[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0802873235″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/51TEh2fPyzL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”222″]A Gloriously Impractical Invitation
A Review of
Teaching and Christian Imagination
David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2016
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Reviewed by Dan Schmidt
As one who’s been pastoring for a while, and more recently adjuncting at a local college, I’m on the lookout for ways to improve what I bring to the classroom and sanctuary. One of my strategies has been to pay attention to those who are really good at what they do.
So when the opportunity to review Teaching and Christian Imagination, by David Smith and Susan Felch, came along, I jumped. Yes, I saw “Imagination” in the title, and I read the back cover blurb—but I figured that sooner or later, the authors—specialists as classroom teachers and theorists—would get down to bullet points and portable techniques. It only took a few pages of reading, however, to realize that this wasn’t that kind of book. Instead, Smith and Felch (along with several others) want to draw readers into the what if’s more than the how to’s. What impressed me as I read was the sense that by giving attention to the former, one is much better prepared to manage the latter.
The authors and their collaborators explore three extended metaphors that inspire a “loosely linked collection of reflections” (9). These in turn nudge teachers toward noodling over the environment where they operate, and the souls gathered for the purpose of learning. Opening space for imagination, Smith and Felch contend, leads to effective practice. And so extensive ruminations on journeys, gardens, and buildings are coupled with Scripture, various pieces of art, and the contributions of scholars and practitioners who have been instrumental in moving the needle for education.
Dwelling on metaphors can be dangerous, because sooner or later, they tend to break down. It’s the same way with parables and comedy: a little goes a long way. But Smith and Felch manage to avoid bending or stretching any of their three devices past the breaking point by vectoring off into connected but distinct images. They also weave in stories and examples to remind readers that eventually, the book must be put down and the classroom must be entered.
With “Journeys and Pilgrimages”, Part One gets underway, with the recognition that any path taken is only one of several open to students and mentors. What will sustain this journey? How might the surroundings be configured to promote pleasant travel? Who are the companions along for the ride? The authors’ provocative questions get readers looking down the road.
Suggestions are slipped in winsomely, like the notion that a classroom might be considered as a hostel “where pilgrim students are welcomed, provisioned, and sent out again” (71). Or, that the ancient practice of Sabbath-keeping can establish a healthy rhythm of work and rest—which reminded me of a university I visited where the emphasis on school work coupled with weekend ministry led to the cancelling of all classes on Mondays.
In Part Two, “Gardens and Wilderness” are paired to aim readers at the cultivation necessary for meaningful education. The first task of gardeners, we are told, is to make things flourish in dry places (97), and one can almost hear a gauntlet thrown down. But then Smith and Felch raise one of their gentle queries: “Do our pedagogical choices reinforce a sense of the generosity and abundance of creation, of the beauty and intricacy of the world, and of the possibility of delight as a response to learning?” (100) Questions like these keep teachers rooted to the notion that they operate where the wild things are, clearing space and bringing nourishment. Sometimes, it even helps to get out of the way.
It is in this section that we hear about the Epistle to Diognetus, a second-century text that includes an examination of Biblical trees. From this, the authors urge readers to “[p]ay attention to the shape of your appetite”, because as with trees, students grow according to how they are fed. Thoughts from John Comenius, the “father of western education” (226) are remembered in this Part, as well. His advocacy for learning that resists the inclination to be self-serving provides rich soil where good ideas grow.
“Buildings and Walls”, Part Three, rounds out the book as Smith and Felch note how often teachers’ language is full of construction jargon: they lay and check foundations, build on previous knowledge, scaffold learning. But again, the authors refrain from hammering away at the obvious. Instead, they plumb (last pun, I promise) the work of St. Teresa of Avila, whose concept of a crystal castle offers a sparkling picture of the people who gather to learn. Every student is beautiful because each has been constructed to house God (158).
From this idea of being built by God and for God, Smith and Felch segue into a discussion of cathedrals. These massive structures, with their floors etched for labyrinths and their roofs soaring into the stratosphere, provide ample space for contemplation. Then, from cathedrals it is an easy move to abbeys, where like-minded people learn their place in and contribution to the wider community.
Readers will note a measure of repetition as they move through the three sections. But this seems intentional (perhaps because repetition is an important aspect of learning), and it is certainly not wasted effort. Take the reference to labyrinths in this third section. We’d heard in Part One of such devices being an aspect of a journey, and now we find them as features of buildings. Here, however, we are being told something new, namely that while buildings can include both labyrinths and mazes, the latter have “no wrong turns and no dead ends” (185).
Teaching and Christian Imagination emerged from conversation among several professors at Calvin College, and that school’s influence is evident in the way Scripture is handled, worship is prized, and art is admired. According to the Notes (where readers will find plenty of additional material to ponder), several contributed substantially to its pages, but this volume never sounds like a book by committee. Another notable feature is the laconic pace, struck by authors content with moving slow and circling back as they explore with more intentionality than urgency “the possibility of gradual change” (206). It is to embark on such a journey, potter about such a garden, and engage in such a construction project that all who seek to teach—and teach better—are invited.
Dan Schmidt pastors, teaches, reads, and writes in central PA. He blogs at www.toucanic.net
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com