“I’m Using My Bible for a Roadmap”

Don Reno, Red Smiley, and the Tennessee Cutups

This famous bluegrass song, written by Don Reno in 1950, employs one of the enduring metaphors used with respect to the Bible. It speaks of how the Bible can serve as a guide through life and can offer directions to heaven.

Ancient Texts/Contemporary Issues

Many of the students who enroll in the biblical studies courses I teach at the University of North Dakota share this belief and they are certainly not outliers in today’s cultural landscape. In fact, some of the most obvious examples of this phenomenon occur in U.S. politics, where passages from these ancient texts are regularly employed to argue for and against modern-day policy positions.

One need only recall the way President Barack Obama has evoked Ex 23:9 and Matt 7:5 to support his immigration policies, or point to Senator James Inhofe’s (R-OK) use of quotations from Gen 1:25 and Rom 8:22 to justify his view that global warming is a hoax. There was also the highly publicized local instance where Representative Kevin Cramer (R-ND) got into a scripture battle with one of his constituents over his vote to reduce funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In response to Cramer’s vote, a North Dakota citizen posted Matt 25:36–43 on the Representative’s Facebook page. Cramer defended himself by citing 2 Thess 3:10.

Insiders or Outliers

These instances of biblical reception, as well as many other similar examples drawn from additional areas of contemporary culture, have been growing in significance for me as I have begun to reshape my introductory biblical studies courses. Let me explain.

The conventional way that introductory biblical studies courses are taught is that one proceeds through, say, the New Testament either canonically (from Matthew to Revelation), or historically (1 Thessalonians to 2 Peter), or some combination of the two. The focus is on information acquisition with the assumption that the Bible’s content is somehow meaningful, especially when placed within its various historical contexts. In other words, we who teach the Bible, along with our students who wish to learn about it, approach the Bible as insiders, taking for granted its inherent value.

We spend a great deal of time explicating its original and originating contexts, while at the same time introducing internecine conflicts over disparate interpretations, as if either the contexts or the interpretations had any real value outside of a few religious communities for whom these texts are considered scripture.

Reshaping Convention

Perhaps in religiously affiliated colleges and seminaries, or even in some private schools, one might find this approach acceptable, but I have begun to wonder whether such unquestioned privileging of these sectarian texts is acceptable in my teaching context. But what is one to do?

For those who might be in the same teaching situation, allow me to make three initial suggestions:

  1. Stop claiming the Bible is exceptional. The very fact that we offer biblical studies courses in our various curricula tends to reinforce in the minds of students the idea that the Bible in and of itself is an important object of study and it bolsters their belief that the contents of the Bible are authoritative in some way. The introductory course should begin by disabusing students of such ideas and beliefs. One way to do so would be to have students examine the ways that conceptions of biblical authority and biblical exceptionalism have been (and continue to be) used to construct and maintain relationships of power that exist within a variety of cultures.
  2. Stop promoting the notion of “correct” interpretation. Students often arrive in class believing that there is only one interpretation of a biblical passage that is acceptable, or that all interpretations have equal value. We usually respond to this situation by training students to recognize good, as opposed to bad, interpretations, using whatever list of criteria we have come to favor. This approach, however, tends to support the students’ ideas of biblical authority, extending those ideas to cover specific texts and particular interpretations. Might it not be better for the students’ educational experience if they focused on the interpretations qua interpretations? That is to say, students could forgo evaluative judgments of right or wrong, good or bad, and, instead, learn how to recognize the ways that interpretations (and their rhetorical strategies) function within cultures to normalize and universalize the contingent and the local.
  3. Stop privileging historical origins over contemporary usage. The original and originating contexts of the many writings that make up the Bible are frequently unknown and, if known, often irrelevant to the ways biblical texts are employed in our contemporary world. In fact, by emphasizing the generative contexts of the Bible and their importance to a “correct” interpretation of biblical texts, we once again find ourselves complicit in efforts to maintain and to promote insider understandings of the nature and function of the Bible. Instead of only chasing after ancient contexts, students could spend some of their time learning how to identify the assumptions upon which contemporary public handling of the Bible is built, as well as unmasking the ideology that such usage supports.

These suggestions do not begin to solve the problem I have identified, but I think they do work toward decentering emic approaches to teaching the Bible. They also offer the possibility of making the study of the Bible relevant, even to those for whom biblical texts are not a roadmap for their life.

Originally published at seminariumblog.org on June 8, 2015.