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.

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.

Social Mediators!

The AAR/SBL Annual Meeting is only a few days away. I’m excited because (1) I haven’t been in a few years and (2) it’s in San Diego. San Diego! But back to the first reason: I look forward to reunited with geeks who enjoy pondering the same types of nerdy things I enjoy pondering! Which brings me to the announcement made by the great Dr. Who-of-Religious-Studies, James McGrath (no, not Mark Goodacre…though he might be a different regeneration…but I get ahead of myself since honestly, I don’t know much about Dr. Who): What used to be a reception for ‘Bibliobloggers’ (back in my day) is now a reception for….wait for it….

Social Mediators!

According to James, it looks like Fortress Press will be welcoming us. So, if you blog, tweet, snap….ok, not snap….Facebook (?), reddit, or use other forms of social media to help promote the scholarship of religion, then I hope to see you there! Here’s that reception’s details:

M24-532 Fortress Press Reception Sunday, 9:00 PM–11:00 PM Marriott Marquis-Marriott Grand 9 (Lobby Level)

AAR/SBL, ‘Generational Hermeneutics’, and Adolescent Religion

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.