I actually hate grading papers. There, I said it. I love to read and I love to learn. But there’s just something tedious about slugging my way through a stack of papers that makes my eyes bleed—even if the papers are well-written. This is why I’ve tried to mix it up a bit by assigning papers that demand creativity rather than just analytical content. Sure, students need to be able to gather information, synthesize it, and present it in a clear way. But analytical, content-driven research is only one way to learn. In our quest for truth, sometimes we ignore creativity. So over the last few years I’ve tried to mix in fiction writing as a way to harness my students’ imagination as they process information.
I tried this a while back when I gave my students the option of writing a 10 page research paper or a 20 page historical fiction short story for my New Testament Backgrounds class. Most of them opted for the predictable research paper, but one student (Bobby Hansen) took up the challenge to write a historical fiction. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I received was nothing short of brilliant. Bobby decided to put himself in the dress of the woman who had a flood of blood for 12 years in Matthew 9:20-22. I darn near came close to crying—and I never cry—as I experienced the shame that hovered over this poor little woman. I followed her around her village, I felt the cold stares of judgmental men, and my heart broke when my husband left me because I could bear him no children. 12 years with a flow of blood. It’s not just a story. It’s was the unbearable pain of a Jewish girl living in an honor/shame culture 2,000 years ago. Imagine the day that Jesus healed her!
Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
Now, for this assignment I required Bobby to dig into the first century world and integrate nitty gritty facts into his story. It’s a historical fiction, not just some myth. And Bobby did just that. He drew upon the Jewish culture, imagined what life would have been like for this girl, and presented a story that was aligned with truth and piercing to the heart. He made me read—and re-read—that familiar story with dirt under my nails. And I will never read it the same.
So I’ve made this type of assignment mandatory for more of my classes. I’m currently reading through papers for my Old Testament Backgrounds course (I love backgrounds!), where students are required to research an ancient city and a near eastern religion and then write a short fictional story about someone living in that city or worshiping at that pagan alter. I hope this has been effective, and I would love for any of my students to drop in comments below to describe their experience. But one thing is clear: I’m learning a ton about the ancient world as my students are clothing me with tunics and shoving sandals on my feet and forcing me to walk the sands of the Mediterranean world. Not only has this made grading much more enjoyable, but it’s forcing me to use that other side of my brain (is it the right or left? I can’t remember…) as I process the history of the ancient world—the world where two thirds of the Bible took place.
It’s a shame that we measure intelligence by how well we use the non-imaginative side of our brains. The smart people are those who know lots of facts and construct well-reasoned arguments, while those who exploit their God-given creativity are just artsy fartsy. I disagree with this. Since we are created in God’s image, and since imagination and creativity are a vital—not a subsidiary—part of our information-processing humanity, then robust, imaginative art (e.g. fictional writing, music, poetry) isn’t just a byproduct of too many years crammed inside a pair of skinny jeans. It’s divine. Imagination is a necessary tool—though often neglected—that we should wield in order to better understand, process, and synthesize truth.
God does not prioritize the left part of the brain. (I just Googled it. Left-brain is cognitive.) He wants us to honor Him with both sides. And truth is not limited to facts, information, or logic. Truth—and beauty—is tucked away in pockets of creation that are discovered by waking up that right side of your brain and taking hold of it. Grab it! Twist it! Imagine it! And you will not just learn truth, but feel and experience truth like never before.
My hat goes off to all you right brain, tatted and pierced, fair-trade coffee drinking, Radiohead listening, emotional, sometimes over emotional, multicolor haired people who wrestle with God’s world through art, music, film—and creative writing. Do it for the glory of Christ, and Christ, who was perfectly right and left brained, will be magnified.