Yesterday at #sblaar20 I heard a presentation where the scholar examined how the opening verses of Genesis 1 are translated/summarized/presented in children’s Bibles and it made me wonder: If I were to do something similar by examining study Bibles made for teens, what would be a passage you’d want to know how it’s being interpreted/taught?
I’m going to try to make a habit of writing a few short notes on articles I read that may be interesting to the five or six of you who frequent this blog. These are not reviews. More like recommendations with some key take-aways. I begin with Gale A. Yee’s “Thinking Intersectionally: Gender, Race, Class, and Etceteras of Our Discipline”, JBL 139.1 (2020): 7-26. This article is Yee’s 2019 Presidential Address ‘as the first Asian American and the first woman of color to be elected president of the Society of Biblical Literature’ (p. 7).
What’s the focus?
The focus is on the importance of intersectionality to the field of Biblical Studies. In short, we should recognize different forms of identity—’Race, class, gender, age, ability, nation, ethnicity, and similar categories of analysis’—and how they interact or intersect with one another. Yee applies this to both the discipline of Biblical Studies and the specific passage of 2 Kings 4.1-7.
What did I learn?
A lot. But here are some key takeaways:
- Intersectionality is a “justice-oriented approach” (quoting Vivian May) that ‘grew out of movements with a social justice agenda such as those focused on civil rights and women’s rights’ (p. 12).
- We must recognize that the alternative to intersectionality risks ignoring the real-life threats to people. For example, Yee talks about how this phrase ‘intersectionality’ was coined by African American lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw to address legal matters. In case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, GM, who hadn’t been hiring Black women, GM argued that they weren’t bias against Black women because they had hired Black men. If the sole focus was of antidiscrimination law’ was race, then GM could be cleared. Likewise, if sex, GM could be cleared because they hired white women. But if an intersectional lens is used, it’s apparent that GM’s discrimination was against Black women, specifically (p. 10).
- Whiteness must be a racial category. Too often, whiteness has been set as the ‘universal’ while everything else is ‘a culturally constructed ethnic identity’. But Whiteness is also ‘a culturally constructed ethnic identity’, not a ‘universal’ (p. 13). Pragmatically speaking, we can see this in various articles, books, and commentaries that might just be ‘about the Bible’ if it’s a white, male scholar but if it’s a Black, woman scholar, suddenly it’s an intentional departure from the norm, a niche hermeneutic, but not ‘straight exegesis’. This is misleading, at best.
- Yee introduces four ‘domains of power’: structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal. Structural = ‘institutional…legal, economic, educational, and how they reproduce the subordination of peoples over time’ (p. 14). Disciplinary = ‘ideas and practices that characterize hierarchies…legal, criminal, and the police and military’ (pp. 14-15). Hegemonic = ‘ideas, symbols, and ideologies that shape consciousness’ (p. 15). Interpersonal = ‘interactions of people at the day-to-day microlevels of social organization’ (p. 15). Because of these four domains, a person could be the oppressed in one situation (say for gender or sexuality) and oppressive in another (say economically).
- Acknowledging these realities will expand our reading of texts. Yee examines 1 Kings 4.1-7 focusing on a variety of social dynamics related to the woman in the story who is a widow: gender, economic, legal, etc. We can miss a lot of presumptions in a text if we’re not intentional. As Yee writes, intersectionality ‘encourages us to think beyond the familiar (and perhaps more entrenched) boundaries of biblical studies to expose the diverse power relations of oppression and uncover subjugated voices that were previously invisible and unheard’ (p. 26).
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:
- 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.
- A Literary Critic asking questions about genre, plot, character development, etc., but also about the audience (e.g., Reader-Response).
- 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:
- 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.
- Teach them that asking the right questions matters more than finding the answers they think they’re supposed to find.
This week I was talking to my friend and mentor, Dr. Jeff Garner, and he informed me that the Church where he is a Pastor (where I spent several years of my life and where I married my wife, Miranda) is beginning a series on the Book of Revelation. He proposed that sometime next week we do a video interview (this time I’d be the one being interviewed rather than being in my traditional pandemic-time role as the one doing the interview) wherein we discuss this controversial text. In preparation, I want to write out some of my thoughts.
Why I avoid the Book of Revelation
First, I admitted that I’m sympathetic to those traditions that didn’t give the Book of Revelation canonical status. I understand why those traditions that did give it canonical status were slow in doing so. It’s place in the genre of Jewish Apocalyptic helps us better understand how it should be interpreted but that doesn’t make it easy to interpret. And as a quick Google search reveals, Revelation may be misused and abused more than any other book of the Bible. To take the Apocalypse seriously is to put yourself into a conversation with some shady and dangerous people.
Why I come back to the Book of Revelation
But there’s another reality I must face. John of Patmos (Rev. 1.1) was a disciple of Jesus who was persecuted by Rome. While many Christians in the United States today feign persecution, and that may color the Apocalypse, I must remember that Christians globally remain one of the most persecuted categories of people. To what degree John and his community were unfairly treated, we may never know, but if we put ourselves in the place of a ostracized and often maligned minority community within a sprawling Empire, we’re bound to be more sympathetic to John and his vision than if we read it through our experience with privileged American Christians who see a loss of status as the same thing as being persecuted or if we read through our experience with doomsday prophets and date predictors who are wrong, time after time.
I come back to the Book of Revelation because I recognize it gives a voice to those within my tradition who have been marginalized, silenced, and even martyred. I favor the Jesus of the Gospels who tends to be somewhat pacifistic (and who according to Anabaptist-hermeneutics was pacifistic). The Jesus of Revelation 19, the warrior-Jesus, seems to be a different, even contradictory, Jesus (see though the interpretation of Revelation by Quaker theologian Wess Daniels). Again, genre matters, so I don’t need to read passages like Revelation 19 as being literal predictions that Jesus will appear in space-time on our earth using violence against the armies of the world (as popularized in The Left Behind ‘novels’). There’s a place to spiritualize it, if you will, so that the warrior-Jesus fights spiritual enemies in ways that are depicted as mirroring the physical violence so common on our earth but hopefully subverting that physical violence to show that true warfare isn’t ‘against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ as the Pauline author of the Epistle to the Ephesians worded it.
How I read the Book of Revelation
This is how I’ve chosen to read the Apocalypse. I use the aforementioned author of Ephesians as a paradigm. He uses images of warfare not to advocate for warfare but to subvert the power claims of physical warfare—the kind of warfare perfected by Empires but not the the Kin(g)dom of God (or whatever other metaphor works best for you).
Speaking of ‘Empire’, this is central to how I interpret this text. On several occasions, John of Patmos mentions ‘Babylon’ (Rev. 14.8; 16.19; 17.5; 18.2, 10, 21). Most scholars seem to agree that this code for ‘Rome’. John knows better than to critique Rome-as-Rome so he critiques Rome-as-Babylon. His Jewish readers would’ve known what he meant by Babylon, the destroyer of the First Temple, was Rome, the destroyer of the Second Temple. Also, they would’ve been familiar with a tradition going back to the Book of Daniel where the fall of one Empire only leads to the rise of the next Empire so that in some sense one can speak of there being an ‘Evil’ that might ‘die’ with the collapse of Persia, or the Ptolemies, or the Seleucids, but can always return from the dead again, as they were seeing in Rome.
So, while there’s a place for reading the Apocalypse as a book of ‘lasts’, there’s also a place for reading the Apocalypse as a reminder that the ‘spirit’ of Empire reincarnates.
Why the Book of Revelation is relevant right now
The Book of Revelation is an ‘apocalypse’. It begins with these words in the NRSV, ‘The revelation of Jesus Christ…’ which translate Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. That first word, Ἀποκάλυψις, transliterated Apokalupsis, doesn’t mean the ‘end’ of something, per se, but it means that something is being revealed (which is why it’s called the ‘Book of Revelation‘). Another way of saying this is that something is being exposed; something that wasn’t visible is being made visible. This might mean that the heavenly or spiritual realm is being revealed to earthly or physical eyes, or it might mean what the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes (12.14) meant when he says, ‘For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.’ Or what the Matthean Jesus (12.36-37) meant when he says, ‘I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.’
In the Christian tradition there will be some sort of ‘final’ apocalypse in this sense. The Apostle Paul warned in Second Corinthians 5.10, ‘For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.’ The Nicene Creed states, ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’ And then there’s the liturgical acclamation: ‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.’ But not every ‘apocalypse’ has to be final, final.
But it’s possible to experience a semi-apocalypse, i.e., an apocalypse that ends an age. This is subjective. It’s not necessarily what the Apostle Paul, or the Nicene Creed, or the aforementioned liturgical confession mean, but it’s real. Elizabeth Dias wrote a wonderful article for the New York Times titled ‘The Apocalypse as an “Unveiling”: What Religion Teaches Us About the End Times’ that makes this point better than I can.
Every semester when I teach the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Scriptures, I frame their origination around the collective trauma of the destruction of the First Temple (the Hebrew Scriptures) and the execution of Jesus and destruction of the Second Temple (the Christian Scriptures) to explain why these works were written, by whom, and to whom. (As I’ve written, David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins has been an important dialogue partner for me.) Every semester I try to relate these collective traumas to what Americans experienced during 9/11. The problem has been that my students can’t relate. When I was younger, I understood the concept of ‘Pearl Harbor’ but didn’t ‘understand’ it. Similarly, this year, I don’t think any of my students had been born yet when 9/11 happened. They ‘understand’ my reference but they don’t understand my reference.
Now, COVID-19, and this pandemic, has caused collective trauma. It has ended an age (see Ben Rhodes, ‘The 9/11 Era is Over’) and a new one will emerge. We talk about the ‘new normal’ knowing not of what we speak. For the foreseeable future, when I want my students to understand what prompted the formation of the writings they know as the ‘Old Testament’ and the ‘New Testament’ I won’t relate the destruction of the First and Second Temples to 9/11; I’ll relate these traumas to this earth-shattering, time-stopping pandemic.
Allison Murray’s ‘What is Now Uncovered/Don’t Waste an Apocalypse’ gets to the point I want to make next. Apocalypses shatter our myths. They expose our false narratives. As an American, the triumphalism of the military industrial complex, or Wall Street, have been shown to be lies. Bombs don’t stop a pandemic. Money doesn’t stop a pandemic. And when a pandemic hits your shores, no wall is going to stop a pandemic. But the pandemic will show you what happens when ‘the wealthiest nation on earth’ forces most people to live paycheck-to-paycheck, spends more on war than healthcare, continues to underserve communities (usually because of race), ignores the weaknesses of its education system (or in DeVos-mode, tries to ruin that education system). Many people saw our weaknesses as an empire. Now the pandemic has left us nowhere to hide.
I don’t mean this in a cheery, triumphalistic, ‘told-you-so’ way. This apocalypse is horrifying, as Dr. Kelly J. Baker’s article ‘It’s the End and Nothing Feels Fine’ rightly captures. But we’re here now. And the Book of Revelation is less literature to be read and more a mirror for reflection. What happens when the unseen is seen? What happens when the lies are exposed? What happened when an era ends? Apocalypse. As Pope Francis has proclaimed, this isn’t divine judgment, but it’s our judgment. This virus has judged us. It has exposed us. There’s nothing more apocalyptic than that.
On the one hand, as a ‘Millennial’ who uses his phone too much, I’m sympathetic toward teens who seem to have something of a phone addiction. On the other hand, as a teacher, I’m grateful to our school’s administration for banning phone use in the classroom (unless the teacher gives permission to use it for something related to class). Teens on their phones can be learning more, faster, than most of us could at their age. Teens on their phones can also be zombies who fell into the rabbit hole of YouTube, Tik Tok, or Snapchat. Because of this, I got a kick out of two tweets commenting on a picture of teens sitting in a museum using their phones. (FWIW, these two tweets reinforce the ongoing Boomer v. Millennial battle.)
Interestingly, a side-by-side comparison of these tweets invites us to do something similar to what a walk through an art gallery does: it invites us to experience to subjectivity of our own interpretation and to reinterpret it in light of the interpretation of other.
I’ve heard it said ‘everything is ethics’ but I prose ‘everything is hermeneutics’.
As I’ve stated in a few post already, over the Thanksgiving Break I gave my students an extra credit opportunity where they’d read Micah 6.1-8, have a trusted/known adult (parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, etc.) read the same passage, and then both would send me an email answering a series of questions about this text, about their pre-knowledge of the Book of Micah in general, and about their approach to learning more about something about which they know little. In the last post, I shared the answer of both my students and their chosen adults regarding how they’d go about learning more about something they unfamiliar to them. In this post, I shared the reasoning behind their answers. In a future post, I’ll give some insights into the commonalities and differences of the interpretations of Micah 6.1-8 that I read but this will be the last post of this particular series since my main concern here is how they ‘go about’ reading the Bible, in general.
The third question I asked was this: Why would you choose these sources/people? Why do you find them trustworthy? This is a summary of the answers:
The students tended to answer these questions with justifications for their use of Internet resources. While five of them mentioned clergy as a source, only two said anything about why. It boiled down to the fact that clergy seem more devoted to studying these things; therefore, clergy are more learned about these things. The one who mentioned ‘church’, without specifics as to ‘who’ in the church, said that the church is who they trust because that’s where the Bible is most often discussed/found.
When parents or teachers were cited as an authority, it was for reasons like their ‘trust’ in their parents, that their parent has ‘read the Bible for years’, that a parent ‘has attended church for a long time’, and that the teacher (me) is more knowledgeable and has been studying these subjects.
As to digital resources, the common logic was this: use the Internet but make sure to check multiple sources. If the same point is made across several websites, it’s probably true. If a website has been used successfully in the past, it’s probably trustworthy. One did say that some sort of ‘check’ should be done to test reliability but mentioned no criteria. Another looked for the word ‘Bible’ in the URL.
The adults spoke about clergy a lot more in response to this question. The seven who said they’d go to clergy gave three shared main reasons: (1) clergy are devoted to studying the Bible; therefore, clergy are learned in the Bible; (2) clergy are trained professionals; (3) clergy are trustworthy (or should be as one said). One person claimed that whenever they asked their clergy member a question, and then later researched the answer themselves, the clergy were always proven correct. A similar remark was made by the one person who mentioned ‘perish educators’. It was argued that they can be ‘trusted’. It seems that past experiences, if good, equal trustworthiness (unsurprisingly).
Other forms of trust in humans included trust in librarians, something no student mentioned. Similarly, a couple mentioned the necessity for ‘peer-reviewed’ sources. Again, no student mentioned this need for one qualified human to check another’s work.
When it comes to the Internet, adults shared a common logic with the students: multiple searches should be done in order to find common themes across a variety of websites. A couple mentioned the need to vet websites to see if they are credible but didn’t explain ‘how’ they’d do it. A couple explained their use of Wikipedia with one saying it contains extensive information and the other pointing to the value of the endnotes/external links that allow you to see where they got their information. Two adults affirmed what most of the students seemed to imply: online searches are valuable because, frankly, they’re quicker!
There were other rationales ranging from trusting a practitioner of Judaism since Micah is in the Tanakh (my language) to trusting a daughter who was a religion major and another a boyfriend who knows a lot about the Bible/religion. Very few seemed confident in their own reading of the Bible. Only one mentioned this as a trustworthy way of knowing about the Bible. Another trusted the study Bible they had because they trusted the person who recommended it. One person mentioned the popular pastor, Charles Stanley, as their guide.
Yesterday I began sharing my summary of the responses I received from the extra credit opportunity I offered my students: the ‘Multi-Generational Reading Project’. Since I used Micah 6.1-8 as passage I wanted students do discuss with an adult (parent, grandparent, sibling, etc.), I began by showing what pre-knowledge was had about this passage by both students and the adults with which they paired. Today, I turn to the second question I asked:
Question 2: If you wanted to know more—like who Micah was, or who his audience was, or what his message was—where would you go (to what sources or people) to find that information? How would you get access to these sources/people?
Here are their answers:
Most student respondents said they’d begin by searching online. Seven made reference to ‘the Internet’ while seven others were more specific, mentioning Google. A few of those who said they’d search the Internet said they’d do so using multiple online sources. This is an exercise that Sam Wineburg refers to as horizontal reading where you check the information about a website not by digging deeper into that particular website but by checking it against other websites. It’s a valid activity but the reasoning behind this approach wasn’t always sound. For example, one student suggested that if multiple websites report something, and there’s no evidence that the writers/creators are collaborating, then it is likely to be true. This is questionable, to say the least. Only one student cared about the specific URL ending saying they would look for a .org or something other than just a .com. One student said they’d search specifically for an ‘article’, which seems to indicate they wanted something more ‘official’ than a blog post, tweet, etc.
Other search engines mentioned include Bing and Baidu. Notably, Wikipedia received only a single mention, which is surprising, and differed from the adults a little bit.
There were some who wanted ‘Bible’ to be in the URL, including BibleGateway.com. Others said they’d look for Bible-centered websites. One said they’d trust the videos created by The Bible Project out of Portland, OR. (I use their videos even though they have a strong evangelical bent at times and risk being supersessionist when discussing topics related to the Hebrew Bible…I just have to complicate those messages when I show the videos.) Only four students stated specifically that they’d go straight to the primary source itself: the Bible (whether physical or digital).
Back to adults: three of my students said they’d go directly to me, their teacher, while three said they’d go to their parents, and five said they’d trust a member of the clergy (priests and pastors mentioned). One said they’d ‘go to Church’ but didn’t say who’d they talk to once they arrived.
Only one student mentioned their phone as their go-to source. I don’t think this means that most use computers rather than their phones. I think it means most assume that their phones are their primary hardware for these searches.
The adult respondents said they’d go online as well. Five of them mentioned the Internet with three providing the caveat that they’d look for ‘reputable sources’. Five mentioned Google specifically. Three mentioned Wikipedia specifically, which I found this surprising because in this group the adults seem more comfortable with Wikipedia than the students (3-to-1…so not much comfort in general).
While only four students said they’d go to the primary source itself, three adults said they’d do the same, but others four others mentioned Bibles that had study aids: a ‘reference’ Bible, a couple ‘study’ Bibles, and even an ‘Adventure’ Bible (which apparently has a lot of good maps and other visual aids).
The biggest difference is that while not a single students said they’d look at a physical book about the Bible—not a single one—four adults said they’d look at things like a ‘Bible reference book’ or a ‘textbook on Bible history’ or even ‘Bible commentaries’. One mentioned their university library and using a digital database to find ‘book lists’.
Eleven students mentioned another person who they’d ask about the Bible, whether a parent, teacher, or member of the clergy. Twelve adults said the same thing, with seven mentioning clergy (compared to five students), one mentioning the ‘Bible teacher’ at Church, one mentioning parish educators, one mentioning a former college professor, and only two citing familial relationships: one a boyfriend and another a daughter (though one did say they wish their mother-in-law was alive still for this sort of thing). Interestingly, even though Micah is part of the Tanakh, only one adult said they might talk to someone who practices Judaism. Notably, most of our student body and their families are associated with Christianity.
In the next post I’ll tell you why my respondents trusted these resources.
Prior to the Thanksgiving Break I offered my students an extra credit opportunity. I titled it the ‘Multi-Generational Reading Project’ and I asked them to pair with an adult in their life who would read Micah 6.1-8, answer a few questions for me via email, and then they’d discuss the passage together (for the full context, read ‘Reading the Bible from the perspective of different generations’). Seventeen students participated (eleven boys/six girls) which means seventeen adults joined them. This included eight mothers, five fathers, a grandmother, a grandfather, and older brother, and an aunt. The criteria was that these adults must be over thirty years of age, though I didn’t ask the adult participants to confirm their age.
While this isn’t a scientific study by any stretch of the imagination, the responses did result a small but interesting data set. I’ll discuss my observations in a series of blog posts. Tonight I begin with my participants pre-knowledge of the Book of Micah.
I should state at the outset that I chose Micah because it’s obscure to most, even life-long Bible readers, and people who attend Synagogue or Church. I did this on purpose. I wanted to see what knowledge was ‘in the air’ that would suggest it was based mostly on high-levels on biblical literacy rather than say movies, film, the news, etc.
The first question I asked was this one: What do you know about the Book of Micah without researching it? Here are my summary observations based on the responses I received:
There were fifteen students who said they knew nothing about the Book of Micah, though this isn’t quite true. A couple stated, correctly, that it’s in the Bible and in the Old Testament in particular. Most assumed that this wasn’t a legitimate answer to the question I was asking. It must’ve seemed like a given. I know that most of the others know it’s a book in the Old Testament because that’s what we’ve been studying this semester.
Those who knew something (two students, total) knew that the main figure, Micah, was a prophet. Also, surmising from the context of 6.1-8, it was stated that it seemed to be a book about the punishment of the Israelites and the forgiveness that was available to them. One student thought it had to do something with leadership.
There were seven adults who said they knew nothing about the book and one who said ‘not much’. Seven knew that Micah was a ‘lesser’ or ‘minor’ prophet. Two others knew he was a prophet, in general. One said it must contain the sayings of Micah. Another thought it contained his writings. And another thought it was about his life (a biography?).
There were some who offered more educated statements (whether they learned in Church or in a college setting) about the book including that it was written in Hebrew and eventually translated into Greek and Latin; that it was located at the end of the Old Testament, specifically; and that the audience was ‘Israelites’. Few knew much about the historical data related to the book but there were comments from a handful about things like Micah being from Judah in the south; prophesying during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah; being a contemporary of Isaiah; predicting the fall of Samaria/Israel; prophesying when Israel fell; preaching against Judah’s wickedness; and focusing on judgment. One suggested that Micah focused on resurrection. Another thought the book was influenced in some way by Roman Imperialism (though it was written too early for that…unless this comment had something to do with the canonization process?).
Clearly, most adults knew a lot more about Micah without doing any research. In fact, some had impressive amounts of knowledge. To clarify, my students didn’t study Micah this semester, which is why I chose the book. How the adults knew more can be credited to longer lives, of course, but as I’ll share in the next section, there seems to be more to it.
I have some students who have asked if they can do anything to earn some extra credit to help their grades, and of course, I have students who will do as much extra credit as possible to perfect their grades. So, I’ve created a project that answers those requests while also providing me with data I’ll find valuable. In other words, basically, I’m a modern tech company: I provide a service; you provide me information!
I’m calling the assignment the ‘Multi-Generational Reading Project’. Here’s the basic purpose and instructions I’ll be sharing with students today:
This extra credit assignment pairs a student with an adult in their life. The adult can be a parent, a guardian, an aunt or uncle, grandparent, or any adult with whom the student has a meaningful connection. The goal (on my end) is to see what similarities and differences I can observe in how people from different generations read and interpret the Bible. The benefit for the student is the extra credit and hopefully a unique, shared experience with the aforementioned adult.
Below, you’ll find an excerpt from a passage from the Jewish Tanakh/Christian Old Testament. Please read the passage separately at first. Then both of you will email me at firstname.lastname@example.org answering the questions I’ve posted below the passage excerpt. Please do this separately as well. When you’ve both sent your email, then you can come together and discuss how you both understood the passage. Once your discussion is finished, the student should then email me again with five observations from your discussion (e.g., What did your interpretations have in common? In what way were they different? Did you share approaches to finding out more about something you don’t know offhand?)
The passage I chose (thank you Daniel A. for the recommendation) is Micah 6.1-8 (NIV). This is a short excerpt making it easier on the adult who agrees to participate. Also, it has elements that may be confusing to those who are less biblically literate (e.g., who are Balak and Balaam), elements that are more familiar (e.g, references to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam), and then what we might call ‘moralistic’ statements open to interpretation (e.g., ‘what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’).
These are the questions I’ve asked my students to share with the adult they choose. My goal is that they would read the passage, separately, answer these questions via email, separately, and then they’d come back together to discuss. The student is required to send me a follow-up email about their discussion where they make five observations about how they read the Bible in juxtaposition with the adult with which they’ve paired. Here are my questions:
- What do you know about the Book of Micah without researching it?
- If you wanted to know more—like who Micah was, or who his audience was, or what his message was—where would you go (to what sources or people) to find that information? How would you get access to these sources/people?
- Why would you choose these sources/people? Why do you find them trustworthy?
Interpretive (answer without researching):
- Why do you think this author depicts God as appealing to the mountains/hills to hear his case in verses 1-2?
- What’s the value of mentioning Moses, Aaron, and Miriam in verse 4?
- What’s the value of mentioning Balak and Balaam in verse 5?
- Rhetorically, what’s the point of questioning the sacrificial system in verses 6-7?
- In your opinion, what does it mean in verse 8 to ‘act justly’? What does it mean to ‘love mercy’? What does it mean to ‘walk humbly with your God?’
My hope is that this gets students to talk with their parents, or grandparents, or someone about the Bible they’ve been studying this semester. The Thanksgiving Break is a great time for a project like this. Selfishly, I’m interested to see what similarities and differences emerge as I compare how students read the Bible with the adults in their lives.
This weekend I’ll be headed to San Diego, CA, for the AAR/SBL Annual Meeting. It’ll be the first time I’ve attended in a few years and I’m going with a whole new set of interests. Last time I attended I was a doctoral student struggling to write a dissertation in what we might call ‘classical’ Biblical Studies, a.k.a., Biblical Studies with an emphasis on the Historical-Critical lens. In the meantime, I did finish that dissertation (though I never found the energy to reshape it into something worth publishing) and I began teaching Religious Studies to high schoolers. The latter is where I find happiness now. While I hope that some of my work from the past can slowly be turned into a few articles and maybe a book, what interests me the most now is how adolescents read the Bible and how adolescents think about religion.
In other words, my audience is also one of my favorite topics. But this raises a question: Where does one go during AAR/SBL to find scholars looking into topics like ‘generational hermeneutics’, i.e., how younger people read the Bible different than their predecessors? Or, do many AAR sessions ponder adolescent religion outside of the rise of the Nones?
The rise of the Nones is a fascinating topic. For example, see Timothy Beal’s recent article in the WSJ titled ‘Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?’ I find this subject to be very interesting. And for many scholars of religion who teach at the college-level, the future of your departments, and the future of your profession, will be shaped by how interested these ‘kids’ are in religion by the time they become college students. So, there’s practical reasons to care, but there’s also scholarly reasons to care.
Scholarship has been enriched as we’ve thought deeply about how feminism, or Black American culture, or LGBTQ+ interests shed new light on a variety of subjects. What about generational differences? Might there be a ‘generational hermeneutic’ worth discussing? If so, what would it take for future AAR or SBL sessions to be dedicated to exploring how emerging generations ‘do’ and ‘think’ religion? I feel like AAR would have an easier time incorporating something like this (and maybe I’m missing something…if so, point it out to me, please) but I believe it could make for some really interesting SBL sessions as well.