Using Literature in Theology Classes
About this article
One way of making theology classes interesting and challenging is by using good literature. This article suggests specific books and ideas that can provide a richer and deeper appreciation of the content taught in various theology classes. Ideas are given for church history, morality, spirituality, and Christology courses.
Editor's note: The author of our feature article, Kathleen Hodapp, was one of the participants in last summer's workshop "The Catholic High School As Faith Community," held here in Winona, Minnesota, as well as on the East Coast and the West Coast. Kathleen came prepared with materials to share about some of her teaching methods in theology or religion classes. This article, along with the "from the classroom" piece on page 6, is adapted from the information sheets she shared.
Along with a full schedule of theology classes, I have the privilege of teaching advanced English to ninth graders. It became apparent to me as I taught the course that good literature can have great applicability to subjects in theology. Since then, I have found that using literature in my theology classes makes for challenging and interesting courses. The following are some uses I have made of good literature.
Getting Started with an Anthology
For a couple of years I used the text Stories of God: An Anthology of Literature for Catholic Schools (edited by Michel Bettigole, OSF, et al., published by Brown-ROA). It's a collection of classic and contemporary short stories, dramas, biographies, narratives, and poetry that seeks to make readers aware of their Catholic literary heritage. It is a good place to start if you have never before tried to use literature in your classroom. The themes of the book's units are presence, sin, grace, witnesses, and the God of all peoples. These fine literary pieces can shed light on any number of theology course topics.
The Joshua Novels
The Joshua novels, by Joseph F. Girzone, are easy reads, and most students find them thought provoking. I have used the original Joshua (Macmillan, 1987) in a church history course and in a Scriptures course. It is most advantageous to have students read the novel at the point in the church history course when we are studying the Middle Ages. Students are fascinated by the connections between Saint Francis of Assisi and the novel's main character, Joshua, and his beliefs about the institutional church. For a Scriptures or Christology course, the obvious parallels between Jesus and Joshua allow a fresh reading of the Gospels in light of the novel.
I have used Joshua and the Children: A Parable (Macmillan, 1989) in both a morality and a spirituality course. The book does not name a locale, but the setting has striking similarities to Northern Ireland. As a class, we discussed the concepts of hate being taught to the children in the novel, and the need for conversion.
The Drowning of Stephan Jones
In my morality course, I use the young-adult novel The Drowning of Stephan Jones, by Bette Greene (Bantam Books, 1991). In it a teenage girl has a crush on a boy who participates in harassing and killing a gay man in their small town. I focus class discussion on decision making and the sin of apathy in the characters. It is a fascinating novel, a motivating impetus for discussion. You should be forewarned that it has some crude language, and some passages are difficult to read because of the cruelty of those who are taking the Bible literally and going too far. I have had parents read it with their sons or daughters and have found much success with it.
If I Should Die Before I Wake
Conversion is a unit theme in my spirituality course. I have used the novel The Chosen, by Chaim Potok (Simon and Schuster, 1967), and it has worked reasonably well. For the all-girls school context in which I teach, however, I prefer a high-interest young-adult novel by Han Nolan, If I Should Die Before I Wake (Harcourt Brace, 1996). Set in contemporary time, it is about a girl who is part of a neo-Nazi organization. After an accident, while in a coma in the hospital, she somehow lives the life of a young Jewish girl in Poland during the Holocaust. The novel blends scriptural passages (particularly from Jeremiah) with a beautiful call to conversion and witness. I have had nothing but rave reviews for this novel from students.
Other Literature on the Holocaust
I teach the Holocaust as part of my morality course. Class discussion concentrates on the moral dimension more than on the historical aspects, as we focus on who should be held responsible, apathy, a consistent life ethic, and so on. For this purpose I use the classic Night, by Elie Wiesel, which gives the account of his own experiences as a Jew during the Holocaust. We also discuss the questioning of faith in the book.
Editor's note: Another teacher, Pam Reidy, of Notre Dame Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts, also uses literature about the Holocaust in her morality course. To explore the dimensions of moral character, habits, virtues, and vices, she has her students read Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi (Simon and Schuster, 1997), a mature novel set in Germany during the two world wars. As Pam says, the protagonist, Trudi Montag, is a great choice as a character study because she is a dwarf and her sense of being different is something to which teens immediately relate. She also acts as a symbol for Germany in its struggle and response to evil.
In addtion, Pam uses Schindler's List (either the book, by Thomas Keneally, Simon and Schuster, 1982, or the movie, available at video stores) to teach about the nature of sinful social structures. Other books on the Holocaust that Pam suggests for teaching morality are The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal (Schocken Books, 1976) and Cries in the Night: Women Who Challenged the Holocaust, by Michael Phayer (Sheed and Ward, 1997).
Toning the Sweep
I have taught a unit with the sophomore English teacher, which centered on the paschal mystery and the circle of life. The young-adult novel Toning the Sweep, by Angela Johnson, is a beautiful story that illustrates the theme well. In it, an African American teenage girl and her mother help her grandmother move to their home during the older woman's terminal illness. Along the way the girl learns about grieving and mourning, healing and hoping, and letting go. The novel ties in well with the passages about Jesus and the Apostles at the end of the Gospels, when he is soon to leave them. In that unit, we also use the movies Terms of Endearment and Evening Star.
Poetry, Essays, and Sermons
Poetry and essays by many of the world's great authors abound in potential applications to theology. There are great possibilities in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Greenleaf Whittier, Francis Thompson, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, John Donne, Denise Levertov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and others. Encourage your students to make connections between the works of these writers and what they are studying in theology class.
In the Images of God unit of my spirituality course, I have students rewrite Jonathan Edwards's sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" to correspond with their own images of God. Beautiful essays come from the students: "Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God," "a Forgiving God," "a Just God," "a Wonderful God."
I often use articles about contemporary issues in Christianity from popular magazines such as Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and Life to start discussions. I have incorporated many of these articles into my units in various classes, for instance, on prayer, Mary, the Resurrection of Jesus, the birth of Jesus, and the Bible. These articles can be challenging for students, but they also give them the opportunity to see other views and learn of the Catholic church's position on a given issue, which is explained--often quite accurately--by the journalists.
Kathleen Hodappis the chair of the religion department at Mercy Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, where she teaches morality, the Scriptures, spirituality, and advanced English.
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Published January 1, 1999.