I had a student write me after the very first meeting of my Bible and Western Civilization I class, which I’m teaching this semester at the University of Houston. While I won’t reproduce the email here, the very condensed version of it went a little like this: “I’m very Christian, I like the Bible, I do Bible study, I take the Bible seriously, and I want to know if this class is going to challenge my faith and make me uncomfortable, because if it is, I’m probably going to drop it.”
My absurdly long reply was as follows:
I’m glad you wrote me to ask instead of just quietly disappearing, as I’ve had some students with similar concerns do before. I don’t take it personally at all — I understand that this can be touchy subject material, and many students have strong emotional connections to it. However, yes, I think this class is going to make you uncomfortable, and yes, I think you should stay. Let me make my case here, and when I’m done, you can do whatever you feel is right for you.
In seminary, all of us in the program had to take Bible classes: Intro to Old Testament and Intro to New Testament. My professor for the former was Danna Nolan Fewell, a fine scholar and excellent instructor. And I did not envy her job at all, because every Fall, she had the task of taking a bunch of ministers-to-be, sitting them down, and walking them academically through the Hebrew Bible. There was yelling, there were tears, there were some frankly unkind words said, and all through it she maintained her composure and grace. More times than I can count I heard her say, “I’m not telling you what to believe; I’m just telling you what the text says.”
I’m not telling you what to believe. To be flippant about it, they’re not paying me enough for that.
I am, however, going to be honest about the Bible, especially in a lot of ways that churches like to leave at the door. Some of this will involve drawing on alternate translations, discussing scholarly theories, referencing archaeological findings, and considering other ancient literature. But a whole lot of it is just going to involve reading the Bible from an open standpoint and seeing what the text says, instead of having a pre-determined meaning and then going to the text to find support for it. (Exegesis instead of eisegesis, if you want to get fancy about it.)
I can’t change the text that’s in front of you. You’re going to walk out of this class with the same Bible you walk in with (though hopefully with a few more dog-ears and marginalia), and trust me that I understand that this text is older and more massive than I am, and it can surely take whatever little ol’ me can throw at it.
What’s almost certainly going to make you uncomfortable, however, is what I’m going to say about the things that have been presented to you by others as fact. That’s actually one of the things we’re going to be spending a lot of time on in this class: authority. Lots of people throughout history have claimed they know what the text actually says, so you know at least a couple of them have got to be wrong. I suspect that if you’re worried about what might be covered this semester in terms of your own understanding of faith, what you’re actually worried is that what you’ve been told might not stand up to scrutiny.
To me, that’s one of the most important reasons I can think of to put those things up to scrutiny! To take the Arthur C. Clarke approach, “A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets.”
There are plenty of matters of faith surrounding the Bible, and they deserve to be addressed in their own contexts. This isn’t the place for them, though. They can turn so quickly into arguments like: ‘The Bible is true.’ ‘How do you know?’ ‘Because the Bible says so.’ If you believe in the Bible as an authoritative text, that’s a very convincing argument; if you don’t, it isn’t. There’s really not a middle ground there. And you’re not paying for a semester-long three-credit playground fight.
Instead, what we’re going to be doing are talking about measurable things. We’re going to be looking at what these texts have meant to a lot of people, including the people who wrote them, the people who preserved them, the people who changed them, and the people who still consider them important in their daily lives. And sometimes these people don’t all agree! That’s okay. If it were obvious, we wouldn’t need to have a class on it.
I find frustrating the too-frequent sentiment from Christians that equates interrogating and examining the texts with destroying faith. There is a strain of anti-intellectualism in modern US Christianity that is vile, unbiblical, and deadlier to faith than scholarly examination could ever be. It demands an unquestioning obedience and punishes anyone who doesn’t conform to the party line, who dares to question the people in power.
I am forever angry at the orthodoxies that demand literal belief as an all-or-nothing proposition, not only because that kind of approach makes you immune to reason, but because it means that more likely than not, that one bit of counter-information that makes it through takes down the rest like a Jenga tower. I’ve seen this a lot with people raised as strict creationists but who later realize that the scientific support for evolution is overwhelming — and because they’ve been taught they can’t doubt one part without doubting it all, they end up tossing it all out the window. Because they’ve learned that any questioning is evil, they decide they have to take all their questions elsewhere.
All of which is to say, again: Yes, the class is going to make you uncomfortable. It’s probably going to make everyone uncomfortable at least once. But at the end of the day, you’re going to have to be the one who decides on your own what to believe. All I get to do is tell you what the text says.
I would, of course, be more than happy to talk to you when you run into these uncomfortable spots! We’re so pressed for time in class that I don’t really have time to iron out all the wrinkles during my lectures, but I’m on campus most weekdays, and I’d love to sit down and talk out particulars with you whenever you find yourself challenged. I could even point you in the direction of different and more in-depth things to read, if you’re curious about specific language/themes/stories. That’s what I’m here for!
tl;dr, picture me as the dad from Calvin & Hobbes telling you to do it because it builds character.
A postscript: Not only is this student still in the class, he’s one of my star pupils.
Image Courtesy of Shutterstock.com
Whitney Cox has an M.Div from Drew Theological School and is finishing up her Ph.D from Temple University. She currently lives in Houston with her wife and two dogs, where she is an adjunct at the University of Houston in the Religious Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Departments.