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I have been teaching biblical studies for eighteen years at StetsonUniversity, a small comprehensive university in Florida with an emphasis onundergraduate studies. Although today the university has no official ties to anyreligious body, throughout most of its history Stetson was a Baptist-affiliatedinstitution. Approximately ten years ago the university severed all formaldenominational ties. This severing of official connections to a religious bodydid not mean that the university was divorcing itself from all commitment toreligion and values. Rather, the university now describes itself as a privateuniversity that from its founding "has affirmed the importance of spirituallife and the quest for truth." The university has recently revised itsmission statement, explicitly stating that the university "encourages allof its members . . . to develop an appreciation for the spiritual dimension oflife." The mission statement also affirms "the role of religious andspiritual quests for meaning in human experience."

Because of its religious heritage and the newly adopted mission statement,all students at Stetson are required to take one course in religious studies.Until approximately five years ago, all students were required to takeIntroduction to Biblical Literature to meet this requirement. Now, students maychoose from among five introductory courses that satisfy this requirement:Introduction to Biblical Literature, Introduction to Religion, Introduction toJudaism, Introduction to Christianity, and Introduction to World Religions.Approximately half of my teaching load each year involves teaching one of theserequired courses, the Introduction to Biblical Literature course. In addition toteaching this introductory course, I also teach upper division, elective coursesin biblical studies. Thus I teach students who take courses in biblical studiesbecause they are fulfilling a requirement, as well as students who enroll in theclasses because they have an interest in studying biblical texts.

As is the case in many areas of the United States, and particularly in thesoutheast, the majority of students at Stetson have been culturally immersed inChristian ideas and values, whether they are active participants in thatreligious tradition or not. Many of them are eager to learn more about the bookthat has been an important part of their faith development and that has shapedtheir understanding of themselves and their worldview. Others are mildly curiousto gain insight into a book that they have heard about but have never read, orat least never understood. A few, however, enter the classroom having had justenough of religion to know that they do not want any more. They dislike beingrequired to take a course in religious studies because they do not see itsrelevance to their college and career goals. Nor do they have any personalinterest in religion. In their view, having to take a course in religiousstudies is a waste of their time and an infringement on their "right"to choose their own course of study. One of the challenges, then, at a schoollike Stetson that requires a course in religious studies is to help students inthis last category move beyond their resistance to being in the course. If I amgoing to succeed with these students, I must help them discover that theseancient texts still have relevance for them. For some students, their interestis piqued when they begin to see the ways biblical images and concepts haveshaped our culture. For other students, the texts become meaningful once theyrecognize that the biblical writings struggle with some of the same questionsand issues with which they are struggling. I know that I have succeeded when astudent writes in her course evaluation at the end of the semester, "I wasopposed to students being required to take a religion course. Now I believeeveryone should have to take this course. I have learned so much I neverknew."

Another challenge of teaching, one that is probably unique to religiousstudies, and particularly to biblical studies, is that students often are notshy about refuting what we say. Some of them feel they are already experts onthe Bible. Who are we to contradict what they already believe about the Bible?They come into our classes convinced that what they have been taught by parentsand religious leaders is the final word in religious studies. Students who wouldnot dare confront or challenge their professors in the political science orsociology department, for example, have no such hesitancy about questioning thevalidity of what we present in our courses. Some students consider they have notonly the right but the religious obligation to correct the "errors" inour teaching. In most cases, such students are sincere in their attempts tocorrect what we teach. They are so passionate about the Bible because religionmatters to them. The challenge I have as a professor is to find a way to letthem maintain that passion, yet get them to be open to the possibility that whatthey have previously been taught might need to be corrected or least rethought.

Compounding the problem is that students sometimes enter our courses alreadyprejudiced against our discipline and even us as instructors. They have beenwarned about those godless, liberal professors who are intent on destroying thefaith of unsuspecting or spiritually weak students. Recently when I was teachingan interdisciplinary Honors Program course that was not a religious studiescourse, I paired the students for dialogue. I asked them to share informationabout themselves and then to respond to what they had learned about theirdialogue partner. When reporting to the class about the exercise, one studentstated that she had learned that her dialogue partner was a devout RomanCatholic and also a major in religious studies. She said she was surprised thata student of deep faith would choose to major in religious studies because shehad heard that the religious studies faculty were all anti-Christian. (The ironyin her statement is that four of the five full-time faculty in our departmentare ordained ministers, one of whom serves as a reserve chaplain in the AirForce.)

Unfortunately for some students, their experience in our classes may notdissuade them from their negative opinions about religious studies. Their firstexposure to a critical reading or questioning of biblical texts is often anuncomfortable and troubling experience. I spend the first part of eachintroductory course in biblical studies talking with students about differentways in which the Bible can be studied. I explain to them the differencesbetween a devotional/religious reading of the texts and a critical/scholarlyreading of the texts. After talking about the importance of each approach andthe setting in which each approach is appropriate, the students and I agree thatthe approach that we will follow in the classroom is a critical reading of thetexts. I emphasize that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Acritical reading of the text can bring new insight and meaning to the biblicalmaterial for a person of faith. Furthermore, I point out that because ourapproach is a scholarly approach does not mean that the devotional approach tothe Bible is not important. After all, the Bible has had such a profoundinfluence on the world not because it has provided answers to scholarly probings,but because it has suggested answers to the larger questions of human existence.

In introducing my courses, I always struggle with the issue ofself-disclosure. How much do I tell the students about my own faith stancetoward the material we are studying? Do I admit to the students that I, too, ama person of faith, one whose credo and worldview continue to be shaped by thesedocuments that we are studying? Or do I refrain from disclosing my own stancetoward the texts with the hope that this will make students who have no faithcommitment to the Bible more at ease in the course? After teaching theintroductory biblical studies course three or four times every year for the pasteighteen years, I am still not sure which is the best approach. I have tried itboth ways. I lean more toward disclosing my own commitments, primarily for threereasons. First, I want students of faith to be as comfortable in the course asare students who see the texts only as ancient writings with little or nocontemporary relevance. As mentioned above, some students are deeply suspiciousabout the academic study of the Bible. If a brief statement of my faith claimscan make them more comfortable, then perhaps they will be better able to hearwhat takes place in the classroom.

Second, I want students to see that one can approach the texts criticallywhile still reading them from the perspective of faith. Allowing these twoapproaches to exist in creative tension with each other is a difficult idea forstudents to grasp, however. A few years back, after a Monday morning class, astudent came up to me and said, "I saw you at church yesterday. I donapos;tunderstand how you can go to church and still teach what you do in thiscourse." The struggle that this student was experiencing is the type ofstruggle that I would want other students also to experience. I want them toknow that one need not dismiss critical scholarship in order to accept the faithclaims of the Bible. Conversely, one does not have to lay aside a faithcommitment to the Bible in order to approach it critically.

Some instructors may argue that our task as teachers is to present thematerial and not be concerned about how our reading of the text impacts thepersonal religious beliefs of the students in our classes. Our concern is notwith what students do with the information, but with students learning thecorrect information. Our role is not to be pastoral counselors or spiritualadvisers. Such a view not only is based on an extremely narrow understanding ofour task as professors, but also is poor pedagogy. If what students hear from usis so detrimental to their worldview that they are no longer able to hear whatwe say, then we have failed as teachers. Without abdicating our responsibilityto challenge students, to confront them with new ideas and new ways of thinking,and to dissuade them from erroneous or naive views, we can still be sensitiveto how we expose students to new ideas and how our teaching is being received.

The third reason I often tip my hand about my religious convictions is that Iwant students to realize the stance from which I read the texts. In spite of how"objective" I attempt to be, my own commitments and biases flavor howI read the texts. I sometimes discuss with students about how my own identityaffects my reading of biblical literature. I am a white, middle-class male whowas raised in the South. Regardless of how hard I try, I can never hear thetexts the same way my female colleagues or colleagues of color hear the texts.In the same way, my own religious convictions affect my reading of biblicalliterature. I may work diligently not to let my own religious views intrude intothe classroom, but I am never completely successful at that. My self-disclosureis a way of trying to be an honest reader of the texts with my students.

A common experience for students who have a faith commitment to biblicaltexts is their failure to recognize the distinction between truth andhistoricity. When we tell students that an event in the Bible may not behistorically accurate, they hear us saying that the Bible is not true. I try tohelp students understand that historical truth is only one type of truth. Astory may be full of historical inaccuracies or even be completelynon-historical, yet still contain deep theological or religious truth. Whetherthe events and stories in the Bible are historically true or not, they stillpresent the truth claims of Judaism and Christianity. Those of us who teachreligious studies are accustomed to thinking about various types or expressionsof truth. Our students usually are not. For many of them, the only option isthat a story is "true" or it is "false." Thus, when I helpthem see the differences in the two Genesis accounts of creation and suggestthat neither is historically or scientifically accurate, they hear me sayingthat these stories are not "true." My task is to help them understandthat the stories may be true on a deeper level. They represent ancient Israel'sattempt to say something profound about its understanding of its God, ofhumanity, and of the entire created world.

In the language of Paul Ricoeur, our task is help students move from naiveteto critical thinking and then ultimately to a second, or post-critical,naivete. In the last stage, students can move beyond the simplistic true/falsedichotomy to appreciating the truth that these stories are intended to convey,apart from the question of historicity. Even for students who have no personalfaith commitment to the biblical texts, arriving at the stage of post-criticalnaivete is important. Only then can they enter the world of the text andappreciate what the texts are communicating. To have the ability to understandthese ancient stories as stories and appreciate what they are saying is the goalof reading religious texts. Otherwise, we end up viewing the texts only asliterary documents or historical works. My task as a religious studies professoris to help my students learn to hear and appreciate the religious dimension ofthese texts. (This is not unique to the study of the Bible. I would make thesame argument if I were teaching sacred texts from other religious traditions.)I want students to enter the stories - whether they be history, myths, parables,or folk tales - and appreciate the religious truths these texts present. Whethera student personally affirms the message of the texts is not my concern. My jobis not to defend nor repudiate the truth of the texts but to help students hearthe texts.

In spite of all I do, some students will continue to resist what happens inthe classroom. The move from a naive reading to a critical reading of the textis too painful and too frightening. What I view as exposing students to acritical reading of the text, the students view as destroying their faith. Thishas been a consistent experience of mine throughout my teaching career. Thefirst year I taught at Stetson I received a Christmas card from a student in oneof my introductory courses. Inside was a three-page letter in which the studentexpressed disappointment and sorrow over the subject matter of the course. Shewanted me to know that she would be praying for my salvation, because Iobviously was not a Christian. Similarly, this past semester when a studentturned in her final exam in the introductory course, she handed me along withthe exam a three-page letter detailing her disappointment and anger over thecourse. In the letter she wrote, "While taking your class, I was extremelydisturbed by the principals [sic] you taught and the words you spoke.Rather than the class focusing on Christian topics and teaching biblicalliterature, as the course name suggests, it focuses on the 'problems' of theBible. As I sat in class and took notes, I thought that a more proper name forthe course would be Mocking the Bible 101." The remainder of her letter wasa refutation of my approach in the classroom, complete with citations from JoshMcDowell's New Evidence that Demands a Verdict in order to show that myscholarship was faulty and biased. Since the semester had ended, all I could dowas send her a note expressing both my gratitude that she had taken the time towrite and my hope that the umbrella of the Christian faith was large enough toinclude us both.

I know my experience is not unique. Most of us who teach biblical studieshave had similar experiences. For students like these, all we can do is exposethem to the critical approach and hope that some of what we say and demonstrateto them will eventually germinate and take root. It would be tempting to dismisssuch students as lost causes about whom we should not be overly concerned. I amnot comfortable with that approach, however. Because I teach at a school thatsays the religious and spiritual quests for meaning in life are important, Ithink I have an obligation to let students know that I take their spiritualcommitments seriously. I need to keep working at finding ways to help studentsas they struggle with the internal conflicts that a critical study of the Biblecreates for them.

One of the advantages of teaching biblical studies at a place like Stetson isthat I have a large amount of freedom in my teaching that professors inchurch-related institutions or in state universities may not experience. In somechurch-related institutions, particularly those strongly tied to theirsponsoring church body, faculty may feel constrained to teach within theparameters of "orthodox" interpretations. In my setting, I have theacademic freedom to teach and explore any topic or any view I choose, limitedonly by my own integrity and professional judgment. On the other hand, since myinstitution is a private university, I feel free to discuss issues of faith orreligious commitment in the classroom without worrying that I may be violatingany separation of church and state principles. In the introductory classes,which fulfill a university requirement, I am more reluctant to pursue anyinvolved discussions of faith issues because there is still an element of"mandatory" participation in the course. Because I do not want to beseen as imposing my beliefs on unwilling students, I limit discussion of faithissues in the introductory courses. When asked directly about matters of faith,I respond honestly and briefly and encourage students to continue theconversation with me outside class if they are interested. In elective courses Ifeel more comfortable engaging students in conversations about the religious andspiritual dimensions of the texts and about what the texts might mean for peoplewho see them as bearers of truth.

Most of us who teach entered this profession because we are excited aboutwhat we teach and we want to share that enthusiasm with our students. The rewardin teaching comes when we can see the light click on in our students as theyhave one of those "aha!" moments of self-discovery, or when they fallin love with exploring new ideas and gaining new insights. One of thoserewarding moments for me occurred when a student came up to me at the end of thesemester in which she was taking the Introduction to Biblical Literature course.Thanking me for the course, she said, "I've never really known much aboutthe Bible. Now after this course I want to study it even more and find out moreabout my Jewish faith."

I teach because I enjoy teaching. I teach biblical studies because I thinkthese texts are powerful, insightful texts that continue to confront, challenge,and inspire. These texts excite me. If I do my job well, then my students willsense that excitement and perhaps catch some of that excitement for themselves.For students who have no faith commitment to the Bible, I hope they will beintrigued by this literature and appreciative of its influence in the past andin the present. For those students who view the biblical texts as bearers ofdivine truth, then I hope their experiences in my classroom will challenge,strengthen, and in some cases disturb their beliefs. Their experience may notalways equal that of the student who, in an unsolicited note at the end of hisfinal exam, wrote, "I have sincerely enjoyed your class. I have been anactive Christian my entire life and in the span of one semester you taught memore than I had learned in 19 years." Even so, I will view my teaching asuccess if I can help my students appreciate these texts as living texts thatspeak out of the depths of human experience, that wrestle with the some of themost important issues of human existence, and that invite reflection on thedivine-human encounter.

Mitchell G. Reddish is O. L. Walker Professor of Christian Studies and Chairof Religious Studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida

Citation: Mitchell G. Reddish, " Teaching Biblical Studies: Fact and Faith," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited June 2004]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=40

 
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