For the last several months, I have been tutoring two kids, brothers, aged 11 and 14 in Bible. They're homeschooled, but come from a non-religious family. Although I am a theologian, I am not teaching it from a religious perspective. I'm teaching it so they will have a better understanding of reference points in culture from Moby Dick to Arcade Fire's "Abraham's Daughter."
Today's lesson was particularly interesting, not in terms of the material we covered, but in terms of getting at a few layers of the learning process and the role of the Bible in our society.
From day one, I've taught the contradictions of the Bible, with an eye to getting the kids to see the Bible as a collection of stories, laws, prophecies, myths, historical facts, etc. instead of as A BOOK.
We started off reading Genesis 1 & 2, and working through the contradictions of the two creation stories, and got a little bit into the Documentary Hypothesis, and the different sources posited by Julius Wellhausen. They enjoyed seeing the contradictions - and joked about how their grandparents would freak out about them. I figured once they understood that there are two completely different stories in the Bible about how the world came to be, they'd get the basic point that the Bible is a compilation of competing voices. Well, it turns out they did and they didn't.
We moved on to compare the Priestly version of creation in Genesis one to the Babylonian creation myth Enuma Elish, which most, not all, biblical scholars take as the basis for the creation myth of Genesis 1, and we compared interpretations of Genesis 1:26-27 by Origen, Rashi, Martin Luther, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to get a sense that the Bible isn't something that's isolated from its predecessors, or something that you can just read and get the meaning from without looking at how you are reading it. Not sure how well all that sank in.
I had them compare the issue of "problem/solution" in Genesis 3 and Micah 1. The idea that God uses war as punishment for sin, which is prominent in Micah, disturbed and offended them to the point that they couldn't think about much else. I tried to make connections between Micah's condemnation of defrauding people of their homes and Occupy protests against home foreclosures, but really once they read Micah 1, they were done with him. They were able to make some contrasts between the dynamics of sin and punishment in Genesis and Micah, but Micah seems to have been the seed for a lot of the "the Bible is bullshit and God isn't real and these people were stupid, crazy, or on drugs" the younger kid is wont to bring to our discussions. Christopher Hitchens would be very proud of him.
Later we compared the covenants God makes with Abraham in Genesis 15 and Genesis 17, again with an eye to where they contradict each other - in Genesis 15, God promises Abraham's descendants the land from the Nile to Euphrates, in Genesis 17, God promises Abraham just the land of Canaan. I thought that was driving home the point, again, that there are conflicting points of view in the Bible.
We got to the story of Lot and his daughters, which really freaked them out. I then had them read various stories about Moabites in the Bible, some of which clearly describe Moabites as enemies, had them look at the Mesha stele, an ancient Moabite document that may tell the story of 2 Kings 3 from the Moabite side, and finally had them read the book of Ruth, which ascribes King David's ancestry to a Moabite foremother. After that, we returned to Genesis 19:36-38, to see how the story of Lot sleeping with his daughters isn't saying that it's a good thing, but how it's anti-Moabite propaganda. Again, I thought I was hammering in the point that we're not dealing with a coherent text, but with a jumble of perspectives.
After a while, I got bored with always hearing about the text we were dealing with from their presuppositions about the world, so to change the frame of reference we started working through Jorge Pixley's book Biblical Israel: A People's History. Pixley is a Latin American liberation theologian, who provides a very readable history of the Bible using a Marxist analysis to uncover power and class struggles under the surface of the text. At first, the kids were relieved to be reading something MODERN and not ANTIQUATED. They've been liking it. And, today we got to Pixley's commentary on Micah and Isaiah, as advocates of a violent revolution against monarchy on the one hand and a hope for an ethical monarchy on the other. I thought we had gone over biblical contradictions and cacophonous voices enough that that wouldn't be a stumbling block.
Throughout our discussions of biblical contradictions, the kids seemed to run into confusions as their thought processes oscillated between trying to "get what the Bible says" from a kind of logic that takes the text as a coherent whole that has a message from one God and trying to figure out what two or more different writers are saying on a subject. In today's homework, I ran across the confusions of that oscillation again, as there was confusion about why God is saying different things, why the prophets aren't agreeing with each other.
So, with a bit of a sense of failure, I backtracked. "So, what does it mean that there's two contradictory prophecies?" The younger kid replied, "It means that God isn't real and this is all bullshit." The older kid replied, "God is bipolar." "OK, so there's a bunch of ways to read the Bible. There's a religious way to read the Bible, and I haven't been teaching you that way. We can ask what the text says about God, or we can ask what it tells us about history, and some of the questions about what it says about God are getting in the way of just reading it straightforwardly as history. Now, what's weird to me is that you have these assumptions, even though you weren't raised in a religious home. So where do you get your ideas about what the Bible is?"
"Our grandparents, our friend (whose father is a pastor), the movies, and you."
So, we parsed it out. When it came to what their friend thought about the Bible, there was just a big fog. When it came to grandparents, it was THE BIBLE IS TRUE. When it came to movies, they listed some movies that had religious content of some sort, and then when they came to me, it was THE BIBLE IS A COLLECTION OF DIFFERENT KINDS OF STORIES.
So, I asked them to follow through what it meant to say the Bible is a collection of different stories instead of a book. And we went through several steps of logic, until suddenly I noticed that the assumptions had flipped back into THE BIBLE IS TRUE mode. "Right there!" I pointed at the page where I'd been writing down the steps of their logic - "do you see how you flipped back into THE BIBLE IS TRUE mode?" I turned the paper over and drew a square on the left side and a bunch of dots on the right side. "See, we were thinking about how things work on the right side of the page, but then you flipped the assumptions to the left side. Even though you don't think THE BIBLE IS TRUE, it's a lot easier to think about one thing than it is to hold a bunch of different things together! So, when it gets confusing, you revert back to the template of your grandparents. But that's not what I'm asking you to do, I'm asking you to think about the stories as products of different times in history, to get a better sense of the different perspectives that got put together when they collated it into something that looks like a book."
I hope that finally got it to sink in at a fundamental - but not Fundamentalist - level.