Canon and Metanarrative: Reflection #3

Several days ago, I wrote about how I’ve been forced to become comfortable with some sort of metanarrative being imposed on the Bible when its being introduced to younger students, especially when they may not be as ‘biblically literate’ as you’d hope. That being said, I don’t think the natural place in 2019 is the canon of a physical Bible. The digitization of the Bible makes the lines of canon fuzzy. For example, when I teach Infancy Narratives, I juxtapose Matthew’s version with Luke’s but then I like to bring in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas to show how Jesus’ ‘missing childhood’ became a later interest among Christians. Year after year I realize by the end of the semester that my students have lumped in Thomas’ child-Jesus with the ‘canonical’ birth and childhood of Jesus. They’ll talk about how Jesus does this-or-that ‘in the Bible’ and they’ll be referring to the Infancy Gospel. Their lack of familiarity with a physical canon makes it less likely that they’ll see ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ over and over again and therefore as different from ‘Thomas’. For them, both were introduced digitally and therefore canonicity is something harder to grasp.

Now, I know some readers may say, ‘Well, then we need to make them use a physical Bible.’ Maybe. That’s a different discussion based on different values—values I don’t share as part of my educational philosophy (I’m not doing ‘Brevard Childs-for-teens’). I’m of the view that we turned a corner in 1994 with the emergence of the Internet and that will impact how people think of the Bible and canonicity. On this matter, I’m prepared to adapt rather than fight, especially since canon is an inherently confessional construct if you want to argue we ‘ought’ to emphasize it. It might have had a heuristic purpose but I think it’s worth having a discussion as to whether that’s still the case (for example, our school catalog still says ‘New Testament’ while I’m advocating for the name change ‘Christian Scripture and Its Influence’).

I want something to serve as an anchor for my class though. I don’t want it to be decontextualized. The canon of the Tanakh/Old Testament and that of the New Testament still provide useful organization perimeters, even if it’s not placed front-and-center as the key to what holds this collection of literature together. But I’ve chosen ‘traumatic events’ as the anchor I emphasize. As I wrote previously, the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent occupations by the Persians, Ptolemies, and the Seleucids, motivated the Judahites and their descendants to start collecting what they had written, continue editing it, continue organizing it, and to continue writing to add to those earlier writings (whether that be some form of the Book of Deuteronomy or various psalms and collections of wisdom). The New Testament, in my view, shares a similar impetus: Jesus’ execution, the persecution his followers experienced and perceived they were experiencing, and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans all seem to shape the writings that would become known as the New Testament later.

I started teaching this way, and doing lesson plans based on this ‘metanarrative’, prior to running across a copy of David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins in a Half Priced Books a few weeks ago, but when I saw the book I was thrilled because there it was in book form (published by Yale) an argument for the very approach I was taking. As I continue to read through Carr’s work I’m more convinced of my approach. What I appreciate about this approach is that it is humanistic. I teach at an Episcopal School, which while being distinctly Christian, is welcoming to students who come from a variety of religious and non-religious persuasions. I’ve had Jewish and Hindu students who bring their own spiritualities to class. I’ve had students from China who came knowing little about the Bible. But also I have Catholics, and Evangelicals, and a variety of other Protestantisms, not to forget Episcopalians. How do I teach them the Bible in a way that invites all of them? Well, the framework I’ve chosen allows my students to engage these texts from all of their perspectives in ways that are not threatening but also that allow for my students who are Christian and who come from Christian families who have sent their kids to a Christian school to know that their child is being taught their sacred texts in a respectful way. Meanwhile, my students of other religious traditions, or who come without a religious tradition, can find value in the human struggle exemplified by these texts. You don’t have to be Jewish or Christian to empathize with a people who were conquered, exiled, and occupied. You don’t have to be Jewish or Christian to empathize with people who see their world fall apart as they symbolic buildings are destroyed. You don’t have to be Christian to empathize with people who believed in and loved someone who was then killed, wrongfully. If in the process the removal of freedoms, or the destruction of temples, or the execution of a man you believe to have been the Messiah happens to resonate with you as a Jew or Christian, and empowers you to rethink your faith and appreciate it more while exploring it’s nuance, then that’s great. The goal is to make sure that what I teach has the potential to be valuable in a pluralistic classroom and in my opinion, this approach allows for that.

3 Replies to “Canon and Metanarrative: Reflection #3”

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