Bible/Anthropology 201

At Holladay Park Plaza (HPP), where Bette and I live, [1] there is a set of electronic bulletin boards, telling what is going on that day/week.  Each event or activity is identified by a little icon, telling what kind of activity it is.  I have been a difficulty, I am afraid, for the people who maintain the e-board.

I am teaching a class called Bible 201. [2]  What kind of icon should be put on that 201activity?  I put a lot of thought into what to call the course, but I confess that the icon problem never occurred to me.  And I am sure it did not seem to be a problem to the Director of Resident Life either, the person who had the responsibility of choosing the icon.  Yesterday, the day before our final session, the icon was changed and no questions were asked.  I call both of those good outcomes.  This is the official “spirituality” icon.

As I got to looking around for potential members for this class, I was surprised to see that a number of people showed up who have no recent contact with the Bible at all.  What is it that interested them and why did they come?  And here is the official “intellectual” icon.

201-1These people had had some early contact with Bible teaching.  For some, it was toxic and ridiculous and they got away from it as quickly as they could.  For some, the teaching was sentimental garbage and they left it behind as they developed minds of their own.  Some had once been part of a practicing community (Christian in the very broad sense of the term) and had noticed that the church’s practices fell well short of their proclamation, branded the whole enterprise “hypocritical” and discarded it as a shameful part of their past. [3]

So Bible 201 is not and should not be a course about living as a Christian.  It ought not be about God’s plan for you or how to apply the implications of Paul’s teaching to our daily lives.  It ought not be apologetic in the old “giving a reason for your faith” sense of the term.  These people have had some brushes with Christianity in their past and they want a chance to reconsider it as their adult selves.  This is an oddly removed kind of reconsideration.  Think of it as if a musician had had a passionate love of Chopin when he was young and tossed it all overboard when his professor of music appreciation told him it was a bunch of sentimental hogwash, but now as an adult and an accomplished musician, he wants to go back and look at Chopin again.  It’s more like that.

Anthropology 201

This is the way I am thinking of it now.  I am an anthropologist and I am conducting an extended study of some “primitive tribe” or other.  The members of my class used to be members of that tribe and have never been able to shake a continuing interest in it.  They want to go back as outsiders and study this tribe the way only outsiders can.

This is a lot trickier than they supposed when they signed up for the course.  The course requires that they study as “informants” people who have continued on the path they themselves have left.  When they ask an informant, “What is in the Sacred Grove?” they get the same answer they were taught as children and which they eventually rejected. But their job today is not to evaluate it at all, but to understand it.  Their job as anthropologists is the see how a belief like that informs and constrains the lives of the “natives”—the people, that is, who still live there.

201-3One of the people they will need to consult is the local shaman.  In practice, this is some Sunday School teacher they encountered who was too dogmatic or too sentimental in addition to being hypocritical.  They will need to sit down with this shaman and ask the questions that bear on what that shaman’s experience was.  Why did she teach them what she did about the sacred texts?   Why was she so adamant about refusing their own youthful interpretations?  Did she not see that the questioning of the young was a necessary part of becoming full-fledged members of the tribe?

And as you read those questions and as you feel the heat building in them, I would like you to spare a kind thought for these students who know that their job as anthropologists is not to be the children they once were, but to be the scholars they are learning to be right now.  Their job, if I can risk using such familiar language, is “not so much to be understood as to understand.”  And that is not the demand of sainthood; it is the demand of anthropological professionalism.

That makes it all harder, I suspect.

So what?

So this class is a class with a lot of wow and flutter.  It goes along in perfectly regular intellectual tracks for a while.  The Jesus of John’s gospel uses an unusual rhetorical style and to make it work, someone in the dialogical setting needs to be the patsy.  In John 3, it is Nicodemus.  Every one of Paul’s letters needs to be understand in the context of the church he was writing to.

And then it suddenly swerves and someone says, “How can you say such a thing?”  And then stories come out about the way they have always understood that passage.  For some, understanding it is like giving away a much-loved teddy bear.  For others, it is like finally getting the blinders off.  For both, it is no longer the “perfectly regular track” it was a few minutes ago.  It has gotten suddenly personal and that is going to have to be taken care of in some way before we can get back to the careful scholarly study of texts they first learned about from an uncomprehending Sunday School teacher.

I would like to stay with the anthropology metaphor if they will let me.  Whatever experience we have had with the sacred writings and the cultural practices of these “informants,” our job today is to understand why this all works for them and to ignore, for the moment, whether we can any longer make it work for us.

To my fellow anthropologists, I say good luck.  I wish you the understanding your careful study can bring you.  To my fellow informants, I say “sin boldly.”  Tell the truth you know as a member of the tribe and pay no attention to the uses of your truth the visiting anthropologists make.  Just as they have their job to do, so do you have your job to do.

And may the Spirit that lives forever in the Sacred Grove be with you.

[1]  It’s a Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) in NE Portland, Oregon.  In a month, we will celebrate the third anniversary of our move here and I feel like I’m just starting to get the hang of the place.

[2]  There are reasons for a title like that, but the short version is that I wanted to suggest “readily accessible” (200 level course) and “academic” (college course number).  And, of course, the subject (Bible).

[3]  This last group has developed hypocrisies of their own, of course, but having your very own forms of hypocrisy is surely better than falling in line with the hypocrisies of your youth, isn’t it?  The current ones might be called idiopathic hypocrisies, if we were to get really serious about giving them a name. 

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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