Saturday, September 20, 2014

Honors Seminar on the Reception History of the Parables

I have been selected to teach an honors seminar in the spring semester. At Oxford, faculty members who wish to teach an honors seminar submit proposals to the Honors Committee, which selects the three proposals they think would be best (we have only three honors seminars per year). 

The three honors seminars that we will offer in the spring are (1) an economics course, "Happiness Economics" that will be taught by Boris Nikolaev; (2) a religion course taught by Jill Petersen Adams, "Writing the Disaster: Witnessing, 1945," which "explores legacies of loss by addressing issues of catastrophic suffering in the contexts of the Holocaust/Shoah and the atomic bombings of Japan"; (3) my religion course on the Reception History of the parables, "A Chorus of Voices: The 'Afterlives' of Parables."

Every honors seminar has to be interdisciplinary, writing-intensive, and one of our signature "Ways of Inquiry" courses. Here is the description of the course that I included in the initial proposal:
Jesus’ enigmatic and compelling parables have fascinated their hearers since he first uttered them, and during the intervening centuries his parables have produced a multitude of interpretations, ones that are found in a variety of forms, sources, and perspectives. This course will explore the “afterlives” of parables: their use, impact, and influence through the centuries. Students will choose the parables they wish to explore throughout different eras, perspectives, and media. Examples will come from art (e.g., Rembrandt, van Gogh, Sadao Watanabe, He Qi), music (e.g., the Rolling Stones, Hank Williams, Blind Willie Johnson, Kontakia), literature (e.g., Chaucer, Shakespeare, Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin), science fiction (e.g., Octavia Butler), plays (e.g., Antonia Pulci), poetry (e.g., George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Rudyard Kipling), film (e.g., Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Son of Man, from South Africa), politics (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan, Elsa Tamez), and ethics/religion/philosophy (e.g., Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Kierkegaard). 
This course will be interdisciplinary, and it will introduce students to the dialogues between biblical traditions and the cultures and communities who received and interpreted them. These explorations span two thousand years, and they are found in literature, visual art, music, plays, and other modes of interpretation. This class will thus explore in inter and multi-disciplinary ways all sorts of voices—secular and scared, influential and marginalized, “orthodox” and heterodox (including unusual or distinctive), ranging from the fairly famous to the fairly obscure. 
This writing-intensive course is taught in a Ways of Inquiry (INQ) approach, one in which students not only learn important concepts, principles, assumptions, and terminology of Reception History, but they also actively learn and practice why and how scholars approach these texts the way they do. The focus is on exegesis: the multidisciplinary endeavor to understand these interpretations in the context of history, culture, religious practice, philosophy, ethics, politics, and social values. An INQ course begins with the interpretations, the questions and issues that result from reading/seeing/hearing them carefully from more than one approach or perspective. In other words, we will “start from scratch” and proceed step-by-step to build competencies in interpreting these interpretations of the parables.                 

I am delighted that the timing of the course overlaps with the visit of Chris Rowland, one of the foremost scholars in the Reception History of the Bible. He is coming in March as the Pierce Visiting Scholar, a faculty exchange program between Oxford University and Oxford College of Emory University that is one of the programs of the Pierce Institute. One of the things Chris will do while here is teach one session of the honors seminar. He also is giving a public lecture at Oxford College, and we are arranging an additional lecture at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta. If you are in the area, you will want to come hear Chris. He is fantastic!

I won't include all of the details from the honors seminar proposal, but two aspects of the course may be of interest. The first is how the course is structured, because students will develop their interpretative abilities in activities that build upon each other:
  • Students will have writing assignments or in-class writing in almost every class. We will begin in the very first class with students doing elements of Reception History. We will focus on individual elements (i.e., students will begin by exploring one single aspect of exegesis) and use those exercises to build (by mid-semester) into a full-fledged Reception History analysis of one parable. These short papers will begin with the foundational “close reading/viewing” of details in the interpretations. Then students will move to additional short (one-page) Reception History investigations of their own, building upon their initial “close reading/viewing” and incorporating other elements of Reception History, such as key biographical elements, other works by the author/artist that affect interpretation, historical and cultural contexts, ethical implications, and so forth.
  • Also at the beginning of the semester, students will write critiques of existing reception history essays (e.g., sections of drafts from my book). Since students have much to accomplish as they learn how to do Reception History explorations, we will start with examples of Reception History studies on the parables. Students, however, will not assume that these examples are necessarily the way to proceed. They will critique the essays to discern the essays’ strengths and weaknesses and begin to form their own methodological approach/perspective.
  • The heart of the project: Reception history analyses of one parable. Students will do four or five of these explorations of interpretations in diverse media, eras, and perspectives, and they will complete a portfolio, which also will involve more than one medium.
  • The “capstone” of this milestone project is a reflective paper of the insights students have gained through their investigations, including the similarities and differences between exegeses of interpretations in diverse media.


The milestone project that is mentioned above will be a portfolio that includes (four or five, I expect) student explorations of the use, influence, and impact of one parable from the New Testament Gospels. Requirements for the project include explorations:
  • From different eras.
  • From varying perspectives
  • Involving different media in which the interpretations are found
  • Involving presentations in at least two media; one must be a formal paper
  • Involving interpretations that interact with one “scene” of a parable (e.g., a work of visual art)
  • Involving interpretations that interact with multiple “scenes” of a parable (e.g., a song, a stained-glass window with many scenes, a play about the parable, etc.).
  • Of the inter and multi-disciplinary insights that arise through these diverse modes of interpretation.


I envision that students would create a portfolio of their reception history investigations in various media and from various perspectives. The “capstone” of this milestone project is a reflective paper of the insights students have gained through their investigations, including the similarities and differences in exegetical approaches that different media require (e.g., the similarities and differences between visual and textual exegesis). In addition, a “public display” of this portfolio could be accomplished by creating a class blog or (with students’ permission) by posting students’ work on this blog.

I want to give students as much flexibility as possible, however, so beyond the parameters in the bulleted items above, other details of the milestone project will be subject to negotiation and will primarily be based on their interests.

I am looking forward to teaching the course. I think including drafts of selections from my book will prove to be mutually beneficial for the students and for the final version of the book. 

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