Teaching the tough stuff.

No other topic raises the eye brows of my students more than the idea that the world is only thousands of years old. Most of my students are not evangelical Christians, and they don’t know that about forty percent of the US population are young-earth creationists. Why would they? No public school teacher has taken the time to teach them this information! Needless to say, many of them are shocked to learn that some of their peers reject the science they have been taught since first grade, a science that says dinosaurs are millions of years old, not thousands of years old.

To explain this, and to illustrate to my students how some Christians view human history, I show them an intricate timeline of history that begins with Adam and Eve, a timeline used by a large number of evangelical churches and colleges. In the below photo some of my students are holding the timeline.

Nearly all of my students are aware of the Adam and Eve story. And my students who do not read the Bible literally are aware that some do read it as actual history. However, what they do not know is how Biblical literalists arrive at a creation date of 4004 B.C.

At this point in the discussion I tell them about Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656). Ussher calculated that the first day of creation was on Sunday October 23, 4004 B.C. He also concluded that Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden on Monday November 10, 4004 B.C. Usually at this point in the conversation many of my students become horribly confused and want to know why people subscribe to this kind of thinking. They want to know why so many people totally reject some of the most basic principles in science in favor of a Biblical interpretation of history and the origin of life.

And, at this point, the conversation becomes… well, interesting to say the least. But, in the end, my students come away with a better understanding of the issues. If nothing else, they better understand how religion is playing into the modern day “culture war,” a war I want my students to understand. True, this can be a tough topic to cover in a public school. But as long as a teacher can keep emotion and his or her own bias out of the discussion, and objectively guide students through the arguments (on BOTH sides), it can be done. And, I would argue, it should be done!

Introducing my students to the “culture war.”

Since 911 the below image and words “IMAGINE NO RELIGION” have become popular among atheists trying to discredit religion. The message is clear: without religion there would have been no attack against the United States on September 11, 2001.

Culturally speaking, the popularity of this message is indicative of a growing “culture war” between secular liberals and religious conservatives, a war that has been escalating in America for a hundred years, a war I want my students to understand. Can you say Scopes Monkey Trial,1925?

The assumption that the Twin Towers would still be standing if religion did not exist is horribly flawed and completely ignores history. The idea that religion was solely behind the attacks of 911 makes about as much sense as saying Shintoism was responsible for the attack on Pearl Harbor – I truly doubt if anyone during World War II would have taken the below message seriously.

Many of my students think the above message, the one showing the Twin Towers in New York City, would be more accurate if “RELIGION” was changed to “ISLAM.” This is understandable as it is unfortunate. It is understandable because my kids know almost nothing about the history of American foreign policy in the Mideast. Nor do they understand how US foreign policy has outraged many Arab/Muslim people for over sixty years, rage that was hurled at us by extremists in the attacks of 911 – so it is understandable why my students think the way they do. It is also unfortunate. It is unfortunate because they are not seeing the larger picture. Some students have formulated narrow-minded opinions that say all Muslims are inclined to violence, a notion I work hard to dispel (see my post “When shit happens take a hostage? Teaching students about Islamic terrorism”).

Religion can certainly play a role in aggression, but as I tell my students, there are many reasons aside from religion that can fuel violence: bigotry, fear, nationalism, greed for power and raw materials, ideology, and racism (to name just a few). An example I use in class is Joseph Stalin. Stalin was an atheist, and his non-beliefs certainly did not stop him from invading Poland in 1939, nor did it hold him back from killing millions of his own people. He was clearly a militant non-religious/atheist butcher! His crimes against humanity are clear evidence that religion is not a necessary prerequisite for committing atrocities, but nor is atheism.

Today’s children have been born into a culture war that is producing increased levels of animosity between all things religious and all things secular, and neither side is willing to shy away from negative campaigning. And, like any viciously fought smear campaign, the public is often left not knowing who to trust and believe. Teenagers are especially lost, and they struggle to make sense out of heavily biased arguments that depict religion as potentially violent and atheism as passive, or vice versa. Needless to say, the culture war is confusing to them. It is confusing, in part, because public schools are not helping them separate appearance from reality in areas of religion.

As an educator I want my students to understand the culture they live in, and it is one of the main reasons why I decided to offer a class that critically examines religion. No student should leave high school and not be able to intelligently and critically interpret the above cartoon. As an instructor in public education I am committed to the secular approach, and I am personally in favor of it. But this does not mean that I am in favor of attacking religion. Nor do I see any reason to belittle religion. As a secular teacher I simply try to dissect it, understand it, and teach it to my students as objectively as possible. Is there really any harm in this? My critics say there is, but I will always disagree.

If schools are serious about preparing students for the real world, and if they want students to participate intelligently in current issues and discussions, they must start helping kids critically examine religion. It can be done! I have been doing it for nearly seventeen years, and I am utterly surprised and concerned that more high schools are not seriously teaching kids about religion.

Unraveling parts of the Bible with my students.

One of the more controversial things I do in class is help my students understand that “acts of God” and supernatural events in the Bible (and other holy books) might have natural explanations, explanations that were unavailable and unimaginable to people in ancient times. To teach this concept I use two examples: demon possessions, and the event of the Nile River turning into blood, as described in the Exodus story. I will first address the issue of demon possessions.

Given the total lack of medical and scientific knowledge during Biblical times, it is easy to understand why and how people back then may have confused epileptic seizures for demon possessions. Literally speaking, it was the best explanation they could come up with.

Many of my students believe in demon possessions, but most do not. But they all agree that a paramedic kit is more important to have around than an exorcist kit. And they all agree they would first call 911 and seek medical assistance before calling a priest to perform and exorcism.

By suggesting to my students that demon possessions (as described in the Bible) could have been seizures I have put myself at odds with some conservative Christian parents and pastors. Consequently, I have been accused of calling into question the “truthfulness” of the Bible in my classroom, an accusation that fueled threats of lawsuits against me and the school district back in 1996. Over the years I have made it very clear to my critics and students that I am not calling into question the “legitimacy” of Bible, but rather the ability of people two thousand years ago – who had absolutely no modern-day understanding of the material world – to scientifically understand and explain natural phenomena.

Another example that I bring to the attention of my students is the story of God turning the Nile River into blood, the first plague on Egypt sent by God to force Pharaoh into emancipating the Hebrew slaves. Most of my students are aware of the story, but most are not aware that rivers, lakes, and streams often turn brilliant red. Red algae or suspended sediments can turn water red, it is a natural phenomenon. Is this what really happened in Egypt during biblical times? This is a question I expect my students to seriously consider.

The below photos are some recent examples of water during blood-red. The first one is a lake in Australia, the next is the Yangtze River in China, and the bottom one is a small stream in Texas.

I tell my students it is easy to understand how people in the ancient world may have seen water, as pictured in the above photos, as “blood” and an “act of God.” However, for people who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, this kind of challenging-a-student-to-think approach is an attack on the Bible and God. I disagree. To ignore the possibility, to “shelter” students from discussions about how some natural events were completely misunderstood by the people in biblical times who wrote about them, is to deny students an opportunity to gain new insights into the Bible and the people who wrote it. Your thoughts? I would love to hear them.

A great cartoon for classroom discussion, or too ‘inappropriate’?

Political cartoons can be very funny. However, their main purpose is not to amuse, but rather to provoke thinking and contemplation about an issue.

I recently came across this cartoon. My plan is to have my students try to identify the bias (if any) and the ”message” the cartoonist is attempting to communicate. My students will be expected to write a short essay. My hope is to generate some discussions – where those discussions might go, I have no idea. However, in the mean time, feel free to throw in your two cents. I would love to hear what you think about this activity and the discussions and debates that this cartoon might spark. A good thing, a bad thing?

Mormon vs. Christian and the debate over biblical metaphors.

Imagine driving by a furniture store and seeing a large sign in the window that reads, “We stand behind our furniture for ninety days!” Now imagine reading the sign literally. What would you conclude? Personally, I would be a little freaked out. I mean seriously, who are these people? And why the hell do they stand behind their furniture for three months? How could this possibly benefit anyone!? WEIRD!

Welcome to the wacky and confusing world of metaphorical language. So, let’s “go down the rabbit’s hole” and “get this party started.” See my point?

Metaphors are common and widespread, and children learn about them in school. But most of my students are totally unaware of the scholarly discussions and debates about biblical metaphors. Most assume the Bible is to be read literally, and some are completely “in the dark” when it comes to even knowing what a metaphor is, let alone a metaphorical story.

To help them understand metaphorical stories I use Beauty and the Beast as an example. This story – one all my students are familiar with – is about an egotistical, cruel, and selfish prince; a young man so mean-spirited he is beast-like. But rather than say he is “like a beast,” the author depicts him as an actual beast, a beast so insensitive that he treats his servants as “objects” rather than human beings. Hence, his servants are literally objects.

Beauty and the Beast is a great metaphorical story. And in the end, love transforms the beast into a beautiful young man. And with his “resurrection,” the servants become human and are no longer treated as objects by the prince. The spell is broken. Love, symbolized in the rose, changed everything.

Discussions about fairy tale metaphors do not evoke much controversy, but biblical discussions do, especially in my classroom. In recent years many biblical scholars have suggested that some of the most sacred stories in the Bible are metaphors, and were never meant to be taken literally.

I make it very clear to my students that I cannot tell them what stories are to be read literally and what stories are to be read metaphorically. I do, however, draw their attention to scholarly arguments. One academic debate that I focus on deals with the resurrection of Jesus, and I use the below images to initiate discussion.

The above story in Newsweek deals with a contemporary debate among scholars regarding the risen Christ. Some scholars are suggesting that the Easter story is entirely metaphorical, and was never meant to be taken literally. Rather, it was meant to explain (metaphorically) how the Christian movement did not end when Jesus died. In other words, Jesus was the embodiment of ideas, and the “body” of those ideas “rose from the grave” and “lived on.”

Usually at this point in the discussion one or more of my Christian students jump in and say, “Christians believe in the literal interpretation.” “True,” I tell them, “but not all do.” I then share with them a significant national survey that was conducted in 1982 by the sociologist Jeffery Hayden(see my post “A stop-and-think-survey” for the entire story). Hayden sent out a survey to ten thousand mainstream Protestant ministers and pastors. He asked them if they believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus(among other questions). Fifty-one percent of Methodist ministers said “no,” thirty-five percent of United Presbyterian ministers said “no,” and thirty percent of Episcopalian priests said “no.” Conclusion: not all Christians accept a literal reading of the Bible. And I want my students to understand this.

Another example of metaphorical language in the Bible that is prone to debate and interpretation is in the Garden of Eden story. In the story, immediately after Adam and Eve disobey God and eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the narrator writes, “and their eyes were opened.” My students conclude that this passage must be a metaphorical statement, and even my kids who read the Bible literally are forced to agree. Here is where it gets fun.

I then ask them to compare the metaphorical connotations of having your “eyes open” with having your “eyes closed.” They all agree that living with “eyes shut” is to be “blind,” to “live in darkness,” and to be ignorant, naive, and unable to “see things correctly.” My students start to realize that the disobedience in the garden can logically be interpreted as a noble rather than sinful act, an interpretation my conservative Christian students find offensive. At this point I tell them that Mormons celebrate Adam and Eve’s act of disobedience, and I show them the following passage from the Book of Mormon.

“And now, behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the Garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who oweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:22-25).

So… why do I teach this information to my students? I teach it because I want my students to understand that there are disagreements, ongoing debates, and divisions in every religion. I want them to know that it is sometimes difficult to extract “exact meaning” from holy books. And, more importantly, I want them to learn to be skilled and comfortable with critically examining religion and issues of faith (or lack of), be it their own or that of others.