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 The phrase biblical criticism evokes resistance among students accustomed to hearing more reverent combinations such as Holy and Bible, or Sacred and Scripture . Form criticism, literary criticism, feminist criticism, and other approaches valued by scholars unnerve some readers, especially when these methods are brought to bear on texts that are embraced as sacred and read in devotion. From the perspective of more than a few confessing students, sacred things are not subject to criticism, even in the most noble and innocent sense of the term. Ironically, the high regard that some students have for the Bible not only draws them to it but erects a barrier that keeps them from it.

Therein lies a dilemma for the professor who teaches biblical studies. How does one introduce critical methods to earnest yet hesitant learners? How can one teach above suspicion and around reticence? The problem is relevant to instruction from classrooms in small church-related colleges to lecture halls at large public universities, for class rosters almost always include students who have guarded minds shaped by more conserving faith communities. I use the term guarded and not closed, for there is nothing wrong (and something right) about reading with suspicion, a stance that is widely appreciated in contemporary biblical studies. I also prefer the term guarded because I have come to think of reticent students as gifts: they are often invested in the subject and highly motivated, and they possess something that those who teach courses in biblical literature hope to sharpen and to soften: namely, a critical edge. A guarded mind is rarely a closed mind, and confessing students are not suspicious of critical methods per se; rather, they are leery of their application to canonical texts in their own religious traditions. To overcome resistance, therefore, the teacher may introduce critical methods by applying them to neutral texts or in an analogous field. Learning may then be transferred.

Transfer Learning

The concept of transfer is familiar to those who teach in primary and secondary schools and is closely allied with discovery learning, an approach advocated by Jerome Bruner. [1] Students are provided with material and questions to explore. They are not asked to memorize facts or to master content; rather, they are expected to discover abstract principles and to acquire skills that can be used to solve analogous problems. Transferable skills, of course, are high-order skills. In Bloom's taxonomy, rote memorization is not complex; the level of complexity increases as one progresses from memorization to its comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. [2] Memorizing a poem, though difficult and time-consuming, is relatively simple; however, it is not so simple to explain what a poem means, how it achieves meaning, and why it is or is not worth reading. Transferable skills that involve interpretation, explanation, and evaluation are complex, and it is the abstract nature of complex skills that makes them transferable. The physician may not know what the veterinarian knows about the anatomy of animals, yet he or she is able to think abstractly about problems and solutions related to human anatomy and, for that matter, the anatomy of many species. Learning transfers, but only when certain conditions are met. Transfer requires active, explicit, and practiced abstraction and reflection. It occurs when the student recognizes that two fields are analogous, understands an abstract principle in one field, and explores its application in another. [3]

Analogous Disciplines

Biblical interpretation and art criticism are analogous disciplines. Narrative is a form of art, and, conversely, art a form of narrative. Texts and paintings alike tell stories and can be "read." The abstract reading skills learned in art criticism readily transfer to biblical criticism. Adele Berlin makes this point in Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative: "Because all art-forms share some of the same problems of expression and perception, what we learn of one can often be applied to another. This, however, is not to be applied directly, but rather as an analogy; for each art-form involves its own means of perception." [4]

To introduce reticent students to critical reading strategies related to the design, provenance, and ideology of a text, I turn to the less threatening space of an analogous discipline: art criticism. I display a painting and ask three basic questions: What elements can be observed in the work, and how are they arranged? What might the elements have symbolized in the social world of the artist? and What ideas or ideals might account for the elements in the painting? I work one example in class. I then ask the students to view a second painting, to explore the questions, and to present their interpretations for discussion. I allow ample time for students to do research in the library and to reflect on their discoveries about the painting, themselves, and the questions, and during the discussion I often voice the words criticism and critical. Resistant students seemed to be changed by the exercise, which creates a safe space for experimentation. They enjoy the lively discussion and almost always one will ask, "Can we apply these questions to passages in the Bible?" Because the students have enrolled in a biblical studies course, not in art appreciation, they ponder the relatedness of art and biblical criticism throughout the exercise, and this fosters conditions essential to transfer learning.

The analogous relationship of biblical criticism and art criticism provides an opportunity for those who teach critical methods to counter resistance. By temporarily shifting from one field to the other, confessing students who hesitate to experiment with critical reading strategies are allowed to experiment unencumbered by certain pious fears. As they see the value of a critical approach, they become more comfortable and gain confidence in applying critical methods to canonical texts. They are set free to explore the texts they treasure in new ways.

"Reading" Hogarth

One of the paintings that I have used to introduce critical methods is The Graham Children by William Hogarth, an eighteenth-century British engraver. Hogarth sought to transform canvas into theater and once explained, "I have endeavoured to treat my subjects as a dramatic writer: my picture is my stage, and men and women my players." [5] Painted in 1742, The Graham Children was commissioned by Daniel Graham, father of the four children in the portrait and an apothecary to the Chelsea Hospital, an appointment that made it possible for him to acquire the lavish mansion in which his children posed. The names of the children, from oldest to youngest, are Henrietta Catherine (b. 1733), Richard Robert (b. 1734), Anna Maria (b. 1738), and Thomas (b. 1740). [6] The portrait, according to David Bindman, is "one of the definitive accounts of eighteenth-century childhood." [7]

[The Graham Children may be seen at The London Gallery in London. For a digital image and notes for teachers, visit]

What elements are included in the painting, and how are they arranged? The four children are most prominent: two girls stand in the center; two boys are seated at their sides. The children are smiling and are attired in fine clothing. The baby wears a bonnet and gown, as was customary for babies of the period. Fresh flowers and fruit adorn the hair of the young women; flowers are printed on the younger girl's dress, which she holds out in display, and the older girl holds double cherries; more fruit and flowers are held by the basket near the stroller. The baby is reaching for the cherries in his sister's hand, or perhaps he reaches for the goldfinch in the cage, which also draws the gaze of his older brother. The caged goldfinch is one of three birds that appear in the painting: a second is carved on the handle of the baby's stroller, with its sharp wings pointed upward and backward in motionless flight, and a third, if not visible, is heard in the warble of the serinette, the bird-whistle music box held on the older boy's lap. Painted on the music box is Orpheus charming the beasts. Lurking in the background above the lad is a cat with eyes fixed on the bird in the cage. On the wall behind the cage hangs a painting with dark clouds rolling toward the coast. On the table above Baby Thomas sits a clock decorated with a Cupid-like statue holding a scythe.

Four happy children, three skittish birds, and a common but menacing house cat; double cherries, fresh fruit, and cut flowers; a painted storm, a clock with an infant holding a scythe, and Orpheus charming the beasts: what might these elements symbolize in the social world of the artist? Orpheus, in Greek lore, played his lyre so beautifully that even animals and rocks were moved to dance. In the Hogarth painting, the lad is doing the same: he plays music; the bird sings; his sister dances. But the tale of Orpheus is a tragic one: Orpheus lost his wife to the bite of a venomous snake, and though his music proved powerful enough to move Hades to release his love from the abode of the dead, he lost her again, and his music could not raise the dead. On the clock above Baby Thomas poses an infant grim reaper. Behind the happy children, a storm is brewing, and the cat is waiting to pounce. Fresh fruit and flowers, like all living things, will perish quickly, and birds will fly away. The eldest daughter holds the arm of the baby and double cherries, and gazes out of Edenic childhood and from the canvas to the observer, who stands outside the portrait but by looking in may share her understanding of the world. [8]

What notions about the world might account for the elements in the painting? I leave this for students to discover but mention two dates that have proved significant in my class discussions and critical readings: Hogarth painted The Graham Children in 1742; Baby Thomas died in 1741. After reading Hogarth, the class reads Moses, and guarded minds ask new questions about design, provenance, and ideology, and discover that the words biblical and criticism are not an irreverent combination.

Frank Ritchel Ames, Director of Programs and Initiatives for the Society of Biblical Literature, has been teaching undergraduates for two decades.


[1] Jerome Bruner, "The Act of Discovery," Harvard Educational Review 31 (1961): 21-32.

[2] B. S. Bloom, et al., Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (New York: Longmans, Green, 1956).

[3] D. N. Perkins and G. Salomon, "Transfer of Learning," in The International Encyclopedia of Education (2nd ed.; 12 vols.; ed. Torsten Husen and T. Neville Postlethwaite; New York: Pergamon, 1994), 11: 6453-5; Richard E. Mayer, Thinking, Problem Solving, Cognition (2nd ed.; New York: W. H. Freeman, 1992), 453.

[4] Adele Berlin, Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 135. On "reading" texts and paintings, see J. Cheryl Exum, Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 32.

[5] Shiela O'Connell, "Hogarth, William," in The Dictionary of Art (34 vols.; ed. Jane Turner; New York: Grove, 1996), 14: 637; "Hogarth, William," in The Oxford Companion to Art (ed. Harold Osborne; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 539.

[6] Ronald Paulson, Hogarth (3 vols.; New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 2: 177; 419 n. 59.

[7] David Bindman, Hogarth (World of Art; New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1981), 143.

[8] Jenny Uglow, Hogarth: A Life and a World (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997), 354.

Citation: , " Critical Methods and Guarded Minds," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2004]. Online:


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