“Active Reading” for Seminary Learners

I did my first research paper as a Masters student. I know, I know. My wife, having come up through Jesuit secondary and undergraduate schooling, can’t believe it either. In any case, when we talk about the wide range of preparation with which students arrive at seminary, I do get it: in many undergraduate programs, the research paper doesn’t come up. And as for secondary school, anyone who doesn’t avoid hard work in high school simply isn’t trying.

When I did begin my Masters program, and the 50%-of-grade research/thesis paper met me right at the door first semester, I was well positioned to learn the ropes quickly. In my family of origin, curiosity had been rewarded, we all read like hell, and there was a normalcy to spending several hours at the library—or on a solo bike trip exploring the four points of the compass, or digging up the back yard—and talking about what kind of stuff you’d found out about. (You’d get a killer spanking for digging up the yard, but could still talk freely of your findings.) So I read up on “the thesis paper,” memorized every word of the professor’s instructions in the syllabus, and tried to “go and do likewise.” With great success, because while I was inexperienced with the form, I was pretty well prepared by a formation that was (might as well say it) atypical, and even—with regard to the factors relevant here—privileged.

This is all on my mind as I read articles about “active reading,” a mode of reading that is natural to me because what else do you do after reading except yammer about it in excruciating detail to an older sister (thanks, Jul, thanks, Kay), but which is not, it turns out, natural to everybody who experiences a call to be a leader in the church.

My “Intro to Old Testament” syllabus changes a lot, but often involves having the students read journal articles or essays in edited books. This semester, I am having them read only a handful or so, but I have developed a new activity for the reading: we are to identify the article’s thesis or central idea, the evidence that it incorporates into its argument, and the elements of its line of reasoning. My hope is that this will help them to think of their final paper in such structured terms. (They will also be writing the paper in four stages, offering each other peer review for the first three stages.)

The first reading assignment is going on this week (Christopher Rollston’s “The Rise of Monotheism in Ancient Israel: Biblical and Epigraphic Evidence,” Stone-Campbell Journal 6 [2003]: 95-115; PDF available). Having allowed them to work through that one as best they can, I plan to introduce helps for “active reading” that they can use for articles assigned later in the course.

The following helps are available at the Glencoe Online “Teaching Today” site:

My idea is to model the use of some or all of these when we discuss the Rollston article, then assign them to demonstrate use of any one of them the next time we read a journal article or essay from an edited book. My hope is that the students who are already well positioned to read actively will find the activity something of a cake walk (while probably still benefiting from exposure to new processes in active reading), while the students who are relatively new to active reading might enjoy some breakthroughs in how they interact with reading: breakthroughs that just might pay off throughout their Masters work.

Instructors, do you ever assign activities to enhance active reading? Students, can you imagine profiting from assignments of this kind?

[“Active Reading” for Seminary Learners was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/03/01. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

“Uh, What Kinds of Biblical Historical Conclusions Do You Usually Have Here?”

After accepting Professor Bruce Waltke’s resignation, for having spoken aloud about the plain facts of the state of our knowledge concerning the natural world, Reformed Theological Seminary Campus President Michael Milton gushed enthusiastically about the vast spectrum of scientific/historical conclusions that the seminary would find acceptable from its faculty:

“Oh, we got both kinds: Young Earth Creationism and Old Earth Creationism!”[1]

Milton said that the seminary allows “views to vary” about creation, describing the faculty members there as having “an eight-lane highway” on which to explore various routes to understanding. Giving an example, he said that some faculty members believe that the Hebrew word yom (day) should be seen in Genesis as a literal 24-hour day. Others believe that yom may be providing “a framework” for some period of time longer than a day. Both of those views, and various others, are allowed, Milton said.

But while Milton insisted that this provides for “a diversity” of views, he acknowledged that others are not permitted. Darwinian views, and any suggestion that humans didn’t arrive on earth directly from being created by God (as opposed to having evolved from other forms of life), are not allowed, he said, and faculty members know this.

Here’s a hint to President Milton, but especially to any prospective students considering places like Reformed Theological Seminary:

  • no matter how “diverse” the spectrum of “acceptable” conclusions,
  • if an institution draws a line anywhere and says, “The conclusions of your research may extend here, but no further; beyond this line your inquiries may not lead you,” then
  • you are not in an institution of learning. In fact,
  • you couldn’t be more in the dark if you were stuffed into a sack.

I was going to add that those who enforce such parameters or assent to them should be willing to stop using the internet, and all computers (which rely on those merely theoretical critters called “electrons”); forego the MRI, the CAT scan, antibiotics, and all of modern medicine, returning to the leech-craft of their forebears; grow their own food, eschewing the disease-resistant strains available at market; keep the radio off, doing without satellite-produced early warning of natural disasters. After all, these are all the results of unbounded critical inquiry, and have arisen only where such inquiry has won out over efforts to suppress it.

But then I realized that these folks won’t return to their pre-modern dystopia without dragging everyone else along by force, so sorry, they’re just going to have to learn, one at a time, to live in the actual world, with its pesky, bias-challenging data. If one fears that one doesn’t know how, I offer the gentle and redoubtable Professor Waltke as an example.

For other feedback in the biblioblogosphere, see John Hobbins’ response and his round-up of other responses, and more recently, Jim Getz.

BACK TO POST “Creationism,” including so-called Intelligent Design, is always the view that God created all the species in the form that they have today: in other words, that evolution leading to speciation has not happened.

[“Uh, What Kinds of Biblical Historical Conclusions Do You Usually Have Here?” was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/04/10. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Finally: Proof of God’s Existence

A student informs me on Facebook that National Geographic Channel is offering its annual Easter season woo-fest, as indicated in this almost unendurable article in the Telegraph (“New series…new explanation…Egypt…Exodus blah blah volcanic ash yada yada algae etc”).

No, I am not saying that proof of God’s existence is found in the tendentious quote-mining of scientists by entertainers to sell a reductionist, sensationalist narrative product to gullible yokels rendered nearly helpless by years of substandard science education and the polarizing media invention of false equivalencies.

I am saying that it is found in this: when I wrote the web URL of the Telegraph article into a Facebook comment addressed to a colleague, the “captcha”[footnote] presented to me was this:

by weasels

Top that, Anselm and Aquinas, if you can.

Notes:
BACK TO POST A “captcha” is when you have to read and copy some scribbly text in order to prove to a web site that you are not a spam robot. You sometimes have to do that when you write a comment on web sites, especially if your comment includes a web link.

[Finally: Proof of God’s Existence was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/29. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Public Evidence and Sectarian Claims in SBL

What does it look like for a person of Jewish or Christian religious faith to—as a matter of method—bracket her sectarian claims about the Bible in her investigation into the content and context of biblical texts? And why is it necessary that she be willing to learn to do so?

As some of you will know, a conversation has been underway about book reviews in biblical studies that appear, as a matter of academic method, to privilege sectarian claims (sometimes along with the reviewed book itself). Alan Lenzi has raised up occasional samples, and one in particular has generated some conversation. Calvin at the Floppy Hat wrote a thoughtful post that garnered some comments.

The readers at Art Boulet’s finitum non capax infiniti, especially, have produced a comment thread especially worthy of attention. It’s not a record-breaker in terms of length or number of participants, but it is clearly drawn and notably free of distracting polemics.

The basic question underlying the discussion—what does it mean for anyone, religious or not, to engage in “academic biblical studies” over against sectarian apologetics—may be of special value to students in higher education who are being asked to make this distinction, or to religious laypeople who wonder how seminary “book learning” differs from confessional “Bible study.” By all means, take a look.

[Public Evidence and Sectarian Claims in SBL was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2010/03/27. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Darwin’s Eve Mythicism with McGrath

James has been writing onmythicismlately (the conviction that there is no historical figure behind the New Testament depictions of Jesus; the idea is that several contemporary myths coalesced into a single invented figure).

The “-ism” is important, the suffix implying that this perspective is not a matter of reasoned argument but of dogmatic adherence. For this reason, James’s comparison to Creationsm is apt: James means to say that reasoned argument fails both creationists and mythicists, and that they appeal instead to fallacious lines of argument. Notice, in this regard, the epithet that creationists use for the theory of natural selection as the main vehicle for the fact of evolution: “darwinism.” In this way, creationists seek to suggest that there are two equally valid “isms” from which to choose, when in fact the one arises from public reasoned argument, demonstrates extraordinary explanatory power, finds support from evidence in virtually every field of science, and (most importantly) is inherently provisional pending new discoveries…while the other is held not provisionally but absolutely, resting not on an evidentiary foundation but rather the privileging a particular interpretation of a limited number of biblical proof-texts.

Tomorrow is Darwin Day. Celebrate with a trip over to Exploring Our Matrix.

Reading the Textbook with an Open Bible

Typically, in an “Introduction to Bible” or “Introduction to Old/New Testament” sort of class, the student is expected to read weekly in a textbook and also in the Bible. However, some students find themselves reading through a chapter of the textbook without the content seeming to “stick,” or gain traction, with them. Others will find themselves getting bogged down in confusing biblical material, blowing a lot of time on (say) the Book of Jeremiah, without much payoff in their understanding of critical issues in that material.

I regularly suggest that students read the textbook with an open Bible. The textbook will regularly cite the biblical texts, usually in the context of making some critical point. “In Jeremiah 7:4-14, we can see the prophet’s attack on his opponents, who are convinced of the Temple’s inviolability and therefore unimpressed by the Babylonian threat on the horizon.” At this point, the student should read Jeremiah 7:4-14, checking to see 1) that the textbook is reading the Bible correctly, and 2) whether the student is understanding the textbook correctly. The student should do this with all of the Bible references in the textbook.

In the above example, the student may also find that related aspects of the course work are reinforced: the fall of Israel (where Shiloh is) to the Assyrians, for example.

“But reading the textbook already takes so long: now it will take longer!” Will it really? Perhaps, but with a net gain in time. By the time a student has read the textbook on, say, the last years of the first Temple, she will not only have already “skimmed” the whole book of Jeremiah, but will have done so with attention to critically significant texts, in the context of an informed discussion (with the textbook) about those critical issues. So, there’s the main part of the assignment to read Jeremiah, checked off the “to do” list.

Also, the words of the textbook are now gaining traction for the reader: by “checking up” on the textbook’s claims about the Bible, the student is out of a purely passive, receptive mode of reading, and into a dialogic, critical, active mode of reading. Additionally, related critical issues are being brought into synthesis with the material at hand (“where is Shiloh? why is it destroyed?”). This kind of active learning is what makes material “stick.”

Have you tried “reading the textbook with an open Bible”?

Why We Teach: Mammoth Teeth and “Over-Education”

Have you heard the one yet about the groundskeeper and the mammoth tooth? (h/t to P.Z. Myers.) A terrific example of the small, unpredictable wonders made possible when learners are encouraged to view the world with an eye that is curious, well-informed, and trained in critical habits.

Responding to the possible counter-moral that good education mightn’t lead to prestigious employment, one commenter at Pharyngula objects that high school science isn’t simply for producing a generation of professional scientists. It is, rather, primarily:

…intended to try and make students better equi[p]ped to solve problems by thinking through them systematically (and to give them some useful/interesting facts in the process). In this case it seems to have worked.

In other words, this “over-educated” groundskeeper isn’t only spotting mammoth teeth, he is presumably turning his alert attention and high-school-trained critical faculties to the whole range of his personal, political, professional, recreation, perhaps spiritual, life. At least, on a good day.

I don’t make my seminary classes intentionally unpleasant, but I do make them as rigorous as possible, because a part of my dream for the church is that, with each graduating class, we turn out a platoon of “over-educated” leaders who are, effectively, little time bombs of alert attention and critical faculties, waiting to be tripped off by whatever mammoth teeth come their way on a good day.

How about you? Do you find yourself using your education for more than filling your job description? How so? If you teach, do you educate or “over educate”? Do you know any other mammoth-teeth stories?

The Literal and Figurative as Subsets of Religious Speech

I am working up a longer post on this topic, but for now, consider this statement attributed to Francis Collins, Obama’s nominee for Director of the National Institute for Health National Institutes of Health:

…he thinks the presence of the divine can be directly observed, even if it cannot be measured and tested…

Now, I would prefer a direct quote, and know that Collins’ words may have been slightly different, but I’m going to provisionally take it as stated.

When a scientist says that something is “directly observable,” but nonetheless “cannot be measured or tested,” I am inclined to think that they are not using the word “observe” in a literal way. At least they are not using it to mean, “available to the five human senses or to instruments designed to extend the human senses beyond their normal reach.”

Rather, I suspect that the word “observe” is being used as figurative speech: a metaphor, a figure, a kind of poetry. I should add that I do not consider figurative speech to be a kind of window-dressing to literal speech: a figurative utterance has cognitive uniqueness; it signifies in a way not reducible to literal speech. For example, the figurative utterance

The stars are in blossom, the moon is in flower

is not simply reducible to some literal paraphrase like, “There are many stars out, and the moon has waxed to full.” The figurative speech (Tolkien, by way, from the final chapter of The Hobbit) means uniquely: it signifies something that no other utterance can quite match. That something is not “testable or measureable,” but it is something private, a something that unfolds between the text and the individual hearer. Therefore, it is not ultimately shareable, though productive conversation on the work might be shared.

I want to say that religious claims should be divisible into two kinds: literal claims that submit to “testing and measurement” (this would include religious claims about the age of the earth, the nature of sexuality,  and so on), and figurative claims that have the status of works of art (which might also mean to effect public opinion and policy, but after the fashion of Huckleberry Finn or the Corporate American Flag rather than in the way of a scientific discovery or a poll). When we say, “God is love,” or “God answers prayer,” or “God acts in history,” we should be able to make a clear accounting as to the literalness or figurativeness of our speech, submitting the former to “testing and measurement” and the latter to the rather different critical norms of art.

Ultimately, I have hopes that this line of thinking may help introductory students in religious studies to systematize and clarify the claims they make in collaborative discussion.

Thoughts on these reflections in progress?

Satlow’s “Between Faith and Reason”

Listening to the first of Michael Satlow’s podcasts (“From Israelite to Jew 1: Between Faith and Reason”; hat tip to Doug Mangum), I am considering assigning the podcast to my Introduction to Old Testament students in the early days of this year’s term. Satlow makes a clearer-than-usual appeal for the compatibility of religious faith and the reasoned, critical study of the claims and literature of that faith.

You can find the podcast at the link above, or by searching the iTunes Store for “Satlow.”

Dealing with DeWette: Evaluating Bias and Evidence in Biblical Studies

You know what my favorite thing is about blogs? Comments. By which I mean, “commenters.” A comment thread is sometimes no more than a string of unconnected exclamations or diatribes, but at best, the comments to a blog post take a genuinely interactive course and add some serious value to even the best of posts. When authors devote the same kind of care to their comments as they would to their own blog posts, sure, they add value to their own name, or “brand,” since they often (but not always) are linked to their own blogs or profiles. But more, they add value to the posts to which they comment, unpaid and (outside of the small circles who do this “web” “log” thing), unacknowledged.

I woke up this morning to belatedly discover a short exchange on DeWette, a biblical source critic who preceded the better-known Julius Wellhausen. Kevin Edgecomb finds himself rightly appalled at the anti-Judaic biases that have animated Protestant biblical scholarship, especially early source criticism. Briefly, his commenters judge that, while Kevin is correct in discerning bias, he has not made his case that a) DeWette’s source-critical conclusions lack evidentiary support, and that b) later biblical scholars have uncritically preserved DeWette’s (or Wellhausen’s) conclusions and ignored the anti-Judaic biases with which those scholars approached the biblical evidence. Doug Mangum has posted a response and a follow-up.

On the one hand, Kevin is doing exactly what he should be doing: reading the early source critics with a hermeneutic of suspicion (self-link). How do their arguments and conclusions reflect their anti-Judaic (and for that matter, anti-Roman Catholic, anti-ritual) biases? How does the rhetoric of their arguments and conclusions seek to reproduce those biases in the reader? Terribly important questions, these.

On the other hand, I’d argue that Kevin’s initial post dismisses DeWette’s conclusions without addressing his use of evidence and line of reasoning. Doug brought up the “intentional fallacy,” and I would further specify the fallacy of “poisoning the well”: the fallacious idea is that, once DeWette has been brought into (deserved or undeserved) ill repute, we can just assume that his arguments are inconsequential. Finally, Kevin makes the rather sweeping claim that later biblical source criticism has willfully ignored the plain biases in the work of its predecessors. In other words, he argues that while he reads DeWette with a hermeneutic of suspicion, biblical scholars on the whole (who agree with DeWette on dating the core of Deuteronomy to the 7th century) have not done so.

I call attention to the comments to these three posts, because they represent the kind of conversation typical of strong scholars concerning this procedural issue. How do we acknowledge the biases of our forebears (once recognized as such) while still engaging in our continuing work their use of evidence and their lines of reasoning?

It is essential that we model “best practices” in this regard, because our own students and their students will learn from our example and read us accordingly when our own biases, invisible to us, come to be recognized. On the matter of bias and evidence, as on any matter, as we comment, in such a mode can we look forward to being commented on.