Course Description: “Religion in Global Context”

A little over a week ago, I shared my “Course Description” for my fall 2021 class “The Hebrew Scriptures”. Today, I want to share the one I wrote for “Religion in Global Context,” my other fall 2021 class:

“Religion in Global Context is an examination of how religious beliefs and practices function amongst a variety of cultures in different parts of the world. Students are taught methods of inquiry related to history, the philosophy of religion, and the social sciences as they explore not only how the word “religion” refers to a wide-variety of traditions but also how those traditions are internally diverse, dynamic, and embedded in culture. The aim is to develop “religious literacy” so that students can become familiar with and accustomed to the variety of religious expressions found in an international context. Similarly, this course functions to help create awareness of how religion continues to influence how the various peoples of the world understand and interpret their origins, identities, morals, ethics, politics, and other matters related to being a global citizen on an increasingly interconnected planet.”

The “Key Idea” for “The Hebrew Scriptures”

A couple of days ago, I shared my current “course description” for my fall 2021 class, “The Hebrew Scriptures”. Another addition to the syllabus is the “Key Idea” or what I’ve called “The Enduring Understanding” in past versions. In short, it’s the one thing I hope my students can articulate and upon which they could expound, to some degree, if I ran into them in ten or twenty years. Here’s my current draft.

This matches the three ways I invite my students to read these texts: as historians; a literary critics; as philosophers. I don’t limit them to these approaches though I do hope that they’ll push my students to engage the Bible in a new way—a way that’s different from the liturgical usage with which they’re probably familiar.

Course Description: “The Hebrew Scriptures”

If things remain the same, this fall semester I’ll teach two blocks of The Hebrew Scriptures and three of Religion in Global Context. I’ve begun doing a little bit of prep work (don’t worry, I’m taking my summer break seriously by getting lots of rest and working on other writing projects) which includes putting together my syllabi. Each syllabus for each class includes a “course description”. Each year, I rework the description as more experience helps me develop a more precise focus. For those who are interested, here is the current draft for The Hebrew Scriptures:

“The Hebrew Scriptures is an examination of the corpus of ancient literature known as the ‘Tanakh’ to Jews and the ‘Old Testament‘ to Christians. Students are taught methods of reading that are appropriate for an academic setting yet sensitive to the place of these collections within living communities. This means approaching these texts from the perspective taken by historians, literary critics, and philosophers—to name a few disciplines—while asking what these texts have meant and mean. The aim is to develop ‘biblical literacy’ so that students can become familiar with and accustomed to interpreting texts that have been influential on a global scale. Similarly, the course functions to put these ancient texts in dialogue with modern concerns (e.g. metaphysical claims; ethical and moral thinking; ethnic and religious identity; imperialism and empire-building; human sexuality).” 

Parenting, the Bible, and Faith-Transitions

My experience as a Religious Studies Instructor who teaches high schoolers, and conversations I’ve had with friends who are rethinking how they may or may not teach the Bible to their own children, led me to ponder whether some parts of the Bible are more appropriate for others depending on the age of a child. See “Rating the Bible”. Now I see Jared Byas of “The Bible for Normal People” fame has released a podcast episode titled “Parenting in a Faith Transition” with his wife, Sarah Byas, where they discuss this topic, so I thought I’d share but also document so that I remember it as I continue to think on this topic.

Rating the Bible

I teach the Bible in a high school setting. It’s a college preparatory school. It’s not a Sunday School. But it’s a high school, so even if I’m trying to give them a near-college experience, there are many ways that I have to teach that remain age-appropriate.

For example, if I show a film, some R-rated films are never going to be acceptable. Other R-rated films are acceptable with parent permission. PG-13 and below are fine.

So, what of the Bible then? There have been years where I’ve avoid the Song of Songs and years when I’ve taught it. When I’ve taught it, it was the equivalent to blurring out the sensitive parts in a picture. I tell them it’s about romance and sexuality. Like many translators of the Bible into English, I choose to soften the language. But is Song of Songs best left alone when teaching adolescents or left only to certain teachers—kind of like sex ed isn’t a topic taught by all teachers?

What about graphic violence? Children hear the story of the Great Flood (a.k.a. “Noah’s Flood”) at a very young age…but the Creator literally drowns almost all of humanity. This is worse than genocide. Do smiling giraffes on a boat really soften the narrative? Should children learn about that story at all?

Should there be a form of trigger warnings? I feel that it’s important to discussed King David’s abuse/rape of Bathsheba to understand the full depiction of the man in the Bible but that’s a tough topic to cover. On the other hand, I don’t want students becoming young adults and thinking the Bible is a squeaky clean book. I’ve heard too many young Christians dismiss the Quran because of content that’s in their own Holy Book but due to biblical illiteracy among the faithful their prejudice goes unchecked.

If the Bible were to receive film ratings for chapters, what rating would each chapter receive. gives basic explanations of how films are judged. Here’s a visual from their webpage:

If you go to pp. 6-7 of their “Classification and Ratings Rule” you’ll see how they determine what label to give and what content should be mentioned in the warning box.

If we were to rate Genesis 1, what rating would it receive? What about Revelation 12?

Common Sense Media has their own rating system for movies that helps parents decide based on criteria such as:

  1. “What age is the movie aimed at?”
  2. Quality
  3. Educational value
  4. Messages and role models
  5. Violence, sex, and language
  6. Consumerism
  7. Drinking, drugs, and smoking
  8. User reviews

Would “user reviews” be how people have experienced the Bible? I don’t jest here. For some, the Bible is extremely live-giving. For others, frankly, it’s been used to traumatize them and they’re best off if they spend some time away from a book that has been weaponized against them.

For kicks, it would be fun to rate the Bible using a rating system created by conservative Christians, such as movieguide. If I just gave you the plot of the Samson narrative, where would it rate using this scale?

Does a literary narration of Samson’s violence and sexual exploits differ from a visual presentation? Would you read a story from the Bible that you wouldn’t show if it were depicted as a movie, cartoon, anime, etc.? I find this line of inquiry to be pretty fascinating and I wonder how this relates to how publishers package the Bible for teens.

Recently read: Brown Taylor’s “Holy Envy”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, (Harper One, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others is a beautiful reflection from someone who has spent many years educating students in comparative religion while wrestling with implications of what she has learned from the process. As a Christian, Taylor admits that studying and teaching other religions can become a challenge to your confidence in your own tradition. She writes about how teaching a course on comparative religion has been enriching but also:

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 208

Yet Brown Taylor has decided that the answer is not to abandon her own tradition of Christianity. She comments:

In the first place, no one can speak all the religious languages in the world, and there is no spiritual Esperanto. None of us can speak “language.” We have to speak a language before we can learn anyone else’s, and the carefulness with which we speak our own can make us better listeners to others. In the second place, my religious language is quite excellent at speaking of what it means to be authentically human.

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 193.

Brown Taylor balances honest epistemology with authentic belief. On the one hand, there’s no need to try to create a brand new blend of religions. The blend creates something new—it doesn’t necessarily honor other religions. On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal to admit doubt about your own tradition. Christianity often has been a religion that demands triumphalism. Brown Taylor provides a path that allows the Christian to be Christian without posturing triumphalistically against other religions.

This is where the main theme of her book should be highlighted. Holy envy is a concept Brown Taylor derived from the great scholar of religion, Krister Stendahl, who had three rules for religious understanding (quoted here from p. 65):

  1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for holy envy.

Holy envy is when you learn to love and respect the traditions of other religions but in a way that doesn’t try to create a colonialist museum out of them (an analogy she uses on p. 70). You may go to another well when the well of your tradition seems dry (p. 5) but that’s not the same as collecting and objectifying the religious beliefs and practices of others.

Brown Taylor sees her role as a Christian educating others about the world’s various religions as her “Christian duty”. She says (p. 25), “I believe it is the neighborly thing to do, the Christlike thing to do.” But it’s also nourishing for the self. It’s a way to see things from a new perspective and learn new ways of speaking about the world and our humanity in it.

As an educator who teaches students comparative religion from as objective and fair a place as possible, but for someone who also identifies as Christian, I found great joy in reading this book. It’s worth your time if you’ve ever wondered how being a Christian should shape your approach to/posture toward religious others. It’s a book of wisdom written in humility that’s worth your time.

Recently read: Jennings “After Whiteness”

Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Willie James Jennings (Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University Divinity School) has written a challenging reflection on the current state of theological education and what many institutions value in how they train students. His main concern is with the formation of students: What does a graduate become? What values do they receive? For Jennings, most institutions are preparing their students to function in a world that values “whiteness” which he defines not as “people of European descent” but “to a way of being in the world and seeing the world that forms cognitive and affective structures able to seduce people into its habitation and its meaning making” (p. 9). This is exemplified by “White self-sufficient masculinity” that “is a way of organizing life with ideas and forming a persona that distorts identity and strangles the possibilities of dense life together” (pp. 8-9). If I’ve understood him correctly, education, and even theological education, aims to create the self-sufficient man (and yes, I think our culture’s visions of masculinity is key), the Lone Ranger-type.

One example he uses is the Paterfamilias of the colonial plantation who is the self-sufficient center around which everyone else circles (see pp. 78-83). The foundation of the type of education that has been passed along to us was designed first and foremost for that male heir; that mythological “great man”. Jennings describes it this way:

A vision of the self-sufficient man—one who is self-directed, never apologizing for his strength or ability or knowledge, one who recognizes his own power and uses it wisely, one bound in courage, moral vision, singularity of purpose and not given to extremes of desire or anger—is a compellingly attractive goal for education and moral formation.

p. 31

In contrast to this elite man, Jennings writes:

We have failed to see that this is the ground of theological education and of all education that aims at the good. It is the crowd—people who would not under normal circumstances ever want to be near each other, never ever touching flesh to flesh, never ever calling in unison upon the name of Jesus, never ever listening together to anything except Roman edict or centurion shouting command, now listening to the words of Jesus. Yet the crowd is not Christian, nor is the crowd exclusively Jewish. The crowd is not a temporary condition on the way to something else. The crowd is the beginning of a joining that was intended to do deep pedagogical work.

p. 13

I don’t teach in a theological institution (though my school is supported by The Episcopal Church). Also, the book reads like you’ve sat down to have a chat with Jennings. He shares stories and poetry that weaves through his insights. It’s the type of book I’d never “review” because while its true that all acts of reading are subjective experiences, this one is subjective in the way a conversation is subjective. If each reader sat down and talked to Jennings about this same series of topics it would be a different experience depending on your identity and affiliations.

I don’t think you have to teach in a theological institution to learn from this book. Some of his insights on institutions in general were all too relevant, real, and challenging for me and I teach a very demographic than the one Jennings teaches. But if you’ve wondered about the model of education that’s primarily about the individual and not the community—the one that aims to set you up for success rather than bringing us together—then you’ll benefit no matter what age or topic you teach.

The philosophy and motivation behind my comparative religion and biblical studies curricula (and where I hope to take it)

Last year I began revamping my comparative religion curriculum. I wanted to move away from the “World Religion” model that focuses on knowing a lot about the most well-known religions. I wanted to move toward a philosophy of religion model where I push my students to think critically about the concept of “religion” itself (we titled it “Religion in Global Context”). I chose to spend a lot of time on the various ways scholars have defined religion. Then I sampled Hinduism as a religion from India, Judaism as a religion from the Middle East (or west Asia), and Confucianism as a religion from east Asia. The goal was to highlight three -isms categorized by many as “religions” while helping my students see (1) that these -isms are hardly unified and coherent (i.e. we might be better off speaking of Hinduisms, Judaisms, and Confucianisms) and (2) that what counts as “religion” is hardly a monolith. Additional readings and activities gave brief introductions to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Daoism, and even Pastafarianism and Dudeism.

My goal with this class is to problematize the category of religion so that they can see how use of the word has socio-political consequences (like denouncing a group as a “cult”) while also introducing them to the diversity of our global community. While our student body is majority Christian, we have Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Nones, etc., who attend. As Simran Jeet Singh has written recently, “Teaching about religion is not just about understanding politics. It’s also about creating cultural literacy, ensuring that our young people are familiar with the diverse people they meet on the street.” As my current institution (affiliated with the Episcopal Church) is having discussions about the place of religion studies in our curriculum (don’t worry, it’s not being threatened as far as I know), I emailed one of our administrators this morning saying “I’m convinced that the health of” our community “is directly related to boldly leading in providing of religious literacy, not merely responding and following perceived market trends.”

The spring semester class that pairs directly with “Religion in Global Context” is “Religion in the United States”. If the goal of “Religion in Global Context” is (as mentioned) complicate the word “religion” so that students recognize its complexity and also how people try to wield the word for their own socio-political purposes, and if it’s aim is to introduce students to the diversity of our world through the lens of what we call “religion”, then “Religion in the United States” does something similar in the context of the United States, specifically. This means I talk to students about the First Amendment, about how “religious freedom” cases have been decided in the Supreme Court (a topic that only promises to become more and more important to a good education), how Native American religion/spirituality has been practiced and understood, how “imported” religions (like the ones they studied in “Religion in Global Context”) have faired in this country, and finally, what the American experience has contributed to uniquely American religious expressions ranging from the Latter-day Saints, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, and Satanists to how “religious freedom” questions become increasingly complex when we revisit how the government responded to groups like The Peoples Temple and the Branch Davidians of Waco.

I’m extremely pleased with how those two classes have developed. This is my fifth year teaching religious studies to high schoolers. Even if a job was offered at a higher-level, I don’t know that I’d be able to transition easily. I’ve thrown myself into it. And being that my employer is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, I’ve had the academic freedom I wouldn’t have had at pretty much any other private school in San Antonio. And since public schools tend to avoid hiring a teacher just for religion, I haven’t really seriously considered leaving the private school realm.

That said, my wheel-house, my cup-of-tea, my area of professional training, is not comparative religion (I’ve had to self-educate) but biblical studies. Of course, this means five years into teaching courses on the Bible from an academic, non-confessional perspective (contrary other local options like Cornerstone Christian Academy, San Antonio Christian School, or the many Catholic high schools that do teach religion [though maybe not religious/religion studies this they’re highly confessional/dogmatic]), I remain unsatisfied. I’ve tried to weave together all that biblical studies tries to weave together: historical, literary, theological, philosophical, etc., approaches to the text. This means I’ve tried to do everything in my biblical studies classes from helping students see how the formation of the Bible was shaped by the Babylonian Exile, to how characters are developed in the Patriarchal Narratives, to how the Book of Job addresses theodicy, to how a juxtaposition of the Books of Daniel and Esther can help us think through the difference between deontological and consequentialist ethics. In my view, it’s all good stuff but the reason I’m happy with “Religion in Global Context” and “Religion in the United States” is because every lesson is ultimately tethered to the one or two big things I’ve mentioned: how we use the word “religion” and how “religions” diversely manifest. My biblical studies classes lack that center of gravity.

This is why I’ve been talking with colleagues, and Facebook friends, and even administrators about a potential shift I want to make to our biblical studies curriculum. So, since I know only one of the hundreds of students I’ve taught is going to college for anything like a biblical studies focus, and I know that having a center of gravity has made my pedagogy more effective while also making teaching more fun, I need to decide what it is that I think can be the center of gravity for teaching biblical studies to (1) an adolescent audience that (2) usually lacks much biblical literacy or an understanding of why the Bible is influential and (3) is unlikely to pursue biblical studies at the college or graduate school-level (while also laying enough of a foundation for the one or two who might go further after high school). It’s with this in mind that I think a parallel to my comparative religion classes can be found:

  1. introduce students to basic concepts of religion and to diverse examples of religion >>> introduce students to the basic content of the Bible and the diverse content (e.g. genres) of the Bible
  2. highlight the diversity of religion (and why this is relevant) >>> highlight the diversity of interpretations (and why this is relevant)
  3. complicate “religion” so students can be aware of how people are trying to use that word >>> complicate simplistic appeals to “the Bible says” by making students aware of the Bible’s multivalence

Currently, in the fall semester I offer a class titled “The Hebrew Scriptures” that serves as an introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh/Old Testament. In the spring I offer a class titled “The Christian Scriptures” that serves as an introduction to the Christian New Testament with a few sides of non-canonical literature (like a student favorite: The Infancy Gospel of Thomas). But what I’m considering and proposing now is this: “Bible and Interpretation” and “Bible and Culture”. (I’m grateful for the help of my colleague Nate Bostian in helping think up these titles.) I’ve put together a draft outline of the basics of both classes. Since “Bible and Interpretation” would be a slimmed down version of much of what I teach in “The Hebrew Scriptures” and “The Christian Scriptures”, it was easier to put together. In essence, I would want to continue focusing on the core narratives of these collections (e.g. Creation Narratives; The Exodus Narrative; Jesus and the Gospels) though from less of a historicist perspective. The history of the Bible won’t be forsaken as I’d have a shorter discussion on the Israelites/Judahites, Jews, and Christians who created the Bible allowing for a brief introduction to groups like the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, but the “background” who become less central to the class. Instead, so-called “Bible literacy” would become central along with an exploration of how we got the Bible and why these things are relevant. Here’s the draft outline of “Bible and Interpretation”:

  1. The Origins of the Bible
    1. Ancient Writing and Ancient Writers
      1. Who Could Write?
      2. How Did They Write?
    2. Ancient Manuscripts and Their Preservation

Activity: Constructing the Bible

  1. Canonical and Non-Canonical Texts
    1. The Bible or Bibles?
    2. Different Communities; Different Canons
  2. Gutenberg and Modern Bibles
    1. The Bible before Gutenberg
    2. The Bible after Gutenberg
  3. Translating the Bible into English
    1. How Translation Works
    2. Juxtaposing English Translations
  4. The People Who Created the Bible
    1. The Israelites/Judahites 
    2. The Jews
    3. The Christians
  5. How to Read and Interpret the Bible
    1. How to Read Narratives
      1. Sampling the Book of Judges
      2. Sampling the Infancy Gospel of Thomas
    2. How to Read Poetry and Discourse
      1. Sampling the Psalter
      2. Sampling the Epistle of James
  6. The Tanakh/Old Testament
    1. The Creation Narratives
      1. Creation as a Temple
      2. Creation as a Garden
      3. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 1
    2. The Patriarchal Narratives
      1. The Patriarch Abraham
      2. The Patriarch Isaac
      3. The Patriarch Jacob
      4. The Bible as Film: Joseph: King of Dreams
    3. The Exodus Narrative
      1. The Prophet Moses
      2. The Bible as Film: Exodus: Gods and Kings
      3. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 2
    4. The Royal Narratives 
      1. King David and His Dynasty
      2. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 3
      3. King David and His Downfall
      4. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep.4
  7. The New Testament
    1. Jesus and the Gospels
      1. Mark’s Secretive Messiah
      2. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 5
      3. Matthew’s Sagacious Messiah
      4. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 6
      5. Luke’s Subversive Messiah
      6. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep.7
      7. John’s Heavenly Messiah
      8. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 8
      9. The Crucified and Resurrected Messiah
      10. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 9
    2. Paul and His Letters
      1. How to Read an Epistle
      2. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 10
      3. Reading an Epistle in a House Church

The spring semester’s “Bible and Culture” would do for “Bible and Interpretation” what “Religion in the United States” does for “Religion in Global Culture”. It takes the global and makes it more local. Post-Covid-19, “Religion in the United States” will reintroduce a project where students must visit a local religious community (canceled last spring and preemptively this one). Similarly, “Bible and Culture” will highlight the influence of the Bible in an American context but also include a (to-be thought out) project where students examine the intersection of biblical interpretation and Texas culture. Here is the (shorter) draft outline for that class:

  1. The Bible as a Cultural Authority
    1. “The Bible Says”: Why People Quote the Bible
    2. The Meanings of the Bible
    3. The Bible and American Identity
  2. The Bible in Modern Society
    1. An Old Book for Modern Times
    2. Case Study #1: Reading the Bible/Reading Teen Study Bibles
    3. Case Study #2: TBD yearly
    4. Case Study #3: TBD yearly
    5. Case Study #4: TBD yearly
  3. The Bible in Film and Art
    1. A Survey of the Bible in Film
    2. Film #1: Noah (2014): The Bible and Environmental Catastrophe
    3. Film #2: TBD
    4. A Survey of the Bible in Modern Art
    5. Case Study #1: TBD yearly
    6. Case Study #2: TBD yearly
  4. The Bible in Political Discourse
    1. Why Do Politicians Quote the Bible?
    2. Is the Bible a Political Book?
    3. Case Study #1: TBD yearly
    4. Case Study #2: TBD yearly
    5. Case Study #3: TBD yearly
  5. Project: Interpreting the Bible in Texas

Ok, I needed to write out all this material in order to organize my thoughts. If someone has read this far, feel free to comment with insights.

Muddy Paper in Plastic Bags: my SBL presentation recording

On Thursday, I presented a paper titled “Muddy Paper in Plastic Bags: Practicing Textual Criticism” at the Society of Biblical Literature’s Annual Meeting 2020 (online this year). The recording is available for those who registered for the conference. (Hopefully, someday, for the sake of public scholarship, most of these recordings will be made available on YouTube!) To find it, just search by my name. Here are PDFs of the handout and slides I used:

Here I am presenting on the ol’ Zoom machine!