Magazine article The Christian Century

Caution: Bible Class in Session. (Faith Matters)

Magazine article The Christian Century

Caution: Bible Class in Session. (Faith Matters)

Article excerpt

IT IS COLUMBUS DAY, and I am halfway through the Bible survey course that I teach every other year. Twenty students signed up this time, although one dropped out after I asked him to rewrite his paper on the canonization process. The rest have declared "Septuagint" the coolest new vocabulary word, despite the fact that there are few opportunities to use it outside of class. One girl who tried it on her pastor reported that he was not amused, especially since she had to explain to him what it meant.

As usual, we are racing through the material. We covered the Pentateuch in two hours, the historical books in two more and all of the prophets in three. Next week we will spend an hour on wisdom literature (with 20 whole minutes for Job) before making the transition from Malachi to Matthew. I justify the rush on the grounds that a glimpse of the Big Picture helps those with biblical myopia.

Most of my students profess to live by the Bible without ever having read more than 50 pages of it. Their knowledge of what is in it comes from their parents, their preachers and their Bible study leaders, as well as from movies such as Left Behind. There is no one thing that can be said about all of these interpreters, except that they all have more power than the text.

When I ask students to read what is actually on the page, most see what they have been taught to see. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of original sin. The snake is Satan, the apple is disobedience, and Eve is the seductress who leads men astray. If I send them back to locate "sin," "Satan" and "apple" in their Bibles, some are generally astonished to find that the words are not there. Whether they know it or not, they are on the edge of a dangerous decision. They are either going to hang on to their interpretations and do whatever they have to do to make the text fit, or else they are going to let the text lead them to expand their interpretations.

The danger arises partly because many of them come from communities that censure nonconformity. If they begin asking the wrong kinds of questions at church, they may find themselves at the center of quite a lot of pastoral concern (if they are lucky) or shunned (if they are not). If they persist, some may even find themselves estranged from their own families. But even those who are free of such constraints are not safe in my classroom.

Until six weeks ago, one young woman confessed, she honestly believed that the Bible was a journal. "I just thought, you know, that people wrote down what happened each day." Now she knows otherwise, and while she is still not sure what she thinks about the documentary hypothesis, she has read the two creation stories in Genesis for herself. …

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