Using Imaginative Retellings in Teaching the Bible

About this article

Making the Scriptures come alive for our students is always a challenge! This method of imaginative retellings is a creative way for students to appreciate the relevance of the Scriptures in their lives. Tom Gorsuch gives the rationale for using such retellings in the classroom, and then proceeds to tell how to do them. Specific directions and ideas, such as a news conference, trial simulation, and investigating committee, are included in this article for helping students use a first-person point of view for various stories. Suggestions for further reading are included at the conclusion of the article.

Biblical stories have been imaginatively retold over and over again for centuries. A particular type of retelling, in which students assume the role of a biblical character then retell the story using a first-person point of view, has proven effective in my secondary Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Testament classes.

Why Use Imaginative Retellings?

The first question often asked about imaginative retellings is, "Why should I use them?" There are several good answers:

  • First, imaginative retellings give students a new perspective from which to view a biblical story. The students become participants in the story rather than just observers. As participants, students own the story in ways that they cannot as long as they remain impersonal onlookers.
  • Second, imaginative retellings encourage students to identify with the characters' experience of God's presence or action. Thus, students begin to see the characters in the Bible as being similar to themselves. As they make this connection between past and present, they are able to discern that God is as active in the present as in the past.
  • Third, imaginative retellings let students integrate "scholarly" analysis of a biblical story with their own faith understanding and creative interpretation. Students learn to interpret using their own insights, which they test against biblical reference sources. As they imaginatively create a story, filling in the gaps in the biblical version, they also learn that imagination is a form of knowledge to be valued and a skill to be developed.

How to Do Imaginative Retellings

At the beginning of each semester, students are told that approximately every five classes they will be assigned an imaginative retelling based on the material covered in previous classes. I tell them that I may, at times, assign specific characters, while on other occasions they may be given a choice of several characters on which to base their stories. I assure them that because retellings take some time to write, the due date is usually several days after the assignment is given. We also discuss sources of help available to the students, paying particular attention to appropriate use of secondary sources such as commentaries, Bible dictionaries, and other reference materials.

After these preliminary explanations, students are given examples of "appropriate" retellings. They are also given a procedure to follow in writing their retellings. The steps in this procedure include the following:

  1. Read the story all the way through and think about what it means to you right now.
  • Spend some time noting your thoughts and feelings about the story and your character's place in it. Jot them down.
  • What is there about the story that you don't understand?
  1. Consult appropriate secondary sources for answers to your questions and for further insight into the story. Keep track of which sources you use, and hand in a list of all of them with your retelling.
  2. Combine the results of your research with your own imagination to write your story from a first-person point of view.
  • Include your thoughts and feelings as if you are your character in this particular situation. How would you feel if this experience were happening to you?
  • Fill in the gaps in the Bible story by adding details that you wish were in the narrative. Some of these might include descriptions of characters and places, motives for actions, emotions present, or any other things you think would make it easier for others to understand the story.
  1. Before presenting your retelling to the class, you will be asked to write a short reflection on what you have learned about the original story through doing your retelling. Your written reflection will include answers to questions like these:
  • Why did you choose your particular character or situation?
  • Why did you write the retelling as you did?
  • Why did you choose the particular retelling technique you used?

Class Presentations of Retellings

After the students are done writing their reflections, which usually takes five to ten minutes, they present their retellings to their peers. These presentations take a variety of forms, many of them as imaginative as the retellings themselves. I usually select students at random to read their papers to the class. After the presenter is done reading, I ask him or her to discuss some of the reflection questions. For example: Why did the student choose this story? What did the student learn? However, this is only one of many possibilities for sharing students' work. Four other possible formats are described below.

Whole-Class Discussion

In the class discussion format, individual students are randomly selected to read their papers, but the whole class participates in the discussion that follows. For example, one student in a Hebrew Scriptures class wrote a retelling of the Adam and Eve story in chapter 3 of Genesis. The student saw Eve as a victim who had been manipulated by the serpent. This sparked a heated debate with the class dividing itself along gender lines. The girls agreed that Eve was a victim who did not deserve all the blame, while the boys tried to blame Eve for the whole fall from Paradise. Though nothing was clearly decided in the debate, the students came away with a new perspective on the biblical story as well as with new insights into multiple interpretations of a text.

News Conference or Interview

In the news conference or interview format, several students are selected to role-play the characters of their retelling. These students are then questioned by the class as if they are in a news conference or a television or newspaper interview. Sometimes the questions are specifically directed at learning more about the lives of the characters and their motivations. At other times they relate to the event in which the character participated.

On one occasion, I had a news conference called to get further information about the relationships of Samuel, Saul, and David. The class questioned the students playing the roles about their parts in shaping the nation of Israel as well as about their individual relationships with God. After the news conference, the role-players and questioners all felt that they understood more about the motivations of Samuel, Saul, and David, as well as more about the role of God in these men's lives.

Senate Investigating Committee

In the senate investigating committee presentation, the teacher plays the role of committee chairperson and members of the class play senators from various states. The committee is assigned to conduct a hearing on an issue or event in the current set of retellings. The committee questions student characters based on their retellings. At the end of the class, the committee is asked to vote on the issue that is the subject of the hearing.

For example, in a Christian Testament class students are asked to write a retelling of the arrest and condemnation of Jesus. The characters are Judas, a Pharisee, the High Priest, and Pilate. The issue at hand is whether Judas betrayed Jesus and, if so, why. As senators, the class gathers information from the witnesses for about thirty minutes, a committee debates for ten minutes, then a vote is taken. In the several times that I have used this simulation with the retellings, the results have been different. Every class has come away with a different view of what Judas's role was and what really happened when Jesus was betrayed. The students see the biblical story with new eyes and learn not to take the text for granted.

Jesus' Trial Simulation

In a major activity of the course, the class simulates the trial of Jesus, who is tried in absentia for blasphemy. The purpose is to prove that Jesus is not guilty of blasphemy because he is, in fact, who he said he was the Son of God.

After several weeks of researching and preparing their parts, student "attorneys" on both sides present their briefs to the court, and witnesses called by each attorney to support his or her case submit profiles on themselves as characters from the Christian Testament. The remaining students serve as jurors; the teacher serves as the judge.

The trial itself lasts from four to eight class sessions. At its conclusion, the jurors are polled individually to get their verdicts and rationales, with a simple majority establishing the overall verdict. At the end of the trial, the jurors are asked to submit papers discussing the reasons for their individual verdicts. (Be prepared: it is possible for the prosecution to win, convicting Jesus.)

Student Responses

Typically, at the end of each semester I ask my students what they thought of the class. Almost all of them respond that the imaginative retellings help them understand the Bible better. The Bible is no longer a book about some obscure people with hard-to-pronounce names, or some fantastic tales about God, who does not act that way anymore. The students begin to identify with the people of the Bible. They learn that those people of long ago felt the same way as the students do today and that they had the same concerns, wants, and needs. The students also see similarities between their own relationships with God and those of the biblical writers and characters. Thus, the Bible becomes easier to understand and, hopefully, more meaningful for the students.

The most interesting response has been that the retellings have an effect on the students' lives. Some students say that because they have experienced the feelings of the characters in the Bible they have a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, the feelings of other people. Some students say that their relationship with God has been affected because they are now able to see a God who is active in the history of God's people, not a God who is distant and uncaring. Use of imaginative retellings can bring students and teachers alike to a new awareness of the creative power of the Bible and the present activity of the God whom the Bible reveals.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Borsch, Frederick H. Power in Weakness. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983.

Fischer, Kathleen R. The Inner Rainbow: The Imagination in Christian Life. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.

Smith, Shawn M. Strategies for Teaching the Hebrew Scriptures (a series of eight brief teaching manuals). Winona, Minnesota: Saint Mary's Press, 1990.

Wink, Walter. Transforming Bible Study. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980.


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Published October 1, 1991.