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Garden out of bible min scaled
July 23, 2021+Uri Bilmes
+Teaching+Faith & Religion

Teaching Religious Text in a Culturally Heterogeneous Classroom

A few years ago, I taught my first mandatory middle-school Bible class. Half the students were vocal atheists. One girl studied the sacred text with her father every weekend. Another girl was a devout Messianic Jew, part of a niche community of Jews who ascribe to the Christian belief that Jesus is the Messiah. Everyone else just wanted to get through each day’s lessons without an animated discussion or theological brouhaha. And that was just my section of the class. In our first lesson, we discussed the beginning of 1 Samuel. It is a typological tale of a barren woman who eventually gives birth to an important leader, but from the comments of the students, one would have thought it was a discussion on the merits of biblical religious practice:

“Why is she praying? Doesn’t she know there’s no G-d? I know there’s no G-d. We talk about it at home. This is stupid.”

“I read this story with my dad! We read passages from the Bible every Sabbath. Isn’t that cool?”

“What did they sacrifice? Animals? They sacrificed animals?! As a vegetarian, I’m deeply offended.”

And so on. Welcome to Bible class in Jerusalem. How do you navigate a Bible lesson with 30 students from different backgrounds? How do you make enough space for 30 unique relationships with religion, some of which are diametrically opposed to one another? In the subsequent paragraphs, I humbly present two strategies for navigating sensitive issues of belief in heterogeneous settings, each for a different stage in the process of study. But first, a little background on the conditions that led me to these insights. The Israeli public school system is anything but a monolith, especially when it comes to religious orientation. Yet, despite all of the changes and turmoil in educational policy over the years, one constant has remained: All non-Arab Israeli students must take a mandatory Bible class almost every year, culminating in an official matriculation exam in order to graduate high school, despite the fact that more than half of the Jewish students in Israel are not religious. The reasons for this requirement bear mentioning and provide critical context for this discussion. Most of the Zionist architects of the state were ostensibly secular, but they viewed the Old Testament as a national treasure — a crown jewel of Jewish cultural creation that testifies to the Jewish nation’s connection to the land. Even if the book was not to be understood as historically factual, the fact that this world-changing ancient document provided a compelling picture of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel solidified its place, in the minds of David Ben-Gurion and his co-founders, as a formative cornerstone of Jewish ethos and identity. How could one proclaim themselves a proud member of the Jewish national project in the land of Israel, while at the same time disowning the original literary work from which the national consciousness draws its cultural viability? Thus, it follows that every Israeli student must become acquainted with the magnum opus of the Jewish nation. Indeed, this unique synthesis of secular ideology and religious text is representative of the mystery of Israeli-Jewish identity that hovers in the background of Bible education in secular Israel. Over the years, the potency of Ben-Gurion’s original vision for the Bible has waned. The Bible has become increasingly the domain of the religious community, with right-wing religious parties sometimes using it to justify their political positions. As a result of this association, the vision of the Bible as a shared cultural masterpiece has given way to a contentious, political reality in which it is oftentimes presented as ground zero. Many secular Israelis feel little connection to Judaism and its religious texts. Ben-Gurion’s desire to transform the Bible from a text of religious messaging to a text of national consciousness is struggling to remain viable. Though the government requirement remains, interest in Bible study outside the religious community has reached a crisis point. The Ministry of Education recently tried to revamp the entire Bible curriculum in secular schools in an attempt to increase appeal and interest. Not enough time has passed to judge the reform’s success, but most are skeptical of its potential.

Strategy 1: A Tapestry of Experience

The unconventional educational history of my particular situation pushed me to find a method that allows the students to give space to their angst or excitement surrounding the subject matter, without inciting an argument. Each year, my first lesson is centered around the question “The Bible is like a …” (or something similar, such as “When I think of the Bible, I think of …”). From a place of personal experience and emotion, students share their opinions and feelings and associations. Ideally, I take all the answers and collect them on a big poster, which is then hung in the classroom. This year, distance learning provided us with an opportunity: I asked students to bring an object from their home that represents Bible class and hold it in front of the camera. An alternative could be asking students to send the appropriate emoji for Bible class in a WhatsApp group and collecting those answers The images and comparisons suggested by the students then become the template for mediation as the year progresses. When a story is particularly jarring to our modern sensibilities, we might mention that the Bible here is like a thornbush (or something similar, depending on the answers). If different students need a new conceptualization to frame how we feel about a particular text or concept, we can add to the poster throughout the year. Thus, the broad range of orientation toward religious content is consistently mapped out, developed, and validated. This activity can be used before, during, and after discussions about any sensitive topic. Mapping out the spectrum of associations with the same story or subject is an effective way to reflect the complexity of the issue, while leaving the expression in the less confrontational form of imagery or metaphor. In addition, the use of representation instead of exposition keeps the more volatile elements of the discussion at arm’s length. For example, if I were to give a class on Islam to a mixed group, some may say that Islam is like a warm embrace, while others may compare it to a sword. It’s important to emphasize, as the instructor, that no one is saying what Islam is (or the Bible, or any other topic), but rather how it is subjectively experienced. The idea is to soften the barrier of exclusive thinking that so often surrounds sensitive questions of belief by showing the diversity of experience surrounding the issue at hand, without attacking a certain position. As a result, hopefully the groundwork will be laid for a more unguarded learning experience.

Strategy 2: Invite and Engage Using Text

Once space has been created for the sharing of experience around the topic, the next step is to delve into the topic itself. Keep in mind, no matter what, any time an ideologically heterogeneous group is artificially assembled for compulsory religious study, a general wariness of the instructor’s agenda persists. Consequently, there is an overwhelming inclination on the part of the instructor to give an explicit answer to the volley of circumspect glances. My advice: Just start teaching, and get out of the way. Instead of dealing with apologetics or conflict resolution, I believe that the educational potential of my classes is optimally realized by dedicating my Bible lessons to the book itself. Any discussion of religion should focus first on text. Sacred text is a magical medium that suggests itself unapologetically to the learner and invites the readers to grapple with it. It is original and honest. It does not bite. Obviously, the teacher must choose appropriate and representative texts, and eventually provide the traditional understandings of the text that impact religious behavior even in the present day. But it is much more expedient to first bypass all of the ideological noise and bring the students and a specific text as close together as possible, without any mediating commentaries or narration. For example, the story of David and Goliath (Samuel 1:17) tells us the story of a young shepherd boy who defies all odds and defeats the Philistine champion. As he approaches the threatening behemoth, David declares that the God of Israel is on his side and will deliver victory into his hands: “Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.” When I teach this passage, I give the students a worksheet with the verse in its entirety at the top and an incomplete version of the verse underneath it: “Thou comest to me with _______, but I come to thee ______.” The students must think of a challenge in their own lives — their own personal Goliath — and thus revise and repurpose the text. This activity pushes the students so close to the text that they are inside it, generating thought together with the text, as I stand back and watch. Some of the worksheets were particularly humorous this year. One girl wrote to her vacuum cleaner: “You come to me with a short electric cord and old parts, but I come to you with an extension cord and the operation manual!” From the Valley of Elah to the vacuum cleaners of Jerusalem, these are the kinds of connections students can make, if we push them toward the shared text instead of toward their conflicting opinions. King David is one of the more controversial characters in the Bible, a personality lionized by tradition, despite his many faults. At certain stages in the story, I ask students what their opinion is of David’s behavior — then give them an assignment to write a journal entry from David’s perspective, in which David justifies to himself the opposite mode of action. This is especially fascinating when discussing David’s fraught relationship with his son, Avshalom. In general, forcing students to try to write from inside the head of a character, or support an opposing viewpoint, can expand their capacity for acknowledging the struggles of others. This genre of text-based, reader-centered activities serves as a nonthreatening entry point for all students involved. More religious students are given the opportunity to find themselves in a text of their sacred past; less religious students are able to engage with the text on their terms, without feeling pushed toward traditional understanding. Religious students, apprehensive that their core beliefs will come under attack in a mixed group, can breathe easily, as the teacher immediately appoints them the primary arbiters of their experience with the text — and by extension, with their beliefs. For the same reason, an opening reader-centered activity lowers the pulse of less religious students, who may have been apprehensive that they would be expected to bow their head before proscriptive religious dogma. Once everyone has comfortably entered the realm of study on their own terms, the foundations of a more accepting environment have been laid. There is something magical about the succinct nature of religious texts; there are always cracks and crevices into which the reader can crawl. How do you make enough space for 30 unique relationships with religion, some of which are diametrically opposed to one another? Between the lines of the text, there is plenty of space for everyone. We just have to give the students the opportunity to find it.

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