In a recent conversation with a friend, I started to dream about what a truly excellent high school Religious Studies curriculum might look like for a (somewhat) ecumenical Christian high school.
After some poking and prodding, this is what I came up with. I think it’s interesting enough to post here. If you happen to steal anything from my thoughts below, I’d be excited to know how it’s going!
What I’ve Seen
Before getting into the new plan, let me tell you what I’ve seen. Bible curricula seem to be somewhat standard for Christian private schools. That’s not to say that they are all the same, but just that they tend to focus on the same things during the 4 years that they have a given student. Here is a rather standard layout:
This year is typically some sort of scriptural survey. Most often, I’ve seen Old Testament as the focus. Students become acquainted with the Old Testament, major figures within its story, and the overall arc of the Hebrew people and their relationship with God.
The sophomore year is usually a survey of the component missed in Freshman year. So, if Old Testament was studied Freshman year, then New Testament would be the focus here. Students will focus on the Gospels and Paul, mostly.
This year often seems to be focused on Apologetics and Christian Living. Students learn how to defend their faith with a variety of arguments that they memorize. Beyond that, some schools teach students how to apply the Bible to their lives — course titles like “Scripture and Daily Living” usually deal with this.
Most often, I’ve seen “worldviews” or “world religions” courses on this level. The hope is to prepare a student for the non-Christian, wild environs of college by acquainting them with various religions and philosophies. Often, the student will be taught what is “wrong” with those religions and philosophies.
In reaction to all of this, I’ve come up with a system of my own (with the help of a few close friends). Here’s the basic layout:
Freshman Year – How to Read the Bible
A low-level, low-grade, friendly hermeneutics course that introduces the student to different modes and methods for reading the Bible.
(a) Historical Context — The student should understand the role that historical context plays in interpretation. The student will learn to recognize how historical context affects the application of Scripture to our daily lives.
(b) Literary Context — The student will read Scripture with an attentive eye to its literary context. What genre is the text? Why does genre matter? How does the literary situation and attitude of the text affect our interpretation and application?
(c) Biblical Context — The student will understand a text within the greater context of the Bible. How does this text fit in with the Biblical metanarrative? How does it relate to other texts that speak to similar issues? How does understanding this text within the larger metanarrative affect our interpretation and application?
Throughout this course, the student would be taught how to use different tools for Bible study. These tools might include: concordances, cross-references, commentaries, etc.
In effect, this is step one toward equipping the student with the skills necessary to read, understand, interpret, and apply the Bible for themselves in an intelligent and coherent manner.
Sophomore Year – Old Testament & New Testament Survey
Part one of this course would explore the Old Testament. The focus should be on two major aspects of the text:
(a) The Broad Historical Movement of the Israelite People — The student will understand the major historical narrative of the Israelite people and their relationship to God.
(b) Tanakh — In order to achieve (a), the teacher will need to give the students a broad understanding of the different portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. This can best be conveyed by the Hebrew acronym Tanakh: Torah, Prophets, Writings.
At the end of part one of this course, the student will be prepared to understand the broad, general issues involved in the narrative of the Hebrew Bible, thus preparing them for the next portion of the class: New Testament.
During the second portion of this course, the student will explore the New Testament. The focus will be on two major sections:
(a) The Gospel Narrative — The student will understand the narrative of the life of Jesus and dip his/her toe into issues such as the “Synoptic Problem” and the place of the Gospel of John in the “fourfold truth.”
(b) The Teachings of Paul — The student will focus on Paul’s interpretation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and how that has informed his theology, Christology, philosophy, and missiology.
Because the student will have the Old Testament fresh in his/her mind, the writings of the New Testament should be understood within their Jewish context.
All of the knowledge from the freshman course should also be utilized. Texts should be examined based on their historical, literary, and Biblical contexts. The student will also use these different modes of reading to understand different ways that Scripture can apply to modern contexts.
Junior Year – Church History
In order to fully equip the student to understand Christianity and its place in today’s world, the student must understand how Christianity grew from a small cult in a backwater province of the Roman Empire to the major world religion that it is today. In effect, the student should understand the movement of the Gospel.
This course is divided into two major parts.
Part one addresses Jewish antecedents and the movement of the Gospel to Rome. In effect, the student will become increasingly familiar with the Jewish context in which Christ, Paul, et al. operated, and then track the movement of the Church from Jerusalem to Rome. In terms of chronology, this portion of the course ends with the Council of Nicaea.
Part two takes the student from Nicaea up through the Reformation, hitting important church councils and schisms along the way. The student will understand the growth of the Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions and the major controversies that created these divisions.
At the end of this course, the student will be able to
(a) recognize the triumphs and shortcomings of various styles of church leadership,
(b) articulate the narrative of the movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem to the globe in accordance with Jesus’ “Great Commission,”
(c) discuss the production/creation/alteration of canon, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, Christology, and theology,
(d) analyze texts written by major church figures throughout history (e.g., Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, etc.).
Senior Year (Part One) – Philosophies and World Religions
The senior course is divided into two parts. The first part will deal with philosophies and religions of the world. This course surveys the various philosophies, religions, worldviews, etc. that are prevalent today. Topics might include: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Mormonism, as well as secular humanism, moral relativism, etc.
During this course, the student will
(a) understand the similarities and differences between major philosophies and religions,
(b) read and interpret portions of the Scriptures and foundational texts of these philosophies and religions,
(c) consider and articulate their own position/worldview.
Senior Year (Part Two) – Exegesis
The final course is an intensive exegesis course. This course will be designed to build on all of the skills from all of the previous Bible courses and then apply those skills to the reading and interpretation of a single Biblical text.
During this course, the student will
(a) read and interpret an entire Biblical text with in-depth analysis,
(b) use research tools such as dictionaries and commentaries to aid them in their interpretation,
(c) articulate how this Biblical text speaks to the various religions and worldviews studied in part one,
(d) understand the work within its historical, literary, and Biblical contexts,
(e) appropriately apply portions of the text to a modern context.
My vision for this part of the course is that the selection of the text to be studied should be examined afresh for each Senior Class. The selection of the text should be made by the teacher with the help of the Chaplain, the Student Chaplain, and the Spiritual Life Committee.
Conclusion & Your Thoughts
I realize that this is an awful lot to cram into four years. My overall goal is to equip students to read, understand, and interpret the Bible for themselves. In order for them to do that, I think that they need three major things:
- Knowledge of the Bible and its various contents and the genres of those contents.
- History, so that they can understand how the texts have been used and abused by various groups throughout their history.
- Tools that they can turn to to aid them in their search for understanding.
My hope would be twofold:
- That we present colleges with biblically literate students who are ready to jump into the Western canon of literature and understand how the Bible has informed most major Western thinkers since the Middle Ages.
- That we equip students to take command of their own faith, think for themselves, and make their own decisions about what and how they believe. Furthermore, I’d love to see students articulate their faith (or lack thereof) in an honest manner, rather than putting on the mask that they think teachers want.
So, what are your thoughts? Is this possible? Is this pie-in-the-sky? Is this horrible? I’m curious.