I’m guessing any of us who teach biblical studies to students primarily (or exclusively) familiar with Christianity have heard from them at one point or another those “big picture” sentences that invite un-teaching. You know the ones: the common misconceptions about scriptures shared by Jews and Christians. “The Christian Bible is the Jewish Bible plus the New Testament.” “The Jewish Bible is the Christian Bible minus Jesus.” “The Old Testament and the Tanakh are the same.” Yet in reality none of these equations adds up. The overlapping table of contents is illusive. The Tanakh and Old Testament, while both “Bible,” are fundamentally different bodies of literature—in no small part because Jews and Christians make meaning differently from the shared sacred texts.
How can we help students talk about “the Bible” in a way that recognizes rather than obscures diversity? In a way that grants agency to a variety of stakeholders? In a way that avoids flattening what is significant, distinct, and interesting about each community’s Bible? How can we represent—and respect—multiplicity? In what follows, I offer one pop culture analogy that, in its hyperbole, has proven useful in helping my students think about what not to do.
In my experience, it is easy for students familiar with Christianity (or those who have internalized Christian universalism) to overlay an Old Testament narrative on top of the Tanakh. When that happens, it is easier still for Christians to wonder why their Jewish friends don’t see their own sacred texts as pointing toward Jesus. It is so obvious to them that they cannot see the collapsing they have (inadvertently) done. Meaning is static. Ambiguity is unthinkable. Empathy is near impossible.
And that’s why I show my students one of the funniest, most squirm-in-your-seat uncomfortable television clips I have ever seen.
Hear me out. The comedic television sitcom Community (2009 – 2015), created by Dan Harmon, centers on a lovable crew of misfits whose members, through inventive circumstances to-each-their-own, wound up attending the fictional Greendale Community College. Frequently playing with genre and mocking both traditional sitcom tropes and “p.c.” sensitivities, Community follows the misadventures of one particular study group, comprised of six characters seemingly chosen precisely because of their differences from one another. Our group is diverse in terms of sex, race, religion, age, politics, values, interests, social engagement style, and secrets. It is a melting pot of adult learners. Pierce, played by a gray-haired Chevy Chase, is the anti-charmer everyone hates to love—an ignorant iconoclast uninhibited by the social pressures that would typically suppress the voicing of disrespectful opinions. Deliverer of lines that are simultaneously groan-inducing and devilishly funny in context, he is racist, sexist, and desperate to fit in. And he is in—most of the time.
In an episode titled “Football, Feminism and You” (season 1, episode 6), the dean of Greendale, a character in more ways than one, enlists Pierce to help design the school’s new mascot. They are now, he says, the “Greendale Human Beings.” They need a symbol that will “reflect the diversity of our school and our species.” A “white guy,” as Pierce had originally drawn, will not do; neither will any mascot that is particular to one race “or creed.” This mascot has to represent everyone.
What unfolds next is an uncomfortable cross between an art project and a math problem. The dean and Pierce stare at a vaguely-human-shaped outline on a white board flanked by posters displaying movable parts meant to offer a variety of options for skin tone, eye shape, hair color, and other human characteristics. They are experimenting with different combinations. Another character, Jeff, walks in and gawks in disbelief, allowing us viewers to vicariously release some of the pressure caused by our own inevitable shock at this scene. The dean excitedly reiterates their project: “We are developing the perfect mascot. No stereotypical identifiers from any race or gender.”
As the camera moves closer to the disembodied human features, we see that some of them have been organized into categories: “African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Asian, Caucasian.” Even more irreverent is an adjacent chart that contains (what Pierce goes on to matter-of-factly name as) characteristics they are “staying away from”: “Pan-Asian eye folds,” “Irish chins,” “women’s breasts.” We next see the “human color wheel,” which ranges, the dean says, “from Seal to Seal’s teeth.” Uncomfortabler and uncomfortabler. Jeff, whose wide eyes seem not to have blinked through this entire explanation, utters a line to no one in particular: “I think ‘not-being-racist’ is the new racism.” His diagnosis points to the absurdity of their project. No matter how well intentioned their aims, the mechanics of their efforts make for something viscerally offensive.
They finish it, though. When they present their “ethnically neutral mascot” just prior to a pep rally, two characters recoil. One screams in terror at the result. The mascot appears as a person in a skin-tight, stark white full-body suit that betrays no hint of sexual difference (though it seems to be a man underneath the costume). There is no hair, not even eyebrows. The eyes are wide-set, empty, blacked-out, without the ability to blink. In fact, it cannot see, having to be guided around because the costume obscures its vision. Where the lips should be is an oversized mouth-shaped black smudge. It cannot talk; it makes muffled sounds beneath the outfit. This mascot looks less like a human being and more like a cross between an evil, monochromatic clown and a witless ghost. It is humanlike and at the same time not human at all. It is familiar yet horrifying. By trying to represent everyone, they have created something that represents no one.
Oblivious to their repulsion, Pierce walks away self-satisfied. Under his breath he congratulates himself: “We solved racism! What’s next?”
The attempt to create a single mascot for Greendale Community College that captures the full spectrum of human diversity fails. It more than fails. It leads to a result that is barely recognizable. Their quest to capture variety attempts to do so by opting for compression, which results in erasure of difference, rather than simultaneous multiplicity. The hyperbolic offensiveness of their art project serves, I think, to demonstrate the impossibility of their solution to the math problem they’ve set out to solve. One plus one plus one cannot equal one.
Neither does the Old Testament equal the Tanakh. They are not one.
Furthermore, it is easy for students to see that the Greendale “human being” mascot, created by two white men, winds up looking uncannily white and vaguely male. If it looks like any human, it looks like its creators. (Christian) students’ instinct to think of “the Bible” as being the same for everyone, and furthermore of their Bible, their Old Testament, as representative of all Bibles, including the Jewish Bible, is not unlike what our Community characters have done. They have taken a multivalent category (Bible/human) and fashioned, with themselves at the center (!), a falsely “universal” exemplar that they then take to be both generic and reflective of everyone.
In order to think well about our world, to engage in meaningful intellectual exchange, and, well, to achieve basic biblical literacy, we all need conceptual space for the possibility of polyvalence. Making sameness out of difference is not a solution to racism, and making one’s own Bible (whatever Bible that may be) into “everyone’s Bible”—the Bible—is as serious a miscalculation as Greendale’s “human being.”
Jill Hicks-Keeton is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma
 This piece is adapted from a portion of a forthcoming book chapter: “Christian Supersessionism and the Problem of Diversity at the Museum of the Bible,” in The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, eds. Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon (Lanham: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic).
 I teach biblical studies at the University of Oklahoma, a public institution located in the so-called “Bible Belt.” Though OU is a secular school, many of my students are Christians or have some historical relationship to Christianity because of its geographical location. This piece will be most relevant for teachers who teach a similar religious demographic (whether in a confessional or non-confessional setting).
 For a fuller description of the show and its characters, see Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz, TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time (New York: Grand Central Publishing), 213-15.