Last year at the SBL annual meeting in Chicago I sat in on a seminar that focused on teaching strategies for religion professors who taught at state universities. I am a Bible teacher at a Christian high school so I was actually sitting in to learn about teaching strategies in general. In the seminar I started noting similarities between these professor’s experiences in the classroom and my own. The similarity was in the student make-up. Most of these universities would require students to take an introductory religion course, and many took it during their freshman year of college. Not surprisingly, the students who would fill the classroom came from very diverse denominational and religious backgrounds. Few of these students were heading to seminary and many would not have taken the class unless it was required.
The students that I teach are required to take my class. My school is not affiliated with a particular denomination and students do not have to be Christians in order to attend. Most of all the major Christian denominations are represented in the student body…with some of them not wanting to be in my class. So how do you teach a Bible class to a denominationally diverse group of people with varying levels of commitment to the faith? And what should be the overall goal of such a class? Below are three pedagogical practices that I frequently use in the classroom.
Socratic method – The students need legitimate freedom in order to discuss and share their views without fear of judgment. This is a difficult environment to create, especially in high school! I start creating that environment by stating outright that disagreement is okay, even disagreement with me.
“Teach up” – Anti-intellectualism is pervasive in mainline Christianity and it seeps into many Christian high schools. The idea persists that if you love God with your mind then you cannot simultaneously love him with your heart. This creates a false dichotomy, and denies the truth that right thinking often leads to right action. I have high expectations of my students regardless of their denominational/religious background. As a Bible teacher I am still in the business of teaching literacy, and the theological resources to draw from are rich and deep (with theological giants like Athanasius and Karl Barth to read).
A little bit of controversy – Some of my students will never walk through a church door, but most probably grew up in a church environment their entire lives. As seniors, most think they already understand all they need to know about the Bible. This is why one of my goals is to make the Bible strange to them. Many students have read the sermon on the mount countless times without ever asking the question, “Can a Christian ever justify the use of violence?” In the classroom I make it a point to ask the questions that they are not in the habit of asking.
I have already hinted at part of my goal in the last strategy. One of my goals is to remind my students that the Bible, and Christianity for that matter, is strange. When I make them strip away their assumptions about the Bible, this sacred text that they thought they knew suddenly has new things to say. By presenting a different point of view, I expose my students to the reality that there has always been a dynamic dialogue about the Bible and its interpretation within the church. This dialogue is also a witness to the wider world. When a group of high schoolers can have a more fruitful conversation between differing parties than our own Congress, it is a sign to the world that maybe there is something we have to offer that the government can’t provide. By creating this in the classroom, the students who may be on the fence about their faith see the gospel at work through witnessing their fellow students respectfully dialogue with each other. They also witness their classmates not simply accepting the easy answer but taking God seriously enough to dive deeply with Him. In short, the goal I hope to achieve in the classroom is worship and witness. Through both these actions we declare to the world that Christ can transform high schoolers to care deeply about God, their fellow classmates, and the wider community.