11/18/2014 09:44 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2015

Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 2)

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This wide assortment of responses to Part 1 had one basic constant -- students were so taken aback by this alien world that they could only express their ambivalence in mixed accents of shock, fascination, terror, and awe. What rose to the surface was not so much clarified thought as eruptions of vestigial childhood memories amidst a torrent of contradictory feelings.

Students with no prior exposure to these stories came to them fresh, not having been socialized in responding in ways they felt were "appropriate," but as they actually felt, as they would with any powerful piece of literature.

With some, one sensed profound inner disturbance, suggesting a reaction to something unprecedented in their placid middle-class lives that left them a tangle of troubled confusion, as a mood of foreboding would often give way to a feeling of calm.

A few seemed to distance themselves from their reactions by aestheticizing their description of what they were feeling, almost savoring the menace that had so abruptly broken into their safe, predictable world, yet subliminally grateful in being thrown into contact with something "fascinatingly terrible."

Others were in a palpable state of what could only be described as religious exaltation, serenely aglow with blissful beatitude of profound inner peace; some even gave voice to deeply affecting outpourings of prayer that seemed to surprise even themselves, coming as they did amidst what should have been only a mundane homework assignment.

A few gave eloquent witness to their most deeply-felt beliefs -- very moving revelations that were among the rarest of privileges for a teacher to read.

Others were simply left cold by these biblical stories, shaking their head in dismay, as it were, or ridiculed them as the effusions of a brutal, pathological mind, hardly in keeping with a book supposedly having a loving and merciful God as its author.

Still others seemed transfixed by tales they could only describe as grotesque, relishing them as ancient examples of "gothic camp," but feeling amply compensated by readings that triggered such humorous reactions to a sensibility so congenial to their own countercultural tastes.

Many seemed to have come to the text with rather staid expectations of what they would find, but were both charmed and exhilarated that their assumptions had been so surprisingly or, in some cases, even uproariously upended by the dead-pan horror of some of these stories.

A few students seemed nettled that they were asked to think about these stories at all, rather than simply reading them passively and succumbing to a kind of languorous dream; others were inwardly conflicted in that, being required to think about what they were reading, they were being asked to engage in something morally wrong.

One shouldn't have to think in the presence of this book, they seemed to be implying between the lines -- it should command instant assent and obedience, because the act of thinking before the Almighty was a sign of irreverence, pride, and rebellion.

In cases like this, I would approach students privately to suggest that if they felt uncomfortable about having to reflect on the text, they could be excused from these assignments to do something else. Students were appreciative, but nonetheless continued submitting their work, sensing that they somehow had to come to terms with this struggle themselves.

Others seemed grateful in being able to reflect upon stories known solely from hearsay, but now deemed sufficiently important to be part of a high-school curriculum. They were both enchanted and puzzled by these stories, but more than willing to let them speak for themselves despite, or perhaps because of, their exotic nature.

They eagerly surrendered to what these stories were saying, and to the unusual way in which they were written, with no preconceptions about what each was saying, or what they wished them to say, as so often happens with students unconsciously bent on peopling a story with their own ruminations that have no relation to the text whatsoever.

Such students were far more apt to read these stories as metaphors pointing beyond their literal meaning, reminiscent of the phantasmagoric effusions of Origen of Alexandria in the Early Church.

An occasional student might approach these stories with a Kafkaesque sensibility, endowing them with multiple meanings that metamorphosed with every re-reading. This kind of exegesis, however, was exceedingly rare, as these students tend to surrender in original ways to whatever they see unfolding before them in each passing moment.

Meaning for these students is forever kaleidoscopically changing at every encounter with a textual Rorschach, a wondrous ability seldom found with students raised in a visual culture where few students read.

It would be no exaggeration to say that these stories were a maelstrom of meanings that churned students up, and any book which accomplishes this in the blasé teenage world of today is, indeed, a gift from the gods.

The reach, thrust, and energy of each class discussion helped students emotionally to sort themselves out, as they spoke from the heart or listened intently as classmates made their way through this thicket of disturbingly dark and magical tales.

Students were encouraged to say whatever they wished, and there was never an attempt to resolve any question or issue, since the point was simply an exchange of ideas about stories that had as many meanings as readers.

Students were teeming with questions and creative responses as these earnest 17-year-olds became part of that Great Conversation with the Past that would mature and sustain them as they grew into an ever deeper awareness of what it means to be human.

The following were a few of the questions which students discussed: Do all religions lead to God? Is one religion as good as another? Does it matter to God what religion one is as long as one tries to lead a good life? Is God Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, all or none of them?

Can religion get in the way of coming to God? Why can't we worship God by ourselves rather than as part of a group? Can everyone go to heaven, no matter what religion one is? Does God care what you believe as long as you try to be a good person? Can you be a good without believing in God or in heaven and hell?

If God is good, how could he create a place like hell? Why does he allow infants and children to suffer? Why did he create a cruel natural world in which animals devour each other? If God is all-powerful, why does he let earthquakes, tsunamis, and plagues occur?

Do unbaptized infants go to hell? Did Jesus exist? Was he married? Did he claim to be God? Did he rise from the dead? What happens after we die?

Why are some churches rich when Jesus was poor? Why don't churches give away their wealth to help the poor? Why do religions have so many rules when Jesus kept things simple? Why does religion preach hate and distrust toward other religions?

Why do the Bible and churches treat women like second-class citizens? Why can't women be priests? Why can't priests marry? Does the Bible condemn homosexuality?

How do we know that the events in the Bible really occurred? Should the Bible be interpreted literally or figuratively? Do we know who actually wrote the Bible? If the Bible is God's word, why did he make it so hard to understand? Why is there so much disagreement about its meaning?

If we're all children of God, why does he play favorites in the Bible? Did Moses write the first five books of the Bible, or were they written later by somebody else? Did the Exodus from Egypt really occur?

Should people of different religions marry each other? Would this difference of faith confuse their children? Should you bring children up in a religion, or wait until later when they can decide for themselves?

These daily discussions were always the emotional high point of every class, as students got caught up in a drama whose energy at times bordered on a force of nature. It seemed as if students had been waiting for years for an occasion to discuss these questions without fear of censure and received not one, but many answers.

When the moment was right, I would give the standard church answers, along with the standard objections to those answers, as well as what independent scholarship had to say on such matters. Students could thereby hear a broad range of opinion and understand how thinking on such issues was always evolving.