Designing Courses: the Bible and Literature

One of the few fun things about being on the job market is that, in preparation for interviews, I need to start thinking about all the different courses I might want to teach at different schools.  All these schools have slightly different course descriptions: will the Renaissance survey be one course, covering from 1485 to 1660, or two, one focused on the sixteenth century and the other on the seventeenth? Or will it break into two along formal lines, with one course focused on poetry and prose, and the other on drama?  Will the Brit Lit Survey break into two around 1798/1800, or will it split into three with the breaks at 1616 and 1832? Will the school not even have literature surveys based in time periods and nations, but instead have Introductions to each of the forms: Introduction to Poetry, Introduction to Fiction, and Introduction to Drama?  Or will there even be an Introduction to Literature course, which is expected to introduce students to all three?

There are specialist courses, the classes that you use to answer the interview question, “What would be your dream course?”  For me, these might be classes in Milton, Shakespeare and popular culture, the Metaphysical poets, early modern martyrdom, or book history.

And then there are the other sorts of classes that I would love to teach occasionally if they were available, but aren’t directly in my field: Religion and Literature. The Bible as Literature. Speculative Fiction.

All of this is a meandering discussion to get to what I’ve been working on (on and off for the last few weeks).  For most of these courses, except in the last category, I already had syllabi put together for last year’s job market.  I may need to tweak a few to fit different schools’ schedules (oh, you’re on a 10 week quarter system instead of a 16 week semester?) or course descriptions, but mostly, they’re done. But, to give myself something to do that will keep me from panicking about the state of the job market and the fact that I’ve only got one MLA interview so far and it’s not even for a TT position (imagine saying all of that in one breath), I’m putting together some syllabi for a few of these other courses.

Right now, the syllabus I’m most pleased with is for the Bible and Literature.  Now, different schools have very different approaches to teaching the Bible and Literature just like they do with Renaissance or survey courses: there’s the Bible as literature, the Bible in literature, and the more ambiguous Bible and Literature.  The Bible as literature focuses on the Bible’s literary forms and genres, and how to interpret the Bible as a literary (rather than strictly historical or religious) text. Sometimes, though not usually, it involves looking at how modern literary theories (such as post-colonial or gender theory) can be applied to Biblical texts.  The Bible in Literature, on the other hand, examines the Bible’s influence on things we more usually understand as literature, from the influence of Christianity on the Beowulf poet up through Flannery O’Connor.  The Bible and literature can potentially mean any or all three of things I’ve mentioned (and probably a few things I’ve forgotten to mention).

I think my own approach, by preference at least, will be the combined model. I think students need to understand the literary qualities of biblical texts, but I also am very interested in how these biblical texts get used in texts we more immediately think of as literature. After all, the adaptation of Biblical texts–the parodic rewritings in Chaucer and the Wakefield Master, and Milton and Herbert’s quite serious adaptations–were what drew me to graduate school in the first place.

So, I’ve decided on a three-pronged approach to teaching the Bible and Literature:

  1. The Bible isn’t a prong so much as the handle, I suppose.  I want to give students a smattering of everything, but we’ll focus on the elements that get most used and referenced in our culture.  For Hebrew Bible narratives, we’ll focus on the Creation/Fall, Abraham and Isaac, the Exodus, Saul and David, Job, Daniel, and Esther. We’ll also spend a fair bit of time on the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah. For New Testament narrative, we’ll read all of Luke and John, a big chunks of of Acts of the Apostles and Revelation. For epistles, we’ll read Paul’s letter to the Romans, as well as the book of James. And we’ll do the book of Judith from the Apocrypha, as well.
  2. So, the first prong will really be contextualizing materials, primarily in the form of essays on literary form, on biblical and near-east cultures and religion, on Hebrew and Christian interpretive methods, etc. Most of the essays I’m drawing from would be in the Oxford Study Bible, but some will be from other sources.
  3. The second prong will be literary theory: there are several really great resources (such as The Post-Modern Bible and The Post-Modern Bible Reader) that explore how post-modern literary theory has been applied to biblical texts.  We won’t use such readings with every text, but I’m planning on using Robert Warrior’s “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” with a short bit from Joshua, Mieke Bal’s “Lots of Writing” with Esther, Terry Eagleton’s “J.L. Austin and the Book of Jonah,” and Hillis Miller’s “Parables in the Gospels and in Literature.”
  4. The third prong will be literary adaptations: for most texts, we’ll engage with several short literary or artistic adaptations of the texts. Limiting myself to adaptations rather than simply allusion makes it much easier to choose which texts we’ll be reading.  For the Creation and Fall, for example, we’ll read short selections from Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, and Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. We’ll read Wyatt’s Penintential Psalms as the bridge between our David section and the Psalms.  We’ll listen to Handel’s Messiah when we get to Isaiah, and look at Renaissance art when we deal with Judith (why were 16th/17th century artists obsessed with the beheading of Holofernes?).  We’ll read The Second Shepherd’s Play when we do the Nativity from Luke, and watch The Passion of the Christ when we get to the Crucifixion.The assignment that goes with this part of the course is where I get most excited: I’m imagining a five-minute student presentation on a piece of art–a song, a statue, a painting–that was inspired by or adapts the text we’re reading for the day. A good friend got me started thinking of all the different songs I could suggest to students: Metallica’s “Creeping Death” for Exodus, Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” for the Gospels, The Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” for Ecclesiastes, etc.
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2 comments on “Designing Courses: the Bible and Literature

  1. Dr. Virago says:

    This sounds like a great class. Can I come sit in on it? 🙂

    I don’t know why the 16th and 17th centuries were obsessed with Judith, but did you know there’s an Old English poem of Judith? It’s in the Beowulf manuscript (right after Beowulf) and its Judith is pretty bad-ass. She’s still beautiful and seductive, but she’s also shaped in the same vein as just about any OE hero. It’s not terribly long if you feel like using it *with* the paintings. (Klimt did a Judith, too — I often bring that into class when I’m teaching the OE Judith.) But you probably know all that.

    And speaking of Old English, you know what might be better than The Passion of the Christ for the Crucifixion? (Of course, you may be wedded to The Passion, whereas I get mad at it every time I think about it.) How about the OE “Dream of the Rood” with Christ as warrior doing battle with death and the cross as his thane, obliged to “help” and yet therefore to kill his own lord? Or, if you want a different take on medieval drama (although yay for the Second Shepherds’ play!), you could do the York Crucifixion play, which depicts the soldiers as ordinary medieval/early modern workers trying to get a job over with and does cool things with visual perspective and meaning (Christ is prone most of the time, and therefore likely not visible to most of the audience until the cross is raised).

    Ignore me if you think these are terrible suggestions. I *do* want to take your class, so hopefully hiring committees will the think the same and hire you! Good luck!

    • Sapience says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, Dr. Virago! They’re not terrible at all. I had thought about the OE Judith, but was waffling on whether or not to include it. You may have just pushed me into it.

      As for the Crucifixion: I wasn’t listing everything I was doing in this post–Dream of the Rood is definitely in there for the crucifixion, and I thought about doing the York Crucifixion as well (the medieval mystery plays are near and dear to my heart). But I decided I also wanted a modern version of the crucifixion, and I think The Passion of the Christ raises a lot of really interesting problems concerning how and why we adapt Biblical texts today. The choice of Aramaic for the language is fascinating, because while it’s historically what was spoken, everything we have in the Gospels was in Greek, so choosing to highlight the original language indicates a (probably latent) awareness that the Bible is already a form of adaptation. It also draws on a lot of Catholic art for mis-en-scene, which means there’s another level of adaptation there. And I do want a few adaptations that are controversial.

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