Thursday, October 16, 2014

Teaching Notes: What I've Learned (So Far) from Teaching a Course on the Pentateuch

A couple notes of context: I teach at a private, faith-based university.  It is a university that was once a "Bible college," a school that specifically trained ministers.  That changed a few years ago when my university adopted more of a liberal arts approach, offering degree programs in various fields while offering said instruction from the perspective of a Christian vocational worldview. 

Thus, along with the expansion of our athletic programs, our student body began to change.  Previous student bodies were predominantly Christian.  Over the last several semesters, at least since I have been employed by the university, the demographics have changed.  As the programs that the students study have diversified, the level at which our students engage in spirituality has diversified.  Mine is still very much a Christian, faith-based university, although how we engage in that mission is changing

Additionally, I am primarily a ministry professor, specializing in homiletics, pastoral care and leadership.  My first couple of forays in university teaching were by teaching Bible courses.  In fact, my first semester at my current university was spent teaching courses on John's gospel and the Pastoral Letters.  That was in 2009.  The next time I taught a Bible class was in the summer of 2013 when I taught a course on Luke's gospel.  It was online. . .as were the next couple of Bible courses that I taught.

Until this semester.  This semester, I am teaching a traditional, in-seat course on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament [or Hebrew Bible]) to 40 students from across our various academic programs.  As a preacher, I have spent several years teaching the Bible to various groups, both Christian and non-Christian.  I have spent years trying to discern contemporary meaning from ancient texts.

Teaching a course on the Pentateuch has proved to be no different.  There are several students in my class who come from strong Christian homes.  They have learned the stories contained with the Pentateuch over and over again in Sunday school and through sermons.  Some of them are even courageous enough to engage in classroom discussion about the morality, history, mythology and literary contexts of these wonderful and winsome stories of faith.  At one time the majority of students on our campus, their percentage is moving closer and closer to the center with each consecutive semester.

Other students come from moderately to less-moderately religious homes.  They have wandered in and out of church for most of their lives.  They wonder why people like me get so giddy when talking about Adam and Eve or Abraham negotiating with God or Moses striking rocks, yet they wonder if they are not missing something by not knowing the stories better than they do.  They have heard of Noah and Joseph.  They may have seen a Bible-based film on documentary on television.  They are at our school for a variety of reasons, too many to go into hear because they reasons are as diverse as the students themselves.  However, when class begins, they perk up in attention because mysterious is being discussed.  As in most religiously-affiliated schools across the country, these students are quickly becoming (or may already be) the majority.

A smaller yet growing number of students in my class are hearing these stories for the first time.  They come because of the chance of leaving a difficult life behind.  Maybe their expectations are too high; maybe they just want to do something different.  Whatever their reason, they are sitting in a Bible class in eastern Kentucky and listening to a young professor ramble on about ancient stories of heroism and tragedy.  Maybe they become interested like some of the students at my last university appointment who decided to give this religious stuff a chance.  Maybe they don't.  The point is that they are there and they must be taught something.

So, with all of this in mind, here are a few tips that I have picked up this semester from teaching a course on the Pentateuch.  Maybe you'll find them useful; maybe you have some of your own to offer.  I do not offer these as professional standards for teaching this subject.  Despite my rating (it's only 1 score), I am not asserting myself as the guru on teaching Biblical studies.  [That honor should go to Harding University's Kevin Youngblood or Hendrix College's Robert Williamson.]  Please feel free to leave comments below, tweet me ideas of email me for a lengthier
  1. Make them read from their Bibles.  This one is hard to accomplish in class.  I know it seems strange to say this, yet I have found it to be true.  It's like asking for volunteers at church.  You can hear the crickets already.  So, how do I accomplish this?  I assign a portion for them to read each week.  "Sure, but are they are actually reading?" you may ask.
  2. Require a reading journal.  "Yes, they are," I would respond.  I know because I require the students in my Bible classes to keep a reading journal, regardless of subject.  It is a simple guided journal, asking questions about the content of the passage assigned, what the learned from the assigned commentary reading and how it relates to the passage assigned, and what spiritual truths or devotional practices they may have picked up from the passage assigned.  "So, you just teach the Bible, then?" is probably your next question.
  3. Don't get lost in mythology or history.  "Well, mostly.  It is a Bible class, after all," would be my response.  There is certainly a place for walking through the Epic of Gilgamesh when discussing the creation and flood stories, just as the story of Exodus loses some of its cultural relevance when we avoid looking at the connections between Moses and Sargon the Great.  However, in my context, I think I do my students a disservice if I focus most of our attention on ancient mythology and cultural history rather than looking at the Old Testament text.  Connections must and should be made to other ANE cultures, but not at the sacrifice of God's story.  "So, you just preach then, don't you?"
  4. De-sanitize the Sunday school lessons.  "Yes and no," I would respond.  Yes, I have a tendency for "preaching" in class.  I am, by nature, a preacher.  However I am also a scholar.  As a preacher, I tell stories, yet I am not glossing over them as we may do in church.  Notice how Abraham and Isaac's relationship changes after the sacrifice.  Notice that Jacob does not punish his sons after they slaughter an entire family.  How do we rationalize the plague of the death of the firstborn?  These are the questions that fuel the conversations and content of my course.  "Huh," you might say.
  5. Liberally use technology.  My last tip is an "easter egg" in that it is simply something that I would recommend for any teacher in today's techno-friendly culture.  There is a lot of really good stuff that is easy to find on the Internet that will benefit any Pentateuch teacher.  Whether it is a breakdown on the Documentary Hypothesis (I NEVER thought I would ever teach this), a map of the various Exodus routes, a to-scale rendering of the tabernacle or stacks of high-quality classic Christian art, the Internet really can be your friend.  Also, see how you LMS can enhance your teaching outside of the traditional lecture material format.  My students broke up into groups and are writing Wiki pages on each book of the Pentateuch rather than writing research papers.  And they, mostly, seem to be enjoying the challenge.
I am looking forward to the rest of the semester.  Putting this course together week-in and week-out has been one of the more challenging courses that I have ever taught.  Yet engaging students in hearty discussions and learning their stories of faith has been worth it.

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