My friend and fellow Minnesotan, Jay Bakker, is known to throw his Bible to the ground during his talks, in order to break his audiences of their bibliolatry. At first blush, it seems like an act of sacrilege, but his point is that the Bible is ink on a page, whereas the Word of God is something more than that.
The always insightful Stanley Fish draws our attention to a class at Florida Atlantic University, in which students were asked to write the name “Jesus” on a peace of paper and then step on it. The governor of Florida was horrified, as were many others. But, as Fish reports, they got the story wrong. The professor is a Christian, and the exercise had a point:
So there was no intention either to cause offense or display disrespect for Christianity; rather, the intention was to jump-start discussion by causing students to realize, in an immediate and visceral way, how charged is the relationship they have with iconic and talismanic symbols. I can imagine that some of the students who hesitated and/or declined were neither Christian nor religious, but felt a vague uneasiness at being asked to step on a revered name, even if they themselves did not revere it. I am not a Christian yet I felt vaguely uneasy when I heard about the incident, and I’ve been trying to dress up and dignify my uneasiness with a legal/philosophical analysis of it.
Fish goes on to compare it with a couple other instances in higher education. And he ultimately comes to the conclusion that, while asking students to examine their “deepest commitments and anxieties” is a worthy goal in undergraduate education, asking students to perform an exercise like this in front of their fellow students is not the best pedagogical method. Fish concludes,
The unwillingness of the complaining student at F.A.U. was deeper; he was not being asked to pretend to step on Jesus’ name; he was being asked to do it. And he was not role-playing, as he might have been had he been invited to participate in the thought experiment I described earlier or told to write a paper titled “How I Would React If I Were Asked to Perform an Action Inimical to My Values.” He could do either of those things and still reserve for himself a private space into which the pedagogical reach had not intruded. But in Poole’s class, he was put in a position where a confrontation with his innermost being could not be avoided; no room to hide.
Is that what education is about? I know that many think so, but I tend to think that education is more formally deliberative, more a matter of contemplating ideas and possible courses of action than of implementing ideas and actually taking action.
I’ve wondered some of these very things as I have taught — for the first time — a semester-long course on the New Testament — a text that I consider sacred — to undergrads at a state university. Some come with commitments to that text; others, like the student I mentioned yesterday, are committed atheists. Others are in between. Finding a pedagogy that is both respectful and challenging has been tricky.