How I teach hermeneutics to my students

When I began my MA at Western Seminary, one of my first classes was with Dr. Gary Tuck. I took what is currently called ‘BT501 – Hermeneutics’ (and probably had the same name then). (Or maybe it was ‘BL501 – Interpreting Genesis to Song of Solomon’!) One of our first assignments was a group exercise where we had to gather together and come up with an extensive list of questions based on Genesis 1-2. Questions? Yes, questions.

Few exercises have shaped my study habits and teaching approach more than this one. The past two weeks I’ve asked my students to watch some of the interviews I’ve been with scholars and religious practitioners such as Joseph P. Laycock, Kevin Daugherty, James F. McGrath, and Michael Barber. I have not asked them to answer questions I asked as they watch the video but instead to come up with a list of questions they’d ask if they had a chance speak directly to the person being interviewed.

Unsurprisingly, several students found asking questions, rather than expressing opinions, or finding answers, to be one of the more difficult things they’ve done this semester. As I reflect back on the assignment given to me by Dr. Tuck, I am sympathetic. We’re not used to learning how to ask good questions. Instead, high schoolers are valued by their performance on tests like the SAT, which has nothing to do with asking good questions.

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve had them do something like this. For students in classes like ‘The Hebrew Scriptures’ and ‘The Christian Scriptures’ they begin the semester with a similar exercise (which I’ll discuss below) and my students in ‘Religion in the United States’ are asked to read the famous ‘Religion, Religions, Religious’ article by Jonathan Z. Smith, summarize sections, and ask questions about the sections. This is one of their first assignments. So, three of the four classes I teach (‘Religion in Global Context’, formerly ‘World Religion’, is getting a makeover, so I’m sure I can add something similar) begin with question-asking exercises because I believe, as Dr. Tuck believed, that learning how to ask questions is an important skill.

Below you’ll see I’ve included a PDF of my first set of guided notes (called a ‘Course Guide’) for my online summer school class in June. I want to explain it. In order to guide my students toward a more academic approach to the Bible (no proof-texting!) I ask them to be prepared to read and ask questions from three perspectives:

  1. A Historian asking questions about (A) the historicity of events as described in the Bible but also (B) the history of events surrounding the creation of the Bible.
  2. A Literary Critic asking questions about genre, plot, character development, etc., but also about the audience (e.g., Reader-Response).
  3. A Philosopher/Theologian asking what worldview(s) are present in a text, how the text talks about god or gods, existence, purpose, morality, etc.

The last one is the most dangerous as concerns the possibility of slipping into unnecessary, personal debates but it also has proven necessary as my students rarely as able to find motivation for studying the Bible just as an interesting collection of historical documents or an example of interesting literary design. They want to know what it claims about the world. Who can blame them?

Let me share an example of the first lesson my students taking ‘The Hebrew Scriptures’ will engage so you can see how I teach this:

As you’ll see if you look over the assignment, they have to ask approach specific questions. If they’re reading as a Historian, their questions must be those of a Historian, and so on. This gets them used to approaching the text in a new way. They may have felt a bit unnerved asking questions of the Bible but this gives them the freedom to do so.

And this is how I teach hermeneutics:

  1. Teach them to be aware of the lens they’re wearing and even encourage them to be intentional about wearing a particular lens rather than embracing the myth of objective reading or resorting to an entrenched approach tied to their inherited worldview. In some sense, this is like role play, where a reader can experiment with seeing a text through a fresh perspective without committing to that perspective.
  2. Teach them that asking the right questions matters more than finding the answers they think they’re supposed to find.

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