The Bible and Race in the USA: An Introduction to Contexts

In 2014 I began teaching an Elizabethtown College course called “The Bible and Race in the USA.” It’s a seminar driven by a question about how discourses like “Bible,” “race” and “America” inform each other to the extent that we can hardly unweave them. There’s a craftiness to textuality that we quickly forget all that goes into not only constructing these things, but also that these things have always been the product of human hands. The class becomes a laboratory where we examine the fashioning at work around us.

Weaving, textures, fashion–the metaphors have been central to the conversation’s framing. My hunch is that somethings like the politics shown in The Devil Wears Prada (2006, dir. David Frankel) is at work. We think our stylistic choices are matters of personal expression and interpretation, but perhaps there’s really more going on.

To continue the thread further, we might think of the “Bible,” “race,” and “America”as impulse buys or sudden purchases in an exercise of freedom. Or maybe our investment in them was rather thought out. The question for me is why we keep ending up with these things like scriptures and race in the first place. What or (who?) is compelling us to subscribe to these particular fashion?

The first time I taught the seminar, I admittedly saw this as a chance to impress my ideas upon impressionable minds. But the experience proved far richer for me when I embraced the role of co-learner. I introduce students to some theories to help them organize their thoughts. We use our common analytical vocabulary to talk through a case study in American Bible reading, giving special attention to the inflection of race. And then I’d encourage students to go out and develop their own case studies. This led to some timely and compelling insights that I didn’t initially think could happen at the undergraduate level. At the end of the semester, the students not only published a compelling cooperative blog post on why we need to further investigate these matters, but they developed some inspiring projects to model how this could be done.

Fall 2014 Bible and Race in the USA Final Projects at Elizabethtown College

As I spoke with friends and colleagues about the kind of work they were doing, it occurred to me that the publication of their gleanings could be part of the learning process–for me, for the guild, for our publics. So with funding from the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, I’ve widened the F2016 seminar offering to include the voices of scholars in the field. Over the semester, my students will share what they’ve observed at the intersection of the Bible, Race, and America. Then scholars of various sub-disciplines and ranks will continue the conversation.

Our first discussion looks at the context of “indigeneity” and how the Bible colors claims of belonging in America.

  1. Twila Adams, “Soft Territorialism in the Sioux and Dapl Conflict.”
  2. Maya Aphornsuvan, “The Pledge of Allegiance and Native Americans.”
  3. Madi Dodge, “Crazy Horse and Native American Spirituality.”

Each post is followed by a response from Israel Dominguez, a graduate student at University of Colorado-Boulder, whose research focuses on decolonization within the context of U.S.-Mexico borderland religious traditions.

In “The Bible, Race, and Indigeneity: A Response,” Andie Alexander discusses ways forward in light of her interest in identity construction and definitions, particularly in the context of U.S. religious freedom. She is also a graduate student at University of Colorado-Boulder.

More is to come in future weeks. I hope you’ll follow along in the exchange.

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

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