The meaning of life

You don't have to be a devout believer to study the Bible - its insights into the human condition are enlightening for everyone, writes Dale Salwak

April 22, 2010

In the spring of 1974, fresh out of graduate school and barely moved into the office that came with my first faculty appointment, I accepted my department chair's invitation to begin teaching an undergraduate course in the Bible as literature. Over the ensuing 36 years I have learnt a great deal about the approaches that contemporary students take to religious issues.

Like all great literature, the Bible elicits complex, multidimensional and highly individualistic responses; nevertheless, through decades of observation, I have come to understand some of the hurdles these young people face, to recognise a number of biblical themes that do and do not resonate with them, and to identify those texts that elicit great discussions as well as some that simply flop.

One of the most persistent misconceptions about this course is that the majority of enrolled students are devout Christians, fully immersed in the inerrant authority of God's Word and living out the imperatives found in the Gospels. Unless students are church-going and Bible-believing, so the mythology runs, they will be at an academic disadvantage.

In fact, the opposite is true. Each semester about two-thirds of my class of 40 or more are drawn to the Scriptures for reasons other than pious belief, and they bring with them a stunning array of attitudes towards the Bible and the world that produced it.

Some enrol with great eagerness to learn; they want to uncover what is in the text and apply it to their own lives and world. Other student attitudes run the gamut from simply curious to perplexed, indifferent, apprehensive, suspicious, openly sceptical or altogether hostile. Some even come into the course writing off the book and its messages as irrelevant or unintelligible before they've even read any of it.

Regardless of their circumstances or expectations, I assure students on the first day that everyone belongs in the class. I discriminate neither for nor against anyone. I assure them that it is my responsibility to create a safe intellectual environment founded on trust, mutual respect and tolerance while motivating them to open the book and engage it on many levels. I emphasise that it is also my duty, as our laws stipulate, to avoid proselytising; they know that no one will force beliefs upon them.

To achieve a genuinely dispassionate approach, I make the literal text the authority in the classroom. I am merely the guide, the mediator between the students and the printed word. Every semester I begin by stating, "We're not going to talk about what you think the Bible says, nor about what you hope the Bible says. We're not even necessarily going to talk about what you have been told that the Bible says. So, what are we going to talk about?" Without fail someone in class will respond, "What the Bible does say."

By emphasising the text rather than the theological message, I attempt to guide students towards answering four fundamental questions about this literary work:

1) How does the Bible help us to understand the unchanging human heart and therefore ourselves?

2) How can we account for this book's timelessness?

3) How can the magnitude of such a daunting, even intimidating achievement be explained?

4) Why is a deep familiarity with the Bible so necessary to an understanding of the development of Western culture?

We approach the Bible as a finished anthology of little books, each of which, like all narratives, has a beginning, a middle and an end. Our purpose in class is not to study theories of composition, translation or the work's provenance. I try to avoid becoming mired in the various controversies, interpretations and applications that the text has generated over the centuries.

Along with a careful analysis of content I emphasise the importance of biblical style and structure. The better we understand how the text communicates with us, the better we understand the contents, and vice versa. By the end of the semester the students have discovered, with my prompting, at least 50 principles of Hebraic literary style - some obvious (eg, a broad panoramic scene giving way to a narrow focused scene) and some quite subtle (the relation of the narrator to the text).

The issues that students raise in class often surprise me. At one time I could expect my students to possess a sound and coherent understanding of the Bible, as well as the contexts underlying the narratives. No longer is that the case.

Although I teach some of the most talented young men and women on campus, for many years now I have observed that the majority have never opened the Bible before enrolling, much less read widely in it, and any vague familiarity (either real or imagined) they may have with its contents comes second-hand, absorbed from what they have heard, seen or been told. They may have a sense of the Bible's importance to Western culture, but even the fervent believers don't necessarily have a solid foundation in the text itself.

As a result, most of my students are unsure how to read the Bible on its own terms, much less interpret it on theirs, and they come unprepared (or at first, reluctant) to attend to the details of untangling a demanding text. Many of them presume the Bible is only about recording the past or predicting the future; they don't see that it is very much about evaluating the present in ethical terms.

My classes usually devote more than half of the semester to the study of the Hebrew Scriptures and the history of Judaism before moving on to the New Testament and searching for common ground between Jews and Christians. This brings me to yet another potential hurdle. A large number of students are only vaguely aware that the Christian faith emanated from Jewish roots, and they grow uneasy when we begin to shatter unfounded stereotypes and unconsidered platitudes that they may have grown up with.

Many come into the course believing, for example, that Christianity is the religion of love and Judaism the religion of law, that the God of the Old Testament is the God of wrath while the God of the New Testament is the God of love, that Jewish obedience to law is cold, sterile, unmerciful and legalistic, or that - in the words of Voltaire and Arnold Toynbee - Judaism is a "fossil religion" with no relevance or instructive purpose today.

In addition, for a predominantly young audience that has been perpetually exposed to unchecked materialism, social divisiveness and cultural excesses, God's commands, statutes and laws are not easy to accept, grounded as they are in self-restraint and obedience to rules that may seem, on a certain level, to invite challenge. Some students wonder why the stories so often take such a violently unpredictable course or, even further, why characters that are guilty of wrongdoing may be rewarded while those who are obedient are sometimes inexplicably punished.

Still another obstacle to students' understanding is the level of self-examination that moral, philosophical and ethical enquiry requires. If students have been raised in an environment not given to deep thinking, or if their daily diet of conversation is limited to empty chatter, then they may feel uncomfortable with - perhaps threatened by - the most challenging questions; I have even witnessed students trying to divert our discussions away from becoming too serious or deep or speculative.

A final hurdle to engaging fully with the book can arise from what Verlyn Klinkenborg has called the culture of "polite, self-negating silence". Although I encourage lively peer debate about the texts, the assertiveness such discussions require can be intimidating, especially if students are unused to expressing deep, somewhat personal or perhaps even revealing thoughts.

Many women, in particular, have been led to believe at some level, unconscious or otherwise, that on matters of deepest importance - such as faith - or in the presence of an icon as powerful as the Bible, they are not "authorised" to speak; in other words, their observations are not valid.

Given all these obstacles, what quickens the subject to life for students? What encourages them to engage the material despite its inherent difficulties? One spark that frequently ignites the fire is the simple fact that the Bible tells terrific, compelling stories.

The tales and themes that come alive in my classroom are ones that touch on every recognisable aspect of ordinary human life, the more earthy the better. Animated, often passionate class discussions may revolve around crises or conflicts between parents and children (Abraham and Isaac or David and Absalom), between siblings (Jacob and Esau), or between husbands and wives (Abraham and Sarah or Elkanah and Peninnah).

Likewise, something in the students' experience has shown them the truth of such timeless, universal themes as jealousy and reconciliation (Joseph and his brothers); ascent and subjugation (the Egyptian exile); hunger and migration (the Hebrews wandering in the desert); great love (Ruth and Naomi), and great hatred (Cain and Abel). And in the final book, Revelation, they discover and embrace one of the deepest of human hopes - that ultimately, justice prevails and good triumphs.

Students are also eager to find out how those whom we consider towering figures ever managed to become what they are. These young readers are instinctively interested in the opponents and situations the heroes had to struggle against and, above all, the conflicts the biblical characters had to confront and resolve within themselves.

They can identify with Jonah, the reluctant prophet who finally submits to God's will. Or Moses, who gives every reason he can think of why he can't possibly represent God in Egypt before he becomes the great deliverer and lawgiver. Or Paul, who, utterly transformed by the risen Christ's call, spreads the gospel despite suffering the same terrible persecution he himself once inflicted on Christians.

Sometimes students are puzzled by the fact that the characters through whom God works are not always the most worthy, or are even unsavoury. David, at first "a man after God's own heart", falls away from his faith; a deeply flawed character, he lies, commits adultery and murders a loyal servant, yet God works through him to set in motion a significant chapter in salvation history. David's son, Solomon, falls into idolatry after he disobediently marries foreign women, and yet he is the one selected to build God's own temple. Peter and Judas Iscariot betray Jesus in their respective ways, yet each plays an essential role in the Greatest Story Ever Told.

In other words, a complete moral universe, from nobility to perfidy, comes alive when class members focus on the book's portrayal of the human condition - the situations characters face, the choices they make and the ways those choices play out. The stories illustrate all aspects of our common humanity, about which the Bible has no illusions, and students quickly recognise reflections of their own world in a milieu that had previously seemed so obscure and far removed.

Over and over in the pages of the Bible they discover that, like themselves, even the most confident and gifted individuals have known bitter and lonely hours. Even the strongest endured pain, both physical and emotional. Even the most loyal suffered betrayal. With "such a cloud of witnesses" to the confusion, complexity and challenges inherent in living a moral life on Earth, students come to understand that only through great struggle does any human being grow in body and mind and spirit.

For those who are open to the experience, the class is not just a matter of learning about the text, its characters and its traditions; it is also an invitation - sometimes, a challenge - to examine their own and others' belief systems in a very different way.

I have learnt that many of my students have a yearning for religiosity, and they will work hard to understand anything if they determine it is important to them and it relates to their circumstances. Some of the more mature individuals may be clear-eyed about the paradoxes in life and in their own nature; they may know what they want and need from religion, and they ask, seek and find it.

But for the majority - who are young, uncertain, searching, perhaps lost - somewhere deep within their innermost being they want to know how best to live, what to care about and why, and what life means; moreover, they seem to want answers to these mysteries from a perspective that science cannot offer.

This yearning - wanting to know what matters - is a deep and recurrent theme in the sacred writings of many religions, including Judaism and Christianity. Many of my students begin to understand over the course of a semester that the Bible is a single, ageless document that can guide and help them address their concerns.

Finally, to facilitate my students' struggles with this amazingly rich body of work, I use patience, restraint, mild provocation and even humour. Each term when we are studying the Psalms, I share a personal experience that occurred some years ago.

One day, I was walking to class with a colleague who teaches a course in religion and psychology. Somehow we found ourselves talking about the dark night of the soul and, specifically, Psalm 22:1 ("My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?"), which Jesus quotes on the cross. I explained why we think Jesus spoke that verse, what it meant to hearers then, and what it has meant to readers since.

Two days later I thought I spied my colleague standing in the cafeteria, his back turned towards me. Driven by my sense of humour, I slipped up quietly behind him and whispered in his ear, "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" He turned around - it was someone else! I can only imagine what he must have thought, or what he told his family upon returning home. As for me, it was still another lesson in how the Bible can reach into our daily lives in truly unexpected ways.

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