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Published Date: July 20, 2023

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From Prostitutes to Priests: How We Imagine Women Matters

Imagination has the power to change hearts and minds. While facts may impact our thinking, true stories that demonstrate facts can grip our hearts. We knew thousands were fleeing Syria in 2015, but we were motivated to act by the image of a young boy face down on the beach. Truth revealed in a story can shift our focus and set a new direction.

Abolitionists advocated against slavery with logic and reason, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin told a relatable story that further moved people to lobby for change. Similarly, my biblical fiction shows how women cope with trauma from authoritarian parents, religious dogma, abuse, and racism. Reading about these relatable themes may move people to see the harm of hierarchal power and lobby for change. Biblical or historical fiction has more impact when framed by the factual accounts of the gospels. Imagining yourself in God’s story allows readers to experience healing and hope.

Does Imagining Yourself in a Bible Story Matter?

The 16th-century founder of the Jesuit Order, Ignatius of Loyola, encouraged praying with the imagination as a form of contemplation. Visualizing biblical events can help us understand and remember God’s message.[1] Dreaming means taking time to listen to God and see possibilities.

the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. – T. E. Lawrence[2]

To pray with the imagination, picture yourself in a biblical story after reading it. Who is there? What are they doing? What are their relationships? How might they feel? What are the sounds and smells? Exploring a scene in our minds engages new ideas and emotions and lets us experience God with us. Taking different roles in the story stimulates critical thinking and reveals new applications.[3] If you relate to the rebellious son in the Luke 15 parable of the lost son, you experience forgiveness. However, if you think of yourself as the faithful son, you learn the father loves without favouritism, without your own merit, and without judgement. If you roleplay the woman caught in adultery in John 8, you experience grace. However, if you roleplay the righteous legalists, you learn that your sins are as grave as hers, and you cannot judge or punish her.  

Does Gender Representation in Biblical Art Matter?

Art portrays specific individuals in Bible stories and can either include or erase women. When my daughters were small, I wanted them to see girls and women in the Bible. In their children’s picture book, I coloured over the picture of three men on the way to Emmaus, changing one of them to Clopas’s wife. A woman on the road is plausible and does not conflict with the biblical narrative.

During the Renaissance, the church often commissioned artists and thus controlled the portrayal of biblical scenes to an illiterate population. The church approved The Last Supper, completed by Leonardo da Vinci in 1498, which imagines only men were present and lends weight to the idea that only men may be ordained. The church condemned a painting of the last supper by Paolo Veronese in 1573, which showed women and men. This was one of the reasons why the church accused him of heresy, a capital sin.[4] Veronese was only acquitted when he showed remorse and renamed the painting.[5] However, Holy Communion involves both women and men taking the roles of the disciples at the Last Supper, and the New Testament account does not exclude women on that occasion.[6] In another example of women’s erasure, Dr. Ally Kateusz explains how ancient art and manuscripts widely portrayed Jesus’s mother, Mary, as a priest, bishop, and officiant of Holy Communion. Later, the church hid or destroyed these and approved new works showing Mary as meek and submissive. Kateusz also shows how manuscripts redacted women’s names and evidence of liturgical authority.[7]

Paintings and sculptures also inform our theology. An artist can portray Eve in the Garden of Eden as a partner with the Serpent in tempting man or as a victim of the Serpent’s attack. Art can either condemn or commend women. It can condemn the Samaritan woman as an adulterer or praise her for her theological knowledge and long conversation with Jesus. In Tell Her Story, Dr. Nijay Gupta contrasts cinematic portrayals of Mary of Magdala as a repentant harlot to the New Testament portrayal of her as an apostle to the apostles. “Her real story, as the Gospels testify, is spiritual, not sexual.”[8] Gender representation in biblical art means including women and commending them when the Bible does, instead of erasing or slandering them.  

Does Ethnic Representation in Biblical Art Matter?

When we visited a Polynesian island, the billboards showed Jesus as white, giving the idea that Christianity is a white person’s religion. Art that portrays women and biracial people reminds us that we all have a place in God’s story.

For example, Diego Velazquez portrays a kitchen maid at Emmaus as a Moor, the European name for a Muslim from North Africa.[9] The painting, shown above, reminds us that Jesus revealed himself to Jews and foreigners, citizens and slaves, women and men.[10] He completed this painting in Spain in 1618, while the church tortured Moors and Jews for heresy during the Spanish Inquisition, and the state carried out imprisonment or execution.[11]

In Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, I show Jesus adopting women and people of mixed ethnicities into the family of faith. The biblical accounts include diverse groups, but if our art ignores them, it reduces our understanding of God’s inclusiveness.

Can Drama Tell Bible Stories?

While visual arts expand the meaning of Bible stories, drama multiplies it. Francis of Assisi, the 12th-century founder of the Franciscan Order, encouraged using the imagination in prayer.[12] Helping worshippers imagine the birth of Jesus with all their five senses was why he set up the first known nativity scene.[13] Our Christmas pageants place us in the story with Mary and Joseph. Similarly, we dramatize Jesus’s final week with our passion plays or simply in waving branches on Palm Sunday. We take the role of the women on that first Easter when we say, “He is risen!”   

Movies and TV series that portray Bible stories also help us empathize with the characters, their emotions and motivations. The Chosen TV series portrays Matthew’s struggles as an outcast among Jewish disciples and even his parents because he collects taxes for the Romans. We relate to Matthew in our own inner conflict between being accepted or following our calling. Drama affects our emotions and can amplify the impact of theological scholarship. Bible stories can become more powerful when we experience them through visual arts, drama, and fiction.

Can Fiction Tell Bible Stories?

Imaginative contemplation is well-suited to making the gospel stories meaningful.[14] A biblical novel (or historical fiction) weaves plausible stories, plot, and character development around biblical and historical facts. To show that Jesus modeled practices unrestricted by gender, I selected gospel stories where it was credible that women were present, then studied and dreamed about them. I imagined these women’s lives, their goals, and challenges, and how it might feel to be a female disciple. While Jesus is often the subject of visual art, many fiction writers avoid having him as a character in their stories. However, since I wanted Forgotten Followers to show how Jesus empowered women, I needed to show Jesus interacting with them. My next novel will show how Paul commended and partnered with women like Phoebe, Priscilla, and Junia. The church will flourish when it imagines women and men working together as mutual partners. 

Our God Is a God Who Sees Us

Art, drama, and fiction put us in God’s story, moving us from theory to relationships and dialogue. We can picture ourselves as Hagar, saying, “You are the God who Sees Me” (Genesis 16:13). We can hear God tell us, “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name” (Isaiah 43:1). God notices and frees both women and men, calling them individually. As a child, when I saw my mother speaking and leading, I could imagine myself doing the same. My daughters, in turn, saw me as a professional advisor and seminar speaker. When art portrays diversity by gender and ethnicity in Bible stories, it is easier to visualize diverse representation in business, politics, and ministry.

The arts use the power of imagination to free us from gender restrictions, to see as God sees, listen as God listens, and love as God loves. Fiction representing women in the Bible helps us imagine women and men mutually working together. It can allow us to see the woman disciples of Jesus and how Jesus reached out, healed, and empowered women. It can change our perspectives and our relationships, building mutual respect.  The arts allow us to imagine change, and once we have imagined it, we may act on our dreams with open eyes to make it possible.

Photo by oatawa on Shutterstock.


[1] Baab, Lynne, “Listening to God in Prayer: Imagining yourself in a Bible Story,” Lynne Baab Resources for Personal Spirituality and for Congregational Leaders, January 25, 2018, https://www.lynnebaab.com/blog/listening-to-god-in-prayer-imaging-yours.

[2] “T. E. Lawrence Quotes,” Goodreads, accessed July 17, 2023, https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/11340-all-men-dream-but-not-equally-those-who-dream-by.

[3] Tinajero, Ernesto, “Reading Yourself into the Bible,” FāVS News, May 1, 2016, https://spokanefavs.com/reading-yourself-into-the-bible/.

[4] “Feast in the House of Levi,” Art and the Bible, accessed July 17, 2023, https://www.artbible.info/art/large/51.html.

[5] Kelly, Elaine, “Were Women at the Last Supper?” Elaine Kelly Author, April 2, 2022, https://www.elainekelly.ca/post/were-women-at-the-last-supper.

[6] Mvenner, “Who attended the Last Supper?” Catholic Network, September 3, 2018, https://catholicnetwork.us/2018/09/03/who-attended-the-last-supper/.

[7] Kateusz, Ally, Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Licensed under Creative Commons Open Access:https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-11111-3

[8] Gupta, Nijay, Tell Her Story: How Women Led, Taught, and Ministered in the Early Church (IVP Academic, 2023), 153.

[9] Kelly, Elaine, “Step into Scripture: Do You Imagine Yourself in Bible Stories?” Elaine Kelly Author, July 17, 2023, https://www.elainekelly.ca/post/do-you-put-yourself-into-bible-stories.

[10] Clendenin, Daniel B., “The Kitchen Maid of Emmaus: Three Paintings and a Poem,” Journey with Jesus, https://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20140428JJ.shtml.

[11] “Spanish Inquisition Key Facts,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed July 17, 2023,https://www.britannica.com/summary/Spanish-Inquisition-Key-Facts.

[12] “How Do We Pray with Our Imagination?” Creighton University, accessed July 17, 2023, https://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/Imagination/Intro.html.

[13] Filz, Gretchen, “The Story of S. Francis of Assisi and the First Nativity Scene, as told by St. Bonaventure,” The Catholic Company, December 20, 2016, https://www.catholiccompany.com/magazine/story-francis-assisi-first-navity-scene-5955.

[14] O’Brien, Kevin SJ, “Ignatian Contemplation: Imaginative Prayer, Ignatian Spirituality, accessed July 17, 2023, https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/ignatian-contemplation-imaginative-prayer/.

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