How do you appropriately celebrate the 30th year of a college course that has had a significant impact on the life and faith of nearly 6,000 students who have put in hours of hard work and come away with a broader worldview and greater biblical understanding?
A brand new, first-time-ever textbook for the course seems like a great start.
This fall, students in Hesston College’s famous Introduction to Biblical Literature class received copies of the first print run of The Bible as Story: An Introduction to Biblical Literature as their textbook. Fittingly, the book is co-authored by former and current Hesston College faculty members Marion Bontrager, Michele Hershberger and John Sharp, who have more than 45 years of combined experience teaching the course.
From its start in 1986 to August 2016 when the book first came off the press, Bib Lit students remember the course manual as loose-leaf sheets of paper contained in three-ring binders. That content was rich with biblical insight and a unique way of presenting the biblical story and its inspiring concept of Heilsgeschichte – salvation history, which is more than just history “but a kind of confession of faith and proclamation of Yahweh and salvation,” as Bontrager writes in the book’s introduction. The book contains the same wisdom and innovation, just in a different format.
“The binder was more notes, and our lectures filled in the gaps,” said Hershberger. “We took what was in the notebook and refined it into this single resource, which better solidifies for our students this very unique method of teaching the Bible. We took the time and effort needed to really make this a fine, well-researched book that ties together well what Bib Lit is.”
A Bib Lit book had been an aspiration for the faculty authors for several years, but the time needed to make it a reality was difficult to find with already busy teaching, speaking and other writing commitments for each of them.
It was the encouragement from fellow faculty member, published author and owner of the independent Workplay Publishing, André Swartley, that inspired them to move ahead. The fact that it was published in time for the 30th anniversary of the course was coincidence.
“One of my motivations for getting [the authors] together to do the book was as an academic advisor to the international students who have to take Bib Lit to graduate,” said Swartley, who teaches English as a Second Language courses at Hesston. “Many of them have never even seen a Bible and Bib Lit is difficult for them, so I thought, ‘How can we make a more user-friendly resource for these students, which will, in turn, benefit everyone?’”
In his role at Workplay, Swartley helped walk the authors through the process of writing, editing and publishing the book, which was published in cooperation with Hesston College.
Bontrager’s brainchild, Bib Lit was started as a way to ensure that students would receive biblical teaching from an Anabaptist perspective as part of their core curriculum. It is now an iconic part of the Hesston Experience as well as a required class for graduation.
The approach to teaching the Bible is unique when compared to many other Bible classes, and consists of three parts: story, method (inductive study) and hermeneutics (interpretation). It reveals the Bible as a narrative of God and the people of God instead of a compilation of stories.
“Bib Lit is focused on story rather than on book,” said Bontrager, who retired from teaching in May 2014. “It’s not so much about the Bible as the content of the Bible. It is Christo-centric with Jesus connected to the Old Testament story, and with a historic Jesus who is integral to daily life. It provides foundational context. It also builds a foundation for critical thinking and analysis when studying the Bible or in any area of life or academics.”
“We are realizing that even our Christian students come in not really understanding ‘the Big Story,’ added Sharp. “They know individual stories, but they do not understand the big story and how all the stories work together to create the big story. That’s what makes this a very unique class.”
While the book was created as a teaching tool, the authors are hopeful and expectant that it will have an impact beyond the Hesston College classroom. Both Bontrager and Hershberger have presented the Bib Lit curriculum in congregations across the United States for several years. The advent of the book will make the presentations more convenient and succinct and offer the opportunity for congregations, small groups or individuals to explore the content on their own.
In summer 2016, Hershberger used an early print version of the book to present Bib Lit at Germantown Mennonite Historic Trust in Philadelphia, Pa., to 15 people from 10 congregations throughout greater Philadelphia.
“That Philly class was the inaugural class with the book, and it went really well,” said Hershberger. “We know it works with an adult audience, and they really appreciated it. I think what they will do now is they’ll take it and adapt it to their own context in their Sunday school classes and in their preaching.”
While the many possibilities with the new text remain to be more fully realized, it’s clear that Bib Lit will continue to be foundational and impact the lives and faith journeys of students in the college classroom and beyond.
“It’s so rewarding to see students make new connections with the Bible,” said Bontrager. “If it also contributes to more storytelling in the church, that will be a very nice spin off.”
The Bible as Story is available for purchase through the Bookstore.