From the Horses’ Mouths: 2013 Edition

Written by Brandon O'Brien on September 3rd, 2013

For the few years that I taught in the religion department at our local community college, I required students to write personal reflection papers consider how the subject matter might be relevant to their personal lives. I wrote a series of blog posts based on student responses to the prompts I assigned here, here, and here. This semester I’m doing the same thing. But this time I’m teaching primarily Christian students at a Christian institution (Ouachita Baptist University), and I’m teaching the Bible. For this first assignment, I asked them some questions about their familiarity with the Bible. Below are my questions along with my summary of their responses.

Tell me about your experience with the Bible to this point in your life.
About half of the students said that their primary exposure to the Bible was in church. They have heard the stories in sermons and Sunday school. Instead of hearing all the stories of the Bible in church, they tend to hear the same few stories over and over again. So they are fairly familiar with a handful of stories, but most of the Bible is relatively unfamiliar. In fact, many of them said that, for the most part, they have heard summaries of or lessons on the Bible more than they’ve engaged the Bible itself directly. 

Nearly all of them acknowledge that they ought to read the Bible devotionally but admit that it’s hard to make Bible reading a part of their daily life.

Have you ever read the Bible from beginning to end? How well would you say you know the stories of the Bible?
Out of 28 students, only one has read the entire Bible from cover to cover. A few said they’d probably read most of the Bible a piece at a time but never straight through. Most students said they know the New Testament better than they know the Old Testament. No surprise there. But a surprising number said that what they know best from the NT are the parables of Jesus.

Nearly all—even those who said they know most of the stories of the Bible—reported that they don’t understand how the stories fit together.

How well do you feel like you understand the Bible?
Here’s where responses got interesting (to me). The vast majority of students said that although they try to read the Bible faithfully, they struggle to understand what it means. Even the few who say that devotional reading is part of their daily routine seem to do it out of duty more than because they comprehend and, therefore, value what they read.

A couple of students offered insightful commentary on ministry: one pointed out that although her church leaders encouraged her and her peers to read the Bible, they never offered any guidance in how to read for comprehension or to truly study the Scriptures. Another said that he didn’t grow up in church and by the time he became a Christian as a young adult, his church leaders assumed he knew the stories of the Bible—so instead of teaching them, they simply referred to them. 

What do you most hope to get out of this class?
These students want to learn how to interpret the Bible. It struck me that many of them said they hope to learn enough that they can teach others how to read and understand the Bible. The students who feel like they weren’t properly equipped want to be able to equip others. That’s good news.


Writing Tip: Channel Rick Steves

Written by Brandon O'Brien on August 29th, 2013

Academic research is an expedition into unfamiliar territory. Propelled by instinct or educated guesses or the research of others, scholars strikeout in search of answers with great hope—but no guarantees—of finding them. This, for me, is the appeal of scholarship. At its best, scholarly research is like transcontinental exploration: We know the Pacific Ocean is that way. Find us the best route to the coast.

The promise of discovery is what makes scholarly research attractive to unscholarly readers. People like to hear the untold story, the behind-closed-doors conversations, the surprising history of familiar people or institutions. People are curious and will gladly follow an able guide on an intellectual adventure.

What kind of guide do they want?

They don’t want an expedition guide. As romantic as the notion of exploration may be, it requires great sacrifice. Many scholars expect their readers to make big sacrifices to make it through their research. Kiss your wife and child, set your affairs in order, and pack a lunch. We’re gonna be a while. Most nonspecialists, if they can’t see a clear path through the underbrush or aren’t sure their guide knows where she is going, will give up before they invest themselves too deeply. And who can blame them? The process is not nearly as important as the destination for most non-academic readers.

What most readers want is a tour guide. Someone who has made the journey and knows the way. Someone who can assure readers he knows where the journey ends and that it is well worth the time. Someone who is sensitive to the pace at which and the stamina with which most readers read—the way a good tour guide understands when travelers need to stop for a breather and a snack. In my opinion, there is no subject matter that is too weighty for a popular audience. If readers feel they are in the company of a sensitive guide, they will follow wherever you lead them.

My advice?

When you study, channel Meriwether Lewis. When you write, channel Rick Steves.


God and Grammar

Written by Brandon O'Brien on August 27th, 2013

This afternoon in class, we’ll spend an hour and fifteen minutes talking about Genesis 1 and 2. It is to my advantage that Genesis is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I could go for hours today.

It is to my distinct disadvantage, on the other hand, that this is one of those parts of the Bible that everyone is quite confident they know. Familiarity can be a liability when it comes to learning. If my students assume they know what I’m going to say before I say it, they are much more likely to tune me out. So my job, as I see it, is to make this familiar story strange enough that they can see it afresh.

One way I’ll do this is by trying to convince them that Genesis 1 and 2 are not ultimately about creation. Creation is the setting but not the subject. The subject is God himself, the Creator. I know this because grammar told me. “God” is the subject of nearly all the verbs in Genesis 1 especially:

“In the beginning God created”

“And God saw”

“Then God said”

“Then God rested”

A previous generation of Christians misinterpreted Genesis 1, especially, by insisting that it is a scientific explanation of the origin of the world. That the primary purpose of the chapter is to silence Darwin and his kin by undermining modern evolutionary theories about where we come from. This isn’t entirely wrong; the author of Genesis absolutely wants us to know that the earth exists and people inhabit it because God chose freely to create all things. We are no accident. Nevertheless, too often defenses of the creation account take the focus off God as its subject. People start talking about radiocarbon dating, the definition of yom (the Hebrew word translated “day” in Genesis 1), why 6,000-year-old rocks would look like they were billions of year old. And so on. More often than not, the subject of those conversations is the creation itself.

My generation makes a different but equally dangerous mistake. Many of us are less interested with trying to harmonize biblical and scientific accounts of the beginning than our parents and grandparents were. Instead we talk more about what the creation story means in practical terms. And for many of us that translates into a concern for creation care. We recycle, eat sustainable and local foods, use cloth diapers, bike to work, or whatever because we feel responsible to be good stewards of God’s good creation. Unfortunately, we are just as likely to make creation itself the subject of our conversations: “Creation is good.”

We are right to insist that the earth and everything in it exists by design and not by chance. And we are right to ask, in light of that fact, how we ought to treat the planet. But I hope I can help my students see today that if we set these issues aside for a moment, the grammar tells us God is the subject of the story. The author wants us to be preoccupied with his character and not his creation.


Flannery O’Connor on Gift and Vocation

Written by Brandon O'Brien on August 21st, 2013

[A] vocation is a limiting factor which extends even to the kind of material that the writer is able to apprehend imaginatively. The writer can choose what he writes about but he cannot choose what he is able to make live … . The Christian writer particularly will feel that whatever his initial gift is, it comes from God; and no matter how minor a gift it is, he will not be willing to destroy it by trying to use it outside its proper limits.

Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”


The Student Becomes the Teacher

Written by Brandon O'Brien on August 20th, 2013

Today I begin teaching a class that I took as a student—in this very same classroom—thirteen years ago. There’s something surreal about this situation, and I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on what it is exactly. But I’ve figured it out.

It’s not my first time to teach a college class. I’ve been doing my best to mold impressionable young minds for the last three years at a community college in Chicagoland. I’m more or less over the first-day jitters. It is my first time to teach as a PhD. And you can bet your sweet bippy I’ll insist on being called “Dr. O’Brien.” But that’s not it either.

What strikes me is that when I entered this classroom thirteen years ago, my primary responsibility was to ask questions. Today these kids expect me to have answers. Then my job was to deconstruct misperceptions, challenge inherited interpretations, question everything. (It’s like the French Revolution, south Arkansas edition.) And, sure, an important part of what I’ll do this semester is ask students to follow me into new territory as we leave behind misinterpretations and misinformation. But my goal is constructive, not destructive. Thirteen years ago I questioned everything with very little caution for where I might end up. Hopefully this semester, as I pass through this course a second time, my questions will to dry land.

I guess what I mean is that this time around I’m accountable to thirty-something young Christians who trust me to be responsible with their faith (and whose parents are praying that I’ll be responsible with their faith). I don’t have the luxury of pondering and speculating out loud, consequences be damned.

Make no mistake—I’ll ask hard questions. And I sure hope they do too. (I love questions!) I’m eager to push them and pull them and, if need be, drag them through this sixteen-week survey of the Bible. But I’m humbled by the weight of what’s going on in these discussions.

So this is what it’s like to be a grown up?