I first performed this exercise with high school students at a Baptist church. While the lesson plan worked well with high school students, it would also work well with adults of any age. I am fairly certain of its utility with adults, but I am not confident it would work with younger children than high school without heavy modification. The overview and purpose have a lot of “seminarian” language that is not present (and shouldn’t be) in the lesson itself. The overview and purpose section is for the leader only. Feel free to adapt the language and questions as you see fit and use the method with different passages of Scripture, too. You may use this freely in your congregation, but certainly don’t republish/repost without permission.
Overview and Purpose
This exercise aims to encourage deeper engagement with the biblical text by contemplating the interpersonal dynamics of the passage in question. Similarly, the exercise also seeks to develop a general discipline: being able to see from the perspectives of others. (Given the developmental stages of high schools students, such an interpersonal exercise makes sense for their age group, but this is a valuable practice for older groups, as well.) The exercise aims to help them not just be themselves seeing others, but also to see others seeing them.
From a textual standpoint, the discipline outlined in this lesson plan seeks to emphasize the types of readings popularized by feminist and womanist scholars. In Sisters in the Wilderness, Delores Williams outlined a process of “identification-ascertainment” for reading the biblical texts (specifically those texts that Phyllis Tribble and others have named “texts of terror”). Williams’ process involves the reading of a biblical story, conscious contemplation of who the different readers/hearers identify with in the text, and interrogation of that identification.
Generally, the structure here will proceed as follows: (1) reading a biblical text for the identification of characters, (2) discussion of what characters are present, how those characters are present and to what extent, and which characters readers/hearers identify with and why, (3) re-reading of the text with readers assigned to think as a given character in the story, (4) final reflections on how their characters perceived the situation and what their characters can tell us about God/Jesus.
1) Encourage students to see situations from the perspectives of others, particularly marginalized peoples in their lives.
2) Foster a reading of the biblical text that looks for characters who do not have as prominent (or any) voices in the story.
3) Help students to hear God’s voice in unexpected or unanticipated places.
Materials and Supplies
Bibles, Board for Writing
One adult leader who understands and empathizes with the process, understanding its importance.
10 minutes: Initial Instructions and First Reading of the Text
15 minutes: Reflection on Characters/People in the Text (Identification-Ascertainment)
10 minutes: Assign Characters and Second Reading of the Text
20 minutes: Reflections on Characters’ Perceptions of the Scene and Contributions to its Message
15 minutes of buffer time for the hour (useful either at the beginning for stragglers or at the end if reflection goes longer)
General Instructions for the Leader
This lesson plan does have specific theological inferences drawn from the text in question (that is, it is exegetical), but it is primarily about method. Therefore, the practice can be employed with other biblical texts than the one specified here. When choosing a biblical text for this practice, consider choosing ones with a wider array of characters (especially unnamed or unlikeable characters) and that lend themselves to a broad range of interpretation.
Step 1: Read the Story
LEADER: We’re going to practice a different discipline in reading the Bible today. I know you are all familiar with Lectio Divina [if they’re not, it doesn’t matter; just adjust the introduction], and this comes from a similar place – it helps you pay attention when you read – but it’s different. Names don’t really matter, but we can call it Listening for Different Voices or just Listening. When we’re listening today, we’re going to be listening for what different characters in the story are saying or experiencing, especially characters that don’t normally get listened to. You can do this on your own perfectly well, but we’re going to practice as a group because it’s always good to read the Bible in a group. So, we’re going to read the story a few times, and the first time when I read it here, I want you to be listening for two things.
(1) Who are the characters in this scene? It doesn’t matter if they are named or unnamed, minor or major. I want to know all the characters you think are in this story. The Bible might call them something or it might just mention that the story takes place in their house. Use your imagination – all the characters you can think of are important.
(2) Which character or characters do you identify with the most? Which strikes a chord with you? Who stands out as being particularly relevant to you? You can say Jesus, but you better have a good reason.
LEADER [reads]: Luke 7:36-50, NRSV
Step 2: Reflect
LEADER: Who were the characters in this story?
Jesus, Simon the Pharisee, the unnamed woman, the parables, the people at the table, the disciples (?)
Who did you identify with in the story? Why?
(Follow ups: What did you think about this character? Why do you think s/he responded this way? What do you make of his/her question?)
LEADER: OK, now I’m going to assign each of you a character. [Do so.] I’m going to read the passage again and I want you to think as your character. What are they experiencing? How do they perceive the situation? What can they teach us about this situation? What did they learn about God?
Step 3: Read the Story
Read it again.
Step 4: Reflection on Text
LEADER: What did you characters see? How did they experience this scene? What were they thinking and learning?
Follow up questions:
How did Simon feel about being treated by Jesus this way? Did he still think he was right at the end?
The woman never says a word. What do you think she was thinking? What do you think her relationship with Jesus was? How did she come to be here? Why was she here? Where did she go?
Who were the people at the table? What were they doing there? What do you imagine they were thinking about Jesus at this point?
What did everyone learn about Jesus? Did they learn the same things? Did everyone see this situation the same? Who was right and who was wrong? Why?
Step 5: Reflection on Life
How do you think this sort of Bible reading applies to your life? Is this just a useful skill when talking about the Bible? How can we read our life situations the same way? Where is Jesus in those situations? How can we better respond to people by seeing how they see?