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SBL: What do you see as the major issues in the study of religion and sacred texts in a post 9-11 classroom?

Carol Bakhos, UCLA

Many of the major issues are the same. Religious traditions must be examined for the ways in which they define and are defined by their theological and historical self-understanding as reflected in their scriptural interpretation. We need to keep in mind the various influences, social and historical, that effected interpretive trends and how in the case of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, for example, these traditions intersect and diverge in their attempts to understand scripture. The very study of sacred texts in a secular setting is an issue that now more than ever has wide-ranging implications and concerns more consciously. Our approach to the study of sacred texts in a secular setting must at all times remain descriptive, historical and non-confessional, yet at the same time mindful of the significant role a text under examination plays in faith communities and sensitive to those who deem it sacred.

Bruce Feiler, author of Abraham, and Walking the Bible

For all the commentary about the impact of September 11th on world politics, economics, and international relations, perhaps the most significant impact of that day has gone largely unnoticed. September 11, 2001 is proving to be a defining moment for the nascent interfaith movement around the world. Born out of the turmoil of the mid-twentieth century, the interfaith movement has been marked by a series of largely unintegrated conferences, teas, rousing manifestos, and empty proclamations. In the last year, these efforts have taken on a much more urgent and much more organized effort, particularly in the United States.

Muslim extremists prefer to go back to a period some hundreds of years ago when they perceive Islam was more prominent in the world than it is today. Their effort raises what will undoubtedly be a defining question in the world in the next century: Can the religions get along?

The answer to that question lies in the past. At every turning point in human history, religions have turned to their common father to help define their place in the world. Abraham has emerged as a central figure in spiritual conversation at such epochal moments as the Israelite exile in Babylon and the birth of Judaism, the destruction of the Second Temple and the birth of Christianity, the sacking of Jerusalem and the birth of Islam.

Not surprisingly, Abraham is again emerging as a central figure in the birth of the interfaith movement today. Cities are calling their interfaith programs Abraham initiatives, universities are naming their curriculums after Abraham, and politicians from the King of Jordan, to the Prime Minister of Israel, to the President of the United States in a major Oval Office address are couching their pleas for peace in the words of the one figure Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have in common. The one figure who can save the world again, as he has so many times before. The one figure the God of monotheism himself chose to save the world first. Abraham.

Charles Kimball, Wake Forest University

Religion is arguably the most powerful and pervasive force on earth. The intense daily focus on religion in our society and world creates a powerful "teachable moment" during which teachers can assist students in understanding religion as a universal human phenomenon-one that inspires people to their highest and noblest best as well as being the source or excuse for violent and destructive behavior. In our increasingly interdependent world community, we must help students both to learn more about the religions of the world and to think critically about religion. The sometimes volatile interplay between religion, politics, economics, social, and even military dynamics requires more than sound-bite analysis on television talk shows. Introduction to Religion can help lay the foundation for the thoughtful analysis our collective future requires.

The richness and centrality of sacred texts as well as the propensity to abuse sacred texts should be front and center. The rationale for suicide bombers on the fringes of the Islamic community is linked to highly selective reading of Qur'anic passages. Similarly, some self-appointed Christian leaders present their views with cocksure certainty based on selected verses in the Qur'an and the Bible. Shakespeare's observation remains apropos: "Even the devil can cite scripture for his purposes." As teachers, we can help students and others in the larger community understand both the importance of and dangers connected with charismatic leaders who claim authority from sacred texts. Wake Forest supports and affirms faculty who teach beyond the classroom and help raise the level of informed debate in wider society as public intellectuals. This models for students the university motto: pro humanitate.

Mona Siddiqui, University of Glasgow

Despite the extreme shock and horror felt globally by what happened on September 11th, I feel the biggest tragedy would now be to see these events as essentially stemming from religious affiliations. If the bombers were al-Qaeda terrorists then that is exactly who they were, not devout Muslims who could in any way justify their actions by using Islam as a smokescreen. Religion on its own is no longer the sole driving force behind any act of aggression-the murky world of international politics has taken its place.

When this translates into teaching students of religious studies, I am very careful that September 11th is not seen as a point of departure for the study of religion. Asking students therefore, to read the Qur'an as if thereby they will get a more sympathetic glimpse into Muslim minds makes a travesty of how religious texts should be approached. A text on its own does not always reflect the ideals of a religion and if anything there will be many passages which will have the effect of arousing more abhorrence than understanding. Is this really a good way of introducing people to a faith that already creates so much fear and gets so much unpleasant press coverage?

Gina Hens-Piazza, Jesuit School of Theology, GTU Berkeley

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, my teaching must grapple with the complex cultural antagonisms and misunderstandings that played a part in the horrific unfoldings in New York City, Washington, D.C., a field in Pennsylvania and the military aftermath in Afghanistan. "Business as usual" in my Old Testament class is not possible. While we will still gallop across this canon of texts with two millennia of ancient near eastern history as background, two new foci now summon our attention.

First, the rampant violence resident in the biblical tradition that we have learned to ignore has come home to roost. Now we must confront and denounce this violence. Attention to the variety of brutality in the biblical traditions cultivates our own sensitivity to violence in all its forms. The litany of murders, seizures of property, and rape played out across these traditions is easy to recognize. However, other forms of violence are resident there. The namelessness that enshrines some characters, the opportunity for speech denied to others, the delegation of some women and men as expendable and the lack of social standing to such characters as virgin daughters or slaves are all subtle but nevertheless real examples of violence in these tales. If we fail to recognize the more indirect, though still dehumanizing forms of brutality in these sacred writings, we will most likely miss them in our own lives as well.

Second, since religious texts can so readily be employed to authorize political positions, instigate imperialistic programs, and reinforce cultural oppositions, interpretation of these texts must be reoriented away from reading a meaning into/out of a text. Instead, we must turn attention toward inscribing the diversity of humanity into interpretive practice. The fulcrum of bible study that accommodates this kind of pluralism includes resistance to building an interpretation that logically unfolds across a closed system of argumentation serving only one point of view. It struggles with the chaos rather than selectively sketching coherence in texts. It attends to the polyphony of voices in contest rather than the monologue of a dominant discourse there. Finally, it discloses complexity and provokes inquiry rather than promoting the pretense of closure.

Citation: Moira Bucciarelli, " The Post 9-11 Classroom: What do you see the major issues in the study of religion and sacred texts in a post 9-11 classroom?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2005]. Online:


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