up in Richmond and maintain connections in the faith community through my family still in the area, so I feel we share a minor connection. Encouraging minds to wrestle with deep theological principles is critical for developing character and art is the means for navigating that struggle.

    I earned a BFA from East Carolina University in 2002, feeding my faith through community and book-knowledge during my college career. It has only been in the last few years I have finally made the correlation between my creativity and my faith. The creative process of any artist is a conversation with the Creator, completing our work is our voice speaking back to God. Through art we ask questions, define our morals, and gain understanding. More than a solid understanding of my Creator, the last few years have taught me how to be a catalyst for the Holy Spirit to touch others and inspired an insatiable drive to properly love and serve the world in the time I’m given. This came by letting God teach me about himself through my art.

    “What does it mean to teach theology to imaginations?”
    It means letting go of developing lesson plans, short of suggesting a project theme. Then sit back and let God use imaginations to teach theology. I expect this approach will lead to deeper discussions on meaningful struggles and inspire understanding among your students which will prove more steadfast than any lecture.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      David, thank you for these reflections on your own journey of integrating art and the Christian faith.

      I didn’t address questions about how to plan lessons in the post, but I am glad you bring it up here. I appreciate your point about spontaneity, and I think a good class will always leave a little room for unexpected questions and discussions, but I’m not convinced that teaching to the imagination means letting go of lesson plans. If anything I have found that using paintings, poetry, narratives, etc. in my courses call for a little extra planning because it can be helpful to anticipate how the students will receive it, and to think very carefully about connections to be made between the work of art and the main content that I wish them to learn. I’m also not convinced that planning keeps God from working in our lives, but I’m also an Anglican and we love planning our worship services 🙂

  2. says: David Hooker

    Jim- Another great post. I will miss your regular contributions.

    I have been thinking along similar lines about how teaching art, specifically sculpture, can lead towards a better understanding of theology.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      David, I’m glad to hear that you have been thinking about the connections between sculpture and theology. As a student in several Ceramics courses at Wheaton College, I found the process of working in clay to be excellent food for theological thought.

      Thanks for this comment!

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