The Arts as a Lens for Understanding Spiritual Issues in Chronic Illness and Disability


  • Describe a successful classroom teaching tactic that could be replicated by other instructors.

The context:“Spiritual Issues in Chronic Illness and Disability” is a ministry class taught in a one week intensive format. Each day there is a one hour session that explores how issues of chronic illness and disability are portrayed in music, literature, poetry, art, or movies.

The pedagogical purpose: Through the arts, chronic illness and disability can be seen from the viewpoint of one who is ill or disabled as well as from the perspective of those who are temporarily able-bodied. The imagination and the senses are engaged through the arts in a way that enhances didactic presentation and classroom discussion. As well, this strategy provides a varied learning experience to help keep students engaged during an eight hour class day.

Description of the strategy: We experience the artistic piece, discuss what it communicates about the lived experience of chronic illness or disability, reflect theologically on it, and consider its implications for ministry. Local artists, when available, present their art, writing, or music, offer personal reflections on the meaning of their work, and respond to questions. In the case of lengthy works such as movies or books, selections are chosen as an exemplar. The students also draw upon lectures and readings to consider spiritual implications and ministry applications. Selections for the week are chosen to represent a variety of different genres and disability issues.

Artistic works used in the classroom include: the painting of Tim Lowly,; the music of Rebecca Vreeman Hoden, Wait & Hope Songs of Pain, Grief & Healing,; the writing of Flannery O’Connor in The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor; Living with Polio by David Wilson, as an example of pathography; the poetry of Karen Fiser in Words Like Fate & Pain; and the movies The Butterfly and the Diving Bell, Mr. Holland's Opus, and Passion Fish. Nancy Mairs essay “On Being a Cripple,” has been used as a dramatic reading. For additional resources, a list of films with disability themes is available online at and see where VSA Arts showcases the work of artists with disabilities.

Why it is effective: Using the arts as a pedagogical tool is effective because it allows for differences in learning styles and demonstrates the power of artistic work to communicate experience and perspectives. When the artist as well as their art has been in the classroom, theological reflection has been first hand. Using the arts as a teaching tool also demonstrates a model that can be integrated into ministry.