The Christian Faith tells a story of God’s world and us in it. Followers of Jesus want to enter into this story: hear it, retell it, play it, imagine it, pray it, and most of all – live it.
Depending on our Christian formation background, we might be either very biblically literate or have little to no skills of studying and understanding the Bible. And yet, even if we possess a wealth of Bible knowledge, it could well be that we have never entered the story of the Bible with our whole selves (body, heart, mind and soul) and met Jesus through the Scripture.
There are many ways to engage the Scripture in a manner that leads to a felt, experienced encounter with God. Over the centuries, people of God have practiced different ways of spiritual reading of the Bible, such as lectio divina, visio divina, and imaginative contemplation of the Scripture. One of the well known contemplatives is St. Ignatius of Loyola who developed “the Spiritual Exercises” that are still practiced today.
To accompany your imaginative contemplation of the Bible, you might want to explore the text, and respond to God and his word by creating a painting, sculpture, play, song, or a poem in order to experience God of the Scripture and present in a deep fresh way.
Here are a few ways how imagination and different art forms, theater and visual arts in particular, can be used as aids to more deeply enter into the Biblical narrative. Although these forms are much more commonly used with children and young people, they are meaningful ways to deepen anyone’s experience of the Scripture.
Next to using dress-up clothes, masks and other theater props, there are different ways to make miniature biblical characters. Some examples are:
Hand and Finger Puppets
Soup Ladle Dolls
Soft Toy Dolls / Sculptures
Miniature Worlds (shadow box, puppet theatre etc.)
Bibliodrama is a form of role play or improvisational theatre using Bible stories. In
Bibliodrama the leader reads a Bible text, pausing at points of interest and
invites the listeners to step into the role of the character, or perhaps even of an object,
and give it a voice by imagining what they do, think and feel.
It helps the participants to explore the unspoken in the lives of the characters, the ‘backstory’ or ‘subtext’ in the written narrative while honoring the original text. Through a role play and filling in the spaces between the written story, the story becomes alive and a mirror to self-identification.
Read the story of the Lost Sheep: Give a ‘Shepherd’ puppet and a ‘sheep’ soft toy to two
listeners or split the group into two and ask half to imagine being the Shepherd and half the
Sheep. Pause a few times your reading when something happens to one of the characters, and ask: what is the Shepherd (or sheep) thinking? What is he going to do now? What does he feel? Show us. Let the listeners act out their character’s response.
2. Imaginative Prayer
Through imaginative prayer we invite the listeners to step into a gospel story and imagine
themselves in that scene. Unlike in Bibliodrama, we don’t try to think what that Shepherd
felt, thought or saw, but directly place ourselves in the story and imagine what we would
feel, think and see etc. The strength of this form of reading of the Bible is that rather than
listening the Bible abstractly, with our reasoning, we facilitate the listener to enter the story more deeply and experience and encounter Jesus themselves.
They might be a disciple in the boat with Jesus, one of the crowd at the feeding of the five
thousand, or the woman at the well asked by Jesus to draw up water for him. In these and
many other gospel stories, the listeners use their God-given imagination to listen, see,
hear, taste and smell the scene around them. As they observe what they are thinking and
feeling as the events unfold around them, invite God to speak to them through that.
Hand puppets can be a great help for younger children in this form of prayer. Note, now we
don’t ask the child ‘what does he/she feel?’ but ‘what do you feel? What do you say to Jesus? What does Jesus say back to you?’
3. Godly Play
Goldy play is based on Montessori pedagogy, where the child’s world and developmental sensitivities are respected. It is using religious language and concepts to help children make meaning of their life experiences. The Biblical narratives are presented to children in a structured manner using carefully crafted Godly Play materials. Children are invited to engage with the story presented to them through their chosen medium. This could be exploration of the artifacts and objects used in the story telling, silence, drawing, journaling or play.
Tips for the Storytellers:
Choose a gospel story where Jesus is active and present.
Prepare your questions before hand in prayer and ask God to meet with the group through the exercise.
Talk slowly and softly to create an atmosphere of rest and peace. Ask the participants to sit in a comfortable position where they can see the puppets or other artifacts, if you are using them (this can be done eyes closed without props as well).
Read or tell the story slowly with long pauses in between.
Ask prompting questions in between to awaken imagination and senses:
What is the place like where you are? What do you see around you?
Is it hot or cold?
What time of the day is it?
Who else is there? What do they look like?
What can you hear... smell... touch... taste…?
How are you feeling?
Do you have anything in your hands?
If you could ask Jesus a question, what would you ask?
How close to Jesus are you? Can you touch him?
What does Jesus’ face look like when he looks at you?
How does his voice sound like?
I wonder …?
For young children it is natural to answer your questions aloud. Don’t stop this. Allow a few responses and then gently move on.
If the participants do this quietly in their minds, ask for responses afterwards. Tell them that
we can pray (talk to Jesus) as simply as this through our imaginations and God can speak to
us through Bible like this.
Resources: Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer by David G. Benner
Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene H. Peterson Picturing the Face of Jesus: Encountering Christ Through Art by Beth Booram Bibliodrama
Bibliodrama Manual: How to Make the Bible Stories Come Alive! by Esly Regina Carvalho Scripture Windows: Toward a Practice of Bibliodrama by Peter A. Pitzele
Seeing Is Believing: Experience Jesus through Imaginative Prayer by Gregory A. Boyd
Pray-As-You-Go Guided imaginative audio prayers
Imaginative Prayer for Youth Ministry: A Guide to Transforming Your Students' Spiritual Lives into Journey, Adventure, and Encounter by Jeannie Oestreicher and Larry Warner Imaginative Prayer: A Yearlong Guide for Your Child's Spiritual Formation by Jared Patrick Boyd
The Religious Potential of the Child by Sofia Cavalletti The Good Shepherd and the Child: A Joyful Journey by Sofia Cavalletti, Patrica Coulter, et al.
Meet Me at the Well: The Girls and Women of the Bible by Barbara Goldin and Jane Yolen (Picture Book) I Wonder…Did Jesus Have a Pet Lamb? by Janette Oke and Corbert Gauthier (Picture Book) The World Jesus Knew by Marc Olson (Picture Book) Godly Play USA Godly Play UK
Godly Play : An Imaginative Approach to Religious Education by Jerome W. Berryman
The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future by Jerome W. Berryman