Is this the class for you?
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
– First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
– Thomas Jefferson
How to talk about religion: some useful tips
English 390 is an elective, one of many that can fulfill
an upper level perspectives requirement in the Humanities.
It could also count toward an English degree or a Religion
degree. But it's not a religion class.
No religious background is assumed for this course. Also, many students, especially those with strong religious
backgrounds, find the readings and discussions in this class
controversial, so you may experience a certain amount of discomfort. In this class, your stories and your perspective will enrich our conversation, which will inevitably involve religion sometimes. So the first rule is respect.
This course uses the following assumptions:
- God doesn't write literature. People do. To consider the
bible as literature is to assume human authorship that reflects
human purposes. In this class, we cannot consider the role
of "divine inspiration" or "higher truth"
in these texts. When we look at a work of literature, we
consider not just aspects of style and theme, but authorial
intent, historical context, and the ways that translation,
transcription (copying), and transmission (passing down)
may alter meaning.
- This course is non-sectarian, open to people of any
religion or no religion. That means we will concentrate on discussing the bible not as a work of
faith, the way you might discuss it in church or Sunday
school, but as a work of literature that addressed a particular audience and responded to historical events (some say we do too much history in here!). We will consider the cultural context in which the literature was created and will try to understand what it meant for the people who wrote it.
For example, some Christians read the Hebrew Bible
or "Old Testament" only in relation to the New
Testament, ignoring its meaning for people living at the
time. But the people who wrote most of the bible were Jews; they lived centuries before the first Christians came along. So in this class, we will discuss forces that influenced
the writing of books in the Hebrew Bible without reference
to the New Testament. Likewise, when we look at the New Testament, we will look at it as a response both to the Hebrew Bible and to the culture of the Roman Empire.
- We will discuss a wide range of modern scholarship by
people, some of them ministers, priests, and rabbis, who
often question traditional assumptions about the bible.
You will be responsible for understanding this scholarship
even if you disagree with it. Here are some of the controversial
issues we'll discuss:
- Speculations about the bible's authorship.
While many traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe the bible to
be divinely inspired, our textbook reflects a large community
of recognized scholars who believe it to be the work of
many writers and editors who freely wrote, assembled,
edited, and revised parts of the bible for their own reasons.
- Speculations about chronology. Most
of the scholarship we will examine abandons traditional
beliefs about when bible texts were composed. It also
rejects notions that Genesis is a literal account of the
creation. Instead, this scholarship assumes that the ability
to write arose quite late in human history, and that works
like Genesis were poetic speculations about the origins
of the world.
- Research regarding cultural influences.
The bible was composed in the ancient near east, by nomadic
peoples influenced by other cultures such as the Assyrians,
the Persians, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, and, later,
the Greeks and Romans. Besides reading books in the bible,
we will also read works that may have influenced their
composition or been influenced by them.
- The nature of language. The bible was
written in Hebrew and Greek. Every translation into English
has the potential to change the meaning of the text. Many
of us grew up with the King James version, which was "authorized"
by James I of England. We will be reading a more modern
translation which uses new findings to correct errors
in the King James version. We will frequently compare
translations with reference to the original Hebrew and
Greek, to see how the different wording affects our understanding
of the text.
- Points of view. Scholars of literature
consider each work using many critical frameworks.
- Feminist criticism looks at such issues as the how
women are represented in texts, how texts affect them,
and how they read and write them.
- Textual criticism looks at how factors like authorship,
compostion, and chronology may be established.
- Marxist criticism looks at issue of class and power.
- Historical criticism looks at how factors like culture
and context influence not only the creation but also
the transmission of a message.
- Stylistic criticism looks at how structure, metaphor,
and other literary features shape a message.
- Rhetorical criticism treats all texts as arguments
with immediate and long-term goals.
- What does it all mean? To respect each other, we need to learn. We don't need to avoid religion, but we can have healthier discussions if we frame each question by thinking: "What are my biases in approaching this issue? What are the strongest arguments for competing perspectives? How do competing perspectives criticize my own views? and How does this issue affect people whose perspectives and experiences I don't, or can't, share?"
Why should I read about ideas that may conflict with my
College is about challenging yourself and deciding what
you believe. It's about critical thinking. Likewise, literary approaches in general focus on how character and point of view allow us to approach a single event from multiple perspectives. This class will encourage seeing biblical stories and characters from multiple persepctives, not just religious perspectives.
The author of our textbook and the editors of the Oxford
NRSV present views about the bible influenced by the latest
textual theorists, archeologists, comparative religion scholars,
scientists, and historians. These theories, which are taught
in many seminaries, are not new, and they are held by many
Jews and Christians throughout the world.
Even in America, where 78% of individuals describe themselves
as Christians, hundreds
of diverging sects exist. To with with each other, we
must begin by understanding our differences and learning
where we can find common ground.
Don't scholars like Harris believe in God?
Many do; some may not. These scholars concentrate on findings
that can be verified by sources outside the bible. Because
there is much we do not know about biblical history, they
create theories and hypotheses that can explain the available
facts. Sometimes these theories are in conflict with the
notion that the bible is literally true in all its particulars.
But because faith comes from different sources, many scholars
since the 19th century have found speculations about the
bible's complex history to be inspiring, not depressing.
Don't you believe in God, Dr. Adams?
I have a PhD in English. I am a poet and a scholar of literature
and history, and I am presenting the bible from that point
of view. I am presenting widely, but not universally, held
theories about authorship that may challenge you and broaden
your perspective. But my religious beliefs
are private; you can share yours or not, as long as you frame questions respectfully! Our founders separated church
and state so that America would be a safe place for people
of all creeds.
If I stay in the class, how should I express my opinion
when I disagree with the material presented?
Even though you will be responsible for knowing this material,
you may disagree with it. This isn't church or a religion
class; in here, avoid stating your beliefs as fact.
To do so could offend others who don't share your beliefs.
However, since the bible is the basis of many faiths, questions
of religion will inevitably come up. It is perfectly okay
to compare what you have been taught to what you're learning
in class, noting areas of conflict. The crucial thing is
that all members of this class behave respectfully towards
If you stay in this class, you will be responsible for
all the readings, even if they offend you. Since religion
is not a disability, I cannot make any accommodation for
students who don't like certain material.