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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Faith and the Discipline in the Classroom: A Crucial Dialectical Relationship

When discussing "faith in the classroom," one cannot ignore one's social context. Educational institutions provide their own distinctive social settings, cultures, values, and ideologies. William Jewell College, where I have taught now for almost a quarter of a century, offers no exception. Jewell is a "historic church-related liberal arts college," a euphemism for "we used to be a church-related college." Jewell's relationship with the Missouri Baptist Convention was severed by the Convention a few years ago when Jewell refused to succumb to pressures from the Convention to conduct its governance and shape its curriculum in a manner that would appease the Convention's fundamentalist ideology.

Still, Jewell takes its Christian identity quite seriously. With our divorce from Missouri Baptists appearing increasingly inevitable and imminent, our president, David Sallee, urged the College to use this as an opportunity to define for ourselves our identity, including that dimension of identity that is informed by our Christian heritage. Permeating our campus-wide Core Curriculum is deliberate attention to Christian tradition. I use the word "permeating," for exploration of Christian tradition is not confined to requiring a religion course; rather, various courses within the curriculum give attention to this tradition. Further, attention to the implications of Christian tradition and theology are more explicitly a part of the religion department's curriculum than they were when I joined the faculty some twenty-five years ago. At that time, the line that separated the descriptive study of religion and the explicit discussion of religion as it informed the personal lives of students was fairly thick and well defined. As one student put it to me many years ago, "I feel I have to leave my faith at the door when I come into your classroom." Clearly, for this student there was no "faith in the classroom." While many students may not like what they hear in religious studies classes, I don't believe that that they would now say that they have to leave their faith at the door.

With respect to my teaching, I have not abandoned my belief that critical biblical study is necessary. Yet I strive to make students explicitly aware that biblical criticism is a collage of humanly constructed methods that are then employed by human interpreters. My colleague Milton Horne and I co-authored a textbook, Rereading the Bible.[1] Our method in this book illustrates the paradigm that I bring to the classroom, which does not require students to leave their faith at the door. As the title of the text — Rereading the Bible — suggests, the method employed is that of intertextuality. We employ the word text in its broadest sense, following the leads of David Penchansky[2] and James Voelz.[3]

We introduce our students to the basic notion of text, defined as literary text, which is the focal text of our study, the Bible. We also speak of social text, by which we mean the social context — the culture and social world — of the Bible. There is the self-text, a short-hand term for the self that produces and interprets texts, the sum total of one's story, experiences, beliefs, values, etc. The self-text, of course, is shaped and informed by the social text in which the self is embedded. Finally, there is the interpretive text, the understanding of a literary text constructed by a self-text.

I am careful in the context — the social text — of my classroom to encourage students to understand that when speaking of social and self-texts, we are not talking only about the social text out of which the Bible came and the self-texts of those who, over the centuries, produced the biblical literary text. It is crucial to understand that we who read the literary text of the Bible today also bring to this literary text our own self-texts, which are informed and shaped by the social texts in which we find ourselves embedded. The interpretive texts that emerge from our own reading of the literary text of the Bible come out of a complex intersection of various texts. The self-text that we bring to the literary text of the Bible, informed by our own social texts, intersects with this literary text and out of that intersection emerges our interpretive texts.

Yet we are intersecting with a literary text that is itself a product of socially embedded self-texts wrestling with inherited texts, literary or oral. Out of this intersection emerged the literary text of the Bible, which itself is an interpretive text from the persons, the self-texts, who constructed these literary texts. We summarize the process in our textbook this way:

Essentially intertextuality occurs when a reader of a text or a set of texts intersects this text or set of texts with one or more other texts. It is in the intersection of one text or set of texts with another text or set of texts that interpretation emerges. This textbook refers to such interpretation as "rereading." The process of rereading provides a plausible model for understanding the origins of the Bible. Each successive generation receives from its predecessors a body of texts, in this case, sacred texts. These texts become a means of making life meaningful. But each generation also rereads the texts, that is, reinterprets them for their own use and the use of future generations to which such texts will be passed. The Bible, according to this model, is therefore a collection of received and reinterpreted sacred texts passed on and successively reinterpreted by members of their respective worshipping communities.[4]

What I find useful about this model is that it requires historical critical reading that is also consciously aware of the complex role of the reader in the interpretive process. Attention to the literary text of the Bible calls for the careful reading of the text itself. Careful attention to the text, including the many intertexts within the Bible, calls for explanation of these intertextual relationships, which opens the door to explore issues of source, form, and redaction criticism — staples of the historical critical method. Attention to the social text out of which the literary text emerged calls for attempting to understand the literary text within its own social and historical context, another significant feature of critical interpretation.

And yet awareness of our own social and self-texts also keeps before students the idea that it is they who are constructing interpretations, or interpretive texts. Just as the biblical writers were informed by their own social texts and the various traditions that they inherited, so too are we informed by our own social texts, texts that shape our self-texts from which we cannot escape as we engage in the work of interpretation. This awareness does not discourage students from bringing their own self-texts, including their faith, to the interpretive process. However, this requires that students have a critical awareness that their faith did not fall out the sky — they are very much shaped by their own social texts, both those in which they grew up and those in which they now find support and affirmation.

The critical method that I employ is hardly one of fideism. It is actually quite a humanistic method, emphasizing the role that human beings played in the construction of biblical traditions that eventuated in literary texts and the construction of interpretive texts, both within the Bible and in subsequent interpretation of that Bible up to our own time. In the epilogue of our textbook we reiterate that it is readers who construct meaning, who construct interpretive texts from the literary text of the Bible. We speak explicitly of the importance of communities, of social texts, in shaping readers' self-texts and the interpretive texts that they construct. I quote from the epilogue:

Through relationships communities are charged with a kind of spiritual vitality. This vitality forms a commonness of purpose and intent and makes such actions as reading and interpretation no mere "willy-nilly" activity. Rather, that common purpose and vital spirit provide the boundaries of meaning that may be derived from a text. In the case of Jewish or Christian communities, it is the experience of the living God, as it has been transmitted through the community of faith, that assists the process of reading and interpretation. The creative vitality of the community as it practices love for each other and those outside the community guides the interpretation of sacred texts. Meaning, therefore, is inter-relational activity.

If determining meaning of the biblical text is an inter-relational activity, then it is also an on-going activity — one that can never cease. As relationships and circumstances change, so do meanings. . . . The process of rereading goes on.[4]

A critical method that does not minimize the human contribution to both the origins of the Bible and its subsequent interpretation regularly gives rise to questions of biblical authority and inspiration. What might the evidence of all these human fingerprints say about God and God's way of working? To assist in this exploration, we conclude the semester by reading Tom Wright's The Last Word.[6] Through our reading of this text, I invite students to consider that the authority of Scripture is rooted in God, not in the texts themselves and certainly not in some theory about the origins of these texts, whether such theories are critical or pre-critical. The authority of Scripture is grounded in God and the story of God and of God's people, in whom God, in God's trust and willingness to risk, places enough faith to be God's co-creators and co-authors of the story of redemption that the Bible tells.

Critical reading of the Bible also exposes students to different perspectives on God within the Bible itself. That often creates confusion. Where God is involved, there is to be absolute harmony and consistency. In the context of our study of Rereading the Bible, several issues emerge that stand in tension with one another if one is looking to the Bible for some guidance on what God wants God's people to do and to be. Does God want the center of religious and civic life to be the local family and tribal priests (the Covenant Code), or does God want a centralized place of worship and jurisprudence, with a centralized monarchy and priesthood (the Deuteronomic Code)? And wherein resides the legitimate priesthood: the Levites (Deuteronomy) or the Aaronic priesthood (the Chronicler)? Does God want God's people to obliterate the nations (Joshua), exclude the nations (Ezra-Nehemiah), or be a light to the nations, welcoming them to God's Temple (Isaiah)? Is the covenant with God to be understood primarily as something initiated and sustained by God (the priestly tradition), or is the maintenance of the covenant contingent and dependent upon the people's faithfulness to God's law (the Deuteronomic tradition)? Should God's people, after the tragedy of the Exile, hope for a restoration of the Davidic monarchy (Jeremiah, Haggai, Zechariah), or does the future leadership of God's people now reside with the priesthood and Temple (the Chronicler and also Zechariah).

And even as we move into the New Testament, we find the people of God still wrestling with important issues. Does the New Covenant stand in smooth continuity with the Old (Matthew), or does it supercede the Old (Hebrews)? Does the one who follows Jesus continue to obey the Law of Moses, from which not one stroke will pass away (Matthew), or has God "set aside the law, with its commandments and ordinances" (Ephesians)? And what is the destiny of Israel that has not accepted Jesus as Messiah? Should we be confident, like Paul, that God will graft back onto the tree those branches that have been cut off? Or should we focus on the image of John's Gospel, that such branches will be gathered and thrown into the fire? These kinds of questions and many more emerge within my class out of the intertextual approach to biblical introduction.

I invite students to consider that the God of the Bible — not only the God who appears in the stories of the Bible, but also the God who acts and interacts with God's people in the clumsy and messy history that is the story behind the Bible — does not drop propositional truths on a page, employing human beings only as instruments to hold the pen. The God who inspires Scripture, as such Scripture came to be according to the standards of critical biblical scholarship, is much like the God who created our universe, as such a universe came to be according the standards of modern science. It was a slow, at times tortuous process, where dead ends and blind alleys were (proportionately, at least) as much a part of the evolution of biblical literature as biological life. The God of both the mainstream scientist of faith and the critical biblical scholar of faith leaves the movement of cosmic, earthly, Israelite, and scriptural history to run its own course. There is an almost frightening and daunting level of freedom that God gives to creation and to God's people. And yet, it is a course that marvelously really does "go somewhere." It is a course that graciously has a telos, or more precisely a series of tele. The Bible, for one who takes seriously critical scholarship, is not a direct deposit of revelation, so much as a collection of interpretive texts emerging out of the attempts of God's people who have encountered God to deal with that encounter and to make sense of it in their ever-changing social texts.

Many students are transformed by our courses, moving out into the somewhat ambiguous frontiers of critical study where they cannot ignore the significant role that human beings play in the production of the biblical story and the larger story of redemption that it tells. Not all students share my point of view. In many ways, resistance to the liberal bias of the department of religion is more intense among some students and even faculty than it was back in the days when the line between "descriptive study" and "personal relevance" was thicker. I take such increased resistance as a sign that the campus community recognizes that we in the department do now bring faith into the classroom more than we used to. Some may not like our brand of faith and would wish that we would leave our faith at the door. But faith has now found its way into my classroom; while it will certainly mutate and evolve over the years I have left, it will remain there, I suspect, until I offer my last class.

J. Bradley Chance, William Jewell College

[1] Rereading the Bible: An Introduction to the Biblical Story (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000).

[2] "Staying the Night: Intertextuality in Genesis and Judges," in Reading Between Texts: Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible (ed. Donna N. Fewell; Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1992), 77-88.

[3] "Multiple Signs, Levels of Meaning and Self as Text: Elements of Intertextuality," in Intertextuality and the Bible, SBLSS 60/70 (ed. G. Aichele and G. A. Phillips; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 149-64.

[4] Rereading, 12.

[5] Rereading, 413.

[6] The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005).

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Citation: J. Bradley Chance, " Faith and the Discipline in the Classroom: A Crucial Dialectical Relationship ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2007]. Online:


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