Canon and Metanarrative: Reflection #1

I’ve read enough Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard (and responses to them) over the years to have developed a bit of unease with metanarrative. But also I’ve come to the conclusion that metanarrative may be a necessary fiction for effective pedagogy. What do I meant by this? Well, when introducing students to topics like the contents of the Bible—at least to students in their teens who may not be familiar with what they’re learning—you need some sort of context for it to make sense. Sure, the Book of Genesis is valuable to one person in ways that is different from others (even corporately: from one Church to another and from a Church to a Synagogue) but if I know nothing or almost nothing about Genesis, then it means nothing. Therefore, in order to teach it in such a way that prevents eyes from rolling into the back of heads, a context must be chosen, even if only temporarily, and even if only for heuristic purposes. A story needs to be told that gives the concept a meaningful context.

It may be that students deconstruct that context later in life. And that’s not only acceptable but maybe encouraged. I wouldn’t have studied religion if it hadn’t been for my related experiences as a child and teen that pushed me to want to challenge and critique the worldview I inherited. In other words, that worldview, while mostly discarded now, inspired and provoked me to ask the questions that give my work meaning.

So, at least when it comes to teaching the Bible, what’s the metanarrative? What’s the context I give? Is it simply the canons of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles? Well, that’s tricky because to use a canon demands that one introduce a handful of other concepts surrounding canonization, many that are fuzzy, and still debated in the upper echelons of scholarship. How did we get the Tanakh/Old Testament? How did we get the New Testament? It’s difficult to teach this to students who don’t yet know what the collections contain. Who cares about how we got something until we know what that something is?

Additionally, outside biblicist circles, the digitization of the Bible is reshaping canon. When I began teaching Biblical Studies at the high school level, students brought physical Bibles with them. When our school went BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and everything began to be digitized (including my guiding notes and other projects) it was natural to begin using websites like BibleGateway.com to direct students to the passage being read any given day. The order of the canon, and how to find ‘Malachi 1.2’, began to lack relevance and became impractical in a sense. Now, you, dear reader, may feel that it remains a necessary skill to teach students how to find something in a physical Bible. To a degree, this may be correct, like teaching cursive may be useful. But what is even more useful in my mind is teaching students how to use the tool they’ll probably use most often once they leave your class: the Internet. With that, the Internet has morphed canonicity in ways I’m still pondering, but in ways that I think change how canon relates to the metanarrative you gift your students now for deconstruction and further investigation later.

What then is the alternative? I’ll say more in future posts (and by ‘say more’ I mean think aloud, not necessarily offer answers that work for everyone).

4 Replies to “Canon and Metanarrative: Reflection #1”

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