An artful approach to teaching Bible to RISD students


It’s such a big book, how can you “teach” it in a single semester?  My art students at the Rhode Island School of Design put most of their talents and efforts into the studio world, not the classroom realm of ideas. 

It’s hard for me even to finish the first phrases from Genesis, from Bereshit, in which the Creator shapes the sun and moon, the sky and ocean and earth, the fish and birds, the couple in the garden of Eden. The artist of the universe sighs after each design every day but one, and smiles and says, “It’s all good.” Then he rests and contemplates. I sum it all up with a moral: Admire and respect all things, all beings. The Holy Land is all earth, so don’t dump on it. Stop littering. Every bug is a jewel, like the pins you wear on your lapel, and is the handiwork and craftsmanship of ...?    The God of the Bible is an elusive concept, up to you to figure out, knit or unravel.  

Go back to your potter’s wheel, or loom, or easel, or sketchbook, or sculpture pit, or architectural drawing board, and think about a line from scripture. Let’s explore sacred poetry with our hands, slowly, in excerpts.

So, I take my class, or whoever joins our small parade, to Hillel, to hold the silver hand pointer to the calligraphy of a Torah scroll. Or to the Unitarian Church to look closely at the windows, which are not of stained glass but clear – or almost clear – so that you can look out and see the trees, framed and focused by the designer of the fenestration. 

We visit the First Baptist Church, the one with the legacy of Roger Williams, who replaced infant baptism with adult baptism, the free choice of a mature person, not the forced conversion of a newborn.

We examine various translations of the stories in Exodus, the struggles between prophets and kings, the good counsel, and sometimes the Polonius-like platitudes of the proverbs.  And on and on as best we can.  Then, in the last weeks of the semester, the students must get up in front of their peers, and perhaps guests, and show what they have made. 

A children’s game based on the personality and progress of Moses. Or, you can rearrange the blocks and find another biblical character, or even a mixture of several. A son of a minister read from the Psalms of David with such passion, conviction and eloquence that his classmates spontaneously applauded! 

Judaism, of course, does not consist only of the Torah, but our American culture has always gleaned, and projected, its particular needs and experiences. There were Bibles in every pilgrim’s parlor that served as family albums, with inscriptions recording births and deaths along with the genealogies of Noah and Daniel and all the familiar names we have for our children ... or even our pets.

I have taken students to both famous and hidden temples, from our Touro to the Bible garden and display of Sukkot lean-tos at Beth-El and the Orms Street shul at Douglas Avenue, Sons of Jacob.

I like to pretend that the Old Testament is a kind of autobiography for everyone who reads it. Sisters and brothers contend with each other like Jacob and Esau, like Rachel and Leah.  We must leave home like Abraham and take up our responsibilities, even reluctantly, like Moses. We are also born to be mail delivery persons, and the message we carry is a heavy burden, with its demands and warnings ... . So, I celebrate the way comic books, funny papers, graphic novels and amusing and entertaining movies tell the eternal tales – “Green Pastures” and “Veggie Tales,” as well as the latest “Noah” movie.   I dare to try to offer something quite new, like “The Jewish Cardinal,” or to revive something dated and derivative, like “Samson and Delilah,” for the chance to show off Hedy Lamarr and narrate her life story.

It’s definitely the design disciples who bring my class to life. They may come from religious families and sign up for this elective with the approval of their mothers or fathers ... but they’ll soon discover that they have to find new and personal meanings on their own.  Sometimes, they try to mock the ancient texts for the naiveté of their convictions. I hope and pray that they learn to use the words poetically, metaphorically and intimately, to search for private truths useful to artists in any medium.  

I have a touch of the Hasidic spirit, which, for me, merely means that you don’t need the skills of a scholar, only the tastes and gifts you brought with you to school. You can sing or dance the Bible, even make a pair of shoes or darn some fancy socks, and your Maker will admire and bless you. My role is to stand up and entertain and then find a way to grade your attempts to make the Bible your own.  

I present a positive view of all Jewish perspectives, and, in the interests of the global community of academia, I link all faiths together, through the liberating and generous magic of metaphor. All beliefs are animistic and ancestral, just as all folklore digs into identical human dilemmas. 

But there’s really only one student in my classes: myself!  When I read the course evaluations, that’s when I find out how I’m doin’ and what grade I have earned.

MIKE FINK ( teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.