The Bible and the task of teaching

by David I Smith & John Shortt

Review by Steve J Van Der Weele

(Please note that a Spanish translation of this book was published in 2009. La Biblia y la educación was published by Publicaciones El Faro and copies are available from Instituto Libre de México de Estudios Superiores.)

What do we teachers say to a Paul Hirst, an educator who in his essay ‘Christian Education: A Contradiction in Terms’ (1971) and other writings claims that it is sheer nonsense to ask the Bible to guide us in our present-day educational institutions. He concludes that the curriculum of a Christian school will differ very little from a well-designed secular one.

Smith and Shortt have ascertained that many teachers in Christian schools are hard-pressed to respond to Hirst's case. Many unanswered questions greet us when we try to draw connections between the Bible and the pedagogy of our schools. The Bible, after all, has as its primary purpose displaying the narrative of redemption. It is not an encyclopedia for all knowledge; it is not a textbook of mathematics (though some in their zeal base arithmetic problems on biblical materials}, or of history, except insofar as narrative reveals the pattern of salvation - or of science. And what does the Bible say about pedagogy, curriculum? Yet we claim our schools are biblically based.

The co-authors of this book challenge Hirst's thesis that the Bible cannot shape the content or pedagogy of our schools, that we should limit the Bible to devotional and pious purposes. The use of the Bible to achieve personal holiness is, of course, a good place to start. Moreover, the Bible can and should be taught as subject in itself - in both secular and Christian schools - as a repository of our cultural heritage and, for believers, as a narrative of God's dealings with his people.

The authors present five approaches, each one occupying several chapters, as possible contenders for the key to a biblically-based education: (1) the role of the Bible as shaping the educator’s personal qualities; (2) the biblical art of discerning world views and control beliefs; (3) the role of narrative as a link between the Bible and classroom pedagogy; (4) the significance of metaphor in the Bible; (5) educational models implied in both the content and shape of the Bible. No single approach is assigned a preference. Rather, the authors employ the metaphor of a rope, with the several strands representing an intertwining fusion of the approaches.

The character and virtues of the teacher are a good place to begin. After all, education is a moral venture, and the teacher must embody the virtues she recommends to her students. But that is easier said than done, for not all cultures appraise virtues alike. Humility, we say, is a requisite quality for a teacher. But not all cultures agree that humility is a virtue. And some virtues are not unique to the Christian faith. Nevertheless, in direct and indirect ways the teacher can powerfully affect the character development of her students.

When we encounter the subject of ‘control beliefs’ we encounter difficulties as well. What the Bible teaches about the nature of man and his relationships and the wisdom he needs to live well constitute important beliefs, but these beliefs exist at different levels, and many competing world views vie for the student's allegiance. Even world views need a definition, and the Bible does not specify exactly how these beliefs are to operate in the classroom. Much refining of these ideas needs to be done.

The authors become impassioned about the role of stories in education. Stories provide children with the feel of the world in which they will live. Stories abound - in both the Bible and in our cultural heritage. But stories are not innocent, and some can leave the wrong impression. The Bible is indispensable in disclosing the Big Story - the authentic patterns of reality, which until recently shaped all Western narrative.

Metaphor, a close companion to narrative, is coming into its own nowadays. We no longer distrust metaphor, insisting that it be reduced to prose before it can be useful. Like stories, metaphors lodge in the imagination and can shape the mind in powerful ways. The astute teacher, as appropriate, will confront the student with such questions as to whether the world is a garden or a machine, a paradise or a desert, a playground or a plantation to be carefully nurtured and preserved. The image of a shepherd in isolation would prove repugnant in certain cultures. It needs to be seen as part of the rich network of pastoral references.

The enormous cultural gap does not disenfranchise the greatest model of all time - the One whom the common people heard so gladly. What he did above all was teach people the proper way of seeing, provide them with an orientation that went beyond legalism and offer life and hope and meaning to their impoverished souls. But other models need to be acknowledged - the Torah, for example, in tension with the prophets. And the wisdom literature of the Bible further illuminates human experience and prompts us to seek the wisdom that converts that experience into destiny.

This summary does not do justice to the over-all significance of this book or its importance for teachers. The style is lively, the discourse is bolstered by a representative array of writers about education, the illustrations have zest, the rhetorical flow is meticulous and compelling. And it gives authentic answers to the questions of how we can use the Bible in the classroom.

Steve J. Van Der Weele

(The author is Professor of English (Emeritus) at Calvin College, USA. This review was first published in Christian Educators Journal and is reprinted here with the permission of the Editor.)