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Eric Daniel Barreto

Type “the Bible is like” into Google, and you will find a deluge of images to which the Bible is compared: a lion, a room in a house, a fully clothed person, Santa Claus, sex, let alone all the less-than-complementary comparisons I found. In some ways, our students are no different than this list of hits. From the obscure to the ridiculous, the profound to the incomprehensible, students enter our classrooms with certain models, metaphors, or lenses through which they view the Bible. How often do they have the opportunity to step back to examine their perception of the Bible and its function in their lives? How can we challenge students to grow beyond simplistic metaphors of the Bible—whether naive or antagonistic—and thus discover the complexity of the biblical witness and the various modes through which different people approach this consequential book? How often do we encourage our students in Bible to flex their imaginative muscles and think through images not text?

The aim of this teaching tip is to invite students to consider and examine their mental images of the Bible. The activity I outline today is relatively simple and adaptable to a variety of classroom contexts. The basic question I pose to my students in this activity is what metaphors enter their minds when they think about the Bible. Otherwise said, how would you complete the sentence, “The Bible is like….”? Initially, students are not quite sure how to address such an odd question. After all, the Bible is a book, but of course the point of the activity is to extend beyond surface level images. To help prime their imaginations, I point to a few examples, trying to include both complimentary and pejorative images, both simple and critical metaphors. Next, I permit the students plenty of time for them to consider their responses. In order to get as full a spectrum of opinions as possible, I ask each student to share their metaphor with the rest of the class, after which I help each of them explore the strengths and shortcomings of their responses. The latter must not be overtly critical but truly constructive. The point in discussing each student’s response is to demonstrate that no single image can encapsulate all possibilities nor fully contain any person’s perspective. Any image is only a snapshot of far more complex conceptions. By their nature, these images are suggestive not comprehensive.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate this technique is through an example. One particularly meaningful image introduced by a student was that the Bible is like a biological cell. For one, it is a living object, amenable to change, growth, and deterioration. The student further explained that the Bible, like a cell, has porous walls which permit a variety of sub-cellular entities to enter. It is not the task of the wall to regulate cellular traffic as it admits entities both harmful and salubrious. Once inside the cell, however, other molecular organisms either integrate the beneficial or consume the destructive. The student argued that for her the Bible is quite similar. It admits a variety of interpretations and perspectives but will reject corrupting influences. After commending the student for her imaginative addition to the discussion, I asked students for their feedback, particularly wondering aloud what gaps limited the full precision of the cellular metaphor. For example, one could point out that the Bible itself cannot regulate traffic but that interpreters must do the difficult work themselves; the processes of biblical interpretation are neither natural nor automatic. To this fascinating suggestion, I could add many others my students have advocated: a gold mine, quicksand, a letter from God, a mirror, an instruction manual, a good friend, or even a Magic-8 ball. The challenge for us as teachers is to help our students grapple, critique, and comprehend what aspects of the Bible’s many functions their metaphors prioritize and which they gloss over.

Of course, there are various ways through which the basic lessons of this activity can be conveyed. We can assign students to reflect on their conception of scripture in written form. For example, we could introduce students to a spectrum of views on the inspiration of scripture and then ask them to place themselves within that range of options. Another approach is to ask students to write social location papers which reflect on the numerous socio-cultural and religious factors that impinge upon any reading of the Bible. Nevertheless, this activity supplements in important ways such activities and even provides additional pedagogical benefits.

First, encouraging our students to think metaphorically helps add an imagistic dimension to our primarily textual study. Such a shift in media is not only a benefit to students with varying learning styles; it aids all students, no matter their learning styles, to consider the Bible in new and imaginative ways. Unlike the consideration of strictly literary or doctrinal dimensions, a classroom full of metaphorical suggestions encourages students to think of text as image, image as text.

Second, the activity introduces in a powerful way that conceptions of the Bible are fluid, imperfect, porous, and subject to change. Recognizing the fluidity of images invites students to try on, so to speak, new and even seemingly incongruous models. These imaginative experiments can enhance a student’s understanding of other perspectives and even provoke some level of empathy even for approaches that counter their own.

Third, this activity allows student to witness the different models their classmates bring to the table. The very experience of hearing their classmates conceive of the Bible in different and even conflicting images is educational. Finally, it permits students a deeper understanding of how their understanding of the Bible has shifted over time, even just a semester. I often also ask students to consider what models were active in their past and how their positions have changed. Furthermore, this is certainly an activity that could be conducted at the beginning and end of the semester, inviting students to consider how the class has reshaped their conceptions.

Whether for good or ill (but probably mostly ill), many of our students have encountered the Bible as a prepackaged and thoroughly marketed commodity. Recent efforts to publish Bibles that emulate teen magazines suggest that the function of the Bible is so often a product of marketing departments that predetermine how our students approach it. In the case of teen magazine bibles, the packaging already specifies for the consumer that the Bible is a veritable well of dating and makeup tips, a source for practical, everyday advice. Some of us may recollect even more amusing examples as we think back upon amateur oracular efforts to discern God’s will by throwing the Bible open and blindly putting one’s finger on a verse, hoping one didn’t land somewhere in Numbers. No matter our teaching contexts, whether secular or confessional, I would argue that part of our task as teachers of the Bible is to encourage all students to reassess—or even assess for the first time—how they actually approach the Bible. From a lifelong Christian who is already convinced of the Bible’s theological import to a student who views the Bible as nothing more than religious delusion and, yes, everyone in between, one of the most powerful insights we can help our students gain is that their conceptions of the Bible are not absolute.

By explicitly naming these active metaphors, students can explore both their positive and negative implications and begin to understand that any single metaphor cannot encapsulate the many functions of the Bible. Ultimately, this activity invites students to consider new, unexpected metaphors that allow them to give critical nuance to their perceptions of the Bible.

Eric Daniel Barreto,  Emory University

Citation: Eric Daniel Barreto, " The Bible is Like...Or is It?," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2008]. Online:


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