Dec 6, 2006

a Mosaic minefield: teaching Bible as Literature

When you attempt--or, should I say, should you attempt--to teach "Bible as Literature," be aware that, for younger students, severe discomfort may lie ahead.

Non-Christian, on-the-fence, agnostic, or atheistic students will start to suspect you're out to convert them, as if reading the first book of Genesis and analyzing its literary merits is just the cheese in a trap.

Christian students will likely dominate the discussion; after all, they generally know the most. You may have to steer some ambitious ones away from proselytizing.

Some Christian students may wonder if your "balanced" perspective is going to undermine their confidence in Scripture, even if they grant that you are completely fair in your presentation.

So, before launching into a unit, ask yourself:

1. Are my students emotionally mature enough for this?
2. Am I ready to talk with parents about it?
3. Am I ready to answer some really sticky questions?
4. Am I able to be nonpartisan, and enforce nonpartisanity?
5. Do I know enough about the Bible to do succeed in #s 2-4?
6. Am I willing to be open about my beliefs, so students know where my biases are, and what to watch out for?

If you answer "no" to even one question, don't do it.


TheTachyix said...

My professor of the Old Testament course that I had the privilege of taking had a little trick: hear out any interpretation of a passage in its entirety. Ask questions of all interpretations and you'll be surprisingly neutral.

TeacherRefPoet said...

I'm with you on 1-5, but not so much on 6. If students knew my religious beliefs (which can be classified as "I believe in God, I'm a passionate member of the Christian Left, and I take the Bible far too seriously to take it literally"), then I'm actually opening myself up to bias. I'm also shutting down my agonostic/atheistic students who might fear that what they're saying will piss off the teacher. Ditto with the fundamentalist kids; they'll also wonder if I might classify them as "wrong."

My approach in the past (I've taught Genesis a few times) has been to keep my own religious beliefs under wraps. I think it encourages discussion. Plus, I won't ask them theirs; they can volunteer if they'd like.

Thetachyix's suggestion to challenge -all- beliefs is dead-on...and kids will catch on that they'd better be thinking about the literature if they want to speak up.

Aaron said...

Interesting. Right now, in my core class, we are studying the Tanakh (the bible) as history, literature and a religious text, shifting perspectives at all times.

Jim Anderson said...

I took a risk with #6. I was asked right at the outset of a whole-class discussion, and, despite my immediate fear that my response would discourage dialogue, I decided to just let the truth sit out in the open.

The result was positive: the discussion that followed was lively and respectful. Now my students at least know that, if I have an agenda or biases, they don't have to guess, or be suspicious.

Maybe #6 works just for people like me, who have the religious upbringing, but don't share religious practices.

At any rate, there's no easy solution--someone, somewhere will still be offended. That's a worthwhile risk, I think.

I agree that it's not my place to ask students about their beliefs.

TeacherRefPoet said...

Your observation about how "I have the religious upbringing, but don't share religious practices" is interesting. My teaching mentor would open his Bible units by announcing: "I'm an atheist, and my wife is Jewish." It was disarming and effective. But it wouldn't work for me, probably because I'd want to explain myself too much.

Jim Anderson said...

I think my position as a public blogger also alters things. If a student is a little web-savvy, they can find my blog pretty easily. In fact, they could be reading this very post. See, Student? I have nothing to hide.