Creating a Biblical Persona

[Reminder: nominate posts to me for the upcoming Biblical Studies Carnival.]

In my online course, “Literature of Ancient Israel,” I have a discussion forum reserved for student questions addressed to one “Hananiah Ben-Ishbaal,” a 1000 year old Israelite whose life spans the history of the people Israel. Students may ask Ben-Ishbaal about his daily life, his memories of the history of his people, and about his responses to particular biblical texts.

As I recall, credit Credit for the idea goes to Daniel Ulrich at Bethany Theological Seminary. Since Professor Ulrich teaches New Testament, the persona of his creation is of course a man of normal life span, living in the First Century C.E. Professor Ulrich discussed his practice while presenting to the section, “Academic Teaching and Biblical Studies” at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. For my purposes, if a single “persona” is to span our Hebrew Bible curriculum, then I need to take some poetic license and allow “Ben-Ishbaal” the not-uncommon narrative fiction of unnaturally long life.

I have only begun answering student questions, but the decision-making process is already intriguing. For example:

  • Is Ben-Ishbaal’s family priestly or lay?
  • In what periods is his life agricultural, or urbanized?
  • Is he literate (in literary sense) or no? To what degree is he exposed to biblical texts and traditions, and by what means?
  • Is he close to power, or far from it?
  • How “orthodox” is Ben-Ishbaal, from the perspective of the final form of the Hebrew Bible? For example, how late into Israel’s history does he assume the existence of gods other than Yahweh? How does he view divine activity in history (e.g., the fall of Jerusalem) and in his own life (e.g., in personal tragedy or blessings)?
  • By what epithets does he call the god of Israel, and at what periods in history?
  • What is his family life: when was he married, and to how many women (concurrently or serially), and what has become of his descendents?
  • Other questions?

What other questions would you add to this list, in sketching out a character like “Hananiah Ben-Ishbaal”? How would you, personally and as an instructor, choose to answer some of these questions in your creation of this character? Why?

[Creating a Biblical Persona was written by G. Brooke Lester for and was originally posted on 2010/02/05. Except as noted, it is © 2010 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Literature of Ancient Israel: New Section Begins

Got a new class starting this morning, “Literature of Ancient Israel.” What would you like to say to anyone beginning their study of the Hebrew Bible?

These folks aren’t M.Divs or undergraduates, but rather masters students in varying degree programs more or less comprising “lay pastoral studies”: pastoral counseling, pastoral studies, religious ed, social justice, spiritual direction.

If there is one “big idea” animating the syllabus (besides the standard thing of distinguishing evidence-based inquiry from devotional or apologetic reading), it is the several theological tensions and disputes preserved in our canon. Only in its genuine, disconcerting diversity can the Bible be big enough to address the multidimensional array of pathetic (or delightful, for that matter) circumstances we creatures continue to find ourselves inhabiting.

The course is fully online, and even our weekly plenary sessions don’t begin right away, so no suit-and-tie get-up for me today. (Of course I suit up to teach. Why, what do you do?) I will have the pleasure of offering them a weekly asynchronous “televised address,” as well as a weekly synchronous hour, so there will still be the occasional need to become presentable.

Unlike some online conversations my students have had before, these folks are holding their discourse behind closed doors. Wish ’em luck. Anything you think they should have on their minds as they dig into the literature of Ancient Israel?

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”?

Biblical Studies Carnival XLVI is Up

Clear some time this weekend for some reading, kiddoes: the latest Biblical Studies Carnival has been posted by Daniel and Tonya.

For those readers who are unacquainted with the concept: a monthly “carnival” includes links to a great many blog posts in biblical studies, all written during the last month.

Posts are nominated for the carnival by readers. Carnivals are hosted by volunteers. Carnivals are cool. Like it says in the Bible, “Come and see.”

You can find links to previous Biblical Studies Carnivals over at the Carnival’s home page.

Being a Student: Writing for the Course

“He could have written this before ever taking my class!”

Among my rubrics for student writing is the requirement that they rigorously engage the course materials (readings, lectures, discussion) and also engage the methods taught in the course (narrative criticism, form/genre criticism, attention to historical contexts, and so on).

For introductory students, who are still trying to get a handle on just what we are reading/doing/talking about, this can at first feel a bit abstract. Recently, an exasperated colleague at another school made a comment that, in my view, offers an excellent “thumb rule” on this business of writing for the course:

“He could have written this piece before ever taking my class!”

If I had to isolate the single most common complaint that I’ve heard professors utter about student writing, it wouldn’t be about grammar and spelling, or about making deadlines, or even plagiarism. It would be this complaint, that a piece of student writing (often for a final project in the course) could have been written by the student without ever having taken the course in the first place.

So, ask yourself—early in the process of planning, and again early in the writing, and again when approaching completion—could I have written this before I ever took this course? Or am I making concrete use of the readings I’ve read, the lectures offered, the modes of inquiry that have been encouraged, the discussions facilitated in class?

Random Colin: the Bible Isn’t a bible

Random Colin has a post up called, “The Bible isn’t a bible…” It’s in part about what the Bible is not (an instruction manual) and also what the Bible is. By all means have a look.

Something I find myself saying to my students, repeatedly and in different ways, is that we have to begin biblical studies by discovering what the Bible is (as opposed to whatever we might already think the Bible is). This discovery does not happen all at once, but rather happens over time, and only by one means: reading, reading, reading. The discoveries are piecemeal, but add up: the prophets prove not to spend all their time predicting the future; the Psalms are not so bland and nicey-nice as our lectionaries suggest; Job is neither silent nor uncomplaining; the Law doesn’t include much law; the Canaanites of Jericho don’t trust in their faboo wall. The more one actually reads the Bible, the more one says, “What gives?” And as surely as the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, “What gives?” is the beginning of knowledge.

I’d gotten the heads-up on Colin from Bryan at Hevel and John at Ancient Hebrew Poetry. I’ve been reading him for a while now, and have now also and belatedly added him to my blogroll. While you are over there reading about what the Bible is and is not, browse some other posts for a bit.

[Later: I see Colin has moved to WordPress. Here is the link to The Bible isn’t a bible…, and to his Home Page.]

“Audience” and Student Writing

To whom should a student imagine herself writing, when doing her course work? At least, she’ll want to know how much knowledge of the subject matter she can presuppose on her reader’s part. Further, a writer naturally imagines a hearer: an interlocutor to her line of reasoning, a narratee to her narration.

In my experience, the usual reflex is to imagine the professor as the audience. This makes a kind of sense: the work is actually to be read by the professor, of course. And, the professor created the assignment in the first place, so doing the thing feels like an “answer” to that.

However, many students will already know some drawbacks of imagining the professor as their reader. For one thing, the professor’s knowledge of the field of study will usually so far exceed the student’s that the student has no idea what prior knowledge or presuppositions to assume for that reader…not to mention the creeping fear that the prof will know some bit of data that totally demolishes whatever line of reasoning the student has gone out onto the limb with in her writing. Further, the student may have negative, fearful, or ambivalent feelings about the professor. The conditions for good writing are delicate, and as easily frightened away as shy woodland creatures: the imposing shadow of the prof-as-reader can all too easily paralyze the writer before she can really get started.

At the same time, I don’t think that the utterly uninformed layperson—what I think of as the “tabula rasa” audience—is a much better alternative. If the imagined audience has no prior knowledge of the subject matter, then the student writer feels compelled to explain every little thing to the nth degree…and the work becomes unmanageable. Also, this “tabula rasa” audience is rather amorphous. I prefer a nice, clear audience in my head.

For my part, I suggest that in their writing, my students imagine a strong colleague as their audience. That is, some one (or two, or three) classmates who have kept up on the reading, heard the lectures, participated in the discussions, and have sought to make connections between the different elements of the subject matter. This solves the question of prior knowledge: the writer does not have to explain every little thing, but insofar as her research has led her to information not covered in class, she should bring that data into relation with her classmate’s body of knowledge. The “strong colleague” is (or can be) a positive figure to hold in one’s mind, and emulating that mental audience is an attainable goal: the “strong colleague” is like the writing student herself at her imagined best. In the writing that she is doing at that point in time, the “strong colleague” represents the best of what she is trying to be.

What do you think of the “strong colleague” as an imagined audience for student writing? What sorts of audiences have you imagined for yourself when you write, and with what results?