Some days my students leave me wondering if they've gotten anything at all out of class. Other days, they take my breath away. Yesterday was one of the latter. It didn't turn out the way I anticipated, but it was easily one of the best classroom days I have ever had.
We've spent the last two weeks discussing some key Old Testament texts, like the creation stories and the Exodus narrative. Yesterday's plan was to wrap up with the book of Job, one of the most challenging books in the Bible. Toward the end of each session, I tried to bring the class around to a couple of big questions (this is, after all, a reading skills class): how does this text portray God, and why is it part of the Bible (i.e., what are we supposed to learn from it?)?
The second of those questions takes on even greater importance when the text that the students have to wrestle with raises difficult issues or questions. Asking students to think about the significance of the text helps them get past the obvious answers to some of the difficulties they find. Last year's classes were really bothered by some of the things that God does in the Exodus story and by the way he is portrayed in the book of Job, so I was expecting that the two sections I am teaching this year would raise similar issues. Accordingly, I reviewed last year's notes and incorporated some comments from outside discussions into my plans to strengthen the emphasis on the dangers of trying to create for ourselves an image of God that we like and can accept on our terms. After all, I planned to point out, doesn't this process invert the Creator/creation relationship and violate the first commandment? And looking back to the creation accounts, if the Scriptures teach that God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, shouldn't we expect to encounter aspects of the divine nature that are difficult for our finite human minds to understand? Indeed, the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which Catholics don't accept, so using this one in class is a bit sticky) says that God has planned everything for His own glory (see question 7).
This was where I expected the class to go. It's not an answer that satisfies everybody--or even most people--but it's consistent with the rest of divine revelation and maintains the distinction between human beings and God. And I'm wary of providing pat answers--I'd much rather see that my students are wrestling with the difficult questions on their own and making the transition from a "borrowed" faith (from their parents, their previous schooling, or wherever) to an owned faith. If some of them radically alter their beliefs in a way that I don't like, at least they are thinking for themselves. I thought I was as well-prepared as I could possibly be, so I braved the elements (5" of snow and limited bus service) and headed off for campus.
I should have remembered the first rule of teaching young adults: never assume that you know where a class will lead.
My honors section was first. As expected, they pointed out all of the difficulties with the text and we had a good discussion. As the end of our time approached, I asked the First Big Question: "Why do you think the book of Job was included in the Bible?" A few students offered their observations: "the problem of suffering is always relevant," "it gives us a picture of what it means to have faith," etc. Then one of my best thinkers said, "I think it makes us ask ourselves why we worship God, and we need to wrestle with the question to make sure that we don't worship an incorrect mental image of God." "Check," I thought, "and I didn't even have to prompt them to go there. So far, so good." I asked the Second Big Question: "What is the image of God that we get from this text?" I expected things would get sticky at this point, but again, they picked up on the transcendent/immanent point right away without any prompting. "Excellent," I thought, "checkmate. But they don't seem to be all that disturbed by the text. What are they really thinking?" The "purpose of God" angle didn't feel right with this bunch--since they weren't really struggling with that issue--so I passed on it and asked instead, "Where do you see the immanence of God in this text?"
I was expecting an answer along the lines of "God speaks with Job at the end of the book," and I was not disappointed. Then came the breathtaking moment that I had not planned for. "I think we see God's immanence in this text because at the beginning of the story, God already knows that Job will pass the test," said The Thinker. "So in the end, it's not as cruel of God as we think it is, because he knows what Job can handle. He knows Job."
I was absolutely speechless.
And it's not even that profound an answer. It's right there, at the beginning of the book, where it's always been every time I've read it before. So why didn't I see it?
Maybe it's because we spend so much time analyzing the theology of Job and his friends in the bulk of the book, or because we tend to write off the interaction between God and Satan that sets up the story as less real or significant. Maybe it's because we get sidetracked trying to explain why the "blameless servant of God" ends up repenting at the end of the book. Or maybe it's because we tend to feel bludgeoned by all the descriptions of God's omnipotence and transcendence. Whatever the reason, I'd somehow missed this one during all my "preparations" for class.
Now I have another question. I get paid to teach the class. Should I share the proceeds of yesterday's labor with the entire class? Good teaching is as much about learning together as it is about preparing (or attempting to prepare) lesson plans, grading assignments, and taking attendance.
It's going to be a good semester. I can't wait to see what my students do with some of our other texts.