Parables are like jokes: The punch line takes you by surprise

On my walk home from the Post Office today, I saw an acquaintance who is an emergency room doctor. I paused to ask, “Are you staying healthy?” He said, “Yes. Amazingly. I am around COVID patients all the time, but I have not been sick.” I said, “I think doctors must have very robust immune systems from being around sick people all the time.” He smiled and replied, “I’m like Westley. I just take a little iocaine powder at a time.”

I laughed—but only because I have seen The Princess Bride multiple times, and I immediately remembered that scene from the movie about the fictitious “colorless, odorless, and deadly poison from Australia.” Westley explains in the film that he spent two years building up a tolerance to iocaine powder, and he used his immunity to trick Vizzini in their battle of wits. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMz7JBRbmNo)

If I had not seen The Princess Bride, I would not have had that immediate response to the doctor’s humor. Humor only works if the other person knows enough to get the point. If you have to explain to someone why what you said is funny, the humor is gone. Without shared experience, most humor falls flat.

I never could teach a class without cracking jokes. I don’t plan humor for my lectures. Things just come to mind and out they come. Early in my teaching career, I found that international students were at a disadvantage. I would tell a joke, and the American students would be laughing; but the international students would just sit there looking confused. Humor often differs between cultures. As I grew older, however, I began to realize that clever allusions to movies or sayings that used to be common knowledge would confuse my young, American students. If I made reference to a well-known line in a popular movie that was more than a decade old, there was a good chance they had not seen it. Increasingly, I had to think about whether or not my students would get the punch line of some humorous comment I made. If they did not get the allusion, the impact was gone.

Many of Jesus’s parables are like jokes. Often they turn listener expectations upside down. Like jokes, they only work if the punch line takes us by surprise. But if we don’t know the cultural details that give a parable its punch, we simply do not feel the major point. And if someone has to explain the point, parables fall flat. Parables, like jokes, work best when there is a sense of immediacy with the stories. If they punch us in the gut, if we feel the impact, then we get the point. But our life experience differs so much from Jesus’s cultural context that we often do not feel the impact of his stories.

Consequently, when teaching Jesus’ parables, I needed to provide historical and cultural background information first. After my students understood more about Jesus’ cultural context, they began to feel the power of his parables. In future blog posts, I will comment on a few of Jesus’ parables to illustrate this point. For a much longer explanation of parable interpretation, see “Chapter 15: Jesus’ Parabolic Speech Forms: Turning Expectations Upside Down” in Interpreting Biblical Literature, pages 319–343.

“Go straight to Sheol”: Creative Exercises for Bible Study

Most students in my introductory Biblical Studies classes were not aware that ancient Hebrews had no developed belief in afterlife. On the same day that I found the sinner by casting lots, I used the poem in Jonah 2 to introduce students to Sheol.

Interestingly, Jonah does not jump into the sea but makes the sailors throw him overboard. Note that a big fish swallows him (1:17). There were no whales in the Mediterranean, and there was not even a word for whale in Hebrew. Also note that Jonah was in the fish for three days before he began to pray. This prophet was REALLY stubborn: “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD from the belly of the fish, saying, ‘I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice’” (Jonah 2:1). Hebrew poetry often uses synonymous parallelism, where the second line of a poem restates the first line in different words. Being in the belly of the fish was like being in Sheol (also called “the Pit”: 2:6). But what was Sheol/the Pit?

Instead of merely explaining Sheol to students, I had them get into groups of three and look up a series of passages that mention Sheol. When they saw for themselves the descriptions of Sheol, they became much more engaged in discussing what they discovered. Here is the exercise I gave to them. Be aware that some group members may be confused at first because they have a Bible that translates Sheol as “the grave.”

What in the World is Sheol? (Interpreting Biblical Literature, p. 112)

Look up the verses listed below and read what they say about Sheol (also called “the Pit”).

  • Numbers 16:30;
  • Psalms 6:4–5; 30:9; 88:3–6, 10–12; 89:48; 94:17; 115:17;
  • Job 3:13, 17–19; 7:9–10; 10:20–21; 16:22;
  • Ecclesiastes 9:2–6, 10;
  • Isaiah 5:14; 14:9; 26:14;
  • Jonah  2:2, 6.

Group Questions to discuss:

  • Where is Sheol located?
  • What words are used to describe Sheol? (What is it like?)
  • Who goes to Sheol?
  • How does the concept of Sheol differ from beliefs about heaven and hell?

Some students become troubled to learn that ancient Hebrews did not believe in an afterlife but thought that everyone—both the good and the bad—went to Sheol when they died. Soon thereafter, I had students read other biblical passages that illustrate the Hebrew belief that people experienced God’s blessings during their life, not after death. Concepts of heaven and hell developed much later. The Sheol exercise introduces students to the fact that the beliefs of ancient Hebrews developed slowly. One does not find fully developed Christian theology in the Old Testament.

Be ready for pushback from students whose beliefs about biblical inspiration mandate that everything in the Bible must be totally consistent with comments made elsewhere in the Bible. But when my students actually read the Bible for class assignments, they saw for themselves such developments of belief. As odd as it may sound, studying the Bible in a systematic way can initially be disorienting for Christian students. Over the course of a semester, however, most became comfortable with the concept of the Bible being a collection of documents written over centuries to address different historical circumstances. Knowing more about historical and cultural context makes a huge difference in understanding what biblical passages meant for ancient audiences.

Casting Lots to find the Sinner: Creative Ideas for Bible Classes

In some Bible stories, people cast lots to determine a course of action. Variations of this approach to obtaining divine guidance were common in the ancient Near East. Not many people in American society today, however, roll dice to discover God’s will for such matters as knowing whom to marry. And I have never heard of a jury identifying guilt or innocence this way in a court of law. The short story of Jonah provides a great way to illustrate how the practice worked.

My textbook Interpreting Biblical Literature first introduces readers to the cultural practices of people in biblical times—marriage customs, etc. I begin the actual study of biblical books not by starting with Genesis but by reading the short story of Jonah to look for plot and character development. Jonah is such a quirky character that students enjoy discussing how he gets angry and pouts and demands that God kill all Assyrians in Nineveh. I had them find on a map the location of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, where God commanded Jonah to go. Jonah boards a boat bound for Tarshish, most likely the area now called Spain—as far in the opposite direction from Nineveh as Jonah could go (given the understanding of the world at that time). He really hated Assyrians! I explain in Interpreting Biblical Literature pp. 110–111 why Israelites were justified in hating Assyrians.

Then the storm strikes. Those on the boat fear for their lives, and the sailors set out to discover the person who was responsible for the gods causing the storm at sea.

The sailors said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” “I am a Hebrew,” he replied. “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them so. (Jonah 1: 7–10 NRSV)

Oh, great! This stupid Hebrew has upset the God who created the sea!

The sailors’ belief that the storm resulted from gods being upset with someone elicits interesting discussions. I would ask, “Do you believe that if a hurricane hits the Gulf Coast, it is caused by someone offending God?” “No,” they would always reply. Then I would impersonate someone on the Weather Channel explaining that a search was underway to find the person responsible for the severe weather approaching Atlanta or some other city.

To demonstrate how people in biblical times cast lots to find the guilty person, I would take a pair of dice from my pocket and explain that the dice answer simple “Yes” or “No” questions. I began by dividing the class into two groups and asking, “Is the guilty person in this half of the class?” I rolled the dice, looked at them and authoritatively declared, “Yes” or “No,” depending on which side of the class I wanted to make squirm. I did not know which person I would finally identify as the guilty party. I kept dividing the remaining students into smaller and smaller groups as I continued to roll the dice. I watched faces and playfully interacted with students during the this process of making further divisions and asking the dice, “Is it someone in this section?”

As I observed the responses of my students, I made comments like, “Ben, why are you looking so guilty? Do you have something to confess?” As I rolled the dice and narrowed the possibilities down to the last two students, I urged the guilty party to confess his or her sin. Finally, the lots led me to the sinner whose actions had caused the storm. Students enjoyed this demonstration of lots and asked questions about the process and the beliefs that lie behind it. Invariably, someone would ask if I would seek the will of God by rolling dice. “No,” I said. “I would never trust rolling dice to make an important decision.” But I added that one religious group in our area continues to use the same concept for deciding on who in their congregation will be their next pastor. They reason that the decision is too important to make on the basis of human vote. The selection has to be left up to God. So they put a note in one of the hymnbooks placed on a pew at the front of the church. Each nominated candidate chooses a book, and the one who selects the book with the note in it becomes the next pastor. “How would you assess this approach?” I asked. Discussions could be quite animated.

For more details, see “Jonah: A Fish Story about a Stubborn Prophet” (Interpreting Biblical Literature, pp. 108–115). Coming up next: Jonah wanted all Assyrians to go straight to Sheol.

Biblical Illiteracy among Christian Students: Part 2

My observations of Christian students knowing less and less about the Bible were not unique. In conversations with Bible professors from around the USA and Canada, I consistently heard that they were experiencing the same phenomenon. Many of my students firmly believed in the inspiration of Scripture and could assert a handful of beliefs they picked up in church along the way, but they lacked the ability to explain how they arrived at these beliefs—other than quoting a few Bible verses with no real knowledge of the context of these verses. Functionally, many use Scripture as a magical text and barely recognize it as a collection of different kinds of literature written over many centuries by people who lived in cultures that differed considerably from our own.

About ten years ago, I attended a disturbing lecture about biblical knowledge. The speaker led a team of researchers who documented that Europeans tend to know more about the content of the Bible than Americans, but they don’t believe it. Conversely, Americans tend to know very little about the Bible but many nevertheless have strong beliefs about its divine inspiration and claim to believe in it. To describe Christian students, the speaker used a term coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton: “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [Oxford University Press, 2005]). Students tend to believe that God wants people to be nice, and the main goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself. They read isolated verses of the Bible for reflection on personal problems. They seldom read the Bible in any systematic way and have an extremely limited grasp of larger theological issues. Indeed, they typically do not even care about such matters. Yet they become agitated when they hear views contrary to what their church teaches.

At the beginning of my introductory Bible classes, I often did a quick poll to discover how many different denominational backgrounds my students represented. “How many of you are Baptists? How many of you are Methodists? How many of you are Lutherans? How many are Catholics? ….” With a wry smile, I asked how they would like to teach a class composed of people from so many different denominations, each group believing they have a corner on the truth. “Let’s just set aside our theological constraints for a while,” I said, “and read the Bible with the intent of seeing what it says—not forcing it to say what we want it to say.” The skepticism on many faces was obvious. So, I had them get into groups of three and read the Nativity Story in Luke 2 and answer some basic questions (see https://cosbycogitations.wordpress.com/2021/12/19/sorry-but-your-modern-story-of-jesus-birth-is-mostly-wrong/ ). By the time we finished discussing their answers—which always included Mary being nine months pregnant when she arrived in Bethlehem, riding on a donkey, and giving birth to Jesus in a stable—students had that deer-in-the-headlights look. If they were so wrong about such a familiar story, what details were they reading into other Bible stories?

Call it a shock treatment to inspire them to ask questions. Some rose to the challenge and thrived in my classes. They began asking substantive questions. Some wanted to know, “Why did we never learn these things in church?” Good question. Others refused to become engaged with the biblical stories I had them read. They glared at me as if I were some sort of heretic when I did not reinforce what they already believed. They did not understand the difference between education and indoctrination.

During a discussion over lunch with an American history professor, I heard my colleague lament, “The biggest problem we have with students all across campus is their lack of curiosity. They just want us to tell them what will be on the exams. How can we educate students who lack interest in learning?” He was even more dismayed when I told him that students majoring in Youth Ministry were on average not motivated to engage in serious biblical study. Some were wonderful and did extremely well in my classes, but many were simply not interested in putting effort into learning anything that was not immediately applicable to leading youth meetings. I began to dread teaching upper level classes that Youth Ministry majors were required to take.

I also noticed that the majority of Education majors in my classes lacked curiosity and revealed a substandard work ethic. I often wonder what effect Youth Ministry and Education majors will have on the next generation of youth when these unmotivated learners assume positions of leadership.

To aid my efforts to spark curiosity, I wrote Interpreting Biblical Literature, a textbook designed to facilitate student interest. I made sure it was filled with color photos and textboxes and creative exercises. Often, students told me, “Your book is interesting—not boring like my other textbooks.” Sometimes they shyly admitted becoming so interested in a chapter that they accidentally read more than I had assigned in the syllabus. I considered that a high compliment. My book is a helpful resource, but using it did not solve all the problems with students lacking curiosity. I fear that this issue has become epidemic in our culture—especially with regard to religion and politics. People listen to a few gurus who reinforce their own viewpoints instead of actively weighing different viewpoints and honestly considering the merits of each. And algorithms on Internet search engines facilitate people reading what they already believe. We have too many dogmatic disciples and too few curious learners.

Biblical Illiteracy among students at Christian colleges

Before retirement, I taught at a Christian liberal arts college that placed importance on the value of the Bible, and most of our students came from Christian families. Each year I noticed a downward trend in how much my Bible-believing students knew about the Bible. However, their ignorance of the Bible did not prevent them from fiercely defending their beliefs. They confidently proclaimed the TRUTH of the Bible but had very little knowledge of what the Bible actually says.

To illustrate this incongruity to my students, I sometimes gave a Basic Bible Knowledge Quiz during the first class session of my introductory Bible class. Students had to write answers to questions such as “In what town was Jesus born?” and “List in order the four Gospels.” Out of a total of 50 possible points, scores ranged from 5 to 50. The average score in my classes was around 60%. As a group, they either got a D– or an F+ on the quiz.

Here are some of the answers students wrote on one particular quiz.

  • Ruth and Hebrews are among the three Old Testament books called Major Prophets.
  • The Sermon on the Mount is found in Exodus.
  • Two of the 12 Tribes of Israel were the Canninites and the Isrealits.
  • Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Olives.
  • Jesus was baptized either in the Nile River or the Red Sea, and he was crucified just outside of Rome.
  • David and Samuel were two of Jesus’12 Apostles.
  • The book of the Bible that is a collection of erotic love poems is Corinthians, Psalms, or ecclesiasties. [Interestingly, many students actually got this question right, which might reveal something about their interest in the Song of Songs.]
  • Many said the Roman ruler who sentenced Jesus to be crucified was named Pilot, although one wrote Blasphimer.
  • In response to “Name one of the Jewish religious sects during the time of Jesus,” one student put washing feet and another said Passover.

For the next class session, I had them write a brief statement of what they believed about the inspiration of Scripture and explain how they thought Christians should interpret and apply the Bible. By the time I graded these papers, I had compiled the students’ quiz scores.

I noticed that some of the students who said the most exalted things about the Bible were the ones who scored the lowest on the quiz. On one paper, I wrote, “If the Bible is inerrant as you say, and absolutely central to the daily life of a Christian, as you assert in your paper, how do you explain the fact that you got only 15 points out of 50 on the basic, Bible knowledge quiz?”

During the third class session, I asked, “If the Bible is as important as you as a class believe, then why do so few of you actually read it?” The students stared at me silently for a while. Finally, one brave young man said, “Because it is boring, and I don’t understand it.” “Now, we are getting somewhere,” I responded. “By the time this semester is over, all of you, including those who did well on the quiz, will know a lot more about the Bible than you do now. My job is to help you understand biblical stories in light of their ancient historical and cultural contexts. You will find the class to be challenging—and hopefully quite rewarding. I will lead you on a cross-cultural journey into the world of the Bible. You better put on your explorer hats and get your inoculations. Some of what you encounter might upset your tummies.”