AAR/SBL 2019: Days 3 & 4

Sunday was Day 3 of AAR/SBL 2019. I began my day at the ‘Comparative Studies in Religion Unit’ where the question was being asked whether ‘comparative studies’ was still a good approach to teaching religion. Many continue to say yes. Some advocate for teaching ‘worldview’ which would focus more on various lived experiences found in varieties of religion: myth, ritual, community, etc. Others seem committed to the ‘Great Traditions’ (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and other -isms) for heuristic purposes. Mixed into this discussion were questions regarding whether the best focus would be cultivating empathy, or creating global citizens, and how these foci might alter the shape of a course.

The most interesting thing I learned during this first session was that games like ‘Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence (1945)’ and ‘Constantine and the Council of Nicaea: Defining Orthodoxy and Heresy in Christianity, 325 CE’ exist.

My second unit on Sunday was ‘Hinduism Unit and Teaching Unit’ where they discussed ‘Teaching Religion in Translation’. Being that I don’t know Sanskrit, Pali, or other relevant languages, I hoped to just hear the expert’s advice on choosing a good translation. Some preferred translations were given and the general feeling was that more translations are better than one. Not sure this benefits me much since I cover so much territory I can’t spend a lot of time on the Upanishads or Dhammapada, so I don’t see myself doing a lot of side-by-side translation comparisons. Maybe someday our school will lengthen and divide our current ‘World Religion’ offering and then that might be more feasible.

Yesterday I socialized, bought books, and attended one Biblical Studies session: The Synoptic Gospels/New Testament Textual Criticism group was discussing Matthew Larsen’s Gospels Before the Book. I’m about half-way through it, so it was good to hear some soft push-back on his thesis before I got to the end. It gives me some things to consider.

AAR/SBL 2019 purchases!

AAR/SBL 2019 comes to an end this morning. I won’t be attending any more sessions. It’s time for some vacation before school begins again next week.


When should children learn about Noah and the Ark?

When I talk about ‘generational hermeneutics’ as a potential sub-field within larger fields like Religious Studies or Biblical Studies, I imagine fruitful conversations await us both in describing how things are but also how things should be (the ‘is/ought’ division). Let me begin with the ‘is’ question. I see few scholars asking questions about how children and adolescents actually read the Bible when they read it. The only book I’ve encountered (at a library), and intend to buy and read one day, is Melody R. Briggs’ How Children Read Biblical Narrative: An Investigation of Childrens’ Readings of the Gospel of Luke. I’m sure there’s more work being done but I don’t think it’s receiving as much attention as it should.

How do children read the Bible differently from adolescents and how to adolescents read the Bible differently from adults? Or, how do children process religious instruction differently than adolescents and adolescents differently from adults? I know the latter has received some attention, for example, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. I think more attention is deserved.

The second question is the ‘ought’ question. As a high school teacher I have to be cautious about how I teach certain parts of the Bible. For example, I don’t spend a lot of time on the Song of Songs. Likewise, it’s always a little tricky explaining the appearance of Shiva’s lingam. This task is complicated further for my colleagues who teach middle school students. Definitely skipping the Song of Songs with the seventh graders! But this raises a question: When can students read the Song? Or, as I joked in the meme above, when should we teach the story of Noah and the Ark? I mean, the Creator literally washes humanity from the earth like we’re a stain and we turn around and tell children about it because, ‘Oh, look, cute animals!’ Is this wise? Is this age-appropriate?

On a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts—The Bible for Normal People with Pete Enns and Jared Byas—they interviewed author Cindy Wang Brandt about her book Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy, and Kindness. She talked about growing up in a fundamentalist-type home and how certain approaches to the Bible and religion can leave adults with a lot of baggage to work through. They spoke about how parents might avoid harming their children with the Bible and religion. I think these are questions that should be asked even outside of ‘practicing’ circles. Scholars of religion can and should mix with psychologists and sociologists who study children and youth and their brain development. We should be asking questions about the ‘ethics of indoctrination’. I know some of the more established religious traditions have been thinking about this sort of thing for centuries as we see in say Catholic Confirmation or the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah. But there’s more to be done. And I have a feeling some work is being done in various disciplines but we need cross-pollination.

So, when should children read the story of Noah and the Ark? When are they mature enough? Is it ok to introduce it to them as a happy story about God saving animals when they’re young and then return to it later to discuss some of the more complex, even disturbing aspects of the story later?

Recently read: Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)

Sam Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

This summer I read Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). It altered the way I think about teaching. For one, Wineburg makes the straightforward case that when it comes to information, the students we encounter today know how to find that. It’s everywhere, on the Internet. While it remains true that content matters, it’s equally true that teaching students how to discern the value of content matters, especially when we know that already they’re looking up stuff online and sometimes the first Google search result is not the best source.

If I were to break down this book, I’d go along with how the book is divided into three major parts by the author and his editor(s). ‘Part 1: Our Current Plight’ had three chapters on historiography. In gist, these chapters contain (1) a brilliant critique of standardized testing and how it measures historical knowledge and (2) the dangers of implicit bias and how that can cloud our minds when doing historiography. As an example, he questions the uncritical use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. (Not because he’s socially conservatives but because he’s not.)

In ‘Part 2: Historical Thinking ≠ An Amazing Memory’ he questions the structure of ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ for historical thinking (arguing that historical work actually turns it on its head) and does a case study on George Washington in relation to the so-called ‘Close Reading’ approach to doing history (which may teach students how to philosophically evaluate a text but not necessarily how to read it like a historian).

‘Part 3: Thinking Historically in a Digital Age’ is where the book finds its worth. ‘Chapter 6: Changing History…One Classroom at a Time’ reimagines how we might teach students to think historically in a way that is less textbook dependent and focused more on how to do historical work in a digital age. ‘Chapter 7: Why Google Can’t Save Us’ is where Wineburg shows that Google throws search results at us that tell us anything but whether the website listed is useful and trustworthy. He shows how we can evaluate the source of a website (using WhoIs.com) and other ways to interrogate a website. I’ll say more about this in future posts

The final section, ‘Part 4: Conclusion: Historical Hope’ includes one chapter ‘”Famous Americans”: The Changing Pantheon of American Heroes’ that shows that the most famous American from history is changing. I don’t want to spoil the moral of the chapter, so I won’t say more than that.

This is a great book for those who teach history in a high school or college setting. It challenges us to think about historical thinking in the digital age and how the Internet has changed our research habits. I highly recommend.