Updated: Mar 31, 2021
In previous posts I explored some of the gaps in the traditional educational models that most youth ministries follow, explained how Project-Based Learning differs from these traditional models, and proposed how PBL will enable churches to better minister to Gen Z. You may be wondering though what exactly this all has to do with Bible Art. Are biblical adaptation and Project-Based Learning two separate interests of mine that I’m writing about on the same blog merely out of convenience? Or is there some deeper connection between these two subjects? In today’s post I sketch how Bible adaptation projects, designed according to Project-Based Learning standards, allow youth ministries to effectively disciple Gen Z students while also fostering future Bible Artists.
Discipling the Imagination
In recent years there’s been an increasing recognition among evangelicals that the Bible is, at its core, one grand story. In light of this recognition, our paradigm of interacting with the Bible has been shifting away from simply mining the Bible for timeless theological truths, proof texts, and life-application principles and toward engaging it on a literary and imaginative level. But, while there are a growing number of resources like the Bible Project that explain the literary structure and themes of the Bible, less work has been done in creating effective curriculum to help students actively engage the Bible in this fashion.
When students try to read through the Bible, they often struggle to visualize and identify with the events being described, while also failing to comprehend the larger plot, themes, and characterization.
The youth ministry world has a truly good desire to help students understand and connect to the Bible, and content-centered curriculum focused on student-relevant timeless truths and life application principles continue to be seen as the best way to facilitate that connection. There’s a problem though. Studies have shown that biblical literacy, both outside and inside the church, has decreased dramatically over the years. This raises the question: has the timeless-theological-truth/life-application-principle curriculum approach popular among youth ministries contributed to this decline? In many such curriculums, biblical passages are quoted and stories are cherry-picked in order to teach about a relevant topic, but very little is communicated with respect to their literary or big picture context. And, even if context is included, do we expect youth to be able to synthesize a sense of the big picture story of the Bible based on the little snippets that they get here and there in a curriculum that clearly has an entirely different focus?
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels
Some may think that it’s better to get students connecting to the Bible in any way we can and that it’s unrealistic to expect them to connect to the Bible’s often complex, multilayered, and strange stories without these relevant principles and truths – but is that actually the case? Gen Z has no qualms about connecting to the complex and multilayered stories of the MCU or Percy Jackson. Many of our youth can clearly explain all the convoluted intricacies of these multi-episode intertwining narrative worlds, including their diverse casts of characters and their complex mythos. So, while Gen Z may not have biblical literacy, it certainly does have Marvel literacy. Did our students need timeless truths or application principles in order to experience this sense of connection? No. These properties do, of course, contain themes and ideas that are relevant to our times, but those themes aren’t the primary gateway through which our students enter into these narrative. Our students connect to these stories through their imagination. In doing so, the Bible can cease to be simply a manual for beliefs and principles and instead become a means of shaping and discipling our students at a deeper, imaginative level.
A survey of the great Bible Artists of history shows that most of them were not only extraordinarily gifted in their craft but also dedicated to knowing the Bible better and immersing themselves in imaginative world of its stories.
So, how can students connect to biblical stories imaginatively? Imaginative immersion into modern cultural products like the MCU takes place almost automatically, both because film is an inherently accessible medium and because Marvel films are culturally close to Gen Z. But the Bible is complex written literature from a chronologically and geographically distant culture, and, as a result, the average student has to overcome significant barriers to enter into it imaginatively. When students try to read through the Bible, they often struggle to visualize and identify with the events being described, while also failing to comprehend the larger plot, themes, and characterization. To overcome these various literary and cultural barriers and enter into the stories imaginatively might seem like a tall order. Fortunately, there’s a group that’s been doing this very thing for hundreds years while at the same time producing some of the greatest works of Western culture; the group I’m think of, of course, is Bible Artists.
Photo by Jessica Lewis from Pexels
A survey of the great Bible Artists of history shows that most of them were not only extraordinarily gifted in their craft but also dedicated to knowing the Bible better and immersing themselves in imaginative world of its stories. Even when creators enter into the process of adaptation with only marginal connection to the Bible, taking biblical stories from one medium or genre to another will naturally motivate them to deepen their biblical literacy and identify with the story at a personal level, as my own experience suggests. And adaptation is fun – it allows the creators display their own artistic gifts, contribute their own unique spin, and create a product that they can hold onto and look back on with pride (or laughter). Adapting biblical stories therefore serves as a perfect project to help facilitate our students’ biblical literacy and imaginative discipleship.
Don’t expect students to adapt a biblical story in a day. Because of the complex nature of the problem of adaptation, students will need a significant amount of time seek answers to their questions through a variety of means.
Adaptation: a PBL Approach
To flesh out what an adaptation project for students might look like, let’s consider how the 7 key elements of PBL might be included:
1) A Challenging Problem or Question: Adapting [biblical story] into a medium/genre of choice
I’ve already suggested that there are many challenges that students face when trying to read the Bible as a story: crossing the cultural/chronological gulf, visualizing the events, identifying with the characters, and comprehending the plot, characters, setting, themes, etc. The genius of an adaptation project is that it combines these smaller individual tasks into one bigger, more epic challenge. Rather than learning about characterization simply to learn about characterization, students engage in all of these smaller struggles on the pathway to creativity. Along the way, they will also get exposed to additional complications like figuring out how to translate what they’ve learned about the original story for their less informed audiences and how to expand or pare down their chosen story as needed. To address these challenges, I suggest having them also view/watch/read a model adaptation of their story, which can have the added benefit of clarifying aspects of the narrative that might have confused them.
2) Sustained Inquiry: Rigorously studying the story and the process of adaptation
Don’t expect students to adapt a biblical story in a day. Because of the complex nature of the problem of adaptation, students will need a significant amount of time seek answers to their questions through a variety of means. Most youth ministries aren’t set up for research, but ideally students will have Internet-accessible computers, study Bibles, and a variety of other resources that they can use to study their passage and its context. They will also need mini-lessons guiding them through some of the challenges of reading and adapting the Bible, but, keep in mind, the point of such lessons is to model skills and then to release youth to practice these skills on their passage. Different groups will move through the stages of inquiry at different paces and, as a result, some may be able to delve deeper into their story, while others focus more on the basics.
3) Authenticity: Joining the venerable tradition of Bible Artists
It’s important that creating Bible Art doesn’t feel like an irrelevant task that the students are doing merely to fill the time. Leading up to doing an adaptation project, students should be regularly exposed to various forms of Bible Art, and, when the project is pitched, it should be communicated that they are joining this noble tradition. Having each group view/watch/read a renowned adaptation of their specific story is another helpful way to reinforce the legitimacy of what they’re doing.
Photo by Wix.
It’s also important during the project to not minimize the importance of the creative aspect of what students are doing. It’s easy to fixate on interpretive skills and Bible knowledge, but if students sense that actually making something is just a carrot, they won’t take any of it seriously. Ideally, you can work against this by inviting creative members of your church community to participate or guide youth in the craft of what they produce.
4) Student Voice & Choice: Choosing the medium, genre, & tone of the adaptation
When given choice, our kids can express aspects of their personality and thinking that we never imagined and display talents that we never would have seen in any other circumstance.
This one is hard. Most adults are hardwired to want to control kids, and so we view giving them choice with anxiety. And there is a risk; when you let the youth choose how they will adapt their story, they may end up deciding to create a series of Christian Memes and Vines – a product that may not look super significant to either you or your supervisors. But that risk is necessary if the project is going to be not only a means of developing their biblical literacy but also an opportunity for our youth to display their gifts. When given choice, our kids can express aspects of their personality and thinking that we never imagined and display talents that we never would have seen in any other circumstance. Giving students choice also provides them with a sense of ownership over the project that will make them far more invested in producing something that will represent them well.
5) Reflection: Taking time to recognize personal growth and ongoing challenges
Creating an adaptation can be chaotic, so it’s important to periodically encourage students to pause and reflect on where they’re at in their knowledge and process. To close each time you meet with students, consider having them complete exit tickets or a journal entry about what they’re learning and the questions they’re left with, as well as a longer reflection at the end of the project – such measures help facilitate the self-reflection and awareness that are so critical for deeper learning.
6) Critique & Revision: Offering and receiving feedback from other groups
I suggest having students work on adaptation projects in groups so that they are constantly in contact with others and able to talk through their current understanding. Once the actual creative process begins, these groups should also begin to interact with each other, sharing rough versions of their adaptation and exchanging feedback with other groups. As I noted above, adult creatives in the congregation can also be invited to work with students and provide feedback.
Photo by Wix.
7) Making the Final Product Public: Sharing Bible Art with those inside and outside the church
Depending on the type of adaptations that your students produce, you may want to hold a premier (if there’s several video or performance adaptations) or an open gallery (if the adaptations are mostly static forms of Bible Art like painting or comics). In either case, it’s important to create an event to share these products with the wider church so that the work of students can bless the church and so the students can feel appreciated and valued. This is also a great event to invite non-Christian peers to, since they might be enticed to see what their friends have made (some Bible Art may be shareable via social media, so that even friends who don't attend can view it). Such an event can be memorable and a lot of fun, so be sure to think about details like having students dress up, having special food, and inviting a guest to emcee.
What I’ve included above is only the barest sketch for an adaptation project. Actually launching such a project requires a lot more work: determining how such a project could fit into your current youth ministry structure, deciding how much time you might want to allocate to it each week and how long the project would last, creating an outline of the flow of the project, crafting curriculum and lessons to help students develop and use the various necessary skills. Hopefully, in the near future I can provide you with more concrete resources to aid with the process of launching such a project. Until then though, I hope this little sketch helps you imagine a concrete way that you could incorporate Project-Based Learning into your youth ministry so as to deepen your students’ biblical literacy, broaden their biblical imagination, and also allow them to unleash their creative potential.
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