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Wrapping Up the New Testament Course

May 6, 2009

bibleI think the last project in my New Testament course went really well. I had the students read some selections from works by Stephen Prothero, Roland Boer, and Hector Avalos. Then I divided the class into three teams for a big debate about whether or not we should even study the Bible, and, if so, how it should be taught.

Each team got assigned one of these three positions:

  1. Something roughly like Prothero’s position in Religious Literacy: we need to teach the Bible at both the high school and college level, so people can be informed citizens—but it should be taught neutrally.
  2. Something roughly like Boer’s position in Rescuing the Bible: we need to rescue the Bible from right-wing nutters and utilize it in support of smart leftist agendas (I twisted this to say “teach it” in ways that support leftist agendas).
  3. Something roughly like Avalos’ position in The End of Biblical Studies: fuck the Bible—it’s sexist and supports genocide. We shouldn’t give it any more attention than we do Mein Kampf; if we teach it at all we should teach it in a way that destroys its authority.

The students really got into the debate. I’d say that Team Avalos persuaded the most number of students.

Why hold such a debate? For me, the authority of the Bible is the elephant in the room in Bible courses that try to be completely academic and set aside confessional concerns. No one wants to ask: is it authoritative? should we award it special respect? should we treat it like any other historical text?

This debate brought those issues right to the forefront and aired them out for all to see. I felt like I was letting the students “behind the curtain,” so to speak: these are the things I have to think about (and which they usually don’t see) when I choose a textbook for the course, decide which parts of the Bible to cover, and how exactly I’m going to cover them.


On the last day of my class today I was especially thanked for teaching a great New Testament course by a Catholic, a super-conservative evangelical, and an atheist.

If I can please such a broad crowd I’m either doing something right or I’m a sellout in some way or another. I’ll go with “doing something right.”

It feels wonderful to have positive feedback.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Eric permalink
    May 7, 2009 10:56 am

    Sweet idea, and glad to hear it worked so well. Engaging students with such different kinds of interest and investment, such as the ones who thanked you, is tricky indeed.

    One question: curious if any students requested an additional voice in the debate, someone arguing for its authority from a more conservative /evangelical Christian perspective? I don’t know your institutional context, but in mine I’d expect at least a few students to want to represent that perspective (whatever my own qualms).

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 7, 2009 11:43 am

    Hi Eric! I’ve set up the ground rules for my course such that claims that in principle cannot be verified aren’t admissible. Consequently, a position like “we should study the Bible because it tells us about our lord and savior Jesus Christ” wouldn’t be permissible.

    However, even if I hadn’t done that, I doubt that anyone would have asked if conservatives could be represented. Evangelicals are a very small minority at my school. I did have one student ask not to be put on Team Avalos, since he felt like he couldn’t in good conscience defend that position.

  3. May 15, 2009 11:33 am

    A very interesting project. I have a question – a rather logistical one – but how do you handle individual grading of a project in the form of a large group debate?

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 15, 2009 11:48 am

    I don’t know a perfect way. Usually I have students individually fill out a questionnaire that has questions like: “How thoroughly did you prepare?” “Did you prepare more or less than the rest of your group?” “Did anyone in the group participate inadequately?”

    I try to assign a group grade based on the average performance, while allowing for exceptions. So, lets say that I have a debate team with four members, and the grades of each individual would be A, B, C, and an F for the one guy who didn’t prepare at all or who didn’t come to the group meetings or whatever. I would average the first three grades and assign a B to those students but then leave the other student with the F.

    If you have other suggestions I’m definitely open. Group project grading is a minefield.

  5. bradcorban permalink
    May 15, 2009 12:43 pm

    More positive feedback:

    As we say in seminary, when we hear something good, “Preach it!”

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 16, 2009 11:10 am


  7. December 10, 2009 4:37 pm

    What are the Avalos articles you used? He’s on my TBR list, but no specific works yet.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 10, 2009 10:04 pm

    I used Avalos’ review of Stephen Prothero’s book on Religious Literacy in the CSSR Bulletin (not sure of the issue—I think it was Feb or Apr of 2009), as well as a few pages from the intro and conclusion of his book, The End of Biblical Studies.

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