Teaching and Christian Imagination

David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch
Published by Eerdmans in 2016

Those who take the time to read Teaching and Christian Imagination may feel like they have experienced refreshment from some kind of retreat or even perhaps from a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. They will have had occasion to step back and see the vocation of teaching in new and imaginative ways. In the book’s early pages, David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch warn that they offer “lenses, not recipes” and that they view their task as “opening possibilities rather than laying out instructions” (2). In my view, they and their co-authors (Barbara Carvill, Kurt Schaefer, Timothy Steele, and John Witvliet) have succeeded, and the lenses they offer are not only about imagining education in new ways, but are also imaginative in themselves. The authors’ disclaimer notwithstanding, readers will quickly discover that for a book devoid of recipes, Teaching and Christian Imagination has much in it that is practical; it is deeply grounded in classroom practice, as well as in literature, art, and Scripture.

Readers will be struck early on by the blue-chip writing in this volume. Packed with substance but irenic in tone, a consistently seamless blend of exposition and narrative, the prose here has a central role in inviting the reader into a retreat-like state of mind appropriate for the contents. The structure is simple. Following a brief opening chapter, the volume includes three major sections, each focused on an educational metaphor or family of metaphors. Part One explores images of journeying and pilgrimage. Part Two takes readers into gardens and wilderness. Part Three attempts to understand education better by thinking of it in terms of buildings.

The metaphor of teaching as journey—more specifically, teaching as pilgrimage—figures importantly throughout the volume and, in my view, helps create the sense for the reader that the book itself is a pilgrimage. In these authors’ hands, the pilgrimage of teaching is not all fun and travel. But they offer readers the tourist as a category opposite to the pilgrim, and they make it clear that fulfilling the educational vocation, while it entails work, has much joy among its many rich rewards. Except for the brief opening chapter, the “Journeys and Pilgrimages” section enjoys primacy of place in this volume. Either of the other two main parts (Gardens/Wilderness, Building) would have served adequately to invite readers into Smith and Felch’s overall project. But both the content and tone of this section—in which we are invited to view the teaching vocation as a journey—somehow work together to invite readers into the book more powerfully and thoroughly than I think either of the other sections would have done.

Part Two of Teaching and Christian Imagination, “Gardens and Wilderness,” leads readers into one of the oldest educational metaphors. Given that a simple search of “garden metaphor teaching” will yield about two million hits on the internet, what really is there left to say about it? In the 50 pages Smith and Felch give to gardening and wilderness, they go well beyond—or perhaps beneath—the usual discussion of the yields and limits of this family of metaphors. They use art to open up the imaginative side of our brains, and they tie their explorations to Scriptural categories to ask questions ignored by most who explicate these metaphors. A reviewer usually wants to save the punchiest recommendation or criticism for the end, but I will not wait to say that this middle section, like the first, is, by itself, worth the price of the book.

Part Three, “Buildings and Walls,” caught my particular interest because of my own long (and distinctly non-professional) reading in architecture. Smith and Felch work with this metaphor for a full 65 pages (139-204), and they do so with care, patience, and love. They make clear their awareness that education as building is an old metaphor. But they unpack building metaphors in ways that draw our attention to how students experience their learning, not just to how we view the work of teaching. And they use images, some old and some new, to help us grasp the potential and sophistication of building metaphors. As was the case with both Parts One and Two, readers of Part Three will find themselves invited into thinking about education in new ways despite the familiarity of the building metaphor.

This book contains a feature I have not seen before: an index of reflections. While it includes what appears in the Table of Contents, it offers much more; in two pages, it provides the page numbers of all the book’s sub-sections. This follows both a Scripture Index and six pages of General Index. Those, in turn, follow 40 pages of notes to the main text. Even the unobtrusive reference apparatus helped create my sense that I was reading a quiet book, a book that invited me into a retreat. I recognize that readers wanting the quick access to sources offered by Chicago, MLA, or APA style may be bothered by the need to flip to the back of the book. But the other side of this approach is the invitational, readerly appearance of the pages, perhaps one more way that the authors have been “gloriously impractical” (205) in their writing.

Smith and Felch create a conversation among a wide range of thinkers, artists, and writers, both ancient and modern. Augustine, John Bunyan, medieval mystics, authors of Scripture, and various artists all come into service. And they are not pressed into service; they fit so well in the conversation that the reader is tempted to conclude that they invited themselves in. Collectively, they lead us to imagine ourselves as sailors, singers, builders of cathedrals, and visitors to gardens, among other roles. With Smith and Felch guiding the conversation, they invite us to ask how we might “move from trying to lay foundations impervious to the tremors of God in history to building pedagogy as worship, as a space where light might enter and bring alive stories of life abundant” (205). I highly recommend this book for libraries, for professional reading by educators at all levels, and for adoption as a textbook in Christian college courses in the philosophy of education, the foundations of teaching, or the professional dimensions of teaching.

Cite this article
Ken Badley, “Teaching and Christian Imagination”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:3 , 317-319

Ken Badley

Tyndale University College
Ken Badley is a professor at Tyndale University College specializing in Philosophy of Education.