Reading the Bible, Experiencing the Arts, Engaging Issues of Justice

by the Rev. Dr. Julie Faith Parker

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

One of the great joys of teaching at General is having the resources of the world’s cultural capital at your doorstep.  My colleagues are accustomed to offering our students invigorating ways to explore New York City as an integral part of their education.  Rev. Emily Wachner empowers students through field education placements, as they become contributing members of church communities around the city. Dr. Kevin Moroney leads students to explore some of New York’s holy sites and architectural wonders in a course called The Sacred City. Dr. Michael Battle brings his students learning about prison ministry to a juvenile detention center in Queens, to deepen their understanding of what it means to be arrested and confined as a youth.  To see and experience the medieval world, Dr. Clair McPherson leads his students to the Cloisters and the Metropolitan Museum. This semester, Dr. Michael DeLashmutt is bringing his advisees to a soup kitchen to serve some of our neighbors here in Chelsea.  As the newest member of the full-time faculty, I too wanted take advantage of our New York City home and so created a class that combines my own passions for the Bible, the Arts, and Justice.            

In June of 2018, I was awarded a Wabash Fellowship to develop the course. In preparation, I took a course last spring at the New School called “Creative Justice” (I loved being a student again!). This class combined art theory with awareness of how art promotes justice, equipping me with a theoretical basis for building my own course. I also visited many museums and collections to decide where I would bring students as part of the curriculum. I was not sure how many field trips to include in my class so spoke with Dean DeLashmutt, who gave me excellent advice. “Be bold,” was his counsel. And so I was.

Parker, and her class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan

Parker, and her class at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan

This semester in “Reading the Bible, Experiencing the Arts, Engaging Issues of Justice” we explore themes related to the Bible then take field trips to deepen our awareness of these issues. Our introductory class examined questions of power and politics in the Bible and the world around us (see 2 Kings 15-19). The next week we went to The Metropolitan Museum of Ar, where an art history professor gave us a customized tour of the Ancient Near Eastern Art gallery.  This coming week, we are looking at issues of refugees in the Bible (Genesis 16-21; Exodus 20-23; Deuteronomy 10, 14-21, 28; Ruth). After discussing the plight of people in the Bible forced out of their homes, we will have an audio-guided visit to the Auschwitz exhibit, currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The next topic focuses on racism and the eradication of indigenous cultures (see 1 Samuel 15; Number 25; Joshua). We follow this class with a visit to the Museum of the American Indian, where students will view objects and relate them to the biblical book of Joshua. Continuing our focus on racism, the next week we will explore stories of people who commit crimes in the Bible, like Moses (Exodus 2:11-15) and David (2 Samuel 11) and the issue of incarceration. A former student of mine, Lawrence Bartley, will speak first-hand about his own experiencing learning about the Bible while in prison. That Friday evening, the students and I will enter Sing Sing prison where we will see a production of the musical 1776 performed by men incarcerated there.  Our next week examines women’s contributions to the biblical world (Judges 4-5; 2 Kings 4; Judith), followed by a trip to the Brooklyn Museum for a personal tour of the Judy Chicago Dinner Party exhibit. The following week we’ll have our own “dinner party” with Bible foods and place settings that the students make, as in the Dinner Party exhibit. Our final week will examine issues of justice and gender identity (Genesis 19; Leviticus 18-20), then we will have a personal tour of the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Thanks to the grant, there is no cost to the students for any of these cultural experiences.

As this article is going to press, the class is just a few weeks underway. Yet already, I feel it is one of the most exciting classes I have ever taught in the decade that I have been a professor. At Dean DeLashmutt’s suggestion, I hope to create a one-week iteration of this class for our forthcoming D.Min. program. Here in New York City, the possibilities are limitless!