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Deborah Elder Cox

Very few public community college students read Greek or Hebrew; therefore, if students are to study the Bible at a public community college, they must resign themselves to reading the Bible in English. Most experienced teachers will not be surprised to learn that freshmen and sophomore students rarely argue against these restrictions of their curricula. Even with this limitation, a terrific amount of learning can take place in the study of the Bible as literature at the community college level.

At Montgomery College in Conroe, Texas, I teach a course called "Composition and Rhetoric II: Writing about the Bible as Literature." As a former English major who teaches at a public college, I came to this course, which I designed, with the assumption that a majority of the things I had learned about the critical study of English-language literature could be applied directly to the translated literature of the Bible. I have found this to be true with only one qualification, which may not surprise the reader: it is harder to teach Hebrew poetry in translation than it is to teach English poetry in its original language. Different things matter in Hebrew poetry, and the professor who plans to teach Psalms in English must be doubly prepared. The professor must understand and be able to explain the conventions of poetry in both languages. In my experience, while it is helpful to know Hebrew and Greek literary conventions, biblical prose in translation presents fewer problems for freshmen and sophomore students. Virtually everything about the literary criticism of English-language prose can be transferred into the college classroom where the Bible is being taught as literature.

I teach the basics of literary interpretation in my class. My students are beginners. I operate on the assumption that if students are to write anything worth reading on a subject, they must know something about that subject. Students arrive in this class with a great variety of proficiency both in literary and in biblical knowledge. Students vary from those who have never read the Bible to those who are able to correct the professor on, for example, the minutia of biblical genealogies. It is somewhat comforting to know that the unequal nature of student preparedness is hardly unique to the community college environment.

What is unique about this class is that it is quite prevalently transferable as second-semester freshman English. All the criteria of that course are met by this class but instead of studying selections from English and American literature, the textbook is an English language Bible. The formation of "Special Topics" courses is a growing trend in English departments around the nation.

Over the seven semesters that I have been teaching this course, I have used a variety of optional or additional textbooks. One must be very careful to choose a textbook that fits the freshman and sophomore level. Of the textbooks I have studied, and there have been a large number of them, I have settled on books by professor and author Leland Ryken because his writing emphasizes the literary nature of the Bible, his tone is friendly and respectful of the text, and his style is generally accessible to students who are unaccustomed to reading criticism of any kind.

Like other professors who deal with the Bible, I encounter every semester what I call the "fear factor." Many students come to the class afraid that I am there to attempt to change their religious beliefs. A smaller number of students fear that I am there with an agenda to convert them to my own beliefs (whatever they may be). These fears are unjustified, and the biggest task of the first session of class is to gain their trust so that they will be less resistant to learning. While explaining the requirements of the course, I reassure students that this is a literature class, that they will be graded on their work as they fulfill the criteria explicitly stated in the syllabus, and that they will not be graded on what they do or do not believe.

Another fear often evidenced is the fear of the word criticism in connection with the Bible. One of the ways that I defuse this issue is by reminding students that criticism may be good or bad, that criticism involves the attempt to understand a work of literature, and that they may or may not agree with the critics they read. In fact, I tell them, part of the critical process is deciding what you agree with and what you do not. Since this is a writing class as well as a literature class, I assure them that in their papers they may use criticism that they agree with in order to support their arguments and that they may argue in their papers with the critics with whom they do not agree. At this point, students relax about the use of the word critical. I also discuss critical worldviews relating specifically to the Bible, for example, the critic's perspective on the supernatural may in many cases influence his or her interpretation of certain biblical stories. Even this verges on the theological, so I am careful to explain various theories with as little personal bias as I possibly can. If students resist criticism entirely, they will find very little reputable research that they can use in their writing.

Some students are also uncomfortable with the word mythology in relation to works they consider sacred. Early in the class I give out a three-part dictionary definition of myth, pointing out that only one of the three definitions involves the words, "not true." This also helps break down walls that can cause writer's block. Students should want to explore their own thinking and come to their own conclusions. This is what I encourage in their writing.

I teach about the traditional four types of human conflict: with another, with nature, with self, with society. In addition, I audaciously propose that perhaps there is a fifth category: conflict with the supernatural. That gets a good deal of discussion going.

I also teach a standard literary glossary augmented by terms gleaned from Leland Ryken's book, Words of Delight. Although I have never known any of them personally, Laurence Perrine, Northrop Frye, and Donald Keesey have been my mentors in literary criticism and theory, and their concepts are influential as I teach. My preferences lean toward symbolic, mythological and archetypal approaches to literature. Students at the sophomore and freshman level usually need to have these types of criticism broken into some kind of easily digestible portions: for example, a simplified list of archetypal patterns (the hero, the prophet, the wilderness, the journey or the quest, etc.) can be amazingly helpful. Historical, biographical, and cultural types of criticism come more naturally to these students. The psychological approach to the criticism of the literature of the Bible works very well in character studies. I capitalize on this connection with group discussion questions that also involve reader-response theory. Character study is a delight for students at this level. Before they know it, they are discussing and writing about the Bible as the intelligent thinking adults they are.

We cannot read the entire Bible in one semester and do it justice; so I pick the stories and passages we will pursue and the subjects on which the students may write. Every paper assigned has an extensive topic list. A research paper is required, and my list of possible topics for their research papers is three pages long. Students in this class rarely whine about not being able to think of topics for their papers. In fact, they whine less than other freshmen and sophomore classes I have taught as they become more and more engaged with the literature and the opinions of professional critics and the other students in their class. Writing is an integral part of this course; therefore students write throughout the semester. Do students learn to write well about the Bible in such a class? Some do. Others are beginning their journey.

Deborah Elder Cox is Reference Librarian and Professor at Montgomery College, Conroe, TX. Professor Cox's website includes a link to SBL online resources.

Citation: Deborah E. Cox, " Writing about the Bible at Community College," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2004]. Online:


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