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The Historical Jesus, offended students, and post-modernism

While everyone undoubtedly has a number of classroom moments they’d rather forget from his or her first year of teaching, I have one that particularly stands out, not only because my topic du jour created an epic train wreck in one class, but also because that immense failure led me to what I felt was a rather successful adjustment–one that I think could now be even further enhanced through the various forms of social media.

One of the things that’s most enjoyable about teaching World History is having the opportunity to explain and discuss various belief systems/religions and understand their origins within each’s historical context. While students have little trouble with this for, say, Zoroastrianism, which isn’t too frequently practiced in Fort Worth, TX, having the discussion around Christianity raises slightly different issues.

In assembling my readings and discussion of Christianity’s origins during my first year teaching the course, I stumbled across PBS’ “From Jesus to Christ” Frontline program, the website for which has a number of good resources and interesting readings. Considering that I was teaching a history course, I selected some excerpts from historians, archaeologists, theologians, and others that were grouped on a page entitled “Jesus’ Many Faces.”

While I found many of these readings really fascinating, as they touched on issues of how history is constructed, how individuals reconcile faith-driven beliefs from their professional quest for objectivity, and how scholars approach apochryphal texts, in retrospect I did a decidely bad job of previewing these concepts for the students before asking them to launch into their reading. Although many students actively read this text with great energy and enthusiasm, which I initially thought encouraging, once we embarked on our review of the text I quickly realized that a few of the students perceived the reading as being an indictment of their religious beliefs. (I heretofore had no idea about how much fury any discussion of the Gospel of Thomas could generate. In fact, I don’t think I knew what the Gospel of Thomas was. I’ll chalk that one up to having dropped out of Hebrew school in 7th grade, or maybe having attended Hebrew school in the first place.) Needless to say, this was not the end result I aimed for in assigning this reading.

Unfortunately, I was unable to diffuse much of this tension because I had not fully grasped why I found the reading so interesting. Therefore, I found myself unable to articulate the way in which the reading revealed the constructed nature of history and and the role played by the historian and his or her contemporary historical moment in actively shaping the past. Certainly, my Historical Theory and Methods class in grad school helped me solidify my grasp of these issues and learn to articulate them much more clearly. Thanks, Dr. Morris!

While I ruminated on this botched class over my PB&J that lunch period, I had a stroke of brilliance which is that I should get the students to prove to themselves that not all people experience or write about historical events in the same way–thereby revelaing the fundamental subjectivity of history and the critical role of the historian in this process.

So, in the next class period after lunch instead of having the students launch right into the reading about the historical contructedness of Jesus I decided the throw them a curveball and tell them that they had four minutes to do whatever they wanted, but to at least pay attention to what was going on around them.

Unsurprisingly, the students found this slightly disconcerting as they were not used to being given unstructured time, and as a result of their amateur game theorizing, most concluded that I had cooked up some nefarious pop quiz, so the best use of their time would be to study frantically.

After those four minutes had passed, however, I told them to now write down their observations of what happened, type them up that night, and send them to me via email. While I spent the rest of the class period that day dealing with some other undoubtedly brilliant topic, that night and the next morning I compiled all their responses on one sheet of paper (a sort of chronicle of those four minutes), printed them off, and used them as the lead in to the reading on Jesus the next day.

As I’ve done this activity over the years, I’ve found that students really enjoyed the chance to read the historical accounts of their classmates in other periods. In fact, perhaps most entertaining for them was trying to guess the authorship of each account and figure out which person had said or done something outlandish in another class.

While gaining a glimpse into their friends’ hijinks in other classes was entertaining, more importantly, the students immediately saw how many of the accounts differed markedly from one another. This observation helped them grasp the fact that even within a four minute time-span, one can nevertheless get very different versions of the same event. Seeing this manifestation of subjectivity on such a microcosmic scale helped frame the reading about the historical Jesus for them. As a result, the students then understood that text as being about the craft of history rather than the veracity of the Trinity, which made reading and discussing it a collectively valuable, (rather than a hostile), experience.

Perhaps because I’ve always been proud of the way in which I managed to make this rather abstract concept accessible to students, I often reflect on it when thinking of ways to cover material in more innovative ways. It seems that this lesson in particular–and perhaps many others that I have–would be greatly enhanced by the incorporation of social media.

In this context, I see a natural and smooth carry-over to having the students post their own chronicles of what occurred in class on their blogs, and then having students read one another’s versions of what occurred. After surveying a number they deemed “sufficient” (a concept which in and of itself sparks a fair amount of discussion and reflection on how historians employ and derive “truth” from primary sources–ah, an entree to epistemography!), students would then write a definitive version of events, drawing from their classmates’ writings and incorporating those into their newly synthetic secondary source.

As a natural follow-up to their syntheses, students would then post a reflection on the process that they underwent to generate their “history” of those four minutes in class. Rather than having dictated for them how historians should write about the past, the students would be given the opportunity to explore for themselves how to write history. This type of small-scale assignment with built-in opportunities for reflection strikes me as much more accessible and less intimidating than the dreaded “essay” or “research paper,” both of which tend to carry with them very negative connotations for students.

Well, that seems to be enough for today. It is amazing what one can generate when one’s flight is delayed for 2:40 and therefore essentially held hostage in the DFW Airport (me, not the flight. Was that a misplaced modifier? If so, my sincerest grammatical apologies.)

Until next time! Maybe then I’ll write about how I manage to use Wham’s hit single “Careless Whisper” and Bowling for Soup’s (not quite as hit) single “1985” to teach the fundamental diference between primary and secondary sources.

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