Thursday, December 01, 2005

Some Reflections on the Vocation

I'm just back from the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature conference in Philadelphia just before Thanksgiving, while trying to bring the semester to a successful conclusion over the next couple of weeks. I always enjoy this particular conference because I am able to see old friends, browse the publisher tables, and take in cutting-edge papers and discussions. The best presentation was a discussion on the Authority of Scripture which included a panel consisting of John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman (who was a student with me at Princeton), N. T. Wright, and Dale Martin. It was wonderful to watch the genuine dialogue and quick repartee which marked the session. There certainly was a sense of "performance" at work underneath the genuine discussion. On Sunday noon, I got to have lunch with my best friend from seminary days, Dr. Michael J. Gorman. Mike was honored by Fortress Press at the conference as the outstanding graduate teacher in theology. He is that rare breed of person who brings together superb scholarship with a deep love of Christ and the church.

We are wrapped up these days in preparing for an accreditation visit this spring and trying to begin a departmental review. There are days that seem long on administrivia and short on student conversation and teaching. But, most of the time, I love doing what I'm doing. We hope to close on a house we've been looking at for the better part of two years before Christmas and there is a sense in which numerous opportunities are coming together. Chris Noyes just sent along a column from the SBL site written by a young scholar reflecting on something of the task before us. Though the author's context is somewhat different from mine and he seems to be more reticent to talk about his faith, his experience in the classroom is revealing. Yes, it's long, but worth reading. . .

Teaching Biblical Studies: Fact and Faith
Mitchell G. Reddish

I have been teaching biblical studies for eighteen years at Stetson University, a small comprehensive university in Florida with an emphasis on undergraduate studies. Although today the university has no official ties to any religious body, throughout most of its history Stetson was a Baptist-affiliated institution. Approximately ten years ago the university severed all formal denominational ties. This severing of official connections to a religious body did not mean that the university was divorcing itself from all commitment to religion and values. Rather, the university now describes itself as a private university that from its founding "has affirmed the importance of spiritual life and the quest for truth." The university has recently revised its mission statement, explicitly stating that the university "encourages all of its members . . . to develop an appreciation for the spiritual dimension of life." The mission statement also affirms "the role of religious and spiritual quests for meaning in human experience."

Because of its religious heritage and the newly adopted mission statement, all students at Stetson are required to take one course in religious studies. Until approximately five years ago, all students were required to take Introduction to Biblical Literature to meet this requirement. Now, students may choose from among five introductory courses that satisfy this requirement: Introduction to Biblical Literature, Introduction to Religion, Introduction to Judaism, Introduction to Christianity, and Introduction to World Religions. Approximately half of my teaching load each year involves teaching one of these required courses, the Introduction to Biblical Literature course. In addition to teaching this introductory course, I also teach upper division, elective courses in biblical studies. Thus I teach students who take courses in biblical studies because they are fulfilling a requirement, as well as students who enroll in the classes because they have an interest in studying biblical texts.

As is the case in many areas of the United States, and particularly in the southeast, the majority of students at Stetson have been culturally immersed in Christian ideas and values, whether they are active participants in that religious tradition or not. Many of them are eager to learn more about the book that has been an important part of their faith development and that has shaped their understanding of themselves and their worldview. Others are mildly curious to gain insight into a book that they have heard about but have never read, or at least never understood. A few, however, enter the classroom having had just enough of religion to know that they do not want any more. They dislike being required to take a course in religious studies because they do not see its relevance to their college and career goals. Nor do they have any personal interest in religion. In their view, having to take a course in religious studies is a waste of their time and an infringement on their "right" to choose their own course of study. One of the challenges, then, at a school like Stetson that requires a course in religious studies is to help students in this last category move beyond their resistance to being in the course. If I am going to succeed with these students, I must help them discover that these ancient texts still have relevance for them. For some students, their interest is piqued when they begin to see the ways biblical images and concepts have shaped our culture. For other students, the texts become meaningful once they recognize that the biblical writings struggle with some of the same questions and issues with which they are struggling. I know that I have succeeded when a student writes in her course evaluation at the end of the semester, "I was opposed to students being required to take a religion course. Now I believe everyone should have to take this course. I have learned so much I never knew."

Another challenge of teaching, one that is probably unique to religious studies, and particularly to biblical studies, is that students often are not shy about refuting what we say. Some of them feel they are already experts on the Bible. Who are we to contradict what they already believe about the Bible? They come into our classes convinced that what they have been taught by parents and religious leaders is the final word in religious studies. Students who would not dare confront or challenge their professors in the political science or sociology department, for example, have no such hesitancy about questioning the validity of what we present in our courses. Some students consider they have not only the right but the religious obligation to correct the "errors" in our teaching. In most cases, such students are sincere in their attempts to correct what we teach. They are so passionate about the Bible because religion matters to them. The challenge I have as a professor is to find a way to let them maintain that passion, yet get them to be open to the possibility that what they have previously been taught might need to be corrected or least rethought.

Compounding the problem is that students sometimes enter our courses already prejudiced against our discipline and even us as instructors. They have been warned about those godless, liberal professors who are intent on destroying the faith of unsuspecting or spiritually weak students. Recently when I was teaching an interdisciplinary Honors Program course that was not a religious studies course, I paired the students for dialogue. I asked them to share information about themselves and then to respond to what they had learned about their dialogue partner. When reporting to the class about the exercise, one student stated that she had learned that her dialogue partner was a devout Roman Catholic and also a major in religious studies. She said she was surprised that a student of deep faith would choose to major in religious studies because she had heard that the religious studies faculty were all anti-Christian. (The irony in her statement is that four of the five full-time faculty in our department are ordained ministers, one of whom serves as a reserve chaplain in the Air Force.)

Unfortunately for some students, their experience in our classes may not dissuade them from their negative opinions about religious studies. Their first exposure to a critical reading or questioning of biblical texts is often an uncomfortable and troubling experience. I spend the first part of each introductory course in biblical studies talking with students about different ways in which the Bible can be studied. I explain to them the differences between a devotional/religious reading of the texts and a critical/scholarly reading of the texts. After talking about the importance of each approach and the setting in which each approach is appropriate, the students and I agree that the approach that we will follow in the classroom is a critical reading of the texts. I emphasize that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. A critical reading of the text can bring new insight and meaning to the biblical material for a person of faith. Furthermore, I point out that because our approach is a scholarly approach does not mean that the devotional approach to the Bible is not important. After all, the Bible has had such a profound influence on the world not because it has provided answers to scholarly probings, but because it has suggested answers to the larger questions of human existence.

In introducing my courses, I always struggle with the issue of self-disclosure. How much do I tell the students about my own faith stance toward the material we are studying? Do I admit to the students that I, too, am a person of faith, one whose credo and worldview continue to be shaped by these documents that we are studying? Or do I refrain from disclosing my own stance toward the texts with the hope that this will make students who have no faith commitment to the Bible more at ease in the course? After teaching the introductory biblical studies course three or four times every year for the past eighteen years, I am still not sure which is the best approach. I have tried it both ways. I lean more toward disclosing my own commitments, primarily for three reasons. First, I want students of faith to be as comfortable in the course as are students who see the texts only as ancient writings with little or no contemporary relevance. As mentioned above, some students are deeply suspicious about the academic study of the Bible. If a brief statement of my faith claims can make them more comfortable, then perhaps they will be better able to hear what takes place in the classroom.
Second, I want students to see that one can approach the texts critically while still reading them from the perspective of faith. Allowing these two approaches to exist in creative tension with each other is a difficult idea for students to grasp, however. A few years back, after a Monday morning class, a student came up to me and said, "I saw you at church yesterday. I donapos;t understand how you can go to church and still teach what you do in this course." The struggle that this student was experiencing is the type of struggle that I would want other students also to experience. I want them to know that one need not dismiss critical scholarship in order to accept the faith claims of the Bible. Conversely, one does not have to lay aside a faith commitment to the Bible in order to approach it critically.

Some instructors may argue that our task as teachers is to present the material and not be concerned about how our reading of the text impacts the personal religious beliefs of the students in our classes. Our concern is not with what students do with the information, but with students learning the correct information. Our role is not to be pastoral counselors or spiritual advisers. Such a view not only is based on an extremely narrow understanding of our task as professors, but also is poor pedagogy. If what students hear from us is so detrimental to their worldview that they are no longer able to hear what we say, then we have failed as teachers. Without abdicating our responsibility to challenge students, to confront them with new ideas and new ways of thinking, and to dissuade them from erroneous or naive views, we can still be sensitive to how we expose students to new ideas and how our teaching is being received.
The third reason I often tip my hand about my religious convictions is that I want students to realize the stance from which I read the texts. In spite of how "objective" I attempt to be, my own commitments and biases flavor how I read the texts. I sometimes discuss with students about how my own identity affects my reading of biblical literature. I am a white, middle-class male who was raised in the South. Regardless of how hard I try, I can never hear the texts the same way my female colleagues or colleagues of color hear the texts. In the same way, my own religious convictions affect my reading of biblical literature. I may work diligently not to let my own religious views intrude into the classroom, but I am never completely successful at that. My self-disclosure is a way of trying to be an honest reader of the texts with my students.

A common experience for students who have a faith commitment to biblical texts is their failure to recognize the distinction between truth and historicity. When we tell students that an event in the Bible may not be historically accurate, they hear us saying that the Bible is not true. I try to help students understand that historical truth is only one type of truth. A story may be full of historical inaccuracies or even be completely non-historical, yet still contain deep theological or religious truth. Whether the events and stories in the Bible are historically true or not, they still present the truth claims of Judaism and Christianity. Those of us who teach religious studies are accustomed to thinking about various types or expressions of truth. Our students usually are not. For many of them, the only option is that a story is "true" or it is "false." Thus, when I help them see the differences in the two Genesis accounts of creation and suggest that neither is historically or scientifically accurate, they hear me saying that these stories are not "true." My task is to help them understand that the stories may be true on a deeper level. They represent ancient Israel's attempt to say something profound about its understanding of its God, of humanity, and of the entire created world.

In the language of Paul Ricoeur, our task is help students move from naivete to critical thinking and then ultimately to a second, or post-critical, naivete. In the last stage, students can move beyond the simplistic true/false dichotomy to appreciating the truth that these stories are intended to convey, apart from the question of historicity. Even for students who have no personal faith commitment to the biblical texts, arriving at the stage of post-critical naivete is important. Only then can they enter the world of the text and appreciate what the texts are communicating. To have the ability to understand these ancient stories as stories and appreciate what they are saying is the goal of reading religious texts. Otherwise, we end up viewing the texts only as literary documents or historical works. My task as a religious studies professor is to help my students learn to hear and appreciate the religious dimension of these texts. (This is not unique to the study of the Bible. I would make the same argument if I were teaching sacred texts from other religious traditions.) I want students to enter the stories - whether they be history, myths, parables, or folk tales - and appreciate the religious truths these texts present. Whether a student personally affirms the message of the texts is not my concern. My job is not to defend nor repudiate the truth of the texts but to help students hear the texts.

In spite of all I do, some students will continue to resist what happens in the classroom. The move from a naive reading to a critical reading of the text is too painful and too frightening. What I view as exposing students to a critical reading of the text, the students view as destroying their faith. This has been a consistent experience of mine throughout my teaching career. The first year I taught at Stetson I received a Christmas card from a student in one of my introductory courses. Inside was a three-page letter in which the student expressed disappointment and sorrow over the subject matter of the course. She wanted me to know that she would be praying for my salvation, because I obviously was not a Christian. Similarly, this past semester when a student turned in her final exam in the introductory course, she handed me along with the exam a three-page letter detailing her disappointment and anger over the course. In the letter she wrote, "While taking your class, I was extremely disturbed by the principals [sic] you taught and the words you spoke. Rather than the class focusing on Christian topics and teaching biblical literature, as the course name suggests, it focuses on the 'problems' of the Bible. As I sat in class and took notes, I thought that a more proper name for the course would be Mocking the Bible 101." The remainder of her letter was a refutation of my approach in the classroom, complete with citations from Josh McDowell's New Evidence that Demands a Verdict in order to show that my scholarship was faulty and biased. Since the semester had ended, all I could do was send her a note expressing both my gratitude that she had taken the time to write and my hope that the umbrella of the Christian faith was large enough to include us both.

I know my experience is not unique. Most of us who teach biblical studies have had similar experiences. For students like these, all we can do is expose them to the critical approach and hope that some of what we say and demonstrate to them will eventually germinate and take root. It would be tempting to dismiss such students as lost causes about whom we should not be overly concerned. I am not comfortable with that approach, however. Because I teach at a school that says the religious and spiritual quests for meaning in life are important, I think I have an obligation to let students know that I take their spiritual commitments seriously. I need to keep working at finding ways to help students as they struggle with the internal conflicts that a critical study of the Bible creates for them.

One of the advantages of teaching biblical studies at a place like Stetson is that I have a large amount of freedom in my teaching that professors in church-related institutions or in state universities may not experience. In some church-related institutions, particularly those strongly tied to their sponsoring church body, faculty may feel constrained to teach within the parameters of "orthodox" interpretations. In my setting, I have the academic freedom to teach and explore any topic or any view I choose, limited only by my own integrity and professional judgment. On the other hand, since my institution is a private university, I feel free to discuss issues of faith or religious commitment in the classroom without worrying that I may be violating any separation of church and state principles. In the introductory classes, which fulfill a university requirement, I am more reluctant to pursue any involved discussions of faith issues because there is still an element of "mandatory" participation in the course. Because I do not want to be seen as imposing my beliefs on unwilling students, I limit discussion of faith issues in the introductory courses. When asked directly about matters of faith, I respond honestly and briefly and encourage students to continue the conversation with me outside class if they are interested. In elective courses I feel more comfortable engaging students in conversations about the religious and spiritual dimensions of the texts and about what the texts might mean for people who see them as bearers of truth.

Most of us who teach entered this profession because we are excited about what we teach and we want to share that enthusiasm with our students. The reward in teaching comes when we can see the light click on in our students as they have one of those "aha!" moments of self-discovery, or when they fall in love with exploring new ideas and gaining new insights. One of those rewarding moments for me occurred when a student came up to me at the end of the semester in which she was taking the Introduction to Biblical Literature course. Thanking me for the course, she said, "I've never really known much about the Bible. Now after this course I want to study it even more and find out more about my Jewish faith."

I teach because I enjoy teaching. I teach biblical studies because I think these texts are powerful, insightful texts that continue to confront, challenge, and inspire. These texts excite me. If I do my job well, then my students will sense that excitement and perhaps catch some of that excitement for themselves. For students who have no faith commitment to the Bible, I hope they will be intrigued by this literature and appreciative of its influence in the past and in the present. For those students who view the biblical texts as bearers of divine truth, then I hope their experiences in my classroom will challenge, strengthen, and in some cases disturb their beliefs. Their experience may not always equal that of the student who, in an unsolicited note at the end of his final exam, wrote, "I have sincerely enjoyed your class. I have been an active Christian my entire life and in the span of one semester you taught me more than I had learned in 19 years." Even so, I will view my teaching a success if I can help my students appreciate these texts as living texts that speak out of the depths of human experience, that wrestle with the some of the most important issues of human existence, and that invite reflection on the divine-human encounter.

Mitchell G. Reddish is O. L. Walker Professor of Christian Studies and Chair of Religious Studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida