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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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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:

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

    4. 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.

    5. 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.

    6. 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 beliefs?

    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 one another.

    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.


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