Ethos Education

The Good Book: How do Christians attempt to understand and interpret the Bible?

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Learning Objectives:

  • Awareness of different Christian beliefs about the authority, inspiration and interpretation of the Bible.
  • Understanding of the concept of God revealing himself through scripture.

Learning Outcomes:

  • Students will create their own four-word film reviews for films of their choice.
  • Reflect upon A. C. Grayling’s attempt to sum up secular learning and evaluate the merits of creating an atheistic rival to the Christian Bible.
  • Reflect upon examples of the Bible being misused to exert influence that is contrary to good Christian teaching.
  • Evaluate three different approaches to the Bible, identifying strengths and weaknesses for each.
  • Analyse three excerpts from published Bible commentaries, identifying which approach each represents.
  • Synthesise a discussion between three Christians, each defending a different approach to reading the Bible and critiquing the approaches of the other participants in the discussion.

STARTER:

Introduce the students to the concept of four-word film reviews, as practiced on the website www.fwfr.com. The challenge is to sum up a film in just four words. Give some examples to the students, then challenge them to come up with some reviews of their own. You can either find reviews that you particularly like by browsing the Four Word Film Reviews website, or use the ones below.

Lord of the Rings: Short hero, long movies

The King’s Speech: The King and I-I-I-I-I

The Social Network: The faces behind Facebook

Ask the students how easy they found it to sum up a whole film in such a short phrase. What are the difficulties of summing up large amounts of thought, action and theme?

Explain that the reason you are thinking about the difficulties of summing things up is that philosopher A. C. Grayling has published his attempt to sum up the collected secular wisdom of human civilisation, excluding any references to gods, souls or afterlives and resulting in a self-styled ‘atheists’ Bible’.

MAIN ACTIVITIES:

Give out copies of the news report about A. C. Grayling’s book The Good Book. You can find the report at http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9446000/9446028.stm

Ask the students what they think of the idea of an atheists’ Bible. To what extent do they believe that such a book could be put on level terms with the actual Bible?

Ask the students to summarise what Grayling sees as the difference between his book and the Christian Bible. Draw out that Grayling sees the Bible as a book which presents ‘one great truth and one right way to live’, while he regards his book as providing tools to encourage people to find their own ‘right way to live’. You might like to refer students to a quote from Grayling in a Daily Telegraph article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8428011/The-Good-Book-cant-be-bettered.html):

‘The humanistic view of ethics is that no one is in a position to tell others how to live. You can give advice, and exhort them to think about their moral lives, but not in a goody-two-shoes, Mary Whitehouse way.’

This article also offers a dissenting view to Grayling from a non-Christian source. Author Jeanette Winterson has this to say on Grayling’s book:

‘I do not think the inner life edited by A. C. Grayling is how I want to live.’

‘I do not believe in a sky god but the religious impulse in us is more than primitive superstition. We are meaning-seeking creatures and materialism plus good works and good behaviour does not seem to be enough to provide meaning. We shall have to go on asking questions but I would rather that philosophers like Grayling asked them without the formula of answers.’

Jeanette Winterson goes on to describe the Bible as ‘a remarkable book’ which she will ‘go on reading’. In her fiction, Winterson has been critical of what she sees as its limitations and the abuses of it that organised religion has enacted. To what extent do the students think that the Bible is vulnerable to misinterpretation or misused as a means to manipulate other people? Can the students think of any instances of the Bible being used to justify things that most Christians would agree are wrong and are not supported by the Bible? Possible examples from history might include the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, or the way some Afrikaner churches in South Africa made a theological case for supporting apartheid. In the latter example, it is worth pointing out that a great many Christian churches were unequivocal in their opposition to apartheid.

Give out the Approaches to the Bible worksheet and go through the summaries of three different approaches to understanding the Bible with the students. It is worth pointing out that these summaries are very broad. While most Christians would probably lean towards one or another of them, there may well be areas of overlap between the different approaches. Ask the students to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Encourage good note-taking during this stage of the lesson, as the strengths and weaknesses will provide an important element in the assessment activity later in the lesson. Possible answers might include the following:

Literal approach:

Strengths:

  • Presents a clear basis for engaging with the Bible as a moral framework for living.
  • Not dependent on subjective personal interpretation.
  • Provides strong sense of security for those who adhere to it.

Weaknesses / criticisms:

  • Potentially fragile – if one demonstrable inconsistency is found, confidence in the Bible as a whole may be shattered.
  • The approach is often applied inconsistently, for example, Christians who don’t follow certain Old Testament rules and practices.
  • Some critics say that a literalist approach misses the original intention of the Bible writers in some cases.

Evangelical approach:

Strengths:

  • Recognises that the Bible needs understanding and interpretation.
  • Allows people to engage intellectually with the Bible as well as emotionally.
  • New scientific discoveries can be incorporated into a biblical understanding, rather than being rejected out of hand.
  • Emphasis on the Bible’s authority as the inspired word of God puts the life of the Christian under the scrutiny of the Bible’s teaching.

Weaknesses / criticisms:

  • Can lead to differences in belief and practice among different Christians.
  • There are differences of opinion about which biblical instructions are universal (applying to everyone at every time, and to be followed in the same way by all people) and which are cultural (a specific instruction for a particular set of circumstances, offering a principle to be applied differently in other cultural contexts).

Liberal approach:

Strengths:

  • Provides great freedom of interpretation to individuals.
  • Errors or inconsistencies are not problematic, as the liberal theologian can simply dismiss them as human error on the part of the writer.
  • No conflict between faith and reason in the case of Bible stories with a supernatural element that some find hard to believe really happened.
  • Disagreement over interpretation is less likely to lead to division within the liberal church.

Weaknesses / criticisms:

  • The Bible has no authority, meaning it ceases to be an effective instrument of teaching and discipline within the Christian community.
  • Encourages people to pick and choose which bits of the Bible they want, cherry-picking the easier instructions and ignoring the more challenging demands.
  • Readers are under no sense of obligation to change any part of their life which goes against biblical instruction.
  • Prone to eisegesis (the reader imposes his or her own ideas onto the text, rather than seeking to determine the original intended meaning of the writer).
  • Hugely subjective approach to the Bible.

What do the students think of the three approaches? Do they regard one as being better than the others? Is one worse than the others? Which do they think would be most helpful for Christians? Which most prone to misuse?

Give out the Commentaries worksheets and ask the students to read the short excerpts of Bible commentary. For each commentary, the students should identify which of the three approaches is reflected in it. For your reference, excerpt A is an example of a literal approach, excerpt B of a liberal approach and excerpt C represents an evangelical approach.

SUMMARY AND ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING:

Ask the students to write a discussion between three Christians, one representing each of the three broad approaches to the Bible. The discussion should see the three discussing one another’s handling of the Bible, addressing what each one would see as the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s approach.

YOU WILL NEED:

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