Saturday, February 14, 2015

Teaching the Bible in a Different Culture



*Note: The following piece was also posted at Teaching Theology in a Global and Transnational World.

by Yung Suk Kim

Ellen Ott Marshall wrote in a blog: “Transnational pedagogy is learner-centered teaching. It takes into account the varied experiences of students in the classroom, recognizing and utilizing expertise and also accommodating different backgrounds.” Her words struck a chord in me.

I am teaching in the area of biblical studies, and New Testament in particular, at the school of theology where I am the only faculty member of Asian (Korean) heritage and my students are predominantly African-American. They are thirsty for the “living waters” so to speak.

Most of my students, full-time employees in the private or public sectors, come to study in the evenings during the weekdays or on weekends. In this unique environment, teaching the Bible or theology is a daunting task, partly because I am a cultural stranger to the students and partly because my students are divergent even within their African culture.

Some are more marginalized than others. There are also issues regarding gender and class. More importantly, their theological spectrum is broader than I had assumed, ranging from liberationist to fundamentalist positions. However, one thing I have discovered again and again is that I could share my own marginalized experience with them.

I also found that the students are very open to new learning and challenges in biblical studies. Over the years, as I wrote in my Web site, I have come up with the following teaching philosophy that tells who I am or what I am doing in this vocation of theological education:

I teach to engage in the knowledge of who we are in this world where we see one another as diverse. Diversity is not taken for granted but utilized as a source of critical engagement with others. I value both a critical and self-critical stance toward any claim of knowledge, truth, and reality and emphasize the following as pedagogical goals: learning from others, challenging one another, affirming who we are, and working for common humanity through differences. All in all, the goal of my teaching is to foster critical diversity and imagination in their learning process.

Most recently, I taught Introduction to Biblical Studies to first year students. The contents and design of the course focused on helping students to become critical contextual biblical theologians. I explained the processes and complexities of biblical interpretation in which the reader takes the center stage. I also emphasized three elements of critical contextual interpretation: how to read (the text), what to read (textual focus or theology), and why to read (contextuality of the reader), which will be the topics of my future book.

In my teaching, I reiterate the importance of the role of the reader, who has to engage not only the text but also his or her life in a particular life context. At the same time, I help students to be critical of all readings because not all are equally valid or helpful. The oft-cited verse in my classroom is: “Test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

We not only unpack the texts from many perspectives, but also deconstruct our familiar readings and reconstruct them in new life contexts. Students are refreshed because of their new learning experience in biblical studies. They also find themselves loving the scripture not simply because of what has been written there but also because they can engage it critically and faithfully for their lives. Oppressive theologies are rejected and the students are reaffirmed as the people of God. In this way the Bible is deconstructed and reconstructed through their lives, because God is the God of all. God is not the God of the past alone, but of the present amidst their turmoil.

In one of my classes, I asked each group (made up of six or seven people) to discuss and answer this question: “Who is Jesus to you and your community? Portray him, using all kinds of methods or approaches that you have learned so far.”

Each group worked hard, and all were genuinely engaged. They used pencils, colored pens, and poster board. Afterward, members of each group stood alongside each other and presented their works creatively and faithfully. I was very impressed by their comprehensive understanding of Jesus in context and by their skills in portraying him from their particular life contexts.

One group said Jesus is water because he is the source of life for Africans and others. After the presentation, I added one thing: Water is a great metaphor since I could relate to my experience of water in my culture. I briefly talked about the image and metaphor of water in Daoism and my cultural experience. The experience here is cross-cultural, spiritual, and contextual.

The other group said Jesus is the sun, because he shines upon all people, showing God’s love to all in the world. The idea here is that Africans need the light and that they become a light for others. I added one more thing: Jesus as the sun is like the power plant, which runs with nuclear fusion, giving energy and light to others (centrifugal). In contrast, the Empires gather power for them at the expense of others (centripetal). There are three more groups that presented nicely. I could see all of my students were engaged in the exercise and they were excited by what they had done. Finally, all said amen. 
  
*Yung Suk Kim is Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology in Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books, including A Theological Introduction to Paul’s Letters: Exploring a Threefold Theology of Paul (Cascade, 2011) and Christ’s Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphor (Fortress, 2008).

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