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Strategies for Moving Students from Faith-based to Academic Biblical Studies

Mary Bader

This article introduces and discusses two course-embedded assessment techniques (CAT) that I have developed related to students' prior knowledge.[1] It demonstrates how utilizing such surveys can assist liberal arts' faculty in our endeavor to meet a number of goals in an introductory Biblical Studies course; specifically,

  • They aid the students in articulating what they understand the Bible to be;
  • They prompt students to consider the origins of their opinions/beliefs;
  • They allow students to imagine and to see the religious diversity in the classroom and beyond; and
  • They have proven to be effective means of introducing how a course in biblical studies in the context of a liberal arts college classroom is different from faith-based Torah or Bible Study.

When I first began teaching at the College of Wooster, I realized that I was in new territory. Having previously taught at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, and with the entirety of my own graduate work having been completed in theological schools, I had not yet navigated the waters of teaching the Bible from a more secular non-doctrinal background. To help me think through this issue more carefully, I applied successfully for a Wabash Center Fellowship; this paper represents the work I completed with them. I acknowledge the gracious support they have provided for me. Additionally, since my years at Dominican, I have been interested in assessment, having served on the Assessment Committee at The College of Wooster; a mini-grant from them also helped me develop this work.

My Course: Introduction to Biblical Studies
The College of Wooster is a private liberal arts college in Wooster, Ohio; I teach at least three sections of Introduction to Biblical Studies per academic year. It is a class that meets the religious perspectives core curriculum requirement. In the seven semesters that I have taught at The College of Wooster, 344 students have taken the course.

Teaching Introduction to Biblical Studies can be both exhilarating and the most challenging experience![2] Each class of thirty-plus students is a microcosm of the world. The evangelical Christian, who is adamant that the Bible is the inerrant infallible normative Word of God, sits next to the person who thinks the Bible is outdated nonsense. The Wiccan student is in close proximity to religious and secular Jews. A handful of Muslim and Hindi students sit alongside the Rasta, Goth, and atheist. Overlay this mix with the growing numbers who literally have never entered a synagogue, mosque, or church and it becomes obvious that they come together with differing goals and starting points. Some come apologetic for their lack of background knowledge; others are convinced they are experts on biblical interpretation. Many have never had the opportunity to consider that the word "Scripture" may mean something entirely different to the person sitting next to them. They do not realize that different canons exist.

Regardless of background, no one comes to the study of the Bible as a "clean slate." Because of the culture in which we live, everyone brings some preconceived notions about the Bible. The Pre-Course Survey allows students to see this diversity from the very beginning and presents an opportunity to talk about the various ways of navigating such marked differences of opinion/belief.

When it comes to what I am attempting to achieve in the classroom, I have found Parker Palmer's thoughts on creating hospitable space to be helpful.[3] It is critical that students feel safe in the environment they and I co-create. To that end, we talk openly about what healthy and safe learning environments are. We both write and speak about the newness of the material we will cover as a class and what students suspect might be the range of reactions. Beginning with the hypothetical makes the discussion comfortable. With one of the primary goals of a liberal arts education being critical thinking, we serve students well by encouraging and teaching self-critical awareness and articulation.

As a means of opening this dialogue, I have developed and utilized a pre-course survey or a pre-course Classroom Assessment Technique (CAT) to identify the presumptions students bring to the course. I use Thomas Angelo's work on prior knowledge as a major foundation of my research and work, as it speaks to the issue many of us face:

XXXXThe greatest obstacle to new learning often is not the student's lack of prior knowledge but rather, the existence of prior knowledge. . . . For instance, virtually all incoming first-year college students have knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes about the phenomena they will study in political science, economics, anthropology, sociology, history, and psychology courses.[4]

While Angelo's list was not necessarily meant to be exhaustive, he neglected to mention religion and biblical studies. My paper addresses this gap. Because some people have high emotional-spiritual investment in religious matters, it is obviously a discipline within which it is critical to examine prior knowledge. Students can have a very difficult time transitioning between their learned and accepted (and for some, what they perceive as the only acceptable) way of reading biblical material and the oftentimes new approaches that are presented in this course. [5] Angelo has insightful theories and suggestions that can be used in my field; he has proposed assessment techniques whereby these preconceptions can be brought to light and addressed within the classroom.

Especially for those in their first year or two of college, this introductory course comes as a surprise on a number of fronts. Students from faith communities expect that the class will be a semester-long Torah or Bible Study. Many of them are sadly disillusioned and angry when it is not; others are ecstatically relieved. Simultaneous with these polar emotional and spiritual reactions to the course's content and tone, a handful of the students, particularly those who are now studying the Bible outside their faith tradition, are encountering marked differences of opinions about the Bible for the first time in their lives. They have never had the opportunity to consider biblical texts alongside someone with a different perspective. A few do not want to and maybe cannot think critically about the Bible; oftentimes, it is this group that reacts defensively, with hostility, or by shutting down. Both successive chairpersons of the Religious Studies department and other faculty members have informed me that this has been an ongoing departmental issue for at least the past fifteen years. It is also an interdisciplinary challenge that other colleagues face. This phenomenon is neither particular to The College of Wooster nor to a liberal arts college; for example, in their articles in Teaching Theology and Religion, both Roger Newell and Michael R. Cosby write of students' disappointment and agitation with academic or scholarly analysis of biblical material. [6] Although at The College of Wooster such students are numerically in the minority, their effect on classroom dynamics and the intensity of their reaction can be most profound. It is reflected, for example, in their comments on final course evaluations.[7]

In our present global context, it has become increasingly important that we listen to and talk with people from diverse religious backgrounds; Introduction to Biblical Studies has a potential learning/ teaching outcome of providing a model of how diverse people can talk with and listen to one another without animosity or judgment. This course can present an opportunity for all to learn some new language with which to study Scriptures.

On the first day of class, even before looking at and reviewing the syllabus and course requirements/expectations, I administer the Pre-Course Survey, which can be found at the end of this article. Students are asked to complete the following statement, "The Bible is ...." I then ask, "In this classroom setting, what do you suspect the range of answers to that question will be?" Immediately, they are beckoned and given the space to think beyond themselves and their own traditions and to imagine how others might respond. They become increasingly aware that they are being asked to move out of a devotional faith-based way of studying/reading the Bible.

Students generally take 15-20 minutes to complete the survey. On the second day of class, as part of a larger power-point presentation that introduces the topic "What is the Bible?," I include their responses anonymously. First of all, I have found that this survey is a most effective way to start a dialogue about the different ways people view or define the Bible. Secondly, it readily permits us to see the various influences on us. For example, having completed the survey, students are more easily able to see and understand that rabbis/pastors, youth leaders, Hebrew School/Sunday School teachers, parents, and friends have all played a part in helping them formulate their understandings of the Bible. Many articulate that they have moved away from what they had learned as children. This may have happened when they met a friend/significant other from a different religious tradition. Some directly state that they are challenging their parents'/family viewpoints. Quite a few speak openly about the role that education, reading, TV, and movies have had on challenging and informing their religious understandings.

As we contemplate the various experiences that students may have had and the impact of meeting new ideas, a meaningful comparison can be drawn between their own lives and those of the Ancient Israelites/Hebrews. For example, the students who have found their worldview being challenged by encounters with other cultures may indeed be feeling something similar to the Ancient Israelites/Hebrews, who might have been influenced by a concept from Egypt, Babylon, or, in general, the Ancient Near East. This allows us to speak about religious identity and how that is shaped in relation to those around us. This is true of every person and every religious tradition.

Each section of the class is pluralistic. Each student is able to locate herself/himself within the range; this may be done individually (i.e. privately), with someone they know, or with the class as a whole. This exercise naturally leads to discussions envisioning how people with different sets of presumptions can dialogue. We are able to talk about that person's starting points and presuppositions. This dialogue can pave the way for us to move beyond the individuals in the class to a more global context and a historical one. Not only do they differently complete "The Bible is ...," but the Jewish, Protestant, and Roman Catholic traditions offer different answers to that question.

The canon itself reflects more than one understanding of how the world began. Knowing that not everyone in the class holds the same idea about how the world/cosmos began naturally segues into a discussion about source-criticism and Genesis 1 and 2. Students seem very receptive to there being more than one explanation of creation found within the Bible. Especially, but not only within the first few class sessions, we speak about the various reactions to academic biblical scholarship. We consider the ramifications that proposing early source-critical ideas had on the life of someone like Spinoza, for example. Throughout the course, we look at doctrinal stances of some faith traditions as reflected in faith expressions such as the Nicene, Apostles', and Athanasian Creeds. We also consider the various ways in which Jewish and Christian traditions use biblical events, like the exodus, in liturgies of Pesach (Passover) and the Easter Vigil.

Some students enjoy and easily navigate the comparative work. Others struggle. This can also be true of institutions. Sharon Daloz Park writes about the "shipwreck metaphor" as the sincere trauma that a person may undergo when tightly held ideas meet something new and different. [8] She refers to what happens when "a new experience or idea . . . calls into question things as we have perceived them, or as they were taught to us, or as we have read, heard, or assumed. [9] " Presenting Park's work to the class allays some fears and gives names to such reactions so that they can be openly addressed.

With the goal of moving students from the known into the unknown, I introduce the various methods of academic biblical criticism, carefully pointing out how they can be different from a devotional reading of scripture. I have designed lesson plans that address various sets of presumptions or lenses with which people read biblical texts. Some class sessions are devoted, for example, to the students' brainstorming the sort of questions faith communities might ask about or of a text. Two such questions might be: "What can we learn about God's character through this passage?" and "What are the implications of this passage for faithful Jews and faithful Christians?"

After beginning where most students are comfortable, that is, on familiar ground with faith-based questioning, we model several approaches to biblical study — literary and historical criticisms. In this way, we see and experience various ways of reading and defining the texts. Each methodological approach asks its own set of questions of the texts. For example, a question of historical criticism would be "Who wrote this text?" A literary critic, on the other hand, might ask, about the narrator's point-of-view. Language and aim differ from one methodology to the next, each of which has its own set of presuppositions, questions, and starting points. These methodologies thus become the focus of the semester's work, and students are now equipped to see the ways in which these methodologies can be employed to answer their own inquiries and questions. I introduce academic biblical scholarship as a new language that can be shared by all students, regardless of their faith backgrounds or lack thereof.

In the final weeks of the course, I utilize a post-course assessment tool that I have designed to measure the development of students' thinking. In that survey, found at the very end of this paper, many of the questions from the pre-course CAT are revisited. After completing this second assessment measure, students are able to review their own and the collective shifts that have taken place over the semester. I hand back both their pre-course (which I've had since the first day of class) and their post-course CAT's; I give them some time to review their survey responses from a few months ago and encourage them to compare and contrast the set of papers. We speak about the changes. To facilitate this discussion, I prepare either another series of PowerPoint slides or an electronic document that I project on the screen for them to review. This is the overview of the whole class' responses; once again, they and I point out the visible patterns. I have found that students react very well to the two CAT's and that the surveys have greatly assisted us in meeting the course objectives in Introduction to Biblical Studies.

Link to Pre Course Survey

Link to Post Course Survey

1. Thomas Angelo, who has worked in the field of assessment, has coined this phrase. Much of my work has been influenced by his writing and speaking.

2. My experience mirrors that described by Cosby in his article: Michael R. Cosby, "Using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to Teach Biblical Studies in Christian Liberal Arts Colleges," Teaching Theology and Religion, 2001, vol. 4. no. 2, 72.

3. Parker J. Palmer, To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 69-87.

4. Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross, Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2d ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993), 132-133. Italics mine.

5. One student critiqued the textbook in this way: "It helped with the actual material of the course, but not with personal understanding." This person also wanted the course to be "more spiritually taught." Another commented, "The course did nothing to further my faith." The two students who wrote these critiques obviously had and held expectations of the course that differed greatly from my objectives and goals.

6. Cosby, 71-80 and Roger Newell, "Teaching the Bible along the Devotional/ Academic Faultline: An Incarnational Approach to the Quarrel between Love and Knowledge," Teaching Theology and Religion, 2003, vol. 6. no. 4, 190-197.

7. A student made the following points on his/her final course evaluation: When asked how I helped students think clearly about the course material, the response was, "She does not present one idea as a truth, but everything as having fallacy of some kind." This same student cited her/his contribution to the class as "a very opposite opinion from an academic perspective." Is there any other discipline in which a college student would feel proud to write on a course evaluation that his/her contribution to a class was "a very opposite opinion from an academic perspective?" It is hard to imagine that comment in the context of a course in economics, biology, or history. One can understand what lies behind it in an introductory biblical studies class.

8. Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions: Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 27-31.

9. Ibid., 28.

Mary Bader, The College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio.

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Citation: Mary Bader, " Strategies for Moving Students from Faith-based to Academic Biblical Studies," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Nov 2005]. Online:


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