A balanced high school religious studies curriculum

I’m writing this for myself. All my blogging is basically journaling. If I wanted more interaction, I’d have to catch up with the times and shift to Tik Tok. But Tik Tok isn’t like journaling, so I won’t be doing that. Also, this is for me because there are few people with jobs like mine who work in schools like mine with departments like mine. So, why do I put it on a blog? Well, a way that blogging isn’t like journaling is the decision to make your thoughts public. I want to make these thoughts public just in case (A) someone out there has feedback to contribute or (B) one of the estimated seven people in the world who are in similar situations come across it and find inspiration—or whatever the opposite of inspiration is.

What’s my situation? Well, I teach at an Episcopal school. Episcopalianism isn’t a monolith but among Christian traditions in North America, it tends to be one of the most hospitable to academic freedom. I’m confident that there isn’t even one other school in the Greater San Antonio region that would give me the green light to teach what I do like I do. Also, I teach high schoolers, and as anyone reading this is aware, very few high school teachers get to say much about religion in their courses let alone teach multiple classes completely devoted to the discipline. While you can teach religion in a public school setting, for various reasons related to sensitivity around the Establishment and Free Exercises Clauses of the First Amendment, and trouble budgeting for someone qualified to teach these types of classes, few public schools are willing to offer anything like what I teach. If you teach religious studies in a high school, usually you have major “confessional” restraints. You need to stay in line with the Catholic or Evangelical doctrine of the schools that exist independent of the public school system for the central purpose of raising young people to adhere to the worldviews they are promoting. Episcopalian schools exist to shape young people from within the Christian tradition but most Episcopalian schools see fidelity to Christianity as compatible with higher levels of pluralism and academic freedom than their Catholic and Evangelical counterparts.

Many public high school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because while they may be able to talk about Hinduism for a class period while teaching more specifically about India, they can’t spend a month on Hinduism. Many private school teachers won’t be interested in what I’m saying because they either disagree with my approach or have administrations that would never allow anything like it. This brings me back to the seven or so people out there who may be in similar situations! And this ends a prolegomenon to this blog post.

When I first began teaching high school religious studies, our courses were (A) “Old Testament”; (B) “New Testament”; (C) “World Religion”; (D) “God Debate: An Introduction to Philosophy”. I’ve worked to change some of the names to better align with how I teach and how I think religious studies should be taught at our school. “Old Testament” is now “Hebrew Scriptures” because we consider Jewish interpretations of the Tanakh as much as, if not more than, Christian interpretations of the Old Testament. “New Testament” is now “Christian Scriptures” because we don’t restrict the content to what’s canonical—for example, the Gospel of Thomas and Infancy Gospel of Thomas get a lot of attention—and most of the class is now spent on the Gospels with only a little time being given to the Epistles. “World Religion” has been abandoned in favor of “Religion in Global Context” because (1) our freshman-sophomore classes, Global Studies I and Global Studies II, led me to realign the focus to parallel those classes and (2) the “world religion” model tends to focus on overviews of some of the “big” religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, usually—at the expense of literally every other religion. Since my pedagogical philosophy is concerned more with teaching students how to think about “religion,” the concept, rather than trying to provide them an impossible overview of these “major” religions, it made sense to change the name. Finally, due to personnel changes, the “God Debate” class was dropped.

A few years ago, I added a class titled “Religion in the United States” that examines, amongst other things, the concept of “religion” as it has been interpreted and applied in this country. We talk about Supreme Court “definitions” of religion and rulings related to the First Amendment; the role of the IRS; Native American spirituality; religion when the United States was founded; race and religion; how religions that were “imported” (i.e. pre-existed the country’s birth, e.g. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism) have evolved in this context; and what expressions of religion have been created in and “exported” from this country (e.g. Scientology, Pentecostalism).

As I prepare for my seventh year, the catalog (not including classes like “Religion in San Antonio” that were designed specifically for the summer school context) will be:

  • The Hebrew Scriptures
  • The Christian Scriptures
  • Religion in Global Context
  • Religion in the United States

Now, what I’m about to suggest may be rejected by my superiors but I want to process it out loud here anyway. Generally, I’m comfortable with these offerings but I think some improvements can be made. For one, while Episcopalians are Protestant or Protestant-ish (the so-called “Middle Way”), they aren’t biblicist, usually. Many within the Anglican tradition, of which Episcopalianism is part, talk about a “three-legged stool” upon which the tradition sits: (1) the Bible; (2) the “great” tradition; and (3) reason. Some within the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition add (4) experience, which I see as a positive addition. (Pentecostals add experience too…though their meaning is slightly different at times!) For this reason, while most of my academic training has been in biblical studies, I think the catalog is flawed when half of the religious studies offerings are related to the Bible. This means that the Bible receives as much attention as every other religion combined—including Christianity, which isn’t limited to the Bible (even when traditions are biblicist ones). One alternative would be to shrink “The Hebrew Scriptures” and “The Christian Scriptures” into a single class and then add a course on church history or theology. There are contexts where this may work. Ours might be one of those contexts but I’m doubtful for a whole variety of reasons, beginning with my presumption that only a handful of students want to talk about the intricacies of the Trinity or care for a week on the Nicene-Arian controversies.

What then is the alternative I’m suggesting? In my uniquely Episcopalian context, with the pluralistic student body we educate, and considering the present context of the world into which they’ll be graduating, here are the four courses I think would provide the most balanced high school religious studies curriculum (if only four can be offered):

Why these four? First, they encourage critical thinking that’s introductory in nature and “meta”. By the latter, I mean I’ve noticed that most of my students are very engaged when we’re thinking about the subject we’re thinking about. In other words, I can teach them the content of the Bible but they’re more interested in the concept of the Bible. The content of the Bible becomes more relevant when they’re considering what the Bible “is” and what’s at stake when we interpret it. Second, this balances what they need to know as emerging citizens while also aligning with the decision to go to a private school with a religious affiliation. Third, and related to the second point, it’s an alternative to the aforementioned approach of Catholic and Evangelical schools—our school has a daily chapel where constructive spiritual formation occurs for a pluralistic student body through the paradigm of Episcopalian spirituality. How that works exactly is the concern of our chaplain. My concern is that spiritual formation will be as strongly equated with human formation as possible so that my atheistic and agnostic students can take a religious studies class and come away just as mature in their thinking and acting as my Christian or Muslim students. In other words, there shouldn’t be any confessional barriers to their learning and participation.

“Introduction to the Bible” would retain the Bible’s place within a school that reads from it in daily chapel while focusing more so on what the Bible “is” than the type of deep dive that may be better suited for seminarians who plan on preaching and teaching from it. It would connect to whatever literary studies are happening in our English classes and study of the ancient world that’s happening in our history classes.

This would bring philosophy back into the mix. When my colleague Fr. Nate Bostain left, our curriculum developed a gap that needs to be filled. Also, I’m increasingly interested in philosophy, sponsored our school’s philosophy club for years, and have incorporated philosophy into our biblical and religious studies classes, so this would be more natural than say a course on historical theology or church history.

The theory class, “Introduction to Religion,” would be “Religion in Global Context” with a simplified name. It would retain the “global” focus which aligns nicely with “Religion in the United States” which has more of a local focus and is more historical and social in nature with an emphasis on our civic lives. Also, as I plan on doing this year, it’ll place more emphasis on the 3 B’s model that encourages students to recognize that while “belief” is part of what makes something religious, religions don’t always center on belief—rituals, holy days, communities, etc. can be even more central to someone’s religious identity.

Finally, and most importantly, each of these classes can become stand-alone so that there’s no need for one to be a prerequisite for the other like “The Hebrew Scriptures” is for “The Christian Scriptures” and “Religion in Global Context” is for “Religion in the United States” in our current catalog. I’m sure that would make scheduling easier for our Registrar!

Now, this blog post may be a futile writing exercise, and it may be that my superiors will disagree, but I plan on making a pitch like this to them this year in preparation for the 23-24 academic year.

A non-confessional alternative to BibleProject

This morning a news article was shared in my Facebook feed that provided yet another example of why so many public schools avoid promoting/offering religious studies courses in spite of the obvious danger that religious illiteracy presents. It’s titled “‘How to Torture a Jew’: Chattanooga mother raises concerns with Bible class taught in public school”. In short, in public schools you can teach about the Bible, contrary to the imagination of some, but you can’t teach the Bible from a religious perspective or with the intent to proselytize. The teacher mentioned in this article appears to be doing the latter.

In a Facebook post by the mother, she mentions that the teacher uses BibleProject videos. This got my attention because I use BibleProject videos in my classes as well. For those who aren’t familiar with BibleProject, they are videos about the Bible made by Evangelical Christians mostly for Evangelicals though maybe with a less stated goal of proselytizing. My main concern with BibleProject, which admittedly makes excellent videos, is that they’re clearly supersessionist. Often they talk about how the whole Bible is a “unified story that leads to Jesus” which is a fine thing to say in the Evangelical bubble but very problematic outside of it, for the basic reason that you have to apply that meta-hermeneutic to the Bible. The very existence of Jewish hermeneutics indicates that there are other ways of reading the Bible that don’t point to Jesus as the central figure of the canon, not to mention that Judaism doesn’t recognize the Christian New Testament as authoritative. Likewise, critical scholarship from the past few centuries strongly pushes against the idea that the Bible is unified. It takes a special kind of confessional hermeneutic—like “inerrancy” or “infallibility”—to arrive at that conclusion.

Now, I teach at an Episcopal school, so the legal questions related to using these videos (i.e. basically violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment) don’t apply to me but (!) I do try to teach from a non-confessional; non-sectarian perspective. I have students who are Christian but also students from a wide array of religious and non-religious persuasions. I’m proud of the fact that my students constantly recognize my classes as a confessional neutral space. Some of them may be bothered by the critical scholarship that’s employed but I don’t try to make my Evangelical kids give up their identity any more than I do my Muslim kids. The goal is to introduce them to the Bible as a cultural item that continues to influence civil discourse. I want them to be biblical literate not because I’m concerned with influencing their religious identity but because I want them to be informed citizens in a society where political and legislatures still quote and appeal to the Bible.

One thing that’s nearly essential when teaching a generation shaped by Instagram and TikTok is that you use visuals. I use plenty of YouTube videos. As I said, I use BibleProject. I’ve tried to balance it by using Unpacked’s videos which provide a Jewish perspective (works for Hebrew Bible but not Christian New Testament). Unfortunately, the only really good resource that consistently creates videos from a non-confessional perspective is Andrew Henry’s “Religion for Breakfast” project which is excellent but needs more financial resources if it were to offer a non-confessional alternative.

So, what’s to be done? Can AAR and SBL members take up the task of finding something like this? We have Bible Odyssey which is great and provides us all with resources. I know some members of SBL wouldn’t be interested in creating a Religion for Breakfast alternative to BibleProject because BibleProject fits their hermeneutic and pedagogy but what about the rest of us.

As Gen Z continues to enter college and grad school, I’m convinced that teachers at that level will want high-quality resources like what Henry produces. I know as whatever-is-after-Gen Z arrives, I’ll continue to need videos to supplement my teaching. How can we make this happen? How can we create a BibleProject-alternative? How can we help Religion for Breakfast become that alternative?

[If you’ve benefitted from Henry’s Religion for Breakfast, or if you agree with what I’m saying in this post, here’s his Patreon.]

Book Note: Edward L. Greenstein’s “Job: A New Translation”

Edward L. Greenstein, Job: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

The Book of Job is my favorite book in the Bible, I think. Sometimes it’s the Book of Ecclesiastes. Sometimes, I’m captured by the narratives of the Book of Genesis. Sometimes the Gospels of Mark or Luke are were I’m at. But usually, it’s the Book of Job…unless it’s the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Edward L. Greenstein, a professor emeritus in Bible at Bar-Ilan University, completed a new translation of Job a couple years ago. Finally, I got around to reading it. It’s excellent.

Greenstein has spent a lifetime thinking about the Book of Job—a notoriously difficult book for even experts in ancient Hebrew to translate. His wealth of knowledge with regards to ancient Semitic languages allows him to see Job with new eyes: eyes that noticed loan words from other languages or concepts from Babylonian or Egyptian literature that may make more sense than the received Masoretic Text (or even the ancient versions like the Greek translation of Job). So, what you’re getting isn’t just a fresh translation, like we might receive from Robert Alter, but a fresh translation combined with a lot of textual criticism.

Greenstein’s translation is annotated with footnotes so that the scholar can follow along with his thinking. The rest of us who aren’t in that league can enjoy a fresh interpretation of the text.

The “key” reinterpretation of the Book of Job is found in how Greenstein renders two verses: 42:5-6. So you can get a sense of the difference, here’s the NRSV’s rendering next to Greenstein’s:

NRSV: I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Greenstein: “As a hearing by the ear I have heard you, And now my eye has seen you. That is why I am fed up; I take pity on ‘dust and ashes’.”

As you may have deduced if you’re familiar with Job: this is Job’s response to the deity’s monologue in chapters 38-41. In the NRSV, Job is overcome and admits defeat, even repentance. But according to Greenstein, Job doesn’t accept divine bullying as a legitimate response to his lawsuit against the deity. Instead, he recognizes the deity to be the very tyrant he feared he’d be and dismisses god’s lecture. Obviously, this puts a completely different spin on how we read the book.

Greenstein gives an in-depth explanation for how he got to this translation on p. xix-xxi of the Introduction, so I won’t duplicate that here. If you’re interested, find a copy. But also, if you’re interested in this topic, you may just want to purchase a copy. It’s worth adding to your library!

Book Note: Bruce Chilton’s “The Herods”

Bruce Chilton, The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)

If you’ve ever read Tom Hollands’ histories/historical fiction (e.g. Rubicon; Persian Fire), or Anthony Everitt’s (e.g. Cicero; Augustus), you’ll have a sense of what to expect from Bruce Chilton’s new book The Herods: Murder, Politics, and the Art of Succession. You trust their scholarship, and you know they take their methodologies seriously, but when you read their books they’re more like a novel. I may be forgetting but I can’t remember when Holland or Everitt stop to try and prove their interpretations (it’s been a while since I’ve read those books though, so maybe I’m mistaken). Instead, the reader can search endnotes if they’d like to know how a decision was made to tell the story the way it was told.

So, with this stated upfront, The Herods is a wonderful book. It’s extremely readable. It introduces you to major figures at a pace where you can remember who’s who, which can be notoriously difficult with the family tree of Herod the Great. If you can read this book without obsessing too much over whether he trusts his primary ancient source, Josephus, too much, then it’s worth your time. But be aware that Chilton will get creative in his interpretation, like when he presents Jesus’ “temple-cleansing” as less an individual act (which is how I’ve always read the Gospels) and more a mob act of which Jesus was part, which included several hundred followers, and involved Barabbas:

“Jesus’ incursion into the temple was bold, prophetic, and necessarily violent because the outer court of the temple was vast, amounting to some twenty acres, and clearing it of merchants devoted to trade, their animals, and their associated equipment required several hundred sympathetic, able-bodied, and motivated followers. One of them, Barabbas, even killed someone during the melee (according to Mark 15:7).”

p. 168

I’m not saying that this is an impossible interpretation of the gospels, but it would be a contested one, for sure. And that’s the nature of this type of history. A decision is made to tell the story “as it happened,” even when we’re not sure about this or that, because the genre, and the necessity of readability, demands this sort of oversimplified presentation.

I recommend the book for anyone interested in Second Temple Judaism, Jesus of Nazareth, incipient Christianity, and related subjects.

Book Note: David Janzen’s “Trauma and the Failure of History”

David Janzen, Trauma and the Failure of History: Kings, Lamentations, and the Destructions of Jerusalem (Semeia 94; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

If much of the Jewish Tanakh/Christian Old Testament can be understood as apologetic for the god of Judah after the events of the Babylonian Exile, then what catches my attention are the voices of dissent. For example, the Book of Proverbs with its emphasis on wisdom can be interpreted rigidly, almost mathematically, to read that those who do well in life must be the ones who lived by the guidance of divine wisdom while those who struggle must be the fools. Then comes along the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes and overthrows that whole ideology by pointing out that it’s too simple/simplistic.

The Deuteronomistic impulse is to justify the divinity while blaming the humans for what happened during the Exile; it’s to warn how the people shouldn’t behave if they want to avoid a repeat. That impulse is found in the Book of Kings where the blame for the Exile sits on the shoulders of the people—and as Janzen observes, specifically the people, not the royalty of the House of David. But the Book of Lamentations, which sometimes tries to fall in line and echo the rationale found in the Kings, but often simply can’t, is evidence of a dissenting voice.

In Trauma and the Failure of History, Janzen presents “history” as a narrative about past events that attempts to explain them and provide a true presentation and interpretation. The Book of Kings is such a work. It narrates past events leading to the Exile as a way of explaining “how did we get here”.

But trauma can’t make simple sense of what’s been experienced. There’s no metanarrative that comforts. Trauma doesn’t explain the past because in a sense the past is present, the effects linger. For Janzen, this is what we find in the Book of Lamentations. This texts fails to explain what happened to Jerusalem because it simply grieves what happened to Jerusalem.

I highly recommend this book, especially for those who are interested in the internal conversation found in the Hebrew Bible around topics related to theodicy. It reminds me a little of a couple other books I’ve mentioned on this blog:

Publication Notice: Visions and Violence in the Pseudepigrapha

While I may have been a third wheel whose most important contribution was being a gofer-editor, I’m happy to announce a volume that Bloomsbury is publishing titled Visions and Violence in the Pseudepigrapha. It was edited by Craig A. Evans, Paul T. Sloan, and yours truly. If it’s any good, they get the credit. I was happy just to be included so that I could learn a bit about editing and the publication process.

Tripp Fuller talks to Helen Bond and James McGrath

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned Helen K. Bond’s excellent The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2020) (AmazonBookshop.) It’s a book I’d recommend to students of the Gospels. If you’re interested, and you want to know a bit more about the book, Tripp Fuller recently interviewed Bond on his Homebrewed Christianity podcast. Also, he interviewed James F. McGrath about his new book What Jesus Learned from Women, a book I haven’t read yet but intend on reading. When the pandemic began, I recorded an interview with McGrath where we discussed the Christian doctrine of the Ascension.

The translation philosophy of the ESV; the “orthodoxy” of Trump

Bookmarking a couple of interesting, recently published journal articles (that happen to be free to read for anyone):

  1. Samuel L. Perry, “Whitewashing Evangelical Scripture: The Case of Slavery and Antisemitism in the English Standard Version,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion
  2. Gerardo Martí, “The Unexpected Orthodoxy of Donald J. Trump: White Evangelical Support for the 45th President of the United States,” Sociology of Religion.

Recently read: Bond’s “The First Biography of Jesus”

Helen Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

I received my copy of this book from the journal Review and Expositor, so I’m saving my full review for them, but I’ll say here what I said on the website “Goodreads”:

This is about as good a case as I’ve read for reading Mark as a form of the ancient Greco-Roman genre of bioi. But it’s more than that, as Bond shows the practical implications of reading Mark this way. For example, one big takeaway would be the centrality of the main character in a biography and how secondary characters exist only to reflect upon the primary one. In other words, the reader should not see themselves in Peter or Judas or Pilate…but instead, compare themselves only to the moral/ethical example of Jesus. This approach could alter everything from scholarly to liturgical to devotional readings of Mark.

The “Key Idea” for “The Hebrew Scriptures”

A couple of days ago, I shared my current “course description” for my fall 2021 class, “The Hebrew Scriptures”. Another addition to the syllabus is the “Key Idea” or what I’ve called “The Enduring Understanding” in past versions. In short, it’s the one thing I hope my students can articulate and upon which they could expound, to some degree, if I ran into them in ten or twenty years. Here’s my current draft.

This matches the three ways I invite my students to read these texts: as historians; a literary critics; as philosophers. I don’t limit them to these approaches though I do hope that they’ll push my students to engage the Bible in a new way—a way that’s different from the liturgical usage with which they’re probably familiar.