Last year, I learned that the best way to encourage my students to approach ancient sources seriously, critically, and honestly was to let them run wild and turn them into NPR segments, YouTube clips, and Spoken Word poems. In the process, they became exegetes, redactors, historians, critics, and theologians.
In a course titled “Sacred Texts of the Mideast,” my students read narratives about the origins of the universe and the creation of humanity in a range of texts from the ancient and medieval Middle East. We began with Babylonian creation myths such as Enuma Elish and worked our way through Genesis, Psalms, Wisdom literature, Jubilees, Philo, Paul and the Gospel of John, Revelation, Athanasius and Augustine, the Nag Hammadi codices, rabbinic sources, Jewish and Christian liturgical poetry, Manichaean and Zoroastrian texts, Qur’an and hadith, al-Tabari and Ikhwan al-Safa, and Maimonides. Each week, my students wrote response papers to practice analyzing our sources carefully and critically. When it came to their final projects, though, I wanted them to approach these same sources from a different perspective – a personal one.
Given that the subject of the course was creation, I thought it fitting that the final assignment be a creative project. My students were free to create almost anything, as long as it seriously and meaningfully engaged with the texts and themes that we read and discussed together in class. I told them that this was an opportunity for them to draw on the textual, material, and artistic sources at the heart of our course, and to reflect on them in ways that empower and interest them on a personal and intellectual level. In addition to producing the creative project itself, they were asked to write a creator’s statement explaining what they tried to accomplish, the sources behind their project and how they interpreted them and their creative process.
On the day of their in-class presentations, my students blew me away: their projects were smart, thoughtful, funny, and moving, and they far exceeded my expectations. I realized that when students become personally invested in a project, they dig deep, they read carefully, they notice details. Going into the course, I feared that my students might not take a creative project seriously, that they might avoid the texts altogether. But the assignment had the opposite effect. Once my students could tap into their passions – dance, radio, sculpture, math, creative writing, history, photography, music, computer programming – they returned to the ancient texts with true curiosity because they were now using the sources to create their own stories, and in order to do that, they needed to understand them. It became a chance for them to think through the material in creative ways that came from their hearts and their brains.
I am often asked about how I approached grading these projects. It was a task that was more straightforward than I expected it to be. The assignment constituted 20% of the final course grade, along with class participation, weekly response papers, a traditional paper based on artifacts examined on a class visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a final exam, for which students were responsible for key terms, dates and maps, close analysis of texts using the reading strategies they learned, and synthesis of themes from our semester. That is to say, the creative project was one component among many that factored into a student’s final grade. The assignment grade itself was based on four criteria: (1) the creativity of the piece (the artistic or technical execution, the aesthetic presentation, or the creative conception); (2) the meaningful and sustained engagement with texts and themes from the course (how the student synthesized, challenged, or built upon what he or she learned in the class); (3) the effort and time devoted to creating something of interest (whether through research, thought, or the creative project itself); and (4) the quality of writing, content and analysis in the creator’s statement. The creator’s statement, a few pages in length, provided the necessary background and analysis for me, as an instructor, to understand and appreciate each piece, and gave the students an opportunity to articulate the intellectual contribution that their piece made in the context of our course. While the assignment encouraged students to use their own personal reactions to the course materials and their own academic and extracurricular interests as starting points for their projects, this written component required them to move beyond the personal and impressionistic, and explicitly to return to the sources with which their piece engaged and to think carefully about how their personal engagement shed new light on the ancient materials and commented upon and complicated previous readings and interpretations. There were projects that were more or less sophisticated in their approach to the texts and themes of the course, that were more or less successful in advancing ideas and arguments, and so on. When I took into account the four criteria on which I based my grading, the process for determining grades for each piece was similar to grading more traditional writing assignments, even though the final grades were based on far more than the written word.
Below, I discuss a number of different projects and the various issues and questions that the students raised through them. I taught about 70 students, and each one created a different project, so what I have compiled below is a small sample. Among the projects that I could not include below were websites, documentaries, graphic stories, drawings and paintings, timelines, board games and video games, musical pieces, short stories, twitter accounts, a screenplay, and traditional research papers.
Marykate wrote an imaginative dialogue between different characters we encountered in our sources. In Marykate’s dialogue, different divine figures call a meeting to determine how to explain the process of creation to humankind. One day, Marykate showed up at my department office with a big dilemma: she wasn’t sure whether to combine the god in the Hebrew Bible with the god in the Qur’an into a single character. Having heard throughout her life that “everyone worships essentially the same God,” she had thought that she should collapse them into a single god, until she realized that they each had strong – and conflicting – opinions about how creation ought to be narrated. Once we decided to separate them into two characters, she named the god from the Qur’an “Allah,” but realized that it was not so clear what to name the god from the Hebrew Bible, not least because that god has many names, and two of them - YHWH and Elohim - each appears in separate accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2! So here we were, in the thick of a theological discussion, all because it turns out that the question of God’s identity is indeed a complicated one when one sits to write a dialogue and articulate, from a divine perspective, the story of creation. In the final draft of the dialogue, Marykate’s divine figures debate who created the world (a God? Wisdom? The Word? The Pen?), how the world was created (the logos model? the agon model?), and the nature of the creation of humankind. One detail about which all the characters agree is that it is best to split the creation story into seven days, because they all have affection for the number 7. But when Elohim/ YHWH suggest that they should tell humankind that the divinity rested on the seventh day, and that humans should rest too, Allah reminds them that he “wasn’t the least bit fatigued after creation” and wouldn’t necessarily want to institute a seventh day of rest. At another point in the dialogue, Wisdom gets offended that her role is far too often sidelined by the others, and Marduk insists that the world be created out of a female body (Tiamat’s), but no one agrees with him. The debates, and contradictions, continue. Marykate ends her dialogue as follows:
The Word: Can someone please acknowledge that I deserve a place in the creation story?
Allah: I offered you the pen idea!
The Word: I am not a pen!
Elohim/Yahweh: Enough! Why don’t we all just write down our own stories? That way Wisdom and Word can be the main characters of their stories, I can get my day of rest, Marduk can make Earth out of whoever’s body he wants!
The Word: Fine. The humans can choose to follow whichever story they want to believe in.
Marduk: I’m sure the humans will figure out that all of this is simply a metaphoric representation anyways. This shouldn’t cause any problems for them later on, right?
Rebecca worked at the campus radio station, and for her final project she produced a radio show with three segments: an interview with Adam, an interview with Eve, and reporting from within a rabbinic bet midrash. The host begins: “Hello, and welcome to God Talk. We have an interesting show lined up for you this week as we try to figure out what was going on when God created the world. Later in the show, we’ll hear from the first woman, Eve… but right now, I’ve got the first man, Adam, in the studio with me.” The host poses many questions to Adam, for example: “I know you weren’t created yet, but what can you tell me about how God created the world? Some accounts say he battled great sea monsters, Leviathan, in order to do what he did. Was this what happened?” Alluding to the tension between the creation accounts in Genesis and Psalms, Adam responds: “No, no, nothing like that. I know what you’re talking about, I’ve seen those stories – nothing but propaganda! Before the world was created, there was just nothing, or so I understand… NO, there wasn’t some big battle at the beginning of time. God just wanted to create the world, so he did…” The host replies with another question: “You say just God created the world. How do the angels play into this? There have been some conflicting accounts that I’ve heard, even a few within the lines of Genesis [e.g. Gen 1:26-7]. What exactly was the role they played in creation?” Adam responds, this time alluding to a series of rabbinic midrashim in which God consults the angels, who advise God against creating humans: “Don’t get me started about the angels. They’re just a bunch of stuck up idiots who got jealous that God decided to create man and he liked us better. Have you read that junk they were telling Moses? They were trying to play up their own importance, and really… they can’t even think for themselves. Ya, God tried to consult them about creating man, but they just wouldn’t stop arguing. So set in their ways that talking to them is just pointless…” The interview continues, and Adam is grilled about several other complications within the Genesis narrative and its history of interpretation. In the second segment, Eve contradicts almost everything that Adam says in the first. Eve, in this radio show, is not simply the character from Genesis but also the daughter of Pistis Sophia as described in a number of texts found within the fourth-century Nag Hammadi codices from Upper Egypt. Eve explains to the host that a lot of the story “didn’t make it into your canon because it involves Wisdom,” a female character. When asked why Adam might have told the story about Eve’s creation out of his rib, Eve answers with a number of serious, historical possibilities and then adds: “It makes him feel better about himself when I beat him at chess.” In the third segment, the host doesn’t get very far asking the rabbis for their account of the world’s creation – the rabbis in the yeshiva can’t, after all, study creation in large groups according to their own laws outlined in tractate Hagigah of the Mishnah! Rebecca cleverly pits Genesis against the Nag Hammadi codices, the rabbinic midrashim against biblical verses. Rather than harmonizing the sources, this radio show reflects on contradictions between texts, the authoritative status of canonical and non-canonical sources, cultural-historical reasons for preferred interpretations, the social circumstances of ideas, and the long afterlife of narratives in a playful and humorous way.
Andrew became curious about the circumstances that may have led Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, to write his 39th festal letter banning certain texts that the bishop deemed heretical and outlining those that he considered canonical. What might have happened that led Athanasius to send such an exhaustive and adamant letter? Andrew notes that Athanasius issued his letter in 367 CE, a half a century after his treatise On the Incarnation of the Word was written, which itself was written about a half a century after On the Origins of the World, a text discovered at Nag Hammadi. Based on this chronology, Andrew imagines a trial to have taken place in which On the Origins of the World is condemned as heresy, a decision that then leads Athanasius to send out a letter alerting bishops and others about all the banned texts. It must have been alarming, according to Andrew’s imaginative reconstruction, for Athanasius to see that a text about the world’s creation – a text he considered heretical – would still be widely read a century after its composition and half a century after his own exegetical work had supposedly put the matter to rest; in other words, Athanasius felt a sense of urgency to correct an account of creation that, in his mind, conflicted with the Word of God. In a long trial summation and verdict, Andrew compares the two texts and highlights passages that stand at odds with one another, pointing towards exegetical and theological discrepancies between the two authors. This exercise allowed Andrew closely to read two texts alongside one another, and also to think through a range of historical circumstances that may have led Athanasius to send a letter with such a strong message directed against the devotional texts of a particular religious sect. It is a decidedly imaginative exercise - he does not claim to be reconstructing history - but imagining the circumstances in which ancient texts were composed allowed him to read them in new ways.
Dayna used dance to animate a creation narrative. She began by editing together different passages from the ancient texts we studied together in class to create a new composite creation story; she then recorded herself reciting the text, paired the narrative with modern dance clips, and set the piece to music. The end result was a stunning 2-minute film. In her creator’s statement, Dayna explained that her creative process intentionally mimicked the process of textual production we had discussed in class (“the sources are broken up and redacted together”), and that she tried to replicate through artistic creation the way that some sources, including Philo, envisioned God’s process of creating the universe: “before beginning, I envisioned the final, perfect product in my mind. The first part, the poem, resembles the blueprint of the final project… like an architect, I then put the pieces together to match my mind’s blueprint. First, the poem was translated into spoken word. This is similar to the logos model of creation, in which God’s divine and authoritative word physically creates the world. Similarly, my voice catalyzes the next stage of creation – the addition of dancers… Finally, I made the beginning and end of the dance videos the same; the first two clips are also the last two clips. This is due to the readings, such as Revelation and Jubilees, which relate the beginning of the world to the end of the world… they both start and end with an abyss of darkness.”
Nishat boldly stood in front of the class and declared that she had created a sculpture titled “The Universe’s Vagina.” The piece had a wood base and metal mesh sculpted into waves, which were painted blue from the outside but oozing with red paint from the inside. On top of the waves there was foam, and if one looked directly into the center of the piece from above, one could see a number of babies tearing their way through the center. The waves recalled the role of water in various creation narratives (e.g. Genesis, Enuma Elish) as well as the amniotic fluid within a mother’s womb, and the contradicting nature of water as a creative and destructive force (e.g. Atrahasis, 2 Peter). The blood recalled both menstruation and the birthing process. The combination of water and blood served as a meditation on women’s simultaneous power and vulnerability as a result of their life-bearing capacities. Nish wrote in her creator’s statement: “The ability to give life is simultaneously empowering and debilitating in regards to woman. Women have the power to push newborn humans out of their bodies and create life. However, this amazing gift has been depicted as a burden and curse, in texts such as Genesis and Jubilees. Along with childbirth itself, menstruation, which indicates a woman’s ability to bear children, is also depicted as a punishment for Eve’s sin and a sign of impurity (e.g. rabbinic midrash). Similarly the role of water is self-contradicting in that it is this all-powerful force of nature that has the ability to create and destroy. Water is used to create the universe in texts such as Enuma Elish, but it can also be depicted as destructive in texts such as Atrahasis and 2 Peter 3.” Nishat’s piece tied together themes from across several texts to make a statement about women’s power and powerlessness as it is expressed in the sources we read in class.
Kathryn, a math major, was nervous about the idea of a creative project. But one of the themes to which our class discussions returned, over and over again, was the centrality of numbers in accounts of creation – Genesis, Jubilees, Enumah Elish, Philo, Revelation, Isaiah, the Qur’an, al-Tabari, and other texts meticulously record the chronology of the world’s creation, the number of things created on each day, and so on. Drawing inspiration from the collection of historical timelines in Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton’s Cartographies of Time (2010) and the fact that the linear timeline itself is quite a modern idea with a fascinating history, Kathryn created a double-helix spiral timeline in which she compared the creation accounts of Genesis and Jubilees. This project allowed Kathryn to research the different visual models for depicting the passage of time, consider which visualization might best suit the comparison she sought to make between two contradictory accounts of the world’s creation, and then closely to compare the two texts’ chronologies of creation and the additional numerical dimensions of their creation narratives. She added numerical information from other texts as well, highlighting the areas in which the accounts overlapped and where each text departed from the others.
Genevieve stood at the front of a room full of classmates and performed a spoken word poem titled “Pronouns,” about the power of the spoken word, word choice, gender, and androgyny in Genesis, Proverbs, and the Gospel of John, and their relevance to contemporary debates on and off campus about gender identity. In the creator’s statement, Genevieve wrote that “The act of speaking, the question of gender, and the relationship each of these has to creation were the integral points I wanted to deal with in my project. It only seemed natural that a poem about the power of the act of speaking should be a spoken word poem, a performed poem.” Genevieve found particular inspiration in Phyllis Trible’s short piece about gender in Genesis, and in the idea that early interpretations of texts can obscure competing narratives that promote other ideas. Genevieve took seriously Trible’s focus on language, and on the Hebrew terms of the creation story in Genesis, but also pushed Trible’s analysis further, challenging Trible about gender dichotomies. In the poem, Genevieve identifies with the first human creation, before “male and female he created them,” and with the idea that in Genesis God creates the world through speech, using spoken language to bring the world into being, an idea that Genevieve turned on its head by insisting that yes, we bring worlds and people and their identities into being with the words – and pronouns – by which we call them. In the statement, Genevieve added: “I believe that language is not neutral, and speaking is not neutral; language is a force for change, and for creation, and I believe that narrating our stories and our lives—communicating our lived experiences to others—is a radical act. This idea resonates deeply with the idea that the world was literally brought into being by the words spoken by God, the logos model of creation. It’s also very much an activist’s perspective, and I am that, as well. We should be able to find in whatever texts we call sacred the things that we are seeking, should find in them an affirmation of our existence and our humanity. And if I cannot find myself in the stories I am taught about creation, I will take it into my hands to reread them, retell them, and narrate them in my own voice, for myself and for those seeking the same thing I am.” Genevieve’s poem is reproduced below.
by Genevieve McNamara
It starts with a word
Or at least, that’s one version of the story
But it’s one I’ve always liked
Always liked the idea that if we somehow listened close enough
We could maybe still hear the echoes
It starts with a word, and then the light, and then the dust
Starts with the water
Starts with mud, with clay, or however you want to call it
But call it something
Give it a name
Because it starts with a word
And that’s how humans end up working we start with words
But sometimes I suspect we’re a little too obsessed with labeling things that don’t belong to us
We get too caught up speaking
And forget to listen
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God
In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And Xe said -
So it starts with a word. Says let there be light let there be firmament let there be waters above and below let it start from a word.
Let you all listen.
Let creation begin.
There are waters here and words and dust
Let me make people
Let me make adham
In the beginning was the Word,
And from it sprang all life connected
We are less special than we think we are
I know no better place to find God than the heart of a tree
Than the living Earth
Have never really found God in churches
I grew up Irish Catholic
I grew up “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”
I grew up God the Father, God the Father, God the Father, blessed be He.
I wear a pin on my jacket that says “they/ them.”
These are the pronouns I prefer people use for me.
These are not the pronouns people usually use for me.
They say God made Adam, then sent him sleeping took his rib and from that flesh made Eve
That man is the dust of the Earth but woman is his flesh but I don’t know what I’m made out of
Earth, maybe, but before it had the bone taken out of it
I am not between man and woman maybe
I have in me spirit
If there’s anything that made me it was the very words spoken at the beginning
Because it starts with a word
Xe was with God in the beginning the Word became flesh and made Xeir dwelling among us I came forth from the mouth of the most high and covered the earth like a mist
And if you believe God is small enough to fit inside the idea of gender
If you think such a singular set of pronouns is enough for divinity
I encourage you to go outside
And lay your hand flat against the bark of a tree
To let a flower rest against your fingertips
And feel the life that is inside of them
Do you feel the words pulsing underneath your skin?
They are everywhere
You are part of this
Didn’t come with the light and the waters
With the dust and the word
It came later
We started off just human
Because I believe in a God who made an existence like mine first
Not because I think this way is better than anyone else’s
But because I will believe in a God who will affirm that I exist
If I will believe in any God
Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an Assistant Professor in Fordham University's Theology Department.
All student work was posted with formal written consent.