The philosophy and motivation behind my comparative religion and biblical studies curricula (and where I hope to take it)

Last year I began revamping my comparative religion curriculum. I wanted to move away from the “World Religion” model that focuses on knowing a lot about the most well-known religions. I wanted to move toward a philosophy of religion model where I push my students to think critically about the concept of “religion” itself (we titled it “Religion in Global Context”). I chose to spend a lot of time on the various ways scholars have defined religion. Then I sampled Hinduism as a religion from India, Judaism as a religion from the Middle East (or west Asia), and Confucianism as a religion from east Asia. The goal was to highlight three -isms categorized by many as “religions” while helping my students see (1) that these -isms are hardly unified and coherent (i.e. we might be better off speaking of Hinduisms, Judaisms, and Confucianisms) and (2) that what counts as “religion” is hardly a monolith. Additional readings and activities gave brief introductions to Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Daoism, and even Pastafarianism and Dudeism.

My goal with this class is to problematize the category of religion so that they can see how use of the word has socio-political consequences (like denouncing a group as a “cult”) while also introducing them to the diversity of our global community. While our student body is majority Christian, we have Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Nones, etc., who attend. As Simran Jeet Singh has written recently, “Teaching about religion is not just about understanding politics. It’s also about creating cultural literacy, ensuring that our young people are familiar with the diverse people they meet on the street.” As my current institution (affiliated with the Episcopal Church) is having discussions about the place of religion studies in our curriculum (don’t worry, it’s not being threatened as far as I know), I emailed one of our administrators this morning saying “I’m convinced that the health of” our community “is directly related to boldly leading in providing of religious literacy, not merely responding and following perceived market trends.”

The spring semester class that pairs directly with “Religion in Global Context” is “Religion in the United States”. If the goal of “Religion in Global Context” is (as mentioned) complicate the word “religion” so that students recognize its complexity and also how people try to wield the word for their own socio-political purposes, and if it’s aim is to introduce students to the diversity of our world through the lens of what we call “religion”, then “Religion in the United States” does something similar in the context of the United States, specifically. This means I talk to students about the First Amendment, about how “religious freedom” cases have been decided in the Supreme Court (a topic that only promises to become more and more important to a good education), how Native American religion/spirituality has been practiced and understood, how “imported” religions (like the ones they studied in “Religion in Global Context”) have faired in this country, and finally, what the American experience has contributed to uniquely American religious expressions ranging from the Latter-day Saints, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, and Satanists to how “religious freedom” questions become increasingly complex when we revisit how the government responded to groups like The Peoples Temple and the Branch Davidians of Waco.

I’m extremely pleased with how those two classes have developed. This is my fifth year teaching religious studies to high schoolers. Even if a job was offered at a higher-level, I don’t know that I’d be able to transition easily. I’ve thrown myself into it. And being that my employer is affiliated with the Episcopal Church, I’ve had the academic freedom I wouldn’t have had at pretty much any other private school in San Antonio. And since public schools tend to avoid hiring a teacher just for religion, I haven’t really seriously considered leaving the private school realm.

That said, my wheel-house, my cup-of-tea, my area of professional training, is not comparative religion (I’ve had to self-educate) but biblical studies. Of course, this means five years into teaching courses on the Bible from an academic, non-confessional perspective (contrary other local options like Cornerstone Christian Academy, San Antonio Christian School, or the many Catholic high schools that do teach religion [though maybe not religious/religion studies this they’re highly confessional/dogmatic]), I remain unsatisfied. I’ve tried to weave together all that biblical studies tries to weave together: historical, literary, theological, philosophical, etc., approaches to the text. This means I’ve tried to do everything in my biblical studies classes from helping students see how the formation of the Bible was shaped by the Babylonian Exile, to how characters are developed in the Patriarchal Narratives, to how the Book of Job addresses theodicy, to how a juxtaposition of the Books of Daniel and Esther can help us think through the difference between deontological and consequentialist ethics. In my view, it’s all good stuff but the reason I’m happy with “Religion in Global Context” and “Religion in the United States” is because every lesson is ultimately tethered to the one or two big things I’ve mentioned: how we use the word “religion” and how “religions” diversely manifest. My biblical studies classes lack that center of gravity.

This is why I’ve been talking with colleagues, and Facebook friends, and even administrators about a potential shift I want to make to our biblical studies curriculum. So, since I know only one of the hundreds of students I’ve taught is going to college for anything like a biblical studies focus, and I know that having a center of gravity has made my pedagogy more effective while also making teaching more fun, I need to decide what it is that I think can be the center of gravity for teaching biblical studies to (1) an adolescent audience that (2) usually lacks much biblical literacy or an understanding of why the Bible is influential and (3) is unlikely to pursue biblical studies at the college or graduate school-level (while also laying enough of a foundation for the one or two who might go further after high school). It’s with this in mind that I think a parallel to my comparative religion classes can be found:

  1. introduce students to basic concepts of religion and to diverse examples of religion >>> introduce students to the basic content of the Bible and the diverse content (e.g. genres) of the Bible
  2. highlight the diversity of religion (and why this is relevant) >>> highlight the diversity of interpretations (and why this is relevant)
  3. complicate “religion” so students can be aware of how people are trying to use that word >>> complicate simplistic appeals to “the Bible says” by making students aware of the Bible’s multivalence

Currently, in the fall semester I offer a class titled “The Hebrew Scriptures” that serves as an introduction to the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh/Old Testament. In the spring I offer a class titled “The Christian Scriptures” that serves as an introduction to the Christian New Testament with a few sides of non-canonical literature (like a student favorite: The Infancy Gospel of Thomas). But what I’m considering and proposing now is this: “Bible and Interpretation” and “Bible and Culture”. (I’m grateful for the help of my colleague Nate Bostian in helping think up these titles.) I’ve put together a draft outline of the basics of both classes. Since “Bible and Interpretation” would be a slimmed down version of much of what I teach in “The Hebrew Scriptures” and “The Christian Scriptures”, it was easier to put together. In essence, I would want to continue focusing on the core narratives of these collections (e.g. Creation Narratives; The Exodus Narrative; Jesus and the Gospels) though from less of a historicist perspective. The history of the Bible won’t be forsaken as I’d have a shorter discussion on the Israelites/Judahites, Jews, and Christians who created the Bible allowing for a brief introduction to groups like the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, but the “background” who become less central to the class. Instead, so-called “Bible literacy” would become central along with an exploration of how we got the Bible and why these things are relevant. Here’s the draft outline of “Bible and Interpretation”:

  1. The Origins of the Bible
    1. Ancient Writing and Ancient Writers
      1. Who Could Write?
      2. How Did They Write?
    2. Ancient Manuscripts and Their Preservation

Activity: Constructing the Bible

  1. Canonical and Non-Canonical Texts
    1. The Bible or Bibles?
    2. Different Communities; Different Canons
  2. Gutenberg and Modern Bibles
    1. The Bible before Gutenberg
    2. The Bible after Gutenberg
  3. Translating the Bible into English
    1. How Translation Works
    2. Juxtaposing English Translations
  4. The People Who Created the Bible
    1. The Israelites/Judahites 
    2. The Jews
    3. The Christians
  5. How to Read and Interpret the Bible
    1. How to Read Narratives
      1. Sampling the Book of Judges
      2. Sampling the Infancy Gospel of Thomas
    2. How to Read Poetry and Discourse
      1. Sampling the Psalter
      2. Sampling the Epistle of James
  6. The Tanakh/Old Testament
    1. The Creation Narratives
      1. Creation as a Temple
      2. Creation as a Garden
      3. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 1
    2. The Patriarchal Narratives
      1. The Patriarch Abraham
      2. The Patriarch Isaac
      3. The Patriarch Jacob
      4. The Bible as Film: Joseph: King of Dreams
    3. The Exodus Narrative
      1. The Prophet Moses
      2. The Bible as Film: Exodus: Gods and Kings
      3. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 2
    4. The Royal Narratives 
      1. King David and His Dynasty
      2. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 3
      3. King David and His Downfall
      4. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep.4
  7. The New Testament
    1. Jesus and the Gospels
      1. Mark’s Secretive Messiah
      2. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 5
      3. Matthew’s Sagacious Messiah
      4. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 6
      5. Luke’s Subversive Messiah
      6. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep.7
      7. John’s Heavenly Messiah
      8. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 8
      9. The Crucified and Resurrected Messiah
      10. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 9
    2. Paul and His Letters
      1. How to Read an Epistle
      2. The Bible on TV: The Bible, Ep. 10
      3. Reading an Epistle in a House Church

The spring semester’s “Bible and Culture” would do for “Bible and Interpretation” what “Religion in the United States” does for “Religion in Global Culture”. It takes the global and makes it more local. Post-Covid-19, “Religion in the United States” will reintroduce a project where students must visit a local religious community (canceled last spring and preemptively this one). Similarly, “Bible and Culture” will highlight the influence of the Bible in an American context but also include a (to-be thought out) project where students examine the intersection of biblical interpretation and Texas culture. Here is the (shorter) draft outline for that class:

  1. The Bible as a Cultural Authority
    1. “The Bible Says”: Why People Quote the Bible
    2. The Meanings of the Bible
    3. The Bible and American Identity
  2. The Bible in Modern Society
    1. An Old Book for Modern Times
    2. Case Study #1: Reading the Bible/Reading Teen Study Bibles
    3. Case Study #2: TBD yearly
    4. Case Study #3: TBD yearly
    5. Case Study #4: TBD yearly
  3. The Bible in Film and Art
    1. A Survey of the Bible in Film
    2. Film #1: Noah (2014): The Bible and Environmental Catastrophe
    3. Film #2: TBD
    4. A Survey of the Bible in Modern Art
    5. Case Study #1: TBD yearly
    6. Case Study #2: TBD yearly
  4. The Bible in Political Discourse
    1. Why Do Politicians Quote the Bible?
    2. Is the Bible a Political Book?
    3. Case Study #1: TBD yearly
    4. Case Study #2: TBD yearly
    5. Case Study #3: TBD yearly
  5. Project: Interpreting the Bible in Texas

Ok, I needed to write out all this material in order to organize my thoughts. If someone has read this far, feel free to comment with insights.

Simran Jeet Singh on the importance of teaching religion studies

As a high school teacher of religion/religious studies, I co-sign these concerns:

“Teaching about religion is not just about understanding politics. It’s also about creating cultural literacy, ensuring that our young people are familiar with the diverse people they meet on the street. University brass often refers to this kind of literacy as a civic good, but as a brown-skinned, turban-wearing, beard-loving man in Donald Trump’s America, I submit that people knowing who I am and having an appreciation for my religious heritage can mean the difference between life and death.

“Think about it from the perspective of those who are minoritized: By stripping away our commitment to religious diversity, we are actually making our communities less safe.”

Read the full article: “Why universities — and the rest of us — need religion studies”.