By Jennifer Johnson
As a professor of Greek and New Testament at Milligan College in Tennessee, Lee Magness taught about the exegesis and theology of the parable of the prodigal son for decades. But a few years ago he taught a class on “Jesus and the Arts” with his wife, Patricia Magness, and began noticing the great works of art this parable has inspired through the years.
“It sparked an idea—to teach a course that approached the parable from both an exegetical and artistic perspective,” he says. “I also added in some work on the sociological background of the story and included artistic responses beyond the visual arts.”
Magness no longer teaches the course, but his work continues to instruct potential students through his website, prodigalsall.com. Here, visitors follow a structured 10-step encounter that leads them through the text, its biblical and cultural context, the spiritual application, and a variety of artistic representations. Or they can pick and choose the material they want to explore. In addition to a number of paintings, the site includes links to short fiction, music, film, dance, and other artistic expressions.
Although Magness has devoted his life to studying the Bible, preparing for the class taught him new things about this familiar story.
“Everything the father does in the parable is against cultural norms,” he says. “Splitting up the money between the two sons would have been horrifying to the audience of that day, and adult men in that culture did not run—it was considered shameful. So when Jesus said the father ran to greet the son, his audience would have been astonished.”
Magness says the experience also changed his interaction with art. Although he originally began by judging the artwork in light of the story, he found himself discovering details in the paintings and sculptures that forced him back to the story with fresh eyes.
“It’s not changing the Scripture or its meaning; it’s allowing the perspectives of others to give you a new perspective,” he says. “I continue to be amazed at the impact of this parable on people of all backgrounds, cultures, ages, and times. Some of the greatest choreographers, painters, operatic composers, and writers have been drawn to this parable like a magnet. It speaks to the power of Jesus’ teaching.”