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Teaching and Christian Imagination

A review of the book by David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch

Like many books that arise out of collegial activity – whether conferences or study groups or some strong thematic thread – Teaching and the Christian Imagination by David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch bears the strength of multiplicity and of a brainstorming session that has produced a range of wonderful metaphors to rejuvenate the weary teacher.  There is also the danger of diffuseness and sheer content overload, which occasionally arises in this volume.  However, form and content are deeply interwoven here. In the introduction, the authors describe the book as a “playground for your imagination,” and they explain that “Our own discussions were marked by freewheeling fertility, perplexed wrestling, and happy surprises.” I identify with all three of those directives in my role as reader and reviewer, and so I will quickly limn out how those categories perfectly describe the book’s effect. 

The fruits of “freewheeling fertility” are everywhere to be found in this volume, with the proliferation of images and metaphors that challenge and revamp expectations for the classroom experience.  In Part One, which is structured around teaching as pilgrimage, the distinction between tourist and pilgrim suggests the right approach to a student’s journey is not “merely to take souvenirs and leave litter,” but rather to “doggedly seek blessing, practice works of mercy, and erect signs of the kingdom.”

Likewise, the idea of teaching as pilgrimage calls out how “[t]he pilgrim should not travel proudly alone,” but rather “counts on the sustenance provided by inns and hostels along the way, the hope born of shared eating and singing,” and other modes of mobile communion.  This image of a classroom as a hostelry for wayfaring students showed me – someone who has lived my whole adult life in classrooms – just how sanctuary-like a sit-down classroom can be. 

Perhaps my favorite playfully serious image from this first section follows the arc of pilgrimage and hostelry all the way through the notion of teachers as hosts and kitchen servants, to the point where teachers are also supplicants who, in Bernard of Clairvaux’s parlance, participate in “fragment-gathering,” which is the “reward for attentiveness and obedience, the glad discovery that after the hard work of attending to the detail, we have come further than we thought.” The persistent theme of disempowerment and vulnerability for the teacher, when cast in these sorts of terms, becomes an attractive and comfortable reality to strive toward.

But these tropes can also get a bit jumbled, and a fair measure of “perplexed wrestling” is elicited by the constant mixing and matching of imagery.  For instance, I felt pulled across the metaphorical divide a few times in Part Two, where the controlling trope is teaching as gardening. In the course of 20 pages, we move from gardening as a possible authoritarian imposition (through a somewhat runic connection to a Medieval illustration of a walled garden), to the notion of students “making beauty in the world,” to the garden not as solitary tending but as community, and then to the wasteland and despair of Gethsemane. I felt a bit of motion sickness in moving and leaping through the nuances of these images, and though several of the phrases called to me, I felt pulled in multiple directions all at once.

Yet the wrestling seems to have been built in – maybe even intentional, at times – and my overall experience of reading the book ended up being most closely allied to the “happy surprises” that abounded.  At several points, I pushed back initially, wanting rootedness to trump pilgrimage.  But as I completed my reading and sat back, I realized this book’s true value: even though I consider myself relatively interesting and innovative in the classroom, I’ve grown somewhat defensive and hardened to change.  What Teaching and the Christian Imagination has offered me (and no doubt will offer to many a professor) is the chance to winnow through all sorts of new possible models for the basic unit of our profession: the course, designed and delivered.

A few statements near the book’s end served as interpretive lenses for the whole. For example, reference to Annie Dillard’s idea that “a certain tilt of the will” is needed for the builder to get stones to speak reminded me of the need to see differently in order to continue helping students learn.  And the final section of the book, “Setting up House,” that ultimately suggests we build our courses like our homes: to contain the odd little stories and promote the mutual acts of service that make a house a home. Establishing the classroom as a homecoming was the apt and peaceful conclusion to this volume.

Michael R. Stevens is professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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