I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...


Friday, January 23, 2009

Secular Bible Study

In my Women in the Old Testament class we had to design a Bible study. Here's what I came up with:

Bible Study Presentation

I want to do Bible studies where they are not usually done. I am interested in working towards increasing biblical literacy in our culture, both among religious and non-religious people. In terms of religious people, I mean denominations such as Liberal Quakers and Unitarian Universalists, groups that often ignore the Bible. In terms of non-religious people, I mean secular people who are interested in studying the Bible for any reason. These reasons could include, but are not limited to: interest in the Bible as literature, thinking more critically about what they do not believe in order to actually understand their secular identity, to better understand the cultural heritage they belong to, to better engage in contemporary discourse about religion, or in order to participate in contemporary “hot button” issues that involve religion such as abortion and gay marriage in a more informed manner. Another group could include social workers. I can imagine doing an in-service training to raise the biblical awareness of the employees of a domestic violence shelter, people dealing with the ramifications of dangerous biblical interpretation.

I would like to begin doing this work during my supervised ministry, in which I hope to do adult spiritual formation work within a large UU congregation. I envision offering Bible studies that last at least 4 weeks, but possibly longer. These studies could be focused around several topics: God as a biblical character, Jesus as a biblical character, violence and nonviolence in the Bible, women in the Bible, laws in the Bible, etc., etc..

Resources beyond class texts:
Berlinerblau, Jacques. "The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously."
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Brooks Thistlethwaite, Susan. “Every Two Minutes: Battered Women and Feminist Interpretation.” Russell, Letty M., Ed. Feminist Interpretation of the Bible. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985.

Possible layout for a 5-week study focused on Women in the First Testament:

Session 1:
Group discussion on the participants’ previous experience with and relationship to the Bible.

1. Under what circumstances have you encountered the Bible before?
2. Is there anything you like or appreciate about the Bible?
3. What is difficult for you in a discussion about the Bible?
4. Why have you decided to join in a study of the Bible at this point in your life?

Session 2:
I would have sent the participants home with a survey about women in the OT. We would discuss the answers that people came up with. (Please see the informational survey I took in preparation for designing this study below.)

1. Share any connections you have to a biblical woman.
2. Were you surprised at how many biblical women you could or couldn’t name?
3. Tell us the women on your list. Tell us about the woman you described in more detail.
4. Discussion about cultural traditions of biblical women vs. actual text:
a. Where or from whom did you learn the information about the woman you described?
b. Have you ever looked up this woman’s story in the text?
c. How does the story of this woman impact ideas of “womanhood” in our culture today? (We would probably have to have a discussion on what “womanhood” means. Is it a set of expected behaviors? Is it a philosophy on the way one leads their life? How are conceptions of womanhood learned and understood? What is “natural” and what is “nurtured?”)

Session 3:
I would have sent participants home with the assignment to look up the woman they described in the survey and compare their knowledge with the actual text.

1. Report the findings of your homework.
a. How did what you already know compare to what you found in the Bible?
b. How do you feel about what you found? Did it make you angry, happy, confused, etc.?
2. How have your feelings or perceptions changed about the biblical character you’ve been studying?
3. How do you feel about the way she is commonly portrayed in culture?
4. Would it matter if culture knew the actual text? (assuming there’s a wide difference.)

Session 4:
Interpretation matters! The beginning of this session would have a lecture (hopefully still participatory) highlighting different interpretations of the women we’d been looking at (HHH and WIS are great starting points to prepare for this). We would then have a discussion of how the stories of these women have been interpreted negatively and positively and which interpretations are found in the academy, the church, and mainstream (secular) culture.

Session 5:
Final session.
1. How have your thoughts about biblical women been changed over the past month?
a. Do you respect/disrespect, appreciate/dislike, feel more/less connected to any of the female characters portrayed in the Bible? Which one’s and why?
b. Do you think any of them provide examples of a good female role model for modern day women? If so, who and why? If not, why not?
2. Have you noticed or heard anything in mainstream culture referencing a biblical woman that you wouldn’t have noticed before this study? (I would bring magazine ads we could discuss as a group in addition or just in case no one has anything to share.)
a. If so, how did it relate to the actual textual story?
b. How did you feel about the “interpretation”?
c. If it was possible to, did you respond to it? If so, how? If it wasn’t possible, how would you respond to it if you could?
3. Whether or not you’ve ever paid attention to the Bible, do you think the stories of biblical women and their multiple interpretations have effected cultural understandings of “womanhood”?
a. Share specific thoughts and examples…
4. How have your thoughts about the Bible changed over the course of this study?

Here are the Informational Survey responses from a mixed group of people:
You'll notice that the word religious is put in parenthesis when describing two of the participants. This is because I don't know to what extent they would refer to themselves as religious, but it is clear that they are involved in the religious world in a different way than the secular people.

These are the instructions I gave to the responders:
Please answer the questions without discussing them with anyone else, doing any prep-work or using any other materials. My goal is to get your raw data. The questions are broad on purpose, I’m trying not to influence your answers. It’s ok to answer “I don’t know.” Remember, this class is an Old Testament class, so try and keep your mind focused on the Jewish Hebrew Bible/Christian Old Testament. Try to answer the questions in order without looking ahead.

Question #1
What is your relationship to/experience with the Bible?

Secular Woman #1
I was raised in a Roman Catholic family attending services and religious education classes weekly until about high school age. In college and afterwards I have had a rather academic relationship to religious texts, reading the Koran, the Talmud, the Book of Mormon, and Bhagavad Gita and the Old Testament out of simple curiosity of comparing origin stories, parables, and commandment type mandates.
Secular Woman #2
It’s interesting really. When I was younger, after traveling abroad and going on trips to DC with young people from around the world, experiencing the death of grandparents; there was a period when I was obsessed with the Holocaust specifically and questions about life and death in general. We had an old family Bible and I began reading it at night, thinking this unfamiliar territory would be a place to find answers. I got about half way through and stopped. It wasn’t that I found it particularly loathsome with all the begats and such, more that it didn’t seem to apply to me, nor answer my questions (many of which I hadn’t yet articulated at that time). In college I almost minored in religion, and especially found myself drawn to early Jewish history, using the Torah. I discovered that approaching the Bible/Old Testament as a historical document gave it new life and relevance to me. It opened doors for me to see the complicated web that lies at the heart of the complex web of relationships that exist between Jewish, Christian and Muslim people, giving so much in the way of context to the wars and other world history I had learned thus far. At this point in my life, I hunger for more of that historical context, having found it has enriched my understanding of the world – past, present and future. But without the luxury of a teacher in a classroom, I find the book itself a cold place to start on this journey of learning. The more I know about the Bible, the more I see how it permeates every aspect of our life and culture, whether people are aware of it or not.
Secular Woman #3
Although my family was not religious, I went to a Catholic school from 1st to 8th grade (Christ the King), and then a Jesuit highschool (Seattle Prep) and college (Seattle U). My mom sent me to Catholic school because she thought the education was better and she was scared of the bussing that was taking place at the public schools at the time. At CKS we had a religion period where we'd study the Bible and Catholic beliefs, and we'd go to mass on holidays. At Prep we continued learning about the Bible, but also learned about other religions. At SU I had to take a couple religion classes, but you didn't have to participate in the religious aspect of the school much at all if you didn't want to. At CKS, learning about the Bible at school (Religion class) seemed totally normal – just like any other class. You weren’t really pressured to believe it, and actually probably half of the students weren’t Catholic anyway. I enjoyed learning about it and pretty much believed everything I was taught. I didn’t really question it much, and my parents were very easygoing and open about different religions. I became very good friends with a Catholic girl in my class in 2nd grade, and started going to church with her family some Sundays. I really enjoyed it and felt like my family should be going to church too. In 4th grade I convinced my parents to join the Catholic church. My parents took the classes and we all got baptized and confirmed. In highschool I started questioning whether I really accepted the Catholic beliefs, and by college I convinced my self that I could stop going to church without fearing that I’d go to hell. Now I just believe there’s some being or energy that is much greater than us, that probably created Earth and the universe, but I don’t claim to have any further understanding than that. With all the different religions in the world, and everyone believing their religion is the right one, we can’t all be right, so I’ve concluded that we just don’t know. I’d like to know, and intend to work more on my spirituality in the future, but I am not convinced that I will ever truly believe in one theory or set of religious beliefs. I like to just leave it at this: we are the ants of the universe. Hah! Anyway, sorry, the Bible. I have issues separating what I learned of the Bible from the Catholic teachings. I sort of just viewed it as one of my textbooks. I never felt compelled to make myself read the whole thing, only what we were assigned to read and interpret for class. Since then, I have determined that I am extremely skeptical of the Bible. I think people take it too literally, and I don’t think we can believe that it comes from reliable sources. I’ve never been convinced that people didn’t just make it up for whatever reason.
Secular Woman #4
I went to Catholic gradeschool and Jesuit high school and college so the Bible was a keystone in my education growing up.
(Religious) Woman #1
I grew up in an unprogrammed meeting, and we definitely read parts of the Bible during Sunday school, though I don’t remember a lot.
(Religious) Woman #2
I was raised without any formal religious background, but attended a Jesuit college where one brief survey (“Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” I think) was required for my core humanities curriculum. In the fall of 2007, after some intriguing and challenging conversations with Christian friends, I began attending a Christian church, and soon after a small house church/bible study group on a weekly basis. Over the past year, I’ve read through the Old and New Testaments once, but still feel like I’m skimming the surface.
Secular Man #1
I was raised by fairly Universalist Quakers and I attended meeting and went to Sunday school begrudgingly until my parents got sick of fighting with me about it, which was about age 9, I think. My high school taught Genesis as literature, so that was probably the most seriously I have studied it. Other than that, I read the Cartoon History of the Universe a few times, which covered some of the aspects of the old and new testaments that have some basis in history. I'm dead serious.

Question #2
What is your opinion of the Bible?

Secular Woman #1
I think it is rather interesting as a social commentary, a snapshot in time. There’s a lot of content in the bible and I wish people would look at it holistically and not pick and choose which verses to adhere to and which to ignore.
Secular Woman #2
I think it was a book written by a group of men for mainly political and probably some religious (got to give them a little benefit of the doubt!) reasons. I think many of the events actually occurred and were worth documenting, but that what we have is just one version of reality, not the Truth. I also think it had some great practical applications in its day, especially in regards to rules for cleanliness – like don’t eat pork, not because it’s unholy, but because you could die. This of course, is quite the modern spin on my part. And I think it should be read with a modern spin. To say things like stoning women for adultery are ok punishments is ridiculous, as are many of the stories and passages, especially those that relate to women. I think it’s unfortunate that the Bible has been used as a weapon so often. Like the Torah and the Koran, it’s something that weak men can hide behind to justify their desires and goals. It has the potential to be both terrible and beautiful.
Secular Woman #3
I answered this one above.
Secular Woman #4
It is document capturing written stories of God and Jesus.
(Religious) Woman #1
That is an amazing and holy book. I would like to read more of the Old Testament.
(Religious) Woman #2
I’m still trying to figure that out. I believe it is true, and sacred, and that the question of whether to “take it literally” or “interpret it” is a false dichotomy. I’m troubled by many individual passages, but I’m not willing to reject the scriptures because of that. I know I have a lifetime of study ahead of me.
Secular Man #1
I think of it as allegory, along the lines of Beowulf, The Iliad or Huckleberry Finn. As literature, I think there is a certain "truth" to it, not factual truth, but truth in the sense of understanding human nature and morality. As literature, it provides a way of understanding the era during which it was written as well as those who wrote or translated it. I don't believe it is the Word of God and I'm a little frightened by anyone who views it as such. I consider myself a devout agnostic.

Question #3
Name as many Biblical women as you can.

Secular Woman #1
Sarah, Ruth, Esther, Hagar, Mary Magdelene and Mary, mother of Jesus. I don’t remember the names, but I recall a fair number of stories of prostitutes and a few about witches.
Secular Woman #2
Ruth, Mary, Jezebel, Eve, Hagar, Sarah, Rebecca – I know I know more, but can’t remember off the top of my head.
Secular Woman #3
Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Eve, and Jezebel. Oh dear, I can’t believe I’m not remembering more!
Secular Woman #4
Mary, Mary
(Religious) Woman #1
Abigail is the only one that is coming to mind.
(Religious) Woman #2
Eve, Rachel, Rebekah, Job’s wife J, Sarah, Hagar, Rizpah, Queen of Sheba, Ruth, Esther, Jezebel, Bathsheba,…
Secular Man #1
Eve, Sarah (Jacob's wife, Joseph's mother, I think), Rachel (one of Jacob's other wives, I think) Mary (Jesus' Mom), Bathsheeba, Delilah, Mary Magdelene (sp?). There are others I can't name, except by reference to the story they are in, Lot's wife and daughters, or the two women who were fighting over the baby, which Solomon cutting in half for example.

Question #4
Pick one woman from the list above and tell me as much as you can about her.

Secular Woman #1
Let’s see, how about Sarah. Is there an H? I can’t remember. I think Sarah was the wife of Abraham and through a blessing from the covenant with God, they conceived many children even though both were very old and past traditional child bearing age. I think this is the section of the bible where folks are living into hundreds of years…I recall most of the story really being about the children she bore. I think she might also be the mother of Isaac, who Abraham was asked to kill as a show of loyalty to God. I always wondered if she knew about what a close call that was and how it made her feel….
Secular Woman #2
Ruth, as I recall, was married off to an older man she didn’t know. All I seem to remember is that she suffered and was considered pious because of her good service to her husband. The stories about women seem to tend to be focused on punishments for immorality, like Jezebel. They also tend to be shorter and really, when you strip them down, about the men. Even when they’re the subject of a story, the women are still on the periphery.
Secular Woman #3
Mother Mary was the mother of Jesus. She had immaculate conception. Her husband was Joseph. She wore blue garments/veils/robes. Oh dear, that’s all I can remember.
Secular Woman #4
Not hard since I can't name many off hand. Mary (not Jesus' mother) was a prostitute that Jesus met at a well and befriended. It's not mentioned in the Bible but I have heard from other sources that perhaps Jesus and Mary were actually married.
(Religious) Woman #1
This is sad to me. My mother actually marked sections of the Old Testament that were about women and I haven’t gone back to it in years. Reading the Bible is not a part of my spiritual practice.
(Religious) Woman #2
David had Rizpah’s (don’t known if I’m spelling that right) sons put to death, and she camped out on the mountain, defending their bodies from scavengers. David heard of it, and had the bodies rightfully buried. I kind of think she was one of Saul’s wives, but I really don’t know.
Secular Man #1
Mary Magdelene was I believe one of Jesus' followers and confidants and I'm guessing she would have been considered a disciple by any modern standard. I seem to recall she had been a prostitute, or something to that effect, I think there is some evidence that she and Jesus liked each other "that way" and possibly even had a child together.

Question #5
In your opinion, how much of what you told me about the woman in question #4 is actually in the Bible? How much do you think is simply cultural tradition?

Secular Woman #1
I am not sure if that’s one of the stories that made it into pop culture. The Abraham/Isaac versions did, but I think only folks more acquainted with the text really know who she is.
Secular Woman #2
It’s funny, I suppose most people would have chosen Mary or Eve for question #4, but I didn’t specifically because what I remember about them isn’t from the Bible. Also my middle name is Ruth, so I’m drawn to her as a result. But in our Judeo Christian society, people are bound to have some thoughts and feelings and notions about characters from the Bible. Whether those thoughts, feelings and notions are based in what the Bible actually says is a different story entirely.
Secular Woman #3
I bet the Bible doesn’t specify that she wore blue garments/veils/robes.
Secular Woman #4
Half and half.
(Religious) Woman #1
Left it blank.
(Religious) Woman #2
I think most of that is in the Bible, and very little (if any) made it into the mainstream culture I’m familiar with.
Secular Man #1
Probably only the first part, at least in the version of the bible that became the standard. I think the Gospel of Thomas has some reference to the latter part and possibly some others that were left out of the official version of things.

Question #6
Do you have any particular connection with a biblical woman? If yes, how and why?

Secular Woman #1
Not particularly.
Secular Woman #2
As I said above, Ruth is my middle name. But I think of that as more of a family name, as I was named after my great grandmother. A more interesting connection is mine with Jezebel. My name is Jessica, and in my non-religious family, an early childhood nickname my grandfather started (Jessie-bell I believe. I had a habit of calling everything Jessie-something) morphed into me being called Jezebel. It was an endearing, nice thing to us. And I honestly felt like the bell of the ball, special, when it was used. But coming into contact with the Bible story as a young adult, and learning what a “jezebel” is, we stopped calling me that as a family. I’ve always been a little sad about it, like a loss of innocence. It’s a cliché, but what’s really in a name? And why does the Bible’s version of what that name entails trump years of family history and connotation?
Secular Woman #3
No, I wouldn’t say so.
Secular Woman #4
(Religious) Woman #1
Left it blank.
(Religious) Woman #2
In high school, I was in the play J.B., which was described as “a modern retelling of the Book of Job.” I was cast as Sarah, who was the Job (J.B.) character’s wife. My director told me that, in addition to my acting skill, he picked me because of “my pensive bone structure,” which gives you an idea of most of my role. I also said “Curse God and die” a few times. I don’t think the part I played has much connection with the Bible, but the fact that Job’s wife is barely in the Bible is interesting in itself.
Secular Man #1
I think that Mary Madgelene is the one I identify with, really even if I'm only identifying with the "heretical" version of her. She seems more human to me, a little rougher around the edges, more complicated and more independent minded.

Question #7
Under what circumstances would you be interested in participating in a Bible study about biblical women?

Secular Woman #1
I find I am not interested in being guided towards a preconceived conclusion about the bible or what it says. I enjoy exploring the narrative and discussing it in a literary fashion, and then drawing conclusions from the compelling dialogue presented.
Secular Woman #2
Well, I may be a bit odd, but I think I would jump at the chance for something that was set up like a book club, could be in person or virtual. A social gathering to discuss openly the roles of women in the Bible and what those roles have translated into in “real” life. By this I mean to say, where were we pigeon-holed and have we really broken out of those assigned roles? Even as CEOs and Presidential candidates aren’t we always viewed with the standards set out in the Bible in mind? “How dare she run for office (or be CEO) with all those children” “She’s too weak to make the tough decisions” or if not “she acts like a man”. Or "she played the gender card by crying so we would all feel sorry fo her". How much of our gender roles are a direct result of what the Bible has told us? Conversely “boys will be boys” but girls better be careful or “who will buy the cow?”. Last I checked, I’m not livestock, but in the Bible, I am the property of my father, uncle, brother, even son - just like the livestock. Is this really the message we want to send to our daughters? Honestly, it makes me angry. I think the key to my relationship with the Bible is in treating it like a historical document, not like sacred text. Within those parameters, everyone is welcome and the conversation can be more rich and multi-directional in my opinion. Starting out with the Truth makes it hard to go anywhere else.
Secular Woman #3
I suppose I’d be interested if the focus were something other than it just being a part of Sunday school or something. I suppose a Bible study about biblical women would be the most interesting focus for a Bible study that I can think of. I might do it if an outside party convinced me that it would be a good and fun use of my time, other than trying to convert me.
Secular Woman #4
Maybe if it was an activity I could share with my female friends.
(Religious) Woman #1
I would really enjoy participating in a Bible study about biblical women if everyone was open and excited to discuss what we read. I would probably prefer if it was all women. I’m sorry that I couldn’t be more helpful. It does sadden me that I identify as such a feminist but don’t know much about women in the Bible. It’s also an illustration of how the Bible has not been a central part of my religious upbringing. I’ve been saying for a while that I want to begin to read more. Maybe this will give me a kick in the pants to actually do it.
(Religious) Woman #2
Pretty much any circumstance. Could you come to Seattle? ☺
Secular Man #1
It could be interesting, but it isn't really something I'd seek out. I might do it with a girlfriend in exchange for getting to watch 8 hours of football on Sundays without complaint or to impress a girl I was interested in. Even then, I'd have to have reasonable assurance that the discussion wasn't being led by someone who would be using it as an opportunity to proselytize.

1 comment:

Deborah Woolsey said...

Dear Summer,

My name is Deborah and I am probably from your parents generation as I have a daughter named Prairie. But my point is, while at this particular moment, I have only had time to preview your writing, I am very interested in what you are studying and writing about. I am currently writing a novel about a conversion, only it has an odd twist. I am a new Roman Catholic who has probably gone through in life experiences much of what you are studying about in school. I don't have a specifc home in America given my Army brat background which also contributed to my wandering spirit in terms of worship and my relationship with God. I will take time to read what you have written soon - probably, this weekend and I hope to get back with you. Have a good journey.