Harnessing Creativity in a Biblical Studies Classroom

by Christy Cobb in


If Esther had a Pinterest, what would she post on it? If Ruth had a Spotify playlist, what songs would she include? What if Susannah joined the #metoo movement?

Students in my Women and the Bible undergraduate class last semester proposed these questions and many more in response to an assignment designed to harness creativity in the classroom. I had three objectives in mind for this course: 1) Students will read critically sections of the biblical text that include female characters or discuss issues specifically involving women, 2) Students will consider the historical, social, political, and cultural context in which the Bible was written (which was profoundly patriarchal), 3) Students will reflect on the ways these texts have influenced our current context, especially concerning women’s roles in the home, society, and church. In addition to these objectives, I also wanted to empower students to engage in their own readings and interpretations of biblical passages. While the assigned readings as well as my in-class exercises cultivate the first two objectives listed, I decided to try a more creative approach to challenge students in their reflection of the ways these texts impact women today. I also wanted to actively encourage them to find their own voices in terms of the interpretation of these texts. I attempted to harness their creativity through an assignment I titled “Biblical Profiles.”

Before completing this assignment, the students were to read the assigned biblical text and secondary texts closely and think about our in-class discussions of the material. Then, they created a profile for a female character found in the text that embodied their reading of the text as well as the scholarly material. I intentionally left “profile” undefined for this assignment. I hoped that this would allow them the creative space to re-imagine these female characters in a new way. In case this was daunting to some students, I allowed them to write a traditional paper as well in order to complete this assignment. The only formal requirements for this assignment included: 1) the students must find and include a picture of the biblical character or a picture that they felt represented this character (and if their project did not allow for a picture, that could be waived) and 2) the students must somehow illustrate that they read and thought about the scholarship within the profile (more creative assignments were often accompanied by a short note including the student’s inspiration for their project). Throughout the semester, students were required to complete ten profiles total and I dropped the lowest grade. The high number of assigned profiles was intentional on my part: I wanted students to experiment and take risks with this work. I dropped one of their grades so that they had the space to fail at a risky profile without it hurting their grade in the course. I hoped that the repetition and risk would result in a high reward for the students in the class. They also created one additional profile, which was their final project for the course. This assignment was to find a female character that we did not cover in depth during the semester, conduct their own outside reading and research concerning the historical context and the way this character is represented, and create a unique profile for this character, which was to be shared with the class on the last day.

During the first week of class, I introduced the project to the class and was met with some blank faces. Most students were accustomed to writing traditional papers and seemed nervous about the idea of presenting their work creatively. I reminded them that formal papers were acceptable as well and that I would grade each equally, but encouraged them to follow a creative urge if one should surface. I also created a “sample profile” for them in the form of a short paper that included a picture, so they had something to follow if they did not know where to start. For the first assignment, most students completed a paper on the first woman we discussed in depth: Eve from Genesis 2-3. However, a couple chose a more creative route. For instance, one student created a collage (see below, included with permission) using pictures alongside quotes from the classic essay on this text by Phyllis Trible.[1] Another student composed a lengthy poem that referenced the scholarship, questions from class discussions, and her own reading of Genesis. As I encouraged each student in their creative choices, I also mentioned examples in class the following session, hoping that even more students would think creatively as the semester continued. This strategy worked as many students began to take risks in their assignments. For instance, the following week, on other narratives in Genesis, one student created a PowerPoint presentation on Rachel focusing on her strength and vocation as a shepherd, inspired by the womanist midrash we read by Wil Gafney.[2] One other outstanding profile was a piece of creative writing that connected the characters of Sarah and Hagar as survivors of sexual assault.

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By the time we reached the book of Judges, creativity exploded in my classroom. Several students focused on Deborah, one student created Deborah a LinkedIn account:

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(https://www.linkedin.com/in/deborah-lappidoth-629a6b158).

A student who is a double major in Religion and Music composed original music to “Deborah’s Song” using words from Judges 5 and later in the semester, recorded the music with other music students:

Another student, who is a survivor of sexual assault, wrote a personal piece where she embodied the story of the Concubine of the Levite, in Judges 19 titled “How I Saw It, As I Remembered It.” It was this week in particular that I watched as so many of my students embraced the creativity of this assignment and I heard them during group discussions say things like, “That would be a good profile idea!” They also began taking notes more actively in class as they worked to incorporate the scholarship and class discussions into their profiles. Most importantly, though, they were fulfilling course objectives by critically reading and thinking about female characters in biblical narratives as well as the ways these texts impact women’s lives today.

Using their knowledge of social media, students created Facebook profiles, Instagram pages, Twitter feeds, Spotify stations, and even Tinder profiles for biblical characters. Esther was given her own Pinterest account: https://www.pinterest.com/womenandthebible2018/. Tapping into the energy surrounding the #Metoo movement, my students imagined Susannah from the Apocryphal text of Daniel, and Queen Vashti from Esther as contributors to #Metoo. A student rewrote Judith’s story from the perspective of her slave who was traveling with her, but is unnamed. Another created an advertisement for hiring an assassin: look no further than Judith! (see below). For the book of Ruth, a student wrote a short two-person play suggesting that Ruth and Naomi were in a same-sex relationship and used Boaz so that they could have a child together. A student imagined Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as struggling with Postpartum Depression, and wrote a journal entry with that perspective. Two students wrote letters from the women of Corinth to Paul (inspired by an assigned essay by Antoinette Wire) addressing some of the more confusing parts of the letter.[3] One student wrote a “breaking news” update where archaeologists found an “authentic” document that turned out to be the diary of Mary Magdalene and answered many of the questions brought up through the book we read for class, Mary Magdalene Understood by Jane Schaberg and Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre.[4]

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Looking back on the semester, this assignment was wildly successful. My students appreciated the freedom to use their creativity in an academic setting and I looked forward to grading them. At the end of the semester, during a symposium that my university hosts highlighting undergraduate research, we dedicated a session to the profiles from this class. Here, students presented their favorite projects from the semester. This validated the work of the students while also creatively introducing the audience to the presence of female characters in the biblical text.

Yet, there are also some things that I plan to adjust for the next time I teach this course. First, assigning ten profiles throughout the semester turned out to be too many, for the students as well as for me to grade. Surprisingly, students continually came up with creative ideas but I think perhaps five or six assigned profiles throughout the semester would still be effective. However, I think students should create at least more than one profile during a semester for this assignment to fully succeed. As I noted, the student’s creativity increased throughout the semester, so assigning two or more profiles per semester encourages risk-taking and experimentation. Second, with a reduced number of assignments, I plan to provide students with a form to fill out that can accompany their profile. In it, they will be asked to provide a bibliography for their profile and a brief description of how they used both the biblical text and the scholarship in their creative work. Finally, I also plan to design and provide a rubric for grading the assignment. I often found it difficult to assess these assignments, as some of the very creative ones were impressive, but might have lacked a clear integration of the material. I think that a form for the students to document their use of the sources as well as a rubric to account for creativity, critical thinking, and use of sources would make this assignment even more effective.

Overall, harnessing students’ creativity through assignments such as this one is certainly a worthwhile addition to a biblical studies classroom. My students had only good things to say about the assignment to me personally and in the course evaluations. And, while my students clearly had fun completing the assignments, they also fulfilled the objectives of the course. Creative assignments such as this one, with some minor adjustments, could also work in a variety of biblical studies classes, such as Introduction to the Bible, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or even a study in the Gospels. In these types of classes, students could choose characters within texts that they read for class and produce similarly creative profiles.

Dr. Christy Cobb is Assistant Professor in the Religion department at Wingate University. 

[1] Trible, Phyllis. “Eve and Adam: Genesis 2-3 Reread,” Elizabeth Carroll Series. Rochester, NY: Women’s Ordination Conference, 1983.

[2] Wil Gafney, Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

[3] Antoinette Clark Wire, “Reclaiming a Theology of Glory from the Corinthian Women Prophets” in Conflict and Community in the Corinthian Church, J. Shannon Clarkson, Editor. New York: United Methodist Church, 2000, 36-51.

[4] Jane Schaberg with Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, Mary Magdalene Understood, New York: Continuum 2006.

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