Religious History and Teaching

I love and enjoy teaching social and cultural history to that of political history; I am sure this comes as a bit of a surprise in that many of my blog posts address political matters; however, I like to relate the political to venues and constructs related to elements of gender and race. And to an extent, it is difficult to ignore the impact of religious history. Much like my love of art, I avoid the technical elements that relate to paint and style; instead, I prefer to relate art to the historical periodization that promulgated it. This is true of religion, too. I, as is the case for many historians, prefer to address the impact of religion on culture. This affects the political as well. My interest in religious history greatly relates to my interest in African-American studies. As an active member of the American Historical Association, I receive one of their journals entitled Perspectives. In a recent issue, author Robert Townsend addresses the increase in religious history. According to Townsend:

A significant number of the respondents also described the renewed attention to religion as an extension of the methods and interests of social and cultural history—noting a growing interest that extended back to E.P. Thompson. A number of the specialists noted that social historians had highlighted the interests of common people and cultural historians had supplied the tools for studying the influence of religion, but until recently, much of the work treated religion as aberrant. There was a perception that this left a significant opening for new research that treated religion on its own terms.

I am not a biblical scholar, nor do I pretend to be one; much of what I do focuses on religion in the context of both historical analysis and philosophical theory. This past Sunday while attending a religious service, the speaker focused on the topic of reaching heaven not by faith or by believing in Jesus Christ, but by the actions of faith, such as baptism. In doing so, the speaker went on to list a number of verses regarding the actions of Christians in a secular society. I have long wondered why churches focus much of their time dropping and quoting scripture? Do not get me wrong, there is a place for this; however,  Christians seem to interpret scripture in vastly different ways. Hence the vast number of different denominations. To me, this is a simple process. I think it is more important to look at what Christians and other people of different beliefs do and have done to address societal vice and ills as an active interest of WORKS. I did not completely agree with the speaker. His talk is a denominational matter — one in which he contends is the WAY. Of course, if he is correct, then there are a number of practicing Christians that are wasting their time because their way is not the right way. Thus it is here that religious history plays a major part. Academics must teach the importance of religious pluralism in a diverse world. Religious instruction at religious schools must avoid guiding curriculum in a narrow and directive way. Religious schools are not churches nor should they take on that role; in doing so, it opens Pandora’s box: Thus, in what way and to what extent are students permitted to think freely about faith and the impact of religion? Historians have a duty to be objective as well.

My friend and colleague Stephen Hebert has been discussing the direction of our Bible Department on his blog; he wrote a post  regarding what he deems to be the best direction for a department teaching religion; I should make it clear that the emphasis is more on the Bible and less on religious studies. However, according to members in the Bible department, after they visited a number of other independent schools, the consensus from those schools was this: a school is not a church but a place to study religion and how it impacts the lives of people and societies; I agree with this. It is a dangerous game to play when “folks” want to assign a church label to an institution of learning. In doing so, such an assignment limits the processes of free inquiry and intellectual thought. Case in point: the speaker this past Sunday on his message regarding how one gets to heaven. This was presented from one view-point… his denominational position instead of a more universal process. I say this only because there are Protestants that believe one can get to heaven without baptism. The speaker did not see it this way. This is a matter that divides Christians in how they worship.

An issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece by Stephen Prothero on the religious ignorance of Americans; he did a nice job addressing how some liberal Americans are quick to anger when the Christian right states that homosexuality is wrong, but do not know why they hold such views. Moreover, those who are a part of the Christian right are quick to claim all Muslims are evil, but have not read the Qu’ran . I have stated this before: All students should be required to take at least a year of required religious studies. This should be the case for both high school and college students. I am not asking for a doctrinal course on how to be Anglican, Baptist, Muslim, Methodist, or Catholic; I am talking about a religious studies course. Even if a person has no faith in a “holy spirit,” part of being educated is being aware of various cultures, beliefs, and norms. Stephen Hawking is a physicist who has devoted much of his time to discovering and understanding black holes. His premise states that if black holes exist, God does not; yet, his religious IQ is not bad. How can he argue against God if he does not know what God has to say. Here is Prothero’s article on religious ignorance. You can read it here; it is pretty good.

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13 thoughts on “Religious History and Teaching

  1. First, gratitude.
    Thanks for the shout out.

    Second, a word in defense.
    I’d like to defend my bibliocentric approach to the general curriculum that I had thrown out there a while back (to which you so graciously link). If left to my own devices, I suppose I would probably opt for a “Religion and Philosophy” department in lieu of a “Bible” department. Above you make the point that school shouldn’t attempt to replace church, and I agree whole-heartedly. I think that a pluralist community should foster open debate and free inquiry about all religious traditions. However, the circumstances dictate otherwise. Our school has a Bible department and requires each student to take a Bible class every year. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I just think that we need to do a good job of fostering openness about our differences. My proposed curriculum attempts to get at that.

    Moving on…

    Third, religious history on the rise.
    I do find it interesting that historians have become increasingly interested in religion over recent years. As someone who fancies himself a historian of religion and/or a Biblical scholar, I find the importance of religion to history to be quite obvious. Of course, I also find the recent uptick in interest to be both promising and disturbing. Promising because I believe that it deserves attention. Disturbing because I think there is a potential for sloppy work because we have history being written by historians who have not been properly trained in the interpretation and understanding of these texts. Of course, the good ones will do their due diligence, but the bad ones may not — and sometimes bad history sells at the local Barnes & Noble.

    I don’t think we should be surprised at all by the interest in religious history. Modern literary theorists and philosophers of history (Gadamer, Derrida, et al.) often couch their arguments in theological terms. The lens of history seems to be less obsessed with dates and sequences, and more interested in the minutiae and the cultural milieu in which given people operated (whether those people are “great” men/women of history or peasants). Religion plays a significant role in day-to-day life, and it’s no wonder that it should therefore affect history.

    Finally, Carson in the pew.
    I think it’s probably a lot to ask for a denominational preacher, standing before his denominational congregation, to no tow the denominational line on the doctrine of salvation.

    Recently, I’ve been reading a book by Merold Westphal called Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. Westphal, like me, approaches biblical interpretation with the full force of postmodernism at his back: Meaning is not produced by the author alone, but is, instead, reproduced and co-produced by the reader as well. This, of course, means that the meaning of Scripture is not fixed and determined. This should be obvious. If the meaning of Scripture were fixed, don’t you think we’d have figured it out and stopped arguing about it centuries ago?

    I bring this up to say that I think Christians should embrace differences in doctrine and interpretation. The Bible speaks to different people in different ways at different times — it is a living document. In my view, this makes it all the more Holy; God is speaking to us through old dead guys across centuries and continents. Powerful, isn’t it?

    CAVEAT: I do want to say that, also like Westphal, I do not take an “anything goes” approach to Biblical interpretation. Just because we can interpret it in different ways doesn’t necessarily mean that every interpretation is equal and valid.

    Have I blathered enough here? Sorry for hijacking your blog, Carson!

  2. Great post, Carson.

    I use Prothero’s work in my American religion classes, and actually have my students take his religious IQ quiz. Students like the assignment, and it also opens up great avenues of discussion. I always like asking students what religious traditions, ideas, etc. they think Prothero should have included (I posted about this last summer on the Religion and American history blog).

    Stephen–Carson always speaks highly of you. Regarding your comments about the surge of interest in religious history–what works do you have in mind where historians fail to do “due diligence” with the religious texts they study, analyze, etc.? Just curious.

    I tend to agree with what it appears you are saying–historians who study and write about religious history would do well to study and understand the religious texts that are part of their larger analysis. It seems that interdisciplinary, or cross disciplinary analysis makes for better history.

  3. I thought students went to religious schools so they could be indoctrinated by those that have a narrow view of religious diversity, politics, science, and intellectual cultivation. I bet most people at the typical religious school are white, Republican, very conservative, and closed.

  4. Faith, friends, isnt arrived at through chin rubbing and experiencing Voodoo religions.

    A few comments for Stephen–“The Bible is a living, breathing document?” You babbled about the Bible is more Holy because it can be changed by mans whims? Some try this line with regards to the US constitution. It doesnt fly.
    Go and Sin no More. Up for Interpretation? No. More Holy because its interpretation can change with the times? Yet another attempt by man to compromise on right and wrong.

    “fostering openness about our differences”. Doesnt bring people together, it identifies differences by drawing the picture of have and have-nots, doers and do-nots. A forum to preach to some. Lets at least be honest on that.

    “If the meaning of Scripture were fixed, don’t you think we’d have figured it out and stopped arguing about it centuries ago?”

    You would think. The basics arent that hard to follow. Mans behaviour swings from the barely civil to the inhuman, across regions, time and time again. Man keeps trying to make the simple complex. Because we want to enjoy sin and be righteous. And it doesnt work that way.

    Then you end with:”…because we can interpret it in different ways doesn’t necessarily mean that every interpretation is equal and valid.” Exactly. So stop advocating that, as you did just a few sentences before.
    I think you said it best when you wrote:”…I blathered enough here? ”
    No argument there.

  5. @Phil – At the moment, I don’t have any particular texts in mind. I just worry that in the rush to do history, certain writers might not do their homework. I think the potential is there and we should be aware of it. Really, this is true for all scholarship…

    We agree totally on the fruitfulness of cross/interdisciplinary study.

    @Denton – Though I am disappointed by your lack of decorum, I will attempt to address some of your concerns (at least the ones that I think I understand).

    First, I am not advocating that every interpretation is equally valid. For example, you can’t read, “Thou shalt not steal” and interpret it to mean: Stealing is the best thing you can do. That’s bad interpretation. (This is also much easier to interpret than, say, Romans 9-11.)

    Second, I agree, the basics aren’t hard to follow. Wait a minute…which basics are those? Have we agreed on what is “basic” to the faith? Maybe. My version of the basics would look something like the Apostle’s Creed.

    Third, I find irony in the desire to fix a particular meaning to the text. Isn’t a cornerstone of Christianity the radical reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible to mean something very different from what the original authors probably intended? (A new interpretation that I happen to agree with in many ways…) If we aren’t open to criticism of our interpretation, aren’t we in danger of sacrificing the Truth in favor of the monolith that we’ve constructed for ourselves? Are we, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, willing to execute Jesus in order to save the Church?

    Doesn’t the New Testament itself provide the original paradigm for a multiplicity of interpretations with four different interpretations of the story of Jesus?

    One of the factors that continues to draw me to God is that he is so very different from me; i.e., he is infinite while I am extremely finite. As such, how can I possibly believe that my understanding of him is complete? To think that my understanding of him is complete, to steal the parlance of Augustine, would be to fail.

    In the end, the claim to have the interpretation, the only correct reading, to claim this kind of hermeneutical hegemony, is arrogant.

    Again, I think the “live” aspect of the Bible is what is so amazing and remarkable about it. There are very few collections of texts, spanning hundreds of years and tens of authors, that can claim to speak to me here and now. Nearly two thousand years after the last word of it was penned, it still speaks. That document is very much alive. Further, as a Christian, I would say that God speaks directly to me through the text. Remarkable, yes?

    Fourth, I do not understand your critique of my wish to “foster openness about our differences.” Would you prefer that we all put on masks and pretend that we are the same? I don’t know what’s going on with the talk of “haves” and “have-nots.” Perhaps you are just flying over my head…I don’t understand.

    Finally, I’d like to thank you for highlighting our differences in terms of hermeneutics, theology, and tact (and thanks to Carson for providing a space for us to be open and honest). I’d like to highlight some of our similarities (based on my limited understanding of you based on your comments). We are both fallible, broken, finite human beings who would be condemned but for the grace and mercy of God. We are both passionate about what we understand to be the Truth. If we sat down in a room together and were asked to discuss the greatness of God, we would both speak glowingly of him as Creator and Lord. We would both profess gratitude for the love that he lavishes on us though we don’t deserve it. I’m guessing that we both hold the Bible in high esteem and believe that it has the power, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to direct us toward God’s will.

    I’m guessing that I could go on…

  6. Hebert:

    I just received a copy of Merold Westphal Whose Community? Which Interpretation?: Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church. You got me interested. We are on the same page as it relates to how different people receive scripture and what you call the bibliocentric approach. But, as you and I as well a Michael discussed, there is much in the realm of philosophy that must be tackled too.

    I do appreciate honesty. Thanks brother!!!

  7. “Have we agreed on what is “basic” to the faith”. Are you kidding. You cant establish fundamentals of your faith? I suspect that is why the protestant church is one big floundering mess. Church has become a place where the Bible is discussed, not preached. They arent led by the shepherd, everyone is pretending themself a shepherd. A faith based on no agreeable basics? An evolving right and wrong list? Where does that end. At some point you judge, dust off your feet and walk away. And that isnt sacrificing the Lord to save the church. Thats following the word.

    “…irony in the desire to fix a particular meaning to the text.” Are you openning yourself up to the possibility there was no christ? Maybe or maybe not a ressurection? There are some things you cant build the faith from if they are not absolutes. Did Christ Die or was it a coma. Is that up for negotiating. I would call that a basic. You? Christ was a jew. Old testament said he would be. Up for Interpretation? Or, was it a she? Interpretation? These would be obvious “basics”. If they cant even be arrived at, then upon what is your faith based. All ways to God? Or one way to God. No agreeable basics. Come on. Are you arguing just to argue?

    “Isn’t a cornerstone of Christianity the radical reinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible?” So, “Sin no more” meant what? Affixing meaning to text is wrong? We all come to the Bible from countless different experiences, no argument, but when Christ said to the woman Go and Sin No more, he was coming from some law that was written at some time. He came not to change one letter of the law. Right? Is that law now up for interpretation?

    The Gospels are four “different” interpretations of the story of Jesus? Sir, how is that? The fundamentals are the same throughout all four.

    You call it arrogance to take the written word for what it means. Again, what is a faith built on words that cant be taken literally? A custom made religion seems a bit arrogant. God gave man that right? Cafeteria religions dont last long. The word is the word.

    “There are very few collections of texts, spanning hundreds of years and tens of authors, that can claim to speak to me here and now.” Lets keep it that way.
    Its a happy thought to think by bending so far backwards people will think you are a nice guy, but your faith becomes hollow. What have you to teach if everything is up for interpretation? What is there to believe in if everything is to be believed. The cult of Non judgmentalism leads to far more pain and misery in society then saying No. Let people decide, and then let them live with the consequences. When they seek to change behaviour then shower them with mercy.

    Abortion, up for interpretation. All sexual lifestyles, up for interpretation. Drugs, marriage, envy, greed are all up for interpretation. Well, how has that benefited man. With the protestant church pews emptying, man is showing that it isnt the evolving word that lasts. And, you sure cant say being judgmental is to blame in today’s church. Even though consequence stares us in the face on every issue we “reinterpret”, maybe we should show real compassion by giving back to people that light to seek when mans interpretations fail them. Something to build and stand on rather than a debate.

  8. When I was a kid, my grandpa would take me up into the mountains to pick huckleberries. We’d return with several gallons, and take them out to his backyard where he had constructed a home-made huckleberry sorting contraption to sort out the leaves and bad berries from the good berries. Other people who picked a lot of huckleberries had their own home-made “Willy Wonka” berry cleaner. Some people may have had a hard time getting a clean bucket of berries, while most were successful despite various ways of achieving it.

    Stephen’s Truth sorter might feel Denton is letting some good berries drop into the waste tray. Denton’s Truth sorter might feel Stephen is letting some bad berries get through. I have a feeling both end up with about the same product despite a different method of processing. I believe there are absolute Truths in the Bible, but understanding them all can be a lifelong endeavor. It’s a humbling search, and sometimes someone else has a piece of the puzzle.

    From a human point of view, Scripture may seem brilliantly adaptable to the times, or to shift in meaning as the years pass. From God’s point of view, perhaps each generation sees the greater context of His Word, which has not changed. Is the Bible orbiting humanity, or is humanity orbiting the Bible?

    I enjoyed your thoughts on the rise of religious history, Stephen. I laughed at your bewilderment that some are just discovering the obvious link between religion and history (very true). Good point about theology novices entering history like a bull in a China shop. While I understand why science wants to keep theology out of it’s room, I wish a theology or general religion class was considered just as important a staple as Earth Science.

    Public schools have a type of secular indoctrination, so we cannot just throw private schools under the bus for having a potential blind spot in their curriculum.

  9. @Matt S — I very much like your huckleberry sorting machine analogy. I think if Denton would slow up a bit and read what I’m writing, he’d see that while we have some differences we are arriving in some very similar places just in different ways. (More on that below…)

    I very much agree that there is such a thing as absolute Truth and that the Bible is one way to arrive at that Truth (other ways might be prayer, revelation, etc.). I like the way you put it. We all have different pieces of the puzzle. Sounds like “body of Christ” type stuff.

    @Denton — You have written much, and again I find your logic and argumentation difficult to follow. As I just stated in my comment to Matt S, I do not think that you are reading me carefully and understanding what I’m trying to communicate. If you had done so, I don’t think you’d be making some of the accusations that you are making.

    Allow me an example:

    “…irony in the desire to fix a particular meaning to the text.” Are you openning yourself up to the possibility there was no christ? Maybe or maybe not a ressurection? There are some things you cant build the faith from if they are not absolutes. Did Christ Die or was it a coma. Is that up for negotiating. I would call that a basic. You? Christ was a jew. Old testament said he would be. Up for Interpretation? Or, was it a she? Interpretation? These would be obvious “basics”. If they cant even be arrived at, then upon what is your faith based. All ways to God? Or one way to God. No agreeable basics. Come on. Are you arguing just to argue?

    If you had read my comment carefully, you would find an answer to nearly every question you pose here. In the sentence before the one you quote I had stated that the Apostles’ Creed does a good job of summing up the basics. Here’s a link to a wikipedia article on the Apostles’ Creed where you can find several versions of the text. Words and phrases like “Son,” “crucified,” “died,” “rose again” should tell you where I stand on some of these issues that you raise.

    Never did I say that there were no agreeable basics. I’ve shown you what I consider to be basic, and you have not affirmed or denied those items as “basic.” Consequently, I have no idea what you consider “basic.” This is why I question whether or not we agree…perhaps your version of “basic” is very different than the Apostle’s Creed in which case we might not agree on this.

    I could go further and address each of the points that you have made, but I’m not sure it’s worth my time to craft such a response if you are just going to pull out sound bytes to pontificate from without addressing those sound bytes in context.

    I’ve stated my position above and in previous comments. I do not intend to push it any further and hijack Carson’s post about religion and its importance to the study of history. I do apologize to him for taking so much space on his blog for an issue that is at best ancillary to the purpose of his post.

  10. Hebert:

    Not a hijack at all; it is all a part of discourse in drwing conclusions regarding how we think and why folks like Denton has his own view — which in some ways is not clear to me; it sounds as though Denton is injecting ideology into an academic argument. This is okay; I do it as well; however, I sitting back waiting for a response to your questions. As for Matt S comments, well, he is just one of the wiser people I know who is always clear in his defense. Though, Matt S and I often do not agree.

  11. I think it’s important that undergraduate and even high school students have some type of religious instruction, but it’s the context within which it’s taught that proves difficult. Personally, I believe it should be strictly historical/cultural, but you could make arguments for other pedagogical contexts: theological, literary, etc. Also, I think one must take into account the dominate cultural structure at work within the particular educational environment. These particular “dominate” cultural elements (i.e. white evangelicalism in Mobile, AL v. Irish Catholic immigrant in Boston, MA) need to be addressed in the pedagogical approach. Furthermore, nothing touches the Core Value System of an individual like religion and religious instruction (as opposed to teaching a subject like geometry). Even a strictly historical approach will challenge the current foundational beliefs, even identity, of any student and those who teach these types of classes must be prepared to handle a potentially volatile classroom. Of course, this can also make the BEST learning environment.

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