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The Problem and the Challenge

Given the role of religion on the world stage during the last ten years—9/11; wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bosnia, and Rwanda; debates about abortion, stem cells, death penalty, and gay marriage—it might come as no surprise that the number of religion majors in American colleges and universities is on the rise and, with it, the number of stand-alone religion programs. According to “The Religion Major and Liberal Education: A White Paper,” published in October 2008 in the American Academy of Religion’s Religious Studies News, there are some 47,000 religion majors at any given time.[1] The report also notes that, relatively speaking, the number of students in biblical studies courses has not increased; students are seeking to understand Christianity, not in isolation, but within a global context.[2] Consequently, departments of religion are shifting from a seminary model of religious studies, in which Christianity is prominent, to a more comparative model.[3]

This means that, in order to relate more readily to the rest of the curriculum, teachers of biblical studies might have to shift their focus from an affirmative Christian perspective where the Bible serves as an authoritative source for making meaning and moral decisions, to a more neutral perspective in which the Bible serves as an artifact of—and an influence in—establishing Judeo-Christian traditions. As such, the Bible itself becomes a subject of sociological study, reflecting a complex composition history spanning many centuries and responding to a variety of historical and cultural events. In the context of other sacred texts, it requires particular attention because it has been so influential in shaping popular culture; biblical literacy is thus a pre-requisite to informed Western living. As such, the Bible continues to deserve some priority of place in the American religious studies curriculum.

How then, and what then, should we teach our students about the Bible in this new comparative environment of religious studies?

Strategies and Student Learning Outcomes

Thankfully, the “White Paper” also provides some logistical help. It identifies a growing consensus on the nature of the religious studies major, a major that, by its very nature, is intercultural and comparative, multi-disciplinary, critical, integrative, and creative and constructive.[4] By using these characteristics as touchstones, teachers of biblical studies can evaluate and modify student learning outcomes both to meet the needs and interests of students and to preserve academic integrity within the religion major.

To demonstrate how this works concretely, I will take each one of these characteristics and suggest a possible student learning outcome (SLO) for an introductory-level biblical studies course, specifically a class on the creation stories. (Obviously, not every learning unit would require multiple SLOs. An entire syllabus would likely have four to five  main learning objectives introduced and developed over time and coordinated with the major and core curricula; by tailoring SLOs this way, we become more intentional about the kinds of learning students need and about effective educational practices that help students integrate and apply their learning.[5])

Let us now consider strategies by which the creation stories might be taught within a more comparative religious studies model following the characteristics (in bold) as defined by the AAR-Teagle White Paper.[6]  

1. Intercultural and Comparative: The major explores more than one religious tradition and engages the phenomena of religion comparatively across and within cultures.

Possible SLO: Students are able to describe ways that different cultural myths construct the understanding of the relationship between humankind and the earth.

It is quite common to compare the creation stories of Gen 1-3 with the Babylonian creation story of the Enuma Elish. But, for many students, the Enuma Elish represents just another ancient myth without relevance for them. One way to engage students in a more contemporary comparison is to ask them to describe how they think the world came into being. Identify these various theories of origins as cultural “myths” and, with each myth, consider the relationship between humans and the earth: Are humans evolved from the animal kingdom, accidents of chance, guardians of all that is, or one of many sentient beings with rights? What are the benefits and challenges of the humans’ role within this framework? Only then compare the creation accounts featured in Gen 1 and 2–3: What is the relationship between humans and the earth according to these stories? What are the benefits and challenges of this relationship? By comparing the Priestly (Gen 1), Yahwist (Gen 2–3), and other creation stories, students will learn that the Bible is not univocal and that myths shape understanding of the environment.

2. Multi-disciplinary: The major promotes the understanding and application of a range of methodological and theoretical approaches to religious phenomena.

Possible SLO: Students are able to ask and answer questions about creation by drawing on different critical methods.

Biblical studies can be used effectively to teach students about a multi-disciplinary approach to learning. In a study of the creation stories, form criticism can highlight the differences between the tightly constructed poetic (liturgical) nature of Gen 1 and the “Yahwist” mythic narrative of Gen 2–3. Socio-historical criticism could contribute a discussion on the role that priests might have in evoking creation through liturgy or the role of ancestors in establishing a divine lineage. Folklore studies point to common motifs and characters (that trickster serpent, for example). Ideological criticism might evoke a discussion on the power relationships established in these stories. Some introductory textbooks effectively use a different critical method for each chapter, but I find students become more adept at recognizing and applying these if I am very explicit and intentional about methods in the classroom. So, I describe the types of questions and answers that arise from a particular method, and then encourage students to practice asking and answering these types of questions themselves.    

3. Critical: The major teaches students to examine and engage religious phenomena, including issues of ethical and social responsibility, from a perspective of critical inquiry and analysis of both the other and the self.

Possible SLO: Students are able to describe a range of ethical dilemmas that arise from the creation stories. 

For many Americans, the Bible is the “Maker’s Handbook” and is thus a source for ethical reasoning. In fact, according to Barbara Walvoord,[7] students take introductory courses in religion in order to understand their origins, purpose, and destiny in life. However, ethical reasoning based on the Bible is often uncritical and ill-informed. For this reason, I try to make room for ethical discussions in the classroom, not with a view to correct or to help students to make the right choices, but to present the range of possibilities so that they will be able to make an informed and responsible decision aware of implications and consequences. In discussions on the creation stories, then, we might consider the issue of birth control (God intended women to experience “pain in childbirth”) or strip-mining (“humans have dominion over the earth”), or patriarchy (“the man shall rule over the woman”). Students might debate Eve’s wisdom: Was she right to choose knowledge over obedience? What are the consequences of choosing knowledge over obedience today? In exploring the different interpretations of these issues, students will learn that there is no single “ethical answer” according to the Bible.  

4. Integrative: The major applies theoretical knowledge of religious phenomena to lived, practical contexts, both historical and current.

Possible SLO: Students are able to describe the various roles that religious holidays or groups play in contemporary society. 

In order to integrate the theoretical learning in the classroom with experiential learning, provide opportunities for students to explore the lived reality of religious practitioners. This includes Judeo-Christian traditions, for although most students may be familiar with them, they are often unfamiliar with the history or meaning behind certain practices. With a focus on the creation stories, students might participate in, observe, or explain Jewish Sabbath practice. They might debate the relatively recent shift in public policy of “business as usual” on Sunday or review the history of Blue Laws prohibiting the sale of liquor before noon on Sundays. In the context of service-learning, students might review a religious group’s vision statement to see how it compares to the “vision statement” of creation; are humans placed at the center of creation or buildings? How can we tell? Is there a hierarchy of personnel reflecting one or other of the creation narratives? Students are more likely to engage in learning if they can see how the Bible continues to influence people’s behaviors in a contemporary context.

5. Creative and Constructive: The major employs knowledge of religious phenomena and the skills of religious studies in the solving of complex problems, including those raised in the personal and social engagement of issues of life, death, love, violence, suffering, and meaning.

Possible SLO: Students are able to articulate their sense of life, death, love, violence, suffering, and meaning by interpreting a creation myth.            

Given their mythic nature, the creation stories are a valuable resource for reflecting on issues of life, death, love, violence, suffering, and meaning. Invite students to articulate their sense of self and then to work backwards to construct a creation myth that explains why they are the way they are. Or in a similar vein, ask them to construct a myth about the nature of love or the origins of violence and suffering. Invite them to put their creation myth to drama, music, or a visual art form, making sure that they emphasize the moment in the story that is most central. Provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their ability to be creative, and to “solve problems” as the biblical authors may have done before them. This is also a rich opportunity for them to explore personal meaning.

In summary, I reiterate the recommendations of the LEAP National Leadership Council, that we “intentionally foster across multiple fields of study, wide-ranging knowledge of science, cultures, and society; high-level intellectual and practical skills; an active commitment to personal and social responsibility; and the demonstrated ability to apply learning to complex problems and challenges.”[8] The emerging consensus on the nature of the religion major reflects these affirmations and sets our bar high. As teachers of biblical literature, we are thus well-advised to review our student learning outcomes—to make sure that they are “essential” learning outcomes and that they fit into the broader curriculum—and to adapt our teaching strategy to shift the focus from a seminary type program in which Christianity is primary to a more comparative program of study. In this way, we demonstrate sensitivity to the shifting needs of our students and the growing diversity in the classroom.    

Jane S. Webster, Barton College 

Notes

[1] Timothy Renick, “The Religious Studies Major in a Post–9/11World: New Challenges, New Opportunities,” Religious Studies News 23 (2008): 21.

 [2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Ibid.

[5] National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) “College Learning for the New Global Century.” Cited March 2, 2009. Online at http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/GlobalCentury_ExecSum_final.pdf.

[6] Renick, “The Religious Studies Major,” 23.

[7] B. Walvoord, Teaching and Learning in College Introductory Religion Courses (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008).

[8] National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) “College Learning for the New Global Century.” Cited March 2, 2009. Online at http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/GlobalCentury_ExecSum_final.pdf.

 
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