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.

Shameful workaholic

This weekend I became one of the newest members of the “omicron club”. My symptoms were almost indistinguishable from my allergic reactions to the cedar and juniper that sometimes tortures me down here in south Texas. But I’m home from work for the next few days because of CDC protocols and probable contagiousness. On the one hand, I’m glad that I’m not spreading this virus to anyone today. I know there are people out there who may be hit harder by it than I’m experiencing. On the other hand, I feel guilty for being home and that seems wrong. I feel guilty for feeling guilty. In my mind, I can justify being home from work only if I’m feeling not just sick but sick enough to prevent me from teaching my classes. This isn’t right.

In part, there’s a more honorable, if not prideful, rationale: I’m confident in my teaching and I believe that when I miss a class, my students lose an opportunity to learn and think with me. It’s a little arrogant, admittedly. But I do think of myself as being good at my job. That said, students miss all the time—for sickness, for team sports, because they’re exhausted. So, it’s not like a day without me teaching them is something that’s completely disruptive to their learning experience. In fact, if I’m honest, while I must believe that my teaching has a real impact on their lives over the course of a semester or a year, a few days means almost nothing.

So, if I know this, why do I feel guilty? Why am I home thinking thoughts like, “My symptoms should be worse to justify being home from work”? I think I’m a workaholic. It seems that the “Protestant Work Ethic,” or whatever we call our enculturation and indoctrination into capitalism, is something I can’t shake. And it reveals to me that ideas around “purpose” are buried deep in my psyche, determining my self-worth, and preventing me from enjoying rest and leisure, even when my body needs it (just because Covid doesn’t feel terrible doesn’t mean my body doesn’t need rest when dealing with it).

I’m better at rejecting this mindset when it comes to my students. When I’ve had students out because they’re sick (whether Covid or something else), I exempt them from the classwork/homework that would’ve been due. I know that some of my colleagues don’t do this and sometimes it may be justifiable. For example, if you miss a few days of advanced mathematics, your deficit may begin to snowball as you fall behind the pace of the rest of the class. But religious studies isn’t advanced mathematics (or learning another language like Latin or Spanish). In fact, religious studies is one of those fields where teachers like myself must consistently resist the efforts of administrators, parents, college admissions offices, etc., to quantify what we teach. As Johannes A. Niederhauser says in his YouTube Short about teaching philosophy:

Instead, we must provide students with a map that helps them discover new and fresh ideas. We teach them “how to think” more than “what to think”. We teach them how to “travel” with their minds rather than where they “must go” with them. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a syllabus, or lessons, etc. My classes are quite detailed. Sometimes, I estimate down to how many minutes a given part of a lesson should take. (Though if we go somewhere offroad, and the discussion is fruitful, the outline must be abandoned, even if temporarily.) But that’s not the same thing as saying “Students must learn A, B, C, and D to have really learned!” And because there are many things students can learn—some that I might have anticipated; others that I didn’t—I can be flexible with them when it comes to helping them find a life-school balance. I can try to teach them the very important lesson that they’re not their work or their “doings” or their vocational “purpose”.

That said, I don’t know that I’ve taught this to myself. As teachers, we must learn to care about our health as much as we try to care about our students. We must model self-care; we must model work-life balance. So, while I have no say in the manner, I’ll do my best to not fret about being quarantined at home. I won’t spend all my time trying to get ahead on grading or lesson planning. Maybe I’ll go sit in the sun and read a book. Maybe I’ll take a couple naps. Because what I need to learn is what I try to teach my students when I tell them “don’t worry about this week’s assignments; get some rest and we’ll see you soon”.

Course Description: “Religion in Global Context”

A little over a week ago, I shared my “Course Description” for my fall 2021 class “The Hebrew Scriptures”. Today, I want to share the one I wrote for “Religion in Global Context,” my other fall 2021 class:


“Religion in Global Context is an examination of how religious beliefs and practices function amongst a variety of cultures in different parts of the world. Students are taught methods of inquiry related to history, the philosophy of religion, and the social sciences as they explore not only how the word “religion” refers to a wide-variety of traditions but also how those traditions are internally diverse, dynamic, and embedded in culture. The aim is to develop “religious literacy” so that students can become familiar with and accustomed to the variety of religious expressions found in an international context. Similarly, this course functions to help create awareness of how religion continues to influence how the various peoples of the world understand and interpret their origins, identities, morals, ethics, politics, and other matters related to being a global citizen on an increasingly interconnected planet.”

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.

Course Description: “The Hebrew Scriptures”

If things remain the same, this fall semester I’ll teach two blocks of The Hebrew Scriptures and three of Religion in Global Context. I’ve begun doing a little bit of prep work (don’t worry, I’m taking my summer break seriously by getting lots of rest and working on other writing projects) which includes putting together my syllabi. Each syllabus for each class includes a “course description”. Each year, I rework the description as more experience helps me develop a more precise focus. For those who are interested, here is the current draft for The Hebrew Scriptures:


“The Hebrew Scriptures is an examination of the corpus of ancient literature known as the ‘Tanakh’ to Jews and the ‘Old Testament‘ to Christians. Students are taught methods of reading that are appropriate for an academic setting yet sensitive to the place of these collections within living communities. This means approaching these texts from the perspective taken by historians, literary critics, and philosophers—to name a few disciplines—while asking what these texts have meant and mean. The aim is to develop ‘biblical literacy’ so that students can become familiar with and accustomed to interpreting texts that have been influential on a global scale. Similarly, the course functions to put these ancient texts in dialogue with modern concerns (e.g. metaphysical claims; ethical and moral thinking; ethnic and religious identity; imperialism and empire-building; human sexuality).” 

Parenting, the Bible, and Faith-Transitions

My experience as a Religious Studies Instructor who teaches high schoolers, and conversations I’ve had with friends who are rethinking how they may or may not teach the Bible to their own children, led me to ponder whether some parts of the Bible are more appropriate for others depending on the age of a child. See “Rating the Bible”. Now I see Jared Byas of “The Bible for Normal People” fame has released a podcast episode titled “Parenting in a Faith Transition” with his wife, Sarah Byas, where they discuss this topic, so I thought I’d share but also document so that I remember it as I continue to think on this topic.

Rating the Bible

I teach the Bible in a high school setting. It’s a college preparatory school. It’s not a Sunday School. But it’s a high school, so even if I’m trying to give them a near-college experience, there are many ways that I have to teach that remain age-appropriate.

For example, if I show a film, some R-rated films are never going to be acceptable. Other R-rated films are acceptable with parent permission. PG-13 and below are fine.

So, what of the Bible then? There have been years where I’ve avoid the Song of Songs and years when I’ve taught it. When I’ve taught it, it was the equivalent to blurring out the sensitive parts in a picture. I tell them it’s about romance and sexuality. Like many translators of the Bible into English, I choose to soften the language. But is Song of Songs best left alone when teaching adolescents or left only to certain teachers—kind of like sex ed isn’t a topic taught by all teachers?

What about graphic violence? Children hear the story of the Great Flood (a.k.a. “Noah’s Flood”) at a very young age…but the Creator literally drowns almost all of humanity. This is worse than genocide. Do smiling giraffes on a boat really soften the narrative? Should children learn about that story at all?

Should there be a form of trigger warnings? I feel that it’s important to discussed King David’s abuse/rape of Bathsheba to understand the full depiction of the man in the Bible but that’s a tough topic to cover. On the other hand, I don’t want students becoming young adults and thinking the Bible is a squeaky clean book. I’ve heard too many young Christians dismiss the Quran because of content that’s in their own Holy Book but due to biblical illiteracy among the faithful their prejudice goes unchecked.

If the Bible were to receive film ratings for chapters, what rating would each chapter receive. Filmratings.com gives basic explanations of how films are judged. Here’s a visual from their webpage:

If you go to pp. 6-7 of their “Classification and Ratings Rule” you’ll see how they determine what label to give and what content should be mentioned in the warning box.

If we were to rate Genesis 1, what rating would it receive? What about Revelation 12?

Common Sense Media has their own rating system for movies that helps parents decide based on criteria such as:

  1. “What age is the movie aimed at?”
  2. Quality
  3. Educational value
  4. Messages and role models
  5. Violence, sex, and language
  6. Consumerism
  7. Drinking, drugs, and smoking
  8. User reviews

Would “user reviews” be how people have experienced the Bible? I don’t jest here. For some, the Bible is extremely live-giving. For others, frankly, it’s been used to traumatize them and they’re best off if they spend some time away from a book that has been weaponized against them.

For kicks, it would be fun to rate the Bible using a rating system created by conservative Christians, such as movieguide. If I just gave you the plot of the Samson narrative, where would it rate using this scale?

Does a literary narration of Samson’s violence and sexual exploits differ from a visual presentation? Would you read a story from the Bible that you wouldn’t show if it were depicted as a movie, cartoon, anime, etc.? I find this line of inquiry to be pretty fascinating and I wonder how this relates to how publishers package the Bible for teens.

Recently read: Brown Taylor’s “Holy Envy”

Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, (Harper One, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others is a beautiful reflection from someone who has spent many years educating students in comparative religion while wrestling with implications of what she has learned from the process. As a Christian, Taylor admits that studying and teaching other religions can become a challenge to your confidence in your own tradition. She writes about how teaching a course on comparative religion has been enriching but also:

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 208

Yet Brown Taylor has decided that the answer is not to abandon her own tradition of Christianity. She comments:

In the first place, no one can speak all the religious languages in the world, and there is no spiritual Esperanto. None of us can speak “language.” We have to speak a language before we can learn anyone else’s, and the carefulness with which we speak our own can make us better listeners to others. In the second place, my religious language is quite excellent at speaking of what it means to be authentically human.

It has also shaken many of my foundations. Now when I explain to students why Jews do not believe Jesus is the messiah, the reasons make sense to me. When I tell the story of the night Muhammad received the first verses of the Qur’an in a cave outside of Mecca, I believe that the angel Gabriel stood in attendance. When I spell out the ways in which the Hindu concept of Brahman differs from the Christian concept of God, the Hindu concept strikes me as far more advanced. When I teach Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, they sound perfectly true.

Holy Envy, p. 193.

Brown Taylor balances honest epistemology with authentic belief. On the one hand, there’s no need to try to create a brand new blend of religions. The blend creates something new—it doesn’t necessarily honor other religions. On the other hand, it’s perfectly normal to admit doubt about your own tradition. Christianity often has been a religion that demands triumphalism. Brown Taylor provides a path that allows the Christian to be Christian without posturing triumphalistically against other religions.

This is where the main theme of her book should be highlighted. Holy envy is a concept Brown Taylor derived from the great scholar of religion, Krister Stendahl, who had three rules for religious understanding (quoted here from p. 65):

  1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for holy envy.

Holy envy is when you learn to love and respect the traditions of other religions but in a way that doesn’t try to create a colonialist museum out of them (an analogy she uses on p. 70). You may go to another well when the well of your tradition seems dry (p. 5) but that’s not the same as collecting and objectifying the religious beliefs and practices of others.

Brown Taylor sees her role as a Christian educating others about the world’s various religions as her “Christian duty”. She says (p. 25), “I believe it is the neighborly thing to do, the Christlike thing to do.” But it’s also nourishing for the self. It’s a way to see things from a new perspective and learn new ways of speaking about the world and our humanity in it.

As an educator who teaches students comparative religion from as objective and fair a place as possible, but for someone who also identifies as Christian, I found great joy in reading this book. It’s worth your time if you’ve ever wondered how being a Christian should shape your approach to/posture toward religious others. It’s a book of wisdom written in humility that’s worth your time.

Recently read: Jennings “After Whiteness”

Willie James Jennings, After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2020). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Willie James Jennings (Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University Divinity School) has written a challenging reflection on the current state of theological education and what many institutions value in how they train students. His main concern is with the formation of students: What does a graduate become? What values do they receive? For Jennings, most institutions are preparing their students to function in a world that values “whiteness” which he defines not as “people of European descent” but “to a way of being in the world and seeing the world that forms cognitive and affective structures able to seduce people into its habitation and its meaning making” (p. 9). This is exemplified by “White self-sufficient masculinity” that “is a way of organizing life with ideas and forming a persona that distorts identity and strangles the possibilities of dense life together” (pp. 8-9). If I’ve understood him correctly, education, and even theological education, aims to create the self-sufficient man (and yes, I think our culture’s visions of masculinity is key), the Lone Ranger-type.

One example he uses is the Paterfamilias of the colonial plantation who is the self-sufficient center around which everyone else circles (see pp. 78-83). The foundation of the type of education that has been passed along to us was designed first and foremost for that male heir; that mythological “great man”. Jennings describes it this way:

A vision of the self-sufficient man—one who is self-directed, never apologizing for his strength or ability or knowledge, one who recognizes his own power and uses it wisely, one bound in courage, moral vision, singularity of purpose and not given to extremes of desire or anger—is a compellingly attractive goal for education and moral formation.

p. 31

In contrast to this elite man, Jennings writes:

We have failed to see that this is the ground of theological education and of all education that aims at the good. It is the crowd—people who would not under normal circumstances ever want to be near each other, never ever touching flesh to flesh, never ever calling in unison upon the name of Jesus, never ever listening together to anything except Roman edict or centurion shouting command, now listening to the words of Jesus. Yet the crowd is not Christian, nor is the crowd exclusively Jewish. The crowd is not a temporary condition on the way to something else. The crowd is the beginning of a joining that was intended to do deep pedagogical work.

p. 13

I don’t teach in a theological institution (though my school is supported by The Episcopal Church). Also, the book reads like you’ve sat down to have a chat with Jennings. He shares stories and poetry that weaves through his insights. It’s the type of book I’d never “review” because while its true that all acts of reading are subjective experiences, this one is subjective in the way a conversation is subjective. If each reader sat down and talked to Jennings about this same series of topics it would be a different experience depending on your identity and affiliations.

I don’t think you have to teach in a theological institution to learn from this book. Some of his insights on institutions in general were all too relevant, real, and challenging for me and I teach a very demographic than the one Jennings teaches. But if you’ve wondered about the model of education that’s primarily about the individual and not the community—the one that aims to set you up for success rather than bringing us together—then you’ll benefit no matter what age or topic you teach.