An experiment that failed?

In my New Testament class, I had the students watch three films — The Last Temptation of Christ, Cool Hand Luke, and Monty Python’s Life of Brian — and choose one of them to compare to one of the canonical gospels. I’ll admit that my initial motivation for using this assignment was that I’d come up with a course idea for “Jesus in Film” and wanted to be able to use at least some of the ideas, but I think it fits well with one of the main purposes any responsible New Testament course has to achieve: getting the students to recognize the different perspectives of the gospel writers.

The tendency toward harmonization is very strong, particularly among the synoptic gospels (admittedly with some justification), but my thought in choosing the three films I did — namely, a very controversial reimagining, a translation into a different cultural setting, and a satire — was that it would provide them with very clear examples of visions of Jesus that challenge the canonical gospels, which would then hopefully provide greater plausibility to the idea that the canonical gospels themselves would be potentially challenging each other or at least offering differing perspectives.

In actuality, though, most of the students did the exact opposite: they harmonized the gospels with the movies. In the case of students who chose Life of Brian, the missed opportunity is devestating — the Monty Python group is launching a full-on satirical attack at the very idea of a messiah who dies for his people, and the best many of them can do is to point out that Brian is, despite it all, very similar to the canonical Jesus. The students who did Last Temptation were somewhat better, and in fact one of them harmonized it with the Gospel of John in what was truly, for an undergrad paper, a tour-de-force that actually spurred my thinking (obviously this is the dream, right?). With the students who addressed Cool Hand Luke and got beyond listing similarities, there was a general tendency to view Luke as more appealing than Jesus, because he was a regular human being and didn’t have divine back-up — but even there, they often showed a tendency to want to play down contrasts.

There are some things I could’ve done differently. First of all, obviously one could always do more in terms of instruction — I could’ve tried to go through the gospels in more detail, played up the differences more, etc. In retrospect, assigning the Q document and the Gospel of Thomas was a waste of time in this regard and I should’ve dug in more with the canonical gospels. In terms of the assignment itself, I think it would’ve made more sense to have them choose between the image of Jesus in either the synoptics all together (since they were having trouble seeing the synoptics as anything other than just the same thing over and over and over…) or John — or I guess simply the contrast with “the traditional view of Jesus,” though that would take me beyond the bounds of the course.

11 thoughts on “An experiment that failed?

  1. Adam, given their propensity to harmonise, how about a class or two using a synopsis to engage your very naughty students in a close reading of several salient pericopae, so as to expose the distinctiveness of each evangelist?

    A professor of English at a distinguished American university, a very old friend of mine, tells me that the first thing that he has to teach his undergraduates is – how to read! I’m sure you catch his drift.

  2. Kim, More concentrated side-by-side comparisons are a good idea. I did a lot of that in lecture, but making it a group exercise would probably be helpful, too.

    I do agree with your friend — in fact, my “teaching philosophy” (for job applications) is that education in the humanities is a continuation of the process of learning to read.

    Adhunt, Thanks — feel free to share your thoughts on the topic as well. I need all the help I can get.

  3. Well Adam my own opinions are quite untested and likely too impish as I’m still very much a student. I currently spend most of my time thinking about Latin and Greek pedagogy as I’m taking Latin with an oaf and Greek with an attentive and intelligent lady, so I like to compare notes. I’ve determined that to teach a Classical language you have to be a really nice dick; patient with the extended difficulty but crisp enough to direct attention in the right places.

    If my own experience in my recent sociology course is any indicator of current undergrad students then I think Kim is right on: These kids need to be taught how to read and think before they can be asked to perform even basic tasks; in my case a simple reading of Debord ;)

  4. I’m jealous of people who can teach something relatively straightforward like classical languages — not that it’s easy, but that mastery is more easily measurable. (The closest I came to that was a “memorization exam” over classical orthodoxy and the various heresies, and it was satisfying to be able to see that the knowledge-transfer was successful.)

  5. That’s unfortunate it failed.

    I wonder if it’s just students, or if it’s larger than that too — Stephen Prothero as I recall, argues in American Jesus that Americans can and have compulsively harmonized Jesus with just about everything.

  6. Adam-

    I think this is a great idea in a NT course, and I appreciate you sharing your results with the rest of us. Its nice to see such a reflective approach to teaching! I have to say that it does not surprise me that this assignment was over their heads a bit, but I am still thinking about a similar type of usage of “The Simpsons” in a discussion of popular conceptions of God. Your thoughts here will be helpful as I think about how to pull that off effectively.

    Out of curiosity, are you using a textbook (other than the New Testament, of course)? I am having difficulty finding a decent undergraduate text for a non-major NT class, to the point where I am considering just dropping a textbook requirement altogether. Any thoughts?

  7. I’ve been using Bart Ehrman’s “Brief Introduction,” but I’m on the fence as to whether I’d use it again. In my case, it might be helpful for the students as I tend to be pretty one-sidedly liberation-oriented, whereas he’s moderate-to-conservative — but he’s really not good at portraying the full range of debate, much too quick to put forward his own conclusion as an established fact.

  8. I wonder if a better approach might be to just assign a good overview of 2nd Temple Judaism and various secondaries on parts of the NT — I decided to do the movies instead of a secondary on the Gospels as such (figuring the textbook would cover that adequately), but I did a secondary on both Paul and Revelation. Of course, then I’d have to be able to find a good overview of 2nd Temple Judaism….

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