Book Review: Teaching and Christian Imagination

Dear Reader,

As a part of my ongoing quest for a reformed Christian philosophy theology of education, I recently read Teaching and Christian Imagination by David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016). The book is a series of essays, grouped by image, on Christian education. The intended audience is the burnt-out Christian school teacher. The idea behind it is that by exploring various images related to education, that one will rediscover one’s purpose in teaching and be reinvigorated.

“This is not a ‘how-to’ manual or a collection of tips. This book offers lenses, not recipes, opening possibilities rather than laying out instructions. It is an opportunity to refresh your imagination, to step back and see differently. It invites you to explore how your faith and your imagination can dance together in ways that bring grace and truth into your daily service to your students and your school.” (p. 2)

Images are really the guiding principle here, and I agree with the authors that images are important. They help shape our thoughts. But — and this is where my problem with this book lies — because they are important and because they do shape our thoughts, we need to be discriminating in which images we chose and in how we apply them. It matters, for instance, whether we view children as blank slates, lumps of clay, or hot-house flowers.

Teaching groups its essays around three fairly standard sets of Christian images: journeys and pilgrimages; gardens and wildernesses; buildings and walls. But it shows little discrimination in what images it uses or how it uses them. There is no clear standard here for how we know what it true or what to accept. There are certainly many biblical references, but the writers also quote Rousseau (pp. 90-91) whose influence on modern education was disastrous and analyze paintings of the Christ child with saints and angels (pp. 101-02). Nor is there any sort of clear philosophy of education. The classical approach is described in one section (pp. 169ff), but there is little that provides a theological or philosophical framework for the book as a whole.

The authors have shied away from providing strong and definite ideas but in doing so they have not provided enough of a basis for their work. Teaching and Christian Imagination sees a need: Christian schools with burnt-out teachers. Its solution is to throw a handful of poorly vetted images at that need which may inspire in the short term, but I think they would have been better served by a back-to-basics questioning of the underlying framework, something which asks what are we doing and is it the right thing and how do we even know, what is our standard?

One of my biggest underlying principles in this blog is that ideas matter. Images convey ideas and so I agree with the book’s authors that images too matter. My problem with Teaching and Christian Imagination is actually that they don’t take their own images seriously enough; they don’t curate them well. A book which really looks at the images the Bible gives us regarding education and which draws from Scripture to apply those images would be most welcome. I am afraid a book which applies images indiscriminately as this one does may give some a temporary emotional boost but will do more long-term damage.

Nebby

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