THE BLOG
11/24/2014 10:44 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Teaching the Bible as Literature in Public High School (Part 3)

There were other days when students had an open-ended discussion about a Bible story they had read or a question that had come up in class. What follows is a distillation of four often-asked questions and the exchanges they sparked.

Was it wrong to have one's own opinion about the Bible's meaning? Some students felt that it wasn't because, as people mature, they would naturally change their mind about the meaning of the stories they read. If God gave us a mind, he would certainly want us to use it, especially with a book that claimed him as its author.

Others disagreed, saying that it wasn't right to have one's own opinion about what God meant because one might be wrong. One should listen to one's pastor or rabbi who was trained in such matters.

These stories were just stories with no right or wrong interpretations, said the first group. It wasn't as though people were going to be tested on them for the right answer. Stories have many meanings, and different people see them differently depending on their life-experience.

Even the clergy draw different lessons from them, and would want people to do likewise since there was no other way of benefiting from stories than by trying to puzzle out their meaning in a way that would speak to their lives. That was the beauty of this book - everyone could take away a different message, for people don't need a middleman between themselves and God, because he speaks to each person directly.

Others couldn't see how this was possible because if this was God's book, it could have only one meaning, as would each of its stories, and people have a right to know what that meaning was. They couldn't just equate their own reaction with God's "message" to them because they might be fooling themselves.

Well, maybe a story means different things to different people, because each person is in a different place, with different needs and problems, so God would tailor his meaning to each person's situation. It wouldn't make sense if everyone received the same answer, because not everyone would be in need of that answer, but of one that would help them.

Moreover, how could any one person claim that he alone knew what God meant in a particular story or about the Bible in general? It would be arrogant to claim that only one view was right and that everyone else's was wrong. How could one person or church dare to speak for God?

But there has to be some authoritative voice to tell people what God means, because otherwise you'd have no end of confusion about what God wants of us. Why would God have gone to all the trouble of writing the Bible if he was going to leave it to each person to decide what he means? You'd have nothing but chaos. There has to be an objective standard.

Well, maybe God's truth is so big that it can only be grasped by many different opinions. Perhaps everyone has a piece of God's truth, and the only way of knowing it is by listening to everyone.

But what if people are contradicting each other? Who would decide which view was right?

But why should we listen to only one person who claims that he alone has "the truth"? How does he know? People shouldn't be sheep who blindly follow what somebody says. It's too dangerous to give any one person or church that kind of power.

And so it goes for the next several weeks. Nothing is solved, but something more important happens than getting an "answer" -- students have a better understanding of a question because they've heard both sides of the argument.

Since our text also contains excerpts from other world scriptures, a student asks why we can't discuss those other scriptures as well. Why limit ourselves to just the Bible, when the Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Muslim, and Taoist texts also have things of importance to say?

I point out that if students want to have their horizons broadened, they should read these scriptures. In fact, an entire course on World Scriptures would open up a fascinating range of new possibilities and set the Bible within a much larger context, but, unfortunately, we had only six weeks for our unit, and even that wasn't enough time to do justice to the Bible and its influence on Western culture. These other scriptures were waiting for them, and would mean more to them if they read them on their own.

This led to the next question: if God speaks in the Bible, does he speak in other scriptures as well?

I don't see how he could, says one student, because if your religion is right, then the others are wrong, so how could God be speaking in them? He can't be saying different things in them because he'd be contradicting himself.

Well, that's just it, isn't it? Anyone can say that their religion was the only true one, but, apart from insulting everyone not of your faith, how would you know that those other religions weren't true as well? It's like rooting for the home team. Everyone thinks that their team's the best, but what if you had been raised in a different city or religion?

Besides, what if God speaks to different religions in different ways? That would account for all the different things he says in their scriptures. Cultures are different, so God simply adapts his message to these different audiences.

You make God sound like a politician, spinning his message differently for each religion. It's not as though God needs people's votes to get elected. Either God has something to say or he doesn't, and if he does, how could his message be different in all these religions?

But is it? Maybe underneath all those differences, they're all saying the same thing. Take the Ten Commandments, for instance. Every religion teaches them, although under different names. Religions share a lot in common, but people get caught up in all the differences.

But how do you know it's even God speaking in these scriptures or the Bible itself, and not just something put in God's mouth by the powerful who want people to believe it?

Like we shouldn't kill or steal or lie, or should honor our parents? Who could disagree with that? The Ten Commandments are, after all, just common sense and keep society from going off the rails. What's the hidden agenda?

But what about sayings like "blessed are the poor"? That could have been put in the Bible simply to keep the poor content with their lot so they wouldn't revolt, and in the meantime the rich keep getting richer.

But suppose there's no God and that someone made up all this God-talk to keep people in line. Who's to say that it isn't all made up?

Or that it is? Anything that makes people better than they would otherwise be is always a good thing. Maybe the basics of every religion are what God intended, but those other things were added later, and it's those things that give religion a bad name. How much worse would people be if they didn't have religion?

But maybe there would be a lot less hatred and misunderstanding if religion didn't divide people and incite them to violence?

It's not religion's fault if this happens, but people twist something good for their own selfish ends.

Finally, there are students who, not being believers, wonder why they should read a book they don't even believe in, about stories that never happened, and whose author doesn't exist.

Well, let's say you're right, says a student. Does something have to be true to be interesting? Don't these stories raise important questions that teach great moral lessons? Take Aesop's Fables. People in antiquity knew that animals don't talk, but they understood the point of these stories, and that even though they never happened, the lessons they teach are still relevant for teaching kids wisdom.

Another student reminds the class that they had just spent nine weeks on the Greeks, and that as freshmen they had learned about the Greek myths, the Greek gods and goddesses, and their roles in human affairs. But who believes in Zeus or the Greek myths today, yet we still study them because they're great stories with interesting things to say about human nature and life. They're part of our culture.

Well, it's the same with the Bible. Everybody should know these stories because they're so much a part of our culture. You have to know what they're about to be culturally literate, and you have to admit that you really can understand why people think and behave as they do from what we've been reading and discussing for the past several weeks.