Teaching the Bible

Teaching a course for the first time is always exciting. It’s rather akin to buying school supplies: clean paper, unopened packs of pens – red of course, “bouquets of newly-sharpened pencils” (bonus points if you recognize the movie quotation), and my personal favorite – Post-it notes. So many possibilities…and everything lives up to its potential.

At the moment, I am putting the final touches on planning my Bible as Literature course for this Fall. There are many reasons I am looking forward to it. For one, I know many of the students as I have had them in previous classes. Several took my Structure and Nature of Language (AKA History of the English Language), which quite possibly was comprised of the most perfect collection of personalities to have in a classroom. Yes, they spoiled me. And, yes, I would be okay if it happens again.

Also, as has been established before, I’m a nerd, and I love the process of building a course from scratch. With this one, there are several challenges. What texts to use? I have gone with the Oxford Study Bible, which has a nice collection of short, manageable essays, and Rober Alter and Frank Kermode’s The Literary Guide to the Bible (LGB). The latter is the text I was taught in college. I loved it then and found it very accessible. It is logically laid out, with sections devoted to each book. I have been going back and forth – and been seeking advice – in order to decide whether to use the LGB essays as the introductions to each Biblical book or to schedule them after the primary readings. I am still waffling on that one.

What material to cover? As a medievalist, the beginning is always self-evident. Context. The first couple of weeks are devoted to historical and cultural background – geography, timelines, Hebrew culture, Greco-Roman history, English translations. After that, it’s “how to read” the Bible, its literary structure and forms, the concept of the canon. THEN, we will get into the Old Testament. Here’s the fun part. What books to choose? So much to read, so little time. Books jumping up and down crying, “Pick me! Pick me! I’m important!” And there’s the “problem” with a book like the Bible. Everything is important, significant, in its own right or it wouldn’t have survived the test of time, translation, interpretation, and religion. In the end, I have chosen: Genesis, Exodus, Job, Psalms, and Song of Songs. And the New Testament: Matthew, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. I had to call in a colleague to validate my choices on these latter three. My rationale – no, I didn’t throw darts as I considered one evening as I was wrestling with the decision – is that they represent different genres of writing as well as key elements of the text and the Christian religion.

What assignments to give? So far, I have gone with my standard for a new course: two essays, two exams, quizzes, and their wiki. I think I will be adding to these basics, however, although I am not sure if they will be “formal” assignments or if I will add “activities.” My students here do better the more interactive the classroom is. The next phase of decision-making is designing these assignments or activities – which is where I personally am like a kid in a candy store (and this is where you ask yourself how many more metaphors and clichés can I possibly include in this post?). It’s one of the creative aspects of being a teacher, and, as I have said before, at this point they all work. The frustration and disappointment – I’ll be positive, or
triumph – come later with the implementation.

These questions are the nuts and bolts of a course. With Bible as Literature in particular, there are other more philosophical issues to address. For instance, the “as Literature” part. To be honest, the Bible is a minefield depending on the preconceptions, misconceptions, and belief systems of the students. The usual advice: demand they take faith out of the equation, that they look at it only as literature, as a text like any other. In theory, this is logical. In practice? This may be asking the impossible. Also, I am not sure I want the students to take faith out of the discussion. Part of studying literature is to consider context, including audience and reader expectations. Perhaps then it is best to ask for objectivity, to encourage stepping back and evaluating the big picture. I am considering opening up the discussion on the first day by examining photos of cathedrals – thinking about the differences between attending church and studying the building’s art and architecture. As an alternative, we have some beautiful churches here in Fitchburg – photos of those would give it local relevance.

As always, suggestions and advice are welcome. For those who read the Bible as a personal holy work, I would be interested in hearing what you would expect or want from a course such as this or what you (dis)liked about a comparable course you have taken.



Filed under Teaching

6 responses to “Teaching the Bible

  1. One thing you might want to think about for dealing with the issues of faith is asking students to explore the different topics from different audience positions. I’ve found it helpful to ask students to write three-part analyses at the beginning of the semester (or have discrete parts of the discussion, rather than written activities): one analysis from the point of view of someone who is suspicious of the text as a religious document (usually I say specifically an atheist/agnostic), one from the point of view of someone who believes that the text is divinely inspired and inerrant, and one from the point of view of someone who is religious and values the text as a guide but doesn’t think the text is infallible. I find this really helpful for getting students to be more objective about the text, because you’re not asking them to give up their faith position, or lack thereof, but to see the text from other people’s perspectives. Also, as someone who is religious but doesn’t always appear so to students, I find this exercise helps me avoid accusations from religious students that I’m prejudiced against them.

  2. jpsexton

    I haven’t taught the Bible as Lit course at Bridgewater yet, but I’m looking forward to it–and this post is essentially why. I’ve thought about which books I’d include (I love that you’re including Song of Songs, by the way!), and whether I’d add in some of the more historically popular apocrypha (Nicodemus would be particularly hard to resist, I imagine). I’d probably use Matthew as well, but I might pair it with John as a way of setting off the Synoptic tradition and introducing questions of textual transmission.

    Keep us up to date on how this goes!

  3. Kisha –

    I TA-ed for the Bible as Lit for 3 semesters, so I have a little experience with it, but I didn’t design the course. (Each TA got to lecture for a week, to a class of 175 students). I am particularly drawn to your question of “what to do with their faith” because you have honed in on precisely the problem: on the one hand, keeping the course “as literature” places everyone (in theory) on common ground from which to examine the text; this is the approach the courses I TA-ed for took. But on the other hand, that doesn’t seem to actually happen, and perhaps it shouldn’t. In the 2008 edition of Profession, Peter Kerry Powers talks about religion in the classroom, and you might be interested in his article. I particularly like his conclusion: “Ultimately, an implicit censorship of religion in the classroom is intellectually indefensible and pedagogically ineffective. It is intellectually indefensible because it prepares students for a world that nowhere exists: a world in which religion is absent. It is pedagogically ineffective because it both inhibits our efforts to educate religious students and feeds the attitude of fundamentalists that they are an embattled minority.” Let me know what you think, and I second John–keep us posted on the class!

  4. Pingback: A Semester Rundown | MASSachusetts State Universities MEDIEVAL Blog

  5. Thanks for your mentioning my article, Cameron. I appreciate it and am glad you found it useful. I think my own sense is that we either think that students bring to the table from their own experience–including their religious experience–a valuable and inevitable starting point, or we think they should abstract away from that to a pure engagement with the text. Not believing the latter is possible, I think we are stuck with the former. But I tend to think these starting points are only points to be respected and honored, just as we would respect and honor student experiences of other aspects of culture. We can surely have them think more critically about those cultures and experiences.

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