One of my favorite courses to teach has been the Introductory to the Bible seminar required for all non-majors at my confessional school. Every semester, some disinterested 18-22 year olds would register for my course; a number of whom were unsure of who Moses was, others who thought this a waste of their time because they’d been reading the bible since childhood, and still others who needed a nice nap before facing the rest of the day. To date, there are few thrills that compare to watching intrigue mount in the heart and eyes of a student who for the first time really engages the ancient text and finds out, there’s something powerful there.
As a way of beginning discussion, drawing from Barbara Brown Taylor a literary mentor of mine, I always ask them to start in the beginning and tell me the story of the fall. Most feel confident with the tenants of this epic universal narrative; a husband and wife in the Garden of Eden, the woman is seduced by Satan and in turn seduces her husband, they eat the forbidden apple and, sinning are cursed and cast out of the garden. I ask my students then, to go home and underline in their bibles or highlight on their iPads the words, husband and wife, apple, seduction, Satan and sin.
Inevitably they return, astonished because they didn’t find the words, they didn’t see what they thought had been there. In fact, Adam and Eve never have a wedding ceremony; the serpent is never called Satan and, seduction or sin-- never mentioned. I tell my students, they have a very important decision to make in studying scripture; they must decide that they will strip away all the layers of stuff they “thought” was in the text and instead, allow the text to stand as it is and to join me to struggle and grapple through centuries of context so we might glean the meaning of the words, the nuances, the gaps and the community understanding across the ages of texts that have instructed the faithful for millennia.
This is why study is imperative, this is why I love what I do; we must strip away preconceived notions and engage the text in an informed and open way. Otherwise, the result is an uneducated church who touts “biblical” imperatives without understanding the intent of the texts they breathe with red hot fire. The result is crazy notions of rules of submission between genders drawn from the original Empire itself and Roman household codes. The danger is that we apply modern paradigms to categories that did not exist in the ancient world.The danger is that we domesticate a text so we might apply it before we understand that it is wild and free and centered on the radical love of God.
How do we bridge this gap, how do we invite persons of faith into real and in-depth study of the texts they venerate. I wonder what would happen if we began to offer small group studies on life in Ancient Israel, if we spent time teaching the difference between Hebrew and Greek world view, understanding Latinisms and Roman household codes, oral tradition and the formation of the canon; if we decided we’d help people understand the texts they love so much. How about a Sunday School session on “What is not nor has ever been in the Bible?’ What if teaching context, time and space returned as work of the church rather than limited to the realm of the academy? Perhaps this is how we serve one another and resume the holy enterprise of building up the kingdom.