Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Blog For Your Sabbath Day: Scripture as Literature

"How can you have any pudding if you don't--"
From time to time I've had the unique experience to interject the creation story into my English curriculum. Now, why I would do such a thing has nothing doing with a covert desire on my part to spread Christianity among my students. When I introduced the Judeo-Christian creation story to my students, invariably it wasn't the atheist, agnostic, Wiccan, gay-lesbian, transgender who--you might think--raised their voices in protest at having religion "shoved down their throats", thus violating the separation of church and state that I support. Au contraire, I have consistently found this batch rather open-minded and receptive when teaching them how to thinking than rather what to think. When presented as literature, we find the study of religious scripture an exciting intellectual venture in understanding human nature.

The blowback I'm alluding to came from the small contingent of Christians whose parents, upon hearing of my assignment, immediately went to DEFCON 2, flushed the bombers from their bullpens and lobbed a nuke or two at my teaching credentials. Their objections rested on how I bookended my study of the first few chapters of Genesis with other creations stories from Native American legends and other ancient literature. Somehow this constituted pulling down their God (and mine) to the level of fictional comic book characters. Before you could say "burned at the stake" I was assuaging the fears of my principal, and when the squawking was loud enough I did a little one on one with the superintendent. This has happened only twice in my short teaching career, but it illustrates how study of religious text in public schools is a touchy subject. Nonetheless, the study of the creation story in Genesis is a great way to teach kids how to read, particularly in the use of reading strategies. This should only be pulled off as part of a comparative lit unit along side the texts of other faiths. One thing to have angry Christians lined up at the high school office, another entirely when it's the ACLU.


Let's begin with authorship of Genesis. "Who wrote it?" Moses did, actually the first five books of the Old Testament. "Who is his intended audience?" The Israelites, or Hebrews. "What is the historical context behind these five books?" The Israelites' suffering as slaves under the ancient Egyptians and their escape and eventual settlement in a new homeland and establishment as a new nation. These three questions give students a framework in which to aim their literary inquiries. Paramount for any reading of non-fiction is to understand author's purpose.

Examine my three questions; did you see how I addressed it as literature? Had I discussed this at church, either in Gospel Essentials when I spend my second hour or in Elder's Quorum, I wouldn't address it as a library book but as revelations from Heavenly Father to Moses in leading his people out of darkness and back into the light, in preparing them to receive the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Naturally in teaching the Genesis creation story to my English students I can't help traipsing across the topic of God. No problem: simply examine the document with the objective to know what Moses the author is trying to teach his people, not God, and not us as the readers. I hold my students to this. I remind them of this point: What is Moses trying to teach his people? The topic of what God wants from us I deflect with, "Please keep that conversation outside this room."

Now, it is time to read, or rather what I call pre-reading. Take chapter one. First, we CHUNK-THE-TEXT. This helps students examine the document in smaller pieces instead of getting it all at once. I walk them through this before doing a full read-through.

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1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. [I'll have the students underline or circle this.]
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6 ¶And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. [Same here, and so forth with the others.]
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9 ¶And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
13 And the evening and the morning were the third day. [ditto]
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14 ¶And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:
15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.
16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day. [ditto]
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20 And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
21 And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
22 And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
23 And the evening and the morning were the fifth day. [ditto]
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24 ¶And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.
25 And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and cattle after their kind, and every thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
26 ¶And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
29 ¶And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.
31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day. [ditto]

When finished, my students have this chapter broken up into days, one through six, and in this manner students are more acclimatized to the text, which helps boost reader interest and understanding. But now that we know the WHAT, we want to know the WHY. My next step is to discuss why Moses, the author, has the creation of the world broken up into six days. Why six days? Why not all in one day? Or three? We talk about sequencing and look at each day and the steps taken to create the world. Can we have Day Six before Day One? Obviously not. To figure out the WHY of our inquiries we do a close-read or zoom-in on each chunk of the text, breaking down each one, using marking-the-text (highlighting/underlining) and annotation (note-taking).


9 ¶And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10 And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.
11 And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
12 And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
13 And the evening and the morning were the third day
[Right here I'll make some annotations, observations on what I've highlighted and underlined, about the repetition of God said, God called, God saw. I'll ask myself why is Moses writing in this dull way, like a children's book for really little kids.]

Good question. Why is Moses writing in this dull simplistic fashion? I remind my students of the author's audience and the historical context. He has written this story for the Israelites, who were slaves for hundreds of years and are now suddenly free. Why is he telling them the story of the world's creation? Don't they already know this story?

To know this we have to think outside the box and understand his audience: What's it like to be slaves? This brings some interesting discussions and the eventual conclusions that over time you lose your culture. Along the way, perhaps, the Israelites had lost a great deal of their religious culture under Egyptian rule. How much of their African heritage did the American slaves retain over the two hundred years prior to their emancipation? Some, would be a safe guess. The safe bet would be that most was lost or corrupted by prolonged exposure to the European culture of their slave masters. Is this why Moses the author writes the creation story in a repetitive simplistic manner? Is Moses reeducating his audience on who they are? Is he reteaching them about their god and the relationship between themselves and their god?

Go forth and find out. Enjoy your sabbath day.

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