The Hebrew Prophets as Philosophers

Last year I noticed that by the time I got to November, many of my Hebrew Bible students needed a hermeneutical change of pace. So, when I got to the Prophetic Literature, I decided to approach these texts through a philosophical lens. It revived the attention spans of many of my students. This year I planned ahead for this part of the semester and I think last year’s experiment was a success.

While discussions on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant or Daniel’s Son of Man may interest religion majors and seminarians, I didn’t get much back from my students when I covered these topics. Instead, I’ve shifted to using the Prophets as a springboard into moral philosophy.

I was inspired by Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture where he sets divine revelation aside to ask what philosophical underpinning can be found in the message of the Hebrew Bible. I took the same approach with the Prophets specifically. My students have discussed:

  • Utopianism in the Book of Isaiah: can we create a world where the wolf grazes with the lamb? do we want to try or does the pursuit of utopia turn into the creation of dystopia?
  • Divine Command Theory in the Book of Hosea: Was Hosea right to marry who he married, and treat her how he treated her, and name his kids what he named them, just because God said (I teased out this idea with the Akedah earlier in the semester)?
  • Deontology in the Book of Daniel: While Divine Command Theory fits better, if we evaluate the stories of the ‘Three Hebrews and the Fiery Furnace’ or ‘Daniel and the Lion’s Den’ then we can ask whether one’s moral commitments should be static, like categorical imperatives, or should we be less dogmatic with our ethics?
  • Consequentialism and the Book of Esther: It could be argued that Queen Vashti was the deontologist. She wasn’t going to be objectified by the king and his friends no matter the consequence. Esther seems a bit more relativistic. She hides her identity. She does what it takes to please the king. It isn’t until the end that she takes a great risk but that risk wouldn’t be possible without her previous, calculated actions. It isn’t until the existence of her people is threatened that she becomes a little more like Vashti.

I use the Crash Course Philosophy videos linked above to explain the paradigm within moral philosophy that I want to discuss and then use the Prophetic Literature to illustrate. Maybe it’s a stretch to connect deontology to Daniel and his friends? Maybe. But if we bracket divine revelation (not saying reject…just bracket) then we must ask what makes this text valuable to students across religious traditions and for non-religious students. I think this sort of philosophical reading is a step in a useful direction.

Canon and Metanarrative: Reflection #1

I’ve read enough Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard (and responses to them) over the years to have developed a bit of unease with metanarrative. But also I’ve come to the conclusion that metanarrative may be a necessary fiction for effective pedagogy. What do I meant by this? Well, when introducing students to topics like the contents of the Bible—at least to students in their teens who may not be familiar with what they’re learning—you need some sort of context for it to make sense. Sure, the Book of Genesis is valuable to one person in ways that is different from others (even corporately: from one Church to another and from a Church to a Synagogue) but if I know nothing or almost nothing about Genesis, then it means nothing. Therefore, in order to teach it in such a way that prevents eyes from rolling into the back of heads, a context must be chosen, even if only temporarily, and even if only for heuristic purposes. A story needs to be told that gives the concept a meaningful context.

It may be that students deconstruct that context later in life. And that’s not only acceptable but maybe encouraged. I wouldn’t have studied religion if it hadn’t been for my related experiences as a child and teen that pushed me to want to challenge and critique the worldview I inherited. In other words, that worldview, while mostly discarded now, inspired and provoked me to ask the questions that give my work meaning.

So, at least when it comes to teaching the Bible, what’s the metanarrative? What’s the context I give? Is it simply the canons of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles? Well, that’s tricky because to use a canon demands that one introduce a handful of other concepts surrounding canonization, many that are fuzzy, and still debated in the upper echelons of scholarship. How did we get the Tanakh/Old Testament? How did we get the New Testament? It’s difficult to teach this to students who don’t yet know what the collections contain. Who cares about how we got something until we know what that something is?

Additionally, outside biblicist circles, the digitization of the Bible is reshaping canon. When I began teaching Biblical Studies at the high school level, students brought physical Bibles with them. When our school went BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) and everything began to be digitized (including my guiding notes and other projects) it was natural to begin using websites like BibleGateway.com to direct students to the passage being read any given day. The order of the canon, and how to find ‘Malachi 1.2’, began to lack relevance and became impractical in a sense. Now, you, dear reader, may feel that it remains a necessary skill to teach students how to find something in a physical Bible. To a degree, this may be correct, like teaching cursive may be useful. But what is even more useful in my mind is teaching students how to use the tool they’ll probably use most often once they leave your class: the Internet. With that, the Internet has morphed canonicity in ways I’m still pondering, but in ways that I think change how canon relates to the metanarrative you gift your students now for deconstruction and further investigation later.

What then is the alternative? I’ll say more in future posts (and by ‘say more’ I mean think aloud, not necessarily offer answers that work for everyone).

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.

Explaining the blog’s subtitle

What do I mean when I say this blog is about ‘reading the Bible with iGen’? Well, I’m inspired by Jean M. Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthoodand What that Means for the Rest of Us (which has a throw-back, super-long subtitle). This is a book about the generation after the Millennials. Some call this generation ‘Generation Z’ (or ‘Gen Z’). Traditionally, Millennials were born in the early 80s (Twenge says ’81; Pew Research Center says ’80), which, fun fact, makes me one of the oldest Millennials (I was born in ’82). Gen Z or iGen begins in the mid-90s (Twenge says ’95; Pew Research Center says ’97). The reason I like the label iGen is because of Twenge’s rational for giving this name to the emerging generation. ‘they grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet.’ (p. 2)

Millennials like me became adults at the turn of the millennium. We remember the pre-Internet Era. We used dial-up. Today’s youth don’t know the analog era, only the digital one. The ‘Internet was born’ in 1994, forever changing the world into which they would be born.

I teach religious studies to this generation, specifically high schoolers. So this blog will include my observations on how this generation thinks about religion, reads sacred texts, and other related matters. And I agree with Twenge: the (smart)phone in their pockets has forever altered how humans think and get their information. This means when they want to know about Buddhism, or the Gospel of Luke, or the Hindutva ideology, how will they learn about it…well, my hyperlink tells you how. They’ll look for information online. This can be good but it brings unique challenges. Challenges I want to think through.

Explaining the blog’s name

You may wonder, ‘How did you come up with such a witty blog name?’ Well, let me tell you!

Google-Hermeneutics and Wiki-Exegesis

Hermeneutics is the art (science?) of interpretation. It’s the self-imposed principles we use to help us develop a self-aware reading of a given text. In the Internet Age, someone with minimal knowledge about any given topic will (likely) begin their quest for new knowledge using Google. Of course, this means that Google’s algorithm will have a role in determining the first websites they encounter. As you may have guessed, if I search ‘Who were Adam and Eve?’ it’s improbable that the first website I’ll be offered is a solid, research-grounded, website where a scholar has written something. In fact, when you do this precise search, your first result will be the hive-mind known as Wikipedia. The next few results when I did the search include Britannica.com (not bad), BibleStudyTools.com (ok), MyJewishLearning.com (good), so I’m not saying that Google is a terrible tool and I wish everyone would go to the library instead. What I am saying is that Google had a huge role in determining what someone learns and if the person just wants basic knowledge, then guess what? Wikipedia it is? Therefore, Google-Hermeneutics means that the art of interpreting the Bible (or the Quran or the religious practices of Hindus or the demographics of Buddhists in the United States) is greatly shaped by the power of Google.

Exegesis is the difficult work of trying to extract information from a text. It is when the reader tries to listen to the text on its own terms (whatever that might mean and however that might be possible). This might mean trying to read the text in the language written in originally. Or learning more about the historical-setting wherein the text was shaped. What then is ‘Wiki-Exegesis’? Well, a ‘wiki’, according to Wikipedia (meta!), is ‘a knowledge base website on which users collaboratively modify content and structure directly from the web browser‘. In other words, it is an evolving hive-mind. So, unlike say reading a commentary on the Epistle to the Romans written by Martin Luther a few centuries ago (which has limits to how it can evolve), one might read about the Epistle to the Romans on Wikipedia, where knowledge is always evolving, for better or worse. Also, a Wikipedia entry isn’t necessarily written by scholars of that subject, so you’re getting a variety of voices (again, for better or worse). Therefore, Wiki-Exegesis is how many people ‘interpret’ texts today. They do it collaboratively, hearing many voices that present views that are ever evolving and that come from faceless contributors who we may or may not trust to provide us with accurate information for reasons of which were unsure.

Blogging is Dead. So why this blog?

I used to blog a lot. Too much. Like three entries a day. It was bad for my mental health. It was bad for my interpersonal relationships. So why this blog?

Well, there’s a few reason.

  1. I was notified this week that a paper I proposed for the 2020 Southwest Commission on Religious Studies was accepted. My paper, ‘Reading the Bible with iGen’, will be part of a panel titled ‘Biblical Studies in the Bible Belt: Pedagogy and Best Practices’. The downside? There won’t be projectors provided, and I don’t think I want to print copies for everyone in attendance, so I’ll need a place to upload a copy of my paper so people can read it from their computers/phones while I present.
  2. This is my fourth year teaching religious studies at the high school level. This may be one of the loneliest gigs a high school teacher can obtain because so few high schools offer religious studies course (and for good reason considering the potential First Amendment related quagmires that can arise). I have a couple of colleagues within our school’s Humanities Department but that’s the extent of it. So, this is a place for me to share some thoughts on the intersection of religious studies, biblical studies, pedagogy, and adolescence, and maybe there’ll be a few people out there in the void who will speak back to me!
  3. I think this intersection is under-appreciated and quite interesting. Whether it be the work of people like Benjamin Marcus, a Religious Literacy Specialist with the Religious Freedom Center who has been promoted the C3 Framework as a way to help teachers teach religious studies as part of social studies curriculum; or Linda K. Wertheimer, whose book Faith Ed reports on the challenges teachers face when teaching religion in a public school setting; or Mark A. Chancy, a Professor of Religious Studies, and an accomplished scholar of the Christian New Testament, who has been researching Bible curriculum in public schools; or Andrew Mark Henry, a doctoral student at Boston University who created the ‘Religion for Breakfast’ YouTube channel which makes religious studies topics accessible to a new generation; there are people doing really interesting work and I’d like to share it with others.

So, I won’t blog that frequently. I’ll stay in my lane and on topic. And I won’t get into debates in the comments. This should make this blogging experience a healthier one.