Last Friday my wife and I went to our local bookstore and heard a reading and question fielding from Chuck Klosterman. Chuck writes about popular culture, particularly music, movies, and celebrity interviews, for various magazines including Spin and Esquire.
A couple days after hearing Chuck I had a great conversation with a friend of mine who is teaching an intro course to the Bible (The beginning of the conversation went like this: “Hey, did you know that I’m teaching an intro course to the Bible?” “No, I didn’t. Pentateuch? Or Old Testament or New?” “Yes.” “What? OT then?” “Yes. And New Testament. And Apocrypha.” “All in one semester!?” “One quarter actually.” “Wow!”) After I overcame my shock we had a great time talking about approaches to teaching intro courses to undergrads.
At this point Klosterman and the talk with my friend converge. Klosterman doesn’t just write fluffy stuff about Brittany Spears or the new Bob Dylan album. Instead, he tries to get at worldview issues through the medium of popular culture. His writing speaks to people on a deeper level than what most journalists address–he tries really hard not to ask traditional journalist questions when interviewing celebs. There is tremendous pressure in the media industry to ask the questions that journalists are expected to ask. Kosterman rejects this and he tries to just sit down and talk with the people he’s interviewing.
My point with my friend was similar to Kosterman’s approach. I think that professors are conditioned and expected to teach a certain format for an intro course–and most of the stuff covered in the typical intro course is pretty borning that most students don’t care anything about. Who besides professional academics and a few selected clergy give a rip about R2, R3, DTR, J, E, E/J, etc? Students in intro courses want to address worldview level questions–not source-critical questions. Why has the Bible had such an enduring influence upon western culture? What worldview does it confront me with? What challenging issues are embedded within the text itself? What kind of god is presented in the Bible? How is this god different than my conception of god? What is important in life? What is the purpose of everything?
Why on earth should we spend a third of a semester talking about source-critical and other questions? To be sure, we should give students an overview of scholarly approaches so that they can approach the Bible critically and they can be ready for more advanced studies if they desire, but intro courses should kindle a passion for biblical studies not drive students away and put them asleep just because you feel the need to teach what everyone else teaches.
I agree with you, steering away from the the syllabi that are posted on the SBL website is risky. You might have other faculty that think you are “dumbing things down” and you “reaching a popular audience and not the scholarly community.” I’m not advocating dumbing things down–I never do in my teaching–but I am advocating passionate teaching and teaching that is personally engaging on a worldview level while teaching intro courses. Hopefully, if students become hooked on biblical studies during intro classes, then in more advanced courses you can get into the details that preoccupy professionals (whether this preoccupation is justifiable I’ll leave to another post).
Being different is risky. But no one ever changed the world by doing the same thing that everyone else does and fitting into the guild’s expectations. Great teaching that hits an emotional chord with your students will change lives and invigorate the field of biblical studies. Junk the typical syllabi and create a life-changing course, not a boring prereq that students sleep through.
What do you think?