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.

Articles of interest: G.A. Yee, Thinking Intersectionally

I’m going to try to make a habit of writing a few short notes on articles I read that may be interesting to the five or six of you who frequent this blog. These are not reviews. More like recommendations with some key take-aways. I begin with Gale A. Yee’s “Thinking Intersectionally: Gender, Race, Class, and Etceteras of Our Discipline”, JBL 139.1 (2020): 7-26. This article is Yee’s 2019 Presidential Address ‘as the first Asian American and the first woman of color to be elected president of the Society of Biblical Literature’ (p. 7).

What’s the focus?
The focus is on the importance of intersectionality to the field of Biblical Studies. In short, we should recognize different forms of identity—’Race, class, gender, age, ability, nation, ethnicity, and similar categories of analysis’—and how they interact or intersect with one another. Yee applies this to both the discipline of Biblical Studies and the specific passage of 2 Kings 4.1-7.

What did I learn?
A lot. But here are some key takeaways:

  1. Intersectionality is a “justice-oriented approach” (quoting Vivian May) that ‘grew out of movements with a social justice agenda such as those focused on civil rights and women’s rights’ (p. 12).
  2. We must recognize that the alternative to intersectionality risks ignoring the real-life threats to people. For example, Yee talks about how this phrase ‘intersectionality’ was coined by African American lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw to address legal matters. In case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, GM, who hadn’t been hiring Black women, GM argued that they weren’t bias against Black women because they had hired Black men. If the sole focus was of antidiscrimination law’ was race, then GM could be cleared. Likewise, if sex, GM could be cleared because they hired white women. But if an intersectional lens is used, it’s apparent that GM’s discrimination was against Black women, specifically (p. 10).
  3. Whiteness must be a racial category. Too often, whiteness has been set as the ‘universal’ while everything else is ‘a culturally constructed ethnic identity’. But Whiteness is also ‘a culturally constructed ethnic identity’, not a ‘universal’ (p. 13). Pragmatically speaking, we can see this in various articles, books, and commentaries that might just be ‘about the Bible’ if it’s a white, male scholar but if it’s a Black, woman scholar, suddenly it’s an intentional departure from the norm, a niche hermeneutic, but not ‘straight exegesis’. This is misleading, at best.
  4. Yee introduces four ‘domains of power’: structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal. Structural = ‘institutional…legal, economic, educational, and how they reproduce the subordination of peoples over time’ (p. 14). Disciplinary = ‘ideas and practices that characterize hierarchies…legal, criminal, and the police and military’ (pp. 14-15). Hegemonic = ‘ideas, symbols, and ideologies that shape consciousness’ (p. 15). Interpersonal = ‘interactions of people at the day-to-day microlevels of social organization’ (p. 15). Because of these four domains, a person could be the oppressed in one situation (say for gender or sexuality) and oppressive in another (say economically).
  5. Acknowledging these realities will expand our reading of texts. Yee examines 1 Kings 4.1-7 focusing on a variety of social dynamics related to the woman in the story who is a widow: gender, economic, legal, etc. We can miss a lot of presumptions in a text if we’re not intentional. As Yee writes, intersectionality ‘encourages us to think beyond the familiar (and perhaps more entrenched) boundaries of biblical studies to expose the diverse power relations of oppression and uncover subjugated voices that were previously invisible and unheard’ (p. 26).

Interview: discussing Flood Mythologies with Erica Mongé-Greer

Erica Mongé-Greer returns for another interview. If you haven’t watch our discussion of Creation Mythologies, I recommend doing so. But if you have, or Flood Mythologies just happen to be more your thing, you can jump right into this one!

In this video, we discuss ANE Flood Mythologies such as the Atrahasis, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and Genesis 6-9.

Here’s the list of questions I asked:

1. This week my students will have read about the Great Deluge in Genesis 6-9. In the context of the Book of Genesis, what’s the point of this story? Why does Yahweh God flood the earth?

2. The Hebrews/Israelites/Judahites weren’t the only people from the Ancient Near East to talk about a giant flood. The Epic of Gilgamesh, which seems to have Assyrian and Babylonian influence, and the Atrahasis does the same. Can you tell us about these stories?

3. Chronologically, what’s the relationship between these three stories? Which one do most scholars think came first and how does this impact our understanding of the Bible?

4. How does the character of Noah compare to the characters in the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh?

5. In Genesis, what’s the Creator’s rationale for destroying humanity with a flood and how does this compare to the rationale in the Flood Mythologies?

6. Why is it important for students of the Bible to understand the Ancient Near East, Israel’s neighboring cultures, and comparative flood mythologies?

7. Some readers are concerns with the question ‘did this flood really happen?’ How important is this question? What should our focus be when reading these narratives?

Canon and Metanarrative: Reflection #1

I’ve read enough Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard (and responses to them) over the years to have developed a bit of unease with metanarrative. But also I’ve come to the conclusion that metanarrative may be a necessary fiction for effective pedagogy. What do I meant by this? Well, when introducing students to topics like the contents of the Bible—at least to students in their teens who may not be familiar with what they’re learning—you need some sort of context for it to make sense. Sure, the Book of Genesis is valuable to one person in ways that is different from others (even corporately: from one Church to another and from a Church to a Synagogue) but if I know nothing or almost nothing about Genesis, then it means nothing. Therefore, in order to teach it in such a way that prevents eyes from rolling into the back of heads, a context must be chosen, even if only temporarily, and even if only for heuristic purposes. A story needs to be told that gives the concept a meaningful context.

It may be that students deconstruct that context later in life. And that’s not only acceptable but maybe encouraged. I wouldn’t have studied religion if it hadn’t been for my related experiences as a child and teen that pushed me to want to challenge and critique the worldview I inherited. In other words, that worldview, while mostly discarded now, inspired and provoked me to ask the questions that give my work meaning.

So, at least when it comes to teaching the Bible, what’s the metanarrative? What’s the context I give? Is it simply the canons of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles? Well, that’s tricky because to use a canon demands that one introduce a handful of other concepts surrounding canonization, many that are fuzzy, and still debated in the upper echelons of scholarship. How did we get the Tanakh/Old Testament? How did we get the New Testament? It’s difficult to teach this to students who don’t yet know what the collections contain. Who cares about how we got something until we know what that something is?

Additionally, outside biblicist circles, the digitization of the Bible is reshaping canon. When I began teaching Biblical Studies at the high school level, students brought physical Bibles with them. When our school went BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and everything began to be digitized (including my guiding notes and other projects) it was natural to begin using websites like BibleGateway.com to direct students to the passage being read any given day. The order of the canon, and how to find ‘Malachi 1.2’, began to lack relevance and became impractical in a sense. Now, you, dear reader, may feel that it remains a necessary skill to teach students how to find something in a physical Bible. To a degree, this may be correct, like teaching cursive may be useful. But what is even more useful in my mind is teaching students how to use the tool they’ll probably use most often once they leave your class: the Internet. With that, the Internet has morphed canonicity in ways I’m still pondering, but in ways that I think change how canon relates to the metanarrative you gift your students now for deconstruction and further investigation later.

What then is the alternative? I’ll say more in future posts (and by ‘say more’ I mean think aloud, not necessarily offer answers that work for everyone).