Rhetoric, Critical Thinking, and The Bible

In one of my classes, the students are required to write a pursuasive essay. In our class, I decided to have the students read and write about “the future.” As I have written here previously, we read the dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, read various essays on the (possible) future, and viewed multi-media pieces on the same subject. As our textbook tells us, “Everything is an Argument” which leaves plenty of room to play and analyze the rhetoric used to make arguments about the future.

The final essay was the culmination of all of our work on rhetoric, research, and imagining the future. I was quite impressed with the results I received from my students. They were mostly thoughful, well researched, if a bit on the depressing side (not very many happy pictures of our future). Certainly there were some that were unfocused, others that were poorly researched; over-all, however, I was quite happy with my students` work. But there was one essay that gave me pause.

One student chose to write about how we are currently witnessing the End of Days as desccibed in the Bible. The student went on to very logically and meticulously show all of the ways our world currently resembles what is “fortold” in the Bible. Rhetorically, it was very pursuasive. The Bible says this, our world looks like this, therefore we are at The End of Days. On the basis of the research the student had done and the rhetorical strategies the student employed, this was a strong B or even A paper (give or take some grammatical issues). But, what to do, how to evaluate, the “reliability” of the Bible as a source?

Adding to the complexity of the issue, the student in fact had done much the same thing in an assignment I had devised, asking them to compare our world to the world imagined/fortold in Fahrenheit 451. By the end of the essay, the students had come to various conclusions about how similar our world is to Bradbury`s imaginary world and what that could mean, what lessons we should be taking from that comparison. How is Bradbury`s fictional world (as a source) any different from the Bible`s vision of the future?

Please don`t think that I am so naive that I don`t know the answer to that question already. But, I teach in a place where the Bible is still an important document that many of my students (and their families and communities) revere. And I know that others react with a quick dismissal of any student who would quote the Bible or any religious text as a sign that the student has shown no critical thinking or even, perhaps, doesn’t deserves to be in university. And this is where the conflict, for me, comes to head. The difference, of course, is in how we know the students treat the two works: the Bible as fact and Fahrenheit 451 as fiction. If the student didn`t actually believe the Bible but instead treated it as a work of fiction, would the final product thus be more worthy? And how am I to know, one way or the other, what the student believes? It certainly, for me, isn`t my place to judge a student`s faith or beliefs. But I know there are people who would expect me to fail or at least grade the student more harshly based on the fact that, for them, the Bible is a reliable source.

I am particularly troubled because I know that this is generally a good student; they do the work, they make a real effort, and has shown great improvement. And the work the student did was good; knowing that the Bible is a contentious document, the student really did go out of their way to outline as many similarities as possible. Not to mention that every other source the student used was a “legitimate” source as we discussed in class. But I also know that this student`s essay is going to be read by my colleagues (anonymously) for our general education/student learning outcomes requirement. And while this student will never know the things that I know will be said about her/his paper, it stings me nonetheless. And I also know that my colleagues will wonder what grade this student received on the paper. They`ll never know, but I know they`d be troubled to learn that it is probably a much better grade than they hoped.

So I`m going to ask for this advice. What can I or should I do in these situations?

7 Comments on Rhetoric, Critical Thinking, and The Bible

  1. Dr. Davis says:

    Based on what you have said here, I would give the paper a good grade. I specifically allow the use of the Bible as a source, provided that the students use other sources as well. When I present this, I explain that in academia the Bible is not considered a good source, but that if the students have a strong faith, it is perfectly legitimate.

    There may be more of your colleagues like me than you think, since they tend to keep their heads down in discussions of this subject, due to the extreme ridicule likely in response.

  2. KeethInk says:

    This seems to be key: "And the work the student did was good; knowing that the Bible is a contentious document, the student really did go out of their way to outline as many similarities as possible." If an undergraduate student has as ability to see a text (any text) as possibly contentious, that's a plus. If the student is treating a text as not only authoritative but also unquestionably literal, that might be a minus, for me.

    "If the student didn`t actually believe the Bible but instead treated it as a work of fiction, would the final product thus be more worthy? And how am I to know, one way or the other, what the student believes? It certainly, for me, isn`t my place to judge a student`s faith or beliefs. But I know there are people who would expect me to fail or at least grade the student more harshly based on the fact that, for them, the Bible is a reliable source."

    Does reliable mean literal? or containing truth? or textually stable? or peer-reviewed? I know a person who uses Hamlet as her life-text. She relates everything in her life to it, and has a copy of it on her person at all times. Is Hamlet literal? Reliable? For me, all good literature is true, whether it happened or not.

    I don't think you can judge the paper based on what the student may or may not believe, or on what your colleagues may or may not say. Besides, that much second-guessing is awfully tiring. 🙂 Based on the student's previous essay, he/she may just be trying to duplicate the success of the earlier paper.

    I do think you would be doing the student a service if you gave him/her a note explaining how the bible is usually treated as a source in academic writing (as a text, as literature, etc). That way, in other classes, the student would not be caught off guard by a professor who would deal with him/her more harshly. If you word it in a way so that the student understands you aren't telling her what to believe, but how to better write about what she believes, then you will have given her a valuable lesson.

  3. Mrs. Shier says:

    Who is the student's intended audience? If it's a secular audience, the Bible is a poor source, no matter how carefully the writer builds the argument.

  4. JoVE says:

    The key to the grade is the extent to which the essay demonstrates that they have learned the material you want them to learn.

    Mrs. Shier's comment is a good one but if you didn't specify and audience, and it is plausible that making this argument to a mixed audience in a region where many people do hold religious beliefs is a legitimate interpretation of the assignment, then it gets a good grade.

    We are NOT grading students beliefs. We are grading their learning. If they write things we don't like but nevertheless demonstrate that they have learned what we want them to learn, they get good grades.

    You want them to learn to write a persuasive essay. You don't actually care as much about the content of that essay. Go with your instincts. They are good.

  5. Jo alerted me to your wonderful post. I responded with a long email and then discovered that you have comments open! I appreciated your holistic view of the student, attempting to both validate her work and see where she's coming from all while guiding her into the academic task. I teach homeschooled Christian teens—have for 11 years. I try to help them grasp the difference between apologetics and the academic task. Here's the salient portion of the email I sent Jo:

    "The Bible can be a primary source document when it is used to explain a particular perspective held by Christians (when unfolding a theologian's perspective or a Christian missionary's), when it is used to authenticate a Christian precept (the Bible teaches thus and so), and when it is representing itself (as in the case of the student who wrote about Fahrenheit 451—she made a comparison between two visions, and the Bible merely represented itself—according to the interpretations she's heard of it, if I understand correctly).

    "The Bible can't be used as primary source material for history, science, technology, moral and ethical absolutes and so on. In these cases, it can occasionally be cited as secondary source material (to confirm some other source or to add ethical weight as in, "The major western religious traditions all oppose __________, for instance in ________ book of the Bible…").

    "What I usually tell Christian kids is that they already know what they believe. If they are in university, the goal isn't to convert their professors or to defend their faith (apologetics). The goal is to engage in the academic quest—to inquire, to explore, to research and to grow in depth in a particular field. They need to let their faith journey continue in their faith communities and take advantage of the academic context to enjoy it for its unique style of learning and growth.

    "If they let the Bible into their academics only when it supports the academic task, they will have no difficulty with professors. They will avoid the experience of "persecution" (which they assign to any professor who challenges a Christian-oriented piece of writing). Instead, they will find out how their faith shapes, informs and corresponds to what they learn that they didn't know before they got to college."

    I enjoyed reading your essay.

    Julie (bravewriter.com)

  6. naomijacobs says:

    Direct the student in question to critical biblical studies writing. I like Philip Davies as a starting point – very readable. The bible can be used as a source, but it should be used as critically as any other text we critique in academia. Incidentally, there's some fantastic writing on the imagery in the Book of Revelation in this field, as you would expect. The student might find it very interesting.

  7. Often, many researchers who doubt the history of the Bible may say things like: “In the real world, miracles have never occurred.” These statements may influence people’s minds. They may say that the issues described in the Bible are unreliable.
    However, it is good to note that such statements are nothing new: They have been presented over the course of the past two hundred years. Actually, it is interesting to note that as Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the theory of the Ice Age became well-known, criticism of the Bible simultaneously began to gain ground. Researchers began to spring up who questioned the writings about the life of Jesus and other Biblical events. They may have thought that if the Creation and the Flood are not true in light of these theories, we would then have no reason to believe information about Jesus. So it is certainly not by chance that all three issues were raised almost simultaneously.
    In any case, it is good for us to study this. The purpose is, especially, to help those people who want to know more about the reliability of Biblical information, and to show how reasonable it is to trust in the truth of described events. If you struggle with this issue, it is worth your while to read further.

    More info; http://www.jariiivanainen.net/canwetrustcriticismoftheBible.html

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