“God is not in this classroom”

This is a paper presented at the 2006 SBL. I am negligent in preparing it for a volume on teaching the Bible in a secular context. I thought I would repost it here now in hopes that a few more folks might offer their thoughts and comments that I may incorporate into the final product. There is a wide range of experience out there and I think this would be a much stronger work with your contributions.

“God is Not in this Classroom” or Reading the Bible in a Secular Context


Description: Teaching biblical literature in a secular Liberal Arts environment requires allowing the texts to speak for themselves, so that students might hear what the texts have to say (which may not necessarily be what we want to hear). This is easier said than done since we must attempt to leave religious convictions, traditions, and specific agendas behind. At the same time, we must also recognize that we will not always be able to avoid our own historical context and bias. In light of these challenges and through my eight years experience as a Christian teaching courses in a Jewish Studies program at a secular university I have developed methods (and discarded others) for teaching the Hebrew Bible that include reading the texts critically as literary and historical sources while salting the course with Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other interpretations. The goal is to use the potential handicaps of preconceived ideas and convictions as gateways into the material. God may well be in the classroom and miracles may well occur, but the students know that they have to determine that for themselves.

When I originally proposed this paper, as you can see from the description I intended to share with you how I sprinkled my courses on the Hebrew Bible with readings of various readings of the text. Next semester I will be teaching Genesis, for example, and in that course we will being by reading the biblical text itself and then read Bonhoeffer’s little work on creation. When we get to Noah we will read the Genesis Apocryphon and when we get to the story of Tamar we will look at a feminist reading of the text (and make oblique references to The Red Tent). But I think this approach is fairly self-evident, that by showing students multiple readings of the same or similar text they will begin to see the challenges and promise of reading a text that is so ancient and yet still so relevant to so many. I also realized, as I surveyed the field and looked at the other proposals for today, that this is an approach that many have found useful and I did not want to burden you with my rendition of this theme.

It seems that the sort of strategies most often employed in teaching the Bible in a secular liberal arts context involve teaching the Bible as something, e.g., “The Bible as Literature,” “The Bible as History.” Or we might provide “readings” of the Bible, such as a feminist, liberationist, modern, etc. Please note, this is not a criticism per se, these are legitimate and useful strategies and that I regularly employ, yet each of these methods is an attempt to read the biblical text as something other than it is.

Recently, and independently of preparation for these sessions, there has been a fair amount of discussion on the internet, on the so-called “biblioblogs,” about just how we teach the Bible in a secular, liberal arts context. On one site, Kevin Wilson’s BlueCord.org, a lively debate ensued as to whether or not one could read the biblical text purely as “historical” or whether or not, as Steve Cook asserted,

You are engaging a text whose existence is owed to the historical community’s valuing of it as Word/Witness to the transcendent. There is an inherent “theological” dimension to this text’s preservation until this very day and its existence in your hands.

In other words, by the very act of engaging with these texts that are both theological in content and theological in their preservation, we are dealing with theology.

I have become convinced that a very productive method of teaching the Bible, particularly where we are concerned with actually conveying some of the content of the text to our students, is to teach the Bible as what it is, a theological text. The vast majority of biblical texts are, after all, fundamentally theological texts and as Cook pointed out, Jews and Christians have viewed even the process of transmission as a theological matter. The challenge for us as teachers is that we are teaching in a fundamentally secular context. So how do we teach these theological texts without teaching or doing theology? Today I will offer a modest outline of a method for reading these theological texts.

This brings me back to my title, “God is not in this classroom.” This is the statement with which I begin my first lecture of most courses dealing with the Bible and I quickly follow it with the observation that it is not an assertion of fact since I cannot prove it and most religious traditions would argue otherwise. God may be in the classroom and God may not. God may be in the text and God may not. What is certain is that the authors (and most likely their audiences) believed that God was active and interactive and many of them, if not all, believed that God was indeed in the giving and receiving of the text. “The word of the LORD came to me.” The next question is what do we, the faculty and the students, believe about the texts?

Internal Inventory

We must first recognize that it is very difficult to isolate one’s own theological convictions (even and especially when we believe we do not have any) from that of the texts we are reading. It is difficult, but I do not think it is impossible. In an effort to deal with this I encourage students, without calling upon them to share out loud, to reflect upon what affect their own background and religious convictions or lack thereof has upon their reading of the texts. And I will then come back to that point throughout the course since often we are unaware of this influence upon our thought. This “internal inventory” is imperative, in my opinion. For example, I never ask my students to decide whether or not they believe the miracles in the Bible occurred, but I do ask them to consider whether they believe that miracles could occur and then consider how that conviction will influence their reading of the text.
At this point we also discuss briefly the history of textual reception, manuscript traditions, and translations. The task here is to make the students sufficiently aware of the complexities involved in textual criticism without causing them to despair of ever knowing what the text says in its simplest form. (I present the material following the Jewish canonical form for a variety of reasons, not the least of which because it is the most ancient structure and ordering that we have of these texts. See Childs.)

Historical-Theological Approach

Once a “base text” (as fictive as that may be) has been established we engage in a simple reading of the text. Trying to determine the basic meanings of the words we are reading and what they mean when placed together to form sentences and complete units. At this point we can begin to talk about content and ask “what is the text saying” and the related question “what does it mean.” This last question must be asked first and foremost, whatever later application one might have, in reference to the original author and audience. The challenge here is, of course, that we are radically removed from the author by thousands of years, miles, and cultures. But we must do our best.

I try not to present an extended lecture on the beliefs and practices of ancient Israel because any such reconstruction is bound to be a synthesis of disparate sources and mar the very object of our student. Instead I begin with the text in front of us and build out from there. As a result, for example, very quickly we being to discuss monotheism and the transcendence of God in reading Genesis 1 but only one chapter later we are discussing the immanence of the LORD God and the introduction of sin into the world. Both accounts provide very different “theologies” while also providing opportunities to discuss source criticism, literary criticism, and developing worldviews. We even touch on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design.
This is in many ways an “historical” approach. The quotes around “historical” are present because I do not refer to teaching the Bible as history, rather teaching the historical beliefs and theological convictions of the authors and the communities that preserved these texts, in so far as we are able to discover them. In our secular context, where we are not bound by a creed or code, this provides us with the reassuring protection of being able to say “they believed,” thus distancing ourselves from whatever we say following that clause and absolves us from making any judgment about the validity of that belief. We are merely observers. It also serves, I hope, to at once both challenge and disarm those students who might have more traditional or orthodox views of these passages.

This is, I think, the first and necessary step in engaging both our students and the texts. If we truly want our students to understand what they are reading they need to have some sense of its importance, if not for themselves, than at least for the people who wrote and preserved them. In describing what they believed we will invariably (or we ought to) consider why they held these convictions and this often leads to very relevant and contemporary concerns. For example, the Deuteronomic assertions that God punishes his people for their sins may be foreign and unacceptable to many of us, but once we understand that these convictions developed, at least in part, as a means of explaining the suffering of seemingly innocent people in this world, we may begin to better understand that view even if we do not espouse it ourselves.

The theological concerns of the biblical authors are not so different from our own, even if we do not identify them as theological, and of course the Bible deals with many issues that may well not be defined as purely “theological,” but are pertinent nonetheless. The Psalms, for example, are full of emotion and pathos that we all can relate to, not least of all college age students. Any number of wisdom psalms and the Book of Proverbs itself, while couched within “god language,” are espousing a way of life that most of us would still value, even if we do not call on the LORD. That similarity will allow discussion of the concept of “the fear of the LORD.”

The Problem of Miracles

Perhaps the most difficult passages of all for us to teach are not, however, the assertions of God’s might and law or the horrible tales of murder and rape, but are the accounts of the miraculous. I try to walk the fine line between appearing to espouse the plagues, the manna, and the miraculous births as “the Gospel truth” and rejecting them as fantasies and so much nonsense. I find neither extreme to be pedagogically useful. This via media does not, however, mean that I look for or teach naturalistic explanations for what the Bible clearly depicts as miraculous. That is certainly one possible interpretation that is included in our discussion, but I do not redefine “miracle” in such a way that it no longer means what the primary definition of the word clearly is.

The New Oxford American English Dictionary defines miracle as “an event that appears to be contrary to the laws of nature and is regarded as an act of God.” The biblical authors, whether Tanakh or New Testament, clearly know that these things that they are reporting do not usually happen. That is the whole point of a miracle! The very fact that such accounts are in the text speaks volumes about the fundamental beliefs of the authors.

Still, some scholars feel they are doing justice to the text and modern sensibilities to “rationalize” the miracles such as those who explain the plagues of Exodus as natural phenomena or the feeding of the thousands as actually acts of shame and charity. Others attribute genuine malice to the author, asserting that he invented the accounts of the miracle to justify a particular action, teaching, or tradition (usually, of course, something that the modern scholar rejects). In rationalizing away the historicity of the miracles such scholars are removing an essential element of the text and context.

When I teach such passages I again start from the historical-theological perspective and point out to my students that the authors did indeed know that such events did not occur in the natural order of things and yet (at least we can be certain in many cases) the authors believed that they had occurred and they believed that they occurred through the intervention of God. The origins of these stories are lost to us and it is impossible to reconstruct what may or may not have happened. (Although we do discuss the various possibilities.) So the next step is to ask how these stories functioned in the narrative and the life of the community. It is clear that many others at the time and since believed that these miracles occurred, “perhaps some of you in this room,” I always point out, and that is significant. Here we can assess the literary, social, theological, and historical impact of these particular narratives. Because at some point we can and should get past the question of whether or not something actually happened and acknowledge the effect of people believing that they occurred.

A prime example of this is the account of the Ten Plagues. The order, nature, and character of the plagues are themselves a commentary on YHWH’s victory over Egypt and their gods. I find it important to point out that this does not presuppose that the Israelites did not believe in the Egyptian deities, but that they believed their God was stronger, even on their home turf, than their gods. The power of this story of liberation continues to suffuse Judaism to this day and serves as one of the primary metaphors for interpreting the purpose of Jesus’ death/resurrection and Christian baptism. The import of the story is thus not reliant upon the “historicity” of the events, yet neither am I compelled to dispel a student’s conviction of their veracity.


The biblical texts are fundamentally theological and we ignore that to the detriment of our student’s education. The various historical critical methods that most of us were trained in and come to rely upon are still valuable. This approach to the texts should, in fact, lead to their employ. (I should note that Gottwald has outlined and demonstrated a similar approach of integrating all of these various concerns, including theological, in his Introduction. I find, however, that his organization of the textbook and insistence upon certain hypothetical reconstructions makes it far too cumbersome for use in an introductory, undergraduate class.) Once we have mined the text for as original a meaning as we can discover, we can then bring these other resources to bear as we trace textual and hermeneutical history of the text. It is then important to take the time, even if only briefly, to present other readings of the text. The student will then have an historical perspective to judge the development and adaptation of the text to meet later needs, themselves often theological.

[So my approach is somewhat like WC Smith not in that we need to begin with a history of the formation of canon, how the Bible became scripture, but in that I present the Bible and attempt to have my students glimpse it as, to use Smith’s words, “not merely as a set of ancient documents or even as a first- and second-century product but as a third-century and twelfth-century and nineteenth-century and contemporary agent” (p. 134).]

In many ways I am sure that I have not said anything new, certainly not to any of us in this room. Yet at the same time I believe there is a reticence for those of us teaching in a secular context to address the theology of these texts perhaps for fear that we will be perceived as doing theology. In our effort to show parallels with other ancient Near Eastern texts, provide feminist readings that cut across the text, and liberate the text from its patriarchal moorings I think we often miss and therefore fail to convey to our students, the fundamental power that these words had for their original audience. Once we have caught a glimpse of that original vision we can then more profitably see how others have read them. After all, God may not be in the classroom, but he may be in the Text.

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