The Bible as Tool for Learning to Evaluate Competing Voices in an Age of “Fake News”

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By Brendon C. Benz

Nicholas Lemann, professor of journalism at Columbia, opened his column, “Solving the Problem of Fake News” with the following observation:

What we are now calling fake news—misinformation that people fall for—is nothing new. Thousands of years ago, in the Republic, Plato offered up a hellish vision of people who mistake shadows cast on a wall for reality. In the Iliad, the Trojans fell for a fake horse. Shakespeare loved misinformation: in “Twelfth Night,” Viola disguises herself as a man and wins the love of another woman; in “The Tempest,” Caliban mistakes Stephano for a god. 

Nicholas Lehmann, Solving the Problem of Fake News

 

While fake news is not unique, the rise of cable networks and the Internet has led to a spike in information, disinformation, misinformation, fabrication, and falsehood, and the consequences have been dire. The Stanford History Education Group recently published a study in which they evaluated the ability of 7,804 middle school, high school, and college students to “judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers.” They did not mince words: “Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up on one word: bleak.” 

Stanford History Education Group

The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor, Frederick Opper, 1894. “Print shows a newspaper owner, possibly meant to be Joseph Pulitzer, sitting in a chair in his office next to an open safe where "Profits" are spilling out onto the floor; outside this scene are many newspaper reporters for the "Daily Splurge" rushing to the office to toss their stories onto the printing press…” (Library of Congress)

Lemann adopts a platonic suspicion regarding the analytical capacity of the common person, suggesting that the only institution that has the ability to fight fake news is the government. But this assessment is inadequate and irresponsible, especially for educators in institutions of higher learning.

There are better approaches. Because its composition and complexion are especially complicated, the Bible is an excellent tool for teaching students how to critically evaluate the contemporary onslaught of information. What the Bible really says is problematic. There are many storylines – both biblical and non-biblical – that have influenced conventional wisdom and our perception of the texts. But when approached responsibly, the Bible emerges as a multivalent production, whose competing voices can call into question all those storylines. By training students to read the Bible in a critical way, we equip them to read the world in like manner.

For example, as my students and I make our way through the Bible from Genesis to Joshua in my Introduction to the Bible course, I ask them to develop a register of markers that define who the “Israelites” were before the formation of the monarchy. The governing themes are not difficult to isolate. Israel is cast as a monotheistic community that worships the God who delivered its people en masse from Egypt. United by a common tribal identity and pastoralist lifestyle, Israel established an egalitarian community in the southern Levant that was characterized by such practices as circumcision, Sabbath, and the celebration of Passover. Indeed, Israel was so different from the hierarchically organized, urban-centered, polytheists who inhabited the land, that war was necessary for the new community to take its rightful place. In the end, it is this “unique” identity that distinguished the Israelites from the Canaanites. While this storyline has literary, historical, and theological value, as the dominant narrative, it may prevent the reader from encountering “alternative facts” – or, competing voices from elsewhere in the Bible itself.

Who is Israel, Benz, Classroom Exercise

The core narratives in the Book of Judges provide an excellent opportunity to confront this problem. As my students begin reading Judges, I ask them to consciously compare the depiction of Israel with that presented in the preceding material. This approach opens the door for students – some of whom are very familiar with the Bible – to disentangle competing threads, set aside prevailing accounts, and ask entirely new questions of the text, including:

  • If the Exodus was a pivotal event in the people’s history, why is it not mentioned in the core narratives of Judges?
  • If practices such as circumcision, Sabbath, and the celebration of Passover are central to the people’s identity, why are they absent from these texts?
  • If the people are “monotheists,” why is Micah not condemned for making household gods in Judges 17-18?
  • If we take the register of participants in the Song of Deborah seriously, who is Israel?
  • If Israel consisted of tribally organized, egalitarian, monotheists, how does one explain Judges 9, which is set in an important urban center that incorporates a temple to Baal and another to El and is ruled over by a king?

The impact of this exercise is straightforward. The Bible is composed in a way that encourages students to approach it cautiously. The hope is that they will utilize these skills when reading and comparing contemporary claims.

A second example of this method revolves around the question, “Who was the good king?” David is well known for being a “man after God’s own heart” (see 1 Samuel 13:14 and Acts 13:22). Indeed, he is the touchstone by which good kings are evaluated throughout the books of Kings. By contrast, Saul is troubled. In appraising these traditions, I ask my students to put Saul and David on trial and discern who the good king really was.

 

Guercino, Saul Attacking David, 1646

Jacques Joseph Tissot, Saul Sacrifices the Oxen, 1896

Rembrandt, Saul & David, 1660

There are two biblical texts that one can use to measure the integrity of a king: 1 Samuel 8 and Deuteronomy 17. To briefly summarize, 1 Samuel 8 warns against conscription (v. 11) and corveé – specifically for the purpose of plowing the fields of the king and reaping his harvest (vv. 12-13, vv. 15-17), while Deuteronomy 17 condemns the acquisition of many wives (v. 17).

With these requisites in view, a single story from the annals of Saul sets him apart from David. In 1 Samuel 11, news of the siege of Jabesh-gilead reached the king as he was “following the ox from the field” (v. 5). After hearing the news, Saul dismembered a pair of oxen and sent the pieces to the Israelites requesting their military service. As opposed to David, who took a census (2 Samuel 24), presumably to find able bodies for the overseer of forced-labor (2 Samuel 20:24) and the commander of the army, Saul worked his own fields and mustered military support. Of course, a worthy litigator cannot, among other things, overlook the biblical claim that Saul had one wife (1 Samuel 14:15), while David had several (2 Samuel 16:22), and the issue of the household idol used to facilitate David’s escape from Saul’s men in 1 Samuel 19.

Though the evidence may not resolve the question of who the good king was, the exercise offers an example of how educators can used the Bible to teach students how to read deeply, to compile evidence from a variety of perspectives, and to use that evidence to challenge accepted paradigms.

Image courtesy of Brendon C. Benz

Again, the leading themes in the Bible and its interpretation are important on literary, historical, and theological levels. However, if they are received without challenge – if they are accepted absent a hermeneutic of suspicion – the reader will fail to hear the opposing voices that are embedded in the text. By contrast, if one approaches the text critically, it can serve as an important tool for helping ourselves and our students develop skills for disentangling the web of information with which we are confronted, of recognizing the potentially negative impact of prevailing storylines, and of hearing alternative points of view – even if we do not agree with them.

Brendon C. Benz is Assistant Professor of Religion at William Jewell College

 

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