Teaching (and Studying) Difficult Issues

On The Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick writes of her intention to include a “course contract” on her syllabi this year (after receiving a tip from a friend who developed a similar practice). The text of her contract is given here. As a biblical studies major, my classes often address difficult issues from the relationship between theology and biblical hermeneutics to theodicy, abortion, and homosexuality (the latter of which is also mentioned by DeConick as an example), and so I can see that such a contract may be warranted. And as a critically minded scholar myself, I’m not overly troubled by a contract which stipulates that students engage the various texts and their various issues in a critical way. This is certainly how the Old Testament Interpretation and the New Testament Interpretation courses are taught at Yale. But the concluding sentence of DeConick’s contract still gave me some pause: “[b]y remaining in this course and accepting this syllabus, you are expressing your understanding of and agreement with these fundamental, non-negotiable conditions of intellectual freedom and critical engagement.” Is intellectual freedom truly being maintained if certain viewpoints are expressly forbidden at the outset? How does the work of canonical critics such as Brevard Childs fit into a matrix which places “faith” on one pole and “scholarship” on the other? I must admit that I have no answers to these questions, nor do I really believe that they can be satisfactorily answered. And I do believe that in an academic setting, an approach such as DeConick’s is both the most appropriate and the most effective. I just enjoy playing the Devil’s Advocate. 😉

I once heard a story about Prof. John Collins (possibly apocryphal, possibly not) which I still find amusing. Prof. Collins was in his first semester as an active faculty member at Yale and was teaching the standard Old Testament Interpretation course, a course of approximately 75-100 students. When it came time for him to deliver his lecture on Lev. 18, the class was a little tense, as the chapter’s decisive verdict against male homosexuality remains a difficult issue for many. However, he noted that this passage includes no such verdict against female homosexuality–possibly because of a lack of concern for non-penetrative intercourse, or some similar reason. But before he could go any further, a young woman sitting in the back exclaimed in relief, “Pshew!” The entire class laughed and moved on.

The moral of this story: laughter is the surest way to bring people together, even if they represent different theological and doctrinal backgrounds. If only the church fathers had had better senses of humor…


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August 2007
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