AAR/SBL high school teachers meet up?

I mentioned to my friend David Burnett (on Facebook) that we should try to get together a group of people at AAR/SBL who teach religious/biblical studies in a high school context. I don’t know how many of us there are but I do know our experiences are unique to the field and it would be good to create some sort of network of support. Any takers? (And, if so, does anyone have a spot in Denver near the conference that they’d favor?)


A non-confessional alternative to BibleProject

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AAR/SBL 2021: See you in Denver!

This was originally posted on November 23rd, 2021.

It may be due to having not attended an in-person conference last year but on the last day that I attended AAR/SBL 2021, I went to three sessions. Well, maybe four half-sessions is more accurate. Either way, I attended a lot more sessions than I’m prone to do on the final day.

My final day was Monday. I didn’t go downtown or sign on to any sessions today.

In the morning, I heard a couple of papers at the Johannine Literature session. Wil Rogan’s “Echoes of Sinai beyond the Jordan: Ritual Purity and Revelation in the Fourth Gospel” was packed with helpful insights but the two that stood out to me came during his Q&A. I tweeted the following as a reminder:
A couple of insights I want to remember from this paper’s Q&A:

(1) the foot washing = probably not an act of ritual purity but Peter wants to make it one; (2) JtBaptist = like Moses as purifier of Israel (Exod 19:10-11; cf. John 1:14-18).

Rogan suggested that when Peter says in John 13:9 “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” that he’s trying to avoid Jesus’ act being one of his master/teacher serving him because that discomforts him; instead he prefers to see Jesus as performing a ritual cleansing. Jesus rejects this move saying to Peter in 13:10, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”

Then I heard Lee Douglas Hoffer’s “Jesus’s Obfuscatory Speech and the Motif of Misunderstanding in the Fourth Gospel” where he did a great job presenting Jesus as “the Isaianic agent of Israel’s hardening”. My friend Marc wanted to catch the Qumran/Historical Jesus sessions, so we headed there next to hear most of Yair Furstenberg’s thought-provoking “The Limited Scope of Jewish Law in the Second Temple Period: A Sectarian Perspective”. In essence, if I understood him, he saw Torah-enforcement as being uncommon for most people and that most local courts settled matters under Roman authority. Jesus and Qumran exhibit an alternate path that rejects the courts of the “nations” in favor of an internal, communal system based.

We finished that Qumran/Historical Jesus session with a couple of good papers from Hannah Harrington (“Purity, the Scrolls, and Jesus”) and Jeffery Garcia (“‘Support the Poor’: Charity in the Damascus Document and Matthew’s Gospel as a Case of Mutual Illumination”). Then in the afternoon I mixed wondering the book halls, saying hi to friends, and a paper from the Gospel of Mark session (Josef Sykora’s “Hope for Dogs: The Syrophoenician Woman in Mark 7:24-30 as the Unchosen Who Saves Her Children”) with the presentations from the Racism, Pedagogy, and Biblical Studies panel. My allergies were wicked yesterday, so I didn’t stick around for the subsequent discussion. It was time to go home.

And now my first “in-person” conference since the beginning of the pandemic has come to an end. It was fun and refreshing even if the attendance was thinner and the atmosphere a little strange with us all wearing masks. Hopefully, when we gather in Denver next year, it’ll all feel a little more “normal” (whatever that means now).

AAR/SBL 2021: Day 3

This was originally posted on November 22nd, 2021.

I stayed home yesterday. All the sessions I attended were virtual. That includes “Racism, Pedagogy, and Biblical Studies/Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies” where I heard papers discuss the relationship between settler colonialism and the Book of Joshua (Mari Joerstad); the mentioning (or, lack thereof) of slavery in biblical studies textbooks (Eliza Rosenberg); a project that helps students learn about local racism that begins with a study of Deuteronomy 15:12-15 (Seth Heringer); and two papers that explored the racism/racial prejudice of Jesus’ words to Canaanite (Matthew 15:21-28)/Syrophoenician (Mark 7:24-30) woman where he alludes to her as a “dog” (Jione Havea and Gideon W. Park). All of those papers were very challenging and provoked my thinking on how I teach biblical studies to my students.
In the late afternoon, I attended “Exile (Forced Migrations) in Biblical Literature” where they discussed the topic “Legacies of Exile in the Prophets and Torah”. It was a panel that morphed into more of a traditional paper presenting session, so I don’t have the titles, but I did learn about how the exile was interpreted in prophetic literature, how much blame was or wasn’t put on kings, and a few other insights that I’ll take back to my classroom.

But the most exciting part of the day is when I had the opportunity to sit in on the “Educational Resources and Review Committee” meeting. I join the committee in 2022 and I’ve very excited about what’s on the agenda. Mark Chancey of SMU has finished his terms on the committee and as its chair. The new chair will be David Eastman of The McCallie School—a fellow high school teacher, so that’s amazing. As I can say more and promote what we’re doing, I’ll do so here.

Attending AAR/SBL as a high school teacher

This was originally posted on November 20th, 2021.

The annual AAR/SBL meeting used to be a mixture of excitement and high anxiety for me. This is mostly due to imposter syndrome. I’ve been around long enough to know that many people who are absolutely qualified to represent their fields of study also happen to struggle with imposter syndrome, so it’s comforting to know that the feelings that accompany imposter syndrome aren’t discriminatory. But they’re real and can be destabilizing.

These days, I don’t feel the imposter syndrome as much, mostly because I’ve found my niche teaching religious studies in a high school setting. But there is a different feeling that comes with this reality: it’s sort of like being a minor leaguer who gets called up for a few games. I know, it’s a silly self-perception, but there’s definitely the sense that I’m getting the opportunity to be a “big leaguer” for three days before going back to where I belong.

This isn’t a bad thing though. The anxiety associated with imposter syndrome usually has something to do with the question of whether you belong. I know I belong, just in a certain role, and it’s a role that I greatly enjoy but that is envied by very few of my academic colleagues. I’m still trying to do some scholarly things on the side like editing and writing or being part of SBL’s “Educational Resources and Review Committee” beginning next November. But I’m not gunning for a college or seminary job; not facing the pressure of “publish or perish”; and not worrying about the competitive camaraderie that comes with befriending your potential competition for a job.

Instead, considering the fact that higher education is broken and there are more people receiving terminal degrees in the humanities who don’t have a job waiting for them, I’m grateful that I get to do what I love. I get paid to talk about what I spent most of my life studying and earning degrees in. All without the anxiety and fear that comes with trying to make it big. So, the “minor leagues” are good for me and honestly, at this juncture, I’m so used to teaching adolescents that I’m not sure I could easily make the adjustment to an older demographic. Instead, I aim to be the best religious studies high school teacher I can be and whenever I have the opportunity to learn from the big leaguers like I’ll have this weekend, I plan on taking full advantage in order to nerd out and perfect my craft.

Putting religion in its global context (3): three premises of Religious Studies

The new school year has begun. I confess: remote (online) teaching is a lot more work than ‘normal’ teaching. That being said, I’m glad we started the year online where I work. It was the safe decision. It was the right decision.

It’s been a few weeks since I blogged about my course ‘Religion in Global Context’. I’m enjoy the semester thus far. I really like how the curriculum is unfolding. In my most recent post on the topic I mentioned how I’ll be introducing (and now have introduced) my students to some of the principles found in AAR‘s ‘Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States’. That previous post looked at three reasons (premises) for why high school students should learn about religion. The follow-up lesson (in progress with my students) examines three premises for Religious Studies, or three premises for how Religious Studies should be teach. Those premises are:

  1. Religions are Internally Diverse
  2. Religions are Dynamic
  3. Religions are Embedded in Culture

These principles are important for students to understand because they show/remind them that:

  1. If you’ve met one adherent of a religion you haven’t met them all.
  2. What you’ve heard in the media about a religious group should be taken with a grain of salt since not all members are alike.
  3. While it may be a ‘necessary lie’ to say things like ‘Christians believe…’ or ‘Muslims practice…’ (because you can’t spend all your time unpacking the caveats), it’s still an overgeneralization.
  4. No religion is static and unchanging, so it shouldn’t be surprising if you hear that some members of a religion are rethinking what others hold dear.
  5. While we may separate religion from ‘philosophy’ or ‘culture’ or ‘politics’ these are practical distinctions that don’t actually reflect how religious people live their lives.
  6. Buddhism in China may not look like Buddhism in California; Christianity in Brazil might not look like Christianity in Japan. Just as religion impacts culture; culture impacts religion.

I could go on but you get the point. What students need to know is that there’s no single, eternal definition of religion (speaking from the perspective of Religious Studies and not theology). It gives permission to students to learn about different religious groups and their claims without being preoccupied with whether or not they should be accepting or rejecting that religion’s truth-claims (they can do that later once they understand various religions in all their diversity).

Anyway, for those who are interested, here’s lesson

Putting religion in its global context (2): three premises for teaching religion in high school

It’s been a few weeks since my first post (see ‘What’s wrong with “World Religion”?’) on the topic of rethinking and reshaping my class formerly known as ‘World Religion’, which we’re rebranding as ‘Religion in Global Context’. I’ve completed a couple of lessons, so I’m ready to resume blogging on the topic. The first lesson—1.1, Why Study Religion in High School?—is built around AAR‘s ‘Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K-12 Public Schools in the United States’. Now, I teach at a private Episcopal school, so I don’t have to worry about violating the First Amendment, or tearing down the wall that separates ‘church and state’, but I do teach a diverse body of students who are associated with a variety of religious traditions. Therefore, I think the same rationale for trying to teach about religion rather that training in religion applies.

AAR promotes three premises for why we should teach religion to high schoolers:

  1. There exists a widespread illiteracy about religion in the U.S.
  2. One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.
  3. It is possible to diminish religious illiteracy by teaching about religion from a non-devotional perspective in primary, middle, and secondary schools.

I’ll begin by asking students to explain what they think these three premises mean. Then, I’ll go premise-by-premise in order to better explain them. To teach the first premise, I’ll be walking students through a series of absolute statements—’Christians believe…Judaism teaches…Buddhists practice…’—and I’ll push students to think critically about these statements in order to help them recognize that the religion is far more complicated than most people recognize and that it needs to be rethought, as a conceptual category, in order to avoid dangerous oversimplifications.

To teach the second premise, I’ll talk to my students about (1) how Sikhs have been mistreated in American; (2) how Islamaphobia fuels this mistreatment; and (3) how Islamaphobia itself is a problem that needs to be addressed (in other words, mistreatment of Sikhs isn’t wrong just because they’re mistaken for Muslims but because Islamaphobia is a dehumanizing and misleading ideology that doesn’t represent Islam and doesn’t correctly address how to respond to difference). I’ll make sure to give students a basic introduction to Sikhism as well (no reason to show them how many Americans misunderstand Sikhism only to leave them without any understanding) using Religion for Breakfast’s helpful video:

To teach the third premise, I’ll lead them through a discussion on what makes our class different from a ‘devotional’ approach to studying religion. Then I’ll give them several reasons for studying religion even if the class isn’t teaching them what to believe religiously.

Here’s a PDF draft of this first lesson for those who are interested:

Resources for teaching Religious Studies online

Fun fact: my first teaching gig was through an online campus. (Shout-out: Western Seminary!) Also, because so many of my students miss a lot of class during the Spring Semester due to athletic events, fine arts conventions, etc., my curriculum has been 90% digital for about a year (in-class and homework). I use Google Classroom, Google Docs, Google Forms. So, when my employer announced we’re extending spring break due to COVID-19, and then going online indefinitely after that, I felt ready. I’ve been doing classes with an online element since I started teaching.

Many of you don’t feel as confident. One thing I’d stress is to not be a perfectionist about this. My class notes are digital not to supplant in-class educating but to supplement the learning of students who may miss a day or three because of a baseball tournament out of town. My recommendation: aim to be realistic. This is a pandemic. You weren’t given months and months to prepare for this. Build your online class to maintain learning but don’t try to match the glory of your classroom. It’s can’t be done. Online learning is no replacement for brick-and-mortar education.

Also, for those of you who work in higher ed: consider not doing an excellent job. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but as I said on Facebook and Twitter this morning: ‘Ok, but seriously, educator friends at the college-level and higher: if your classes move online do a decent job but don’t do a great job because you know many administrators will be looking into the feasibility of moving your classes online permanently so they can cut costs because education is a for-profit product to many of them.’

I’m not alone in this sentiment. See Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s ‘Please do a bad job of putting your courses online’.

If you need to provide lectures for your students, consider Andrew Mark Henry’s advice for how to use YouTube:

For those who teach Religious Studies, Wabash Center has a bunch of resources available (some which may be useful for other subjects). Also, AAR sent out an email with suggestions and links. Also, don’t forget, I shared a series of YouTube channels I think will have helpful content.

AAR/SBL 2019: Day 1

I landed in San Diego last night. I’m excited to be here. It’s been a few years since I’ve attended the annual meeting. Since I arrived later in the evening, I didn’t do much. I met with my friend, Bill Heroman. I did a little planning for my conference schedule. And that’s it.

My employer sent me here wanting me to go to sessions focused on pedagogy so that’s what I’ll be doing today and tomorrow. This morning I’ll attend a session titled ‘Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies/Teaching Biblical Studies in an Undergraduate Liberal Arts Context’. While I teach in a college preparatory high school context, I can tell by the session titles that there’ll be useful material for me to adopt. Then I’ll go to ‘Death to the Term Paper! Building Better Assignments and Assessments’ and ‘Teaching Tips for Teaching the Hebrew Bible in Its Setting’. Both look good.