Threshold Concepts. Is The Bible Off Limits?
After reading this week’s material and watching Robert Coven’s TED talk on threshold concepts, I can’t help but share my personal journey of struggling through certain thresholds regarding my faith, and in particular Scripture in higher education. I have a deep love and respect for the Bible. I couldn’t always say this, but I appreciate its richness, complexity, and layers more than ever. However, when it comes to threshold concepts, I’ve learned the Bible is not off limits. The text doesn’t change, but our understanding of it certainly can.
Robert Coven says, “We have to challenge the limits of what we think is our understanding. We become skeptical. We become open. We become questioning…We have to get away from the obvious solutions and move toward the confusion. Understand that ultimately questions are more important than answers. Questions are really hard to come by. Once you’ve done that you’ve gone through the threshold, and you now have clarity and understanding that is deep, transformative, permanent, and transferable.” 
This week’s reading expressed a stressful, but transformative journey I began while in my undergraduate program. To back up a bit, I was raised in a small, very country town in Tennessee. Our family was heavily involved in a non-denominational church rooted in Pentecostalism, where I had some beautiful experiences with God that forever changed my life. When I announced that I was going to Bible school to pursue ministry and get a good biblical education, everyone celebrated, until I came back and began sharing what I learned.
I did in fact get a good education, that I wouldn’t change for a second, but I’ve been paying for it ever since, and I don’t mean student loans.
You just can’t unsee some things.
Because of my upbringing, I was taught the Bible was completely inerrant and fully reliable in all matters of history, morals, and theology. We took a very literal, “what you see is what you get” approach. That was my ingrained and inherited value system.
I was first introduced to the historical critical method to interpreting the Bible in undergrad and went even deeper while pursuing my masters. My education exposed me to alien ideas that Scripture could contain ancient mythology, that some books appear to have a compositional history, and that theological and moral developments seem to be at play throughout Judeo-Christian history. We also examined various ways biblical scholars have attempted to make sense of what looks like historical and literary contradictions for the last three hundred years.
Felton, describing students emotional load while learning new concepts, says, “Students often described their own learning process as ‘stressful’, ‘debilitating’, ‘frustrating,’ and ‘intensely emotional’. They reported that they were ‘shocked’, ‘upset,’ ‘hopeless,’ and ‘very anxious’.” 
Yep. That about sums up my experience.
I remember sitting in lectures not being able to connect the dots or understand why we were studying Sumerian or Babylonian creation stories when we were supposed to be studying the Hebrew creation story. This is a class on Genesis right? In some of my discussion groups I thought, “Did I read the same book as everyone else?” “I didn’t get that at all.” Eventually things started clicking and pieces fell together. It was like receiving a key that unlocked a world of understanding that was completely inaccessible before.
These biblical concepts, although old news in religious studies, were VERY new to me. Also, I’ve realized threshold concepts, are just that. Concepts. Although these novel ideas were not irrefutable facts, they challenged my previous assumptions that ancient writers sat under a bright light from heaven and wrote what God told them. This ontological shift was foreign, complex, and, at times, extremely “troublesome”.
During this journey I paused at many conceptional thresholds and asked God if I should continue. I would get a gentle nudge and kept moving forward. God has brought me comfort when I really needed it in life, but God has been notorious for kicking me right out of the nest so I’ll spread my spiritual, emotional, and intellectual wings.
Why did I need to go through this uncomfortable process? I believe this is one reason.
This week I sat with a young man that I haven’t seen for about eight years. He and his siblings were in my youth ministry. He went into the military, got honorably discharged because of an injury, and has now started college in Nashville at age 23. He is struggling with questions regarding God, biblical stories, other religions, the LGBTQ+, etc. The hot button issues these days. We spoke for around two hours, and I was able to help him navigate many of these issues from a new paradigm. I believe I was able to help him see the same texts with a new lens, because mine had been shattered years earlier.
I didn’t give him all the answers. In fact, I introduced him to some new questions. I acknowledged the things that at one point I would have defended against, dismissed, or denied. He eventually let me know, with tears in his eyes, how this conversation helped him overcome some major hurdles in his faith. This conversation, and countless others I’ve spoken with who struggle with conventional answers or Christian apologetics, would not have been possible unless I went through an educational crucible. It sounds intense, but at times it felt like that.
Regardless of what many of us affirm or deny regarding the Bible, medicine, gender, sexuality, mortality, business, technology, morals, ethics, ministry, other religions, etc. I think it’s critical that we move into uncomfortable spaces to examine data and hear perspectives outside of our echo chambers for the sake of development. One strategy mentioned by Land to overcome the Einstellung Effect is, “Bringing strangers to the tribe, to challenge, extend and render existing perspectives ‘strange’…”. 
According to our reading it seems the level of expertise we achieve in any discipline is dependent on our ability to be uncomfortable. There is a rite of passage between one state to another. It seems we have to not only sit in liminal spaces but embrace the uncertainty and troublesome feelings they bring. “The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alteration of old beliefs”.
According to Kaythrn Shultz, in her book, Being Wrong, history proves that individuals, and even masses of people, can miss the mark. On a spiritual level, I’ve noticed, the more certain and rigid I am that something is “right” or “wrong” the more judgmental, prideful, and self-righteous I find myself. “Troublesome knowledge”, mentioned so many times in this book, has truly been a catalyst to humble, renew, and deepen my understanding of our universe and human experience little by little.
 Coven, Robert. “Breaking Through: Threshold Concepts as a Key to Understanding.” YouTube video, 19:11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GCPYSKSFky4
 Meyer, Jan, F.H and Ray Land., eds. Overcoming Student Barrier to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge. (London, UK: Routledge, 2012), 4.https://georgefox.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9780203966273
 Ibid. 22.
 Ibid. 5.
 Ibid. 14.
12 responses to “Threshold Concepts. Is The Bible Off Limits?”
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Hi Adam, Thank you for sharing your thinking process, your journey, and being willing to sit in uncomfortable places with others as they process their understanding of God and the Bible. You wrote, “I think it’s critical that we move into uncomfortable spaces to examine data and hear perspectives outside of our echo chambers for the sake of development.” We all get stuck. We need the perspectives of others to grow. The wrestling is so important. When you’re listening to others’ questions, doubts, and disillusions, how do you hold that space without giving answers, rescuing, or teaching too much? What helps you navigate that wrestling for yourself?
Great questions, still learning this myself! On certain subjects my nature is to teach and share different perspectives, so I have to be careful with that. Listening without defending against or dismissing is key.
Our church attracts a lot of agnostics and explorers so one of the approaches we take is presenting vastly different perspectives, which means we have had to really sit with some “troubling information” to see its validity.
When we are aware of a spectrum of interpretations or viewpoints and present those it helps people evaluate different approaches without feeling like we are forcing an agenda and it works! I think this is the value of diversity, education, and exposure to new ideas
Some people just need an ear and space, but there are a lot of people who need some valid solutions or alternative perspectives to help them overcome a major hurdle, like the young man yesterday. He was being told he had to believe certain things or he was not a Christian. I shared with him some different perspectives widely discussed in many seminaries and he said he wished he had known this years ago.
Being exposed to different perspectives has helped me tremendously. Some things we will never know and we will just have to live in that tension, but there are some tensions that need resolving for people and can be resolved to an extent. I think that’s what prompts most innovation and advancement in all areas, including theology.
That’s my two cents!
Well written Adam, and I appreciate your willingness to share a very personal reflection on our readings. I want to call out two things that struck me as important:
– the prayerful pauses that you took to ask for God’s wisdom. (James 1:5 comes to mind, here)
– your acknowledgement of the power of groupthink and how dangerous it can be. (this makes me recall the cautionary tales we can learn from the religious leaders of Jesus’ day)
Given your acknowledgement of how you needed to go through this phase in your learning, I wonder what words of encouragement you give to others who are experiencing the same thing?
Thanks Jennifer! Always still learning as the process of entering new thresholds never quits! My own encouragement and advice would be “fruit”. When entering into new conceptional thresholds is it ultimately moving us into deeper understanding, humility, health, authenticity, and love?
One of the things I mentioned in my post is that conceptional threshold are not necessarily irrefutable facts. They are new or different ways of seeing. I had a philosophy/theology professor in grad school that was excellent at knowing a subject so well none of us could ever tell where he actually stood on any given subject. It seemed like he believed it all, but they all had different perspectives, some VERY different.
He explained certain peoples logic or “truth” well enough that it was a humbling process. We eventually realized there are so many ways of seeing things supported by very compelling points, biblical or moral arguments, and experiences which can be confusing, but it also brings humility and wonder. Staying prayerful, open and connected with others who are discerning and prioritize “fruit” has been helpful in my journey. Always still learning!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts here and in your comment on my own post. In response to the question in your blog title (which I know you answered in your blog!)…I would also say ‘no’…the Bible can’t be off limits, and you articulately share why in your post. Having said that, I believe you and several others have wondered about who gets to define what these thresholds are and how far they ‘go’? Your journey describes a generally accepted (outside of perhaps more ‘fundamental’ circles) threshold moment with the scriptures that keeps you well inside the bounds of ‘orthodoxy’. Yet how do we define the experience of those who have read the scriptures and have landed in a universalism camp? Some would say, ‘no problem’….others would stress. Virgin birth? Jesus as a metaphor but not a historical figure? Some of the current writers/scholars have books for sale on Jesus in the local Indigo/Chapters that describe their own threshold moments that take them well beyond the parameters of orthodoxy. Who gets to decide? And perhaps more difficult to answer: how do we stay genuinely open to the new while staying rooted in our truth convictions concerning the faith? Seems like a complex dance to me…
It really is a complex dance, and something that I am passionate about (it seems you are as well!). When it comes to biblical and theological thresholds I think it is important that we bring in voices from historical critical scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, to overcome that “Einstellung Effect” we are so prone to fall into.
Many have an agenda (all scholars one way or another), but many are truly following where they believe the historical and literary evidence leads and are willing to point out “troublesome information” that traditional Christianity may ignore or defend against for various reasons. This is basically what my NPO focuses on so I love the conversation. Thanks for the response Scott, I really do appreciate the conversation and your perspective.
“God has been notorious for kicking me right out of the nest so I’ll spread my spiritual, emotional, and intellectual wings.” God is like a mother hen that way, protecting and nurturing us under Her wings and then kicking us out to fly with our God-given spiritual, emotional, and intellectual wings! I love your quote!
I remember taking exegesis of Genesis in seminary. My professor (a GENIUS in the language of Hebrew and all things Old Testament), was talking to us about how there are two creation stories and they don’t have the same details. How, the creation story is poetry, etc. I was okay with all of that but I couldn’t figure out how to respond when someone would inevitably say to me “The bible is truth! Every word of the bible is true!” I asked her about this and I still remember her saying to me something like, “It can hold truth without it being factually true.”
Some may take issue with the “factually true” part – and honestly I don’t remember exactly what she said to me but this is what I heard…and it’s helped me. The bible holds truth. For many, the bible holds THE truth. For some, the bible holds truths but it is not a textbook of facts/truths.
Another thing that has helped me cross this threshold concept is the Confession of ’67 in the Book of Confessions of the PC(USA) there is this line: “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word
of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written.” If you note, Jesus Christ is the Word of God – with a capital W while the Holy Scriptures are referred to as the “word of God” with a lower case w. All scripture is to be interpreted in light of the Word of God, Jesus and his life and ministry. Scripture is just words without the Word of God. I don’t know if that makes sense but when it was first pointed out to me it was like an A-HA moment.
Great stuff Kally, along those same lines one of my favorite Hebrew professors would always say “It doesn’t have to be factually true, to be actually true.” Took almost the whole semester for this “conceptual threshold” to register, then I had that A-HA moment.
For instance, regardless of the factuality of the creation stories (plural!) humanity universally deals with shame and we have an instinctual need to cover aspects of ourselves once the “knowledge of what is good and evil” is recognized in us in each of our cultural context (which makes some shameful behaviors vary from place to place). This is when the fear of judgement from others and God seems to kick in, which the story represents beautifully. Alright..Alright.. I ll stop, So much to think about in these narratives.
“All scripture is to be interpreted in light of the Word of God, Jesus and his life and ministry.” Yes! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Have you ever watched Arrested Development? If not this’ll be weird, but there were 2 characters in there who were interested and not at the same time and confused, etc, all the things the show was goofball about, but these characters kept finding things in common and would say “same” “same” over and over again. I feel that our friendship is having those “same” “samesies” moments and this blog is one of the reason why I believe we will be friends long after Doctorate work! When you said “Because of my upbringing, I was taught the Bible was completely inerrant and fully reliable in all matters of history, morals, and theology. We took a very literal, “what you see is what you get” approach. That was my ingrained and inherited value system” I felt that “same” feeling. It is really hard to have secure faith teachings be rattled and shook up and now feel off centered, or as I mentioned in my blog “discombobulated: )” I often have seen “fresh” seminarians have their world and faith torn and stretched through threshold learnings and then are sent “out into the world to teach the gospel to the nations” but not really told how to translate these threshold learnings to a congregation who look to scriptural authority and have not had those “threshold concept” moments, my question to you dear Pastor, how do you work through your new convictions and learnings and help bring your congregation along? How do you do this without them having the seminary experience? What learning opportunities can you give the congregation that work for them?
Ha, I have seen it and I agree, it’s encouraging to find people who have “Samesie’s” moments! Im’ really enjoying this blog format as well. Love hearing people’s perspectives and worldviews. So grateful for our cohort and friends like you in this group.
As far as your question “How do you work through your new convictions and learnings and help bring your congregation along? How do you do this without them having the seminary experience? What learning opportunities can you give the congregation that work for them?
All I can do is speak for what we do and what we have learned over the past two years with our approach. I teach a class called REACH which exposes local church members to the historical critical method in Biblical interpretation taught in major universities and seminaries. Here is what we have learned so far.
1) It’s work. It takes a lot of reading and deep study. When teaching these things you have to be able to take complex ideas and filter them down to people who may or may not have ever been exposed to certain ideas. I was not great at doing that part at first. Now people are “getting it” and its renewed and expanded peoples faith. It has also helped a lot of people who have questions overcome major obstacles.
2) We show a spectrum of Biblical interpretations. For example I show different teachers or leaders and how they see Scripture: Strict Fundamentalist, Flexible Fundamentalist, Conservative, Moderate Interpreters, Progressive Interpreters and Historians (Sometime with no religious affiliation) We do not dismiss or degrade any perspectives, but we are open that this class will mainly discuss Conservative, Moderate, Progressive, and Historian viewpoints. People decide what is most compelling for them.
3) Some of these viewpoints bring “troublesome information” so environment is very important. Exposure to these things in a local church context from people who have faith convictions and have had God experiences is huge. Some will inevitably hear these things in a college classroom, on a website, Youtube, or TikTok so hearing it in a spiritually nurturing environment is helpful. This information is becoming more known and accessible. Knowing that new information, like biblical contradictions, does not mean none of it is trustworthy or that your faith was a sham has been key as well. That is usually the gut reaction.
4. We frequently share our own experiences with God. Our faith is anchored in that, not an understanding of a book. Those who have the hardest time with certain “conceptual thresholds” usually have the strongest convictions on certain doctrines regarding Scripture. No judgement just an observation.
5. One thing that is a real eye opener for people (it was for me) is to know these ideas are not new. They have been around for over three hundred year, just locked in the ivory tower of biblical academics and seminary.
6. Also, “knowledge puffs up love builds up” (as Paul says!). Not everyone needs to know everything, nor would it be beneficial for their growth at this season. This is for the sake of spiritual growth and education for those who need it, (like I did at one point). We sprinkle some of these things in our main services, but we do deep dives in class that people can choose to join with disclaimers.
7. Prayer for guidance and discernment as we navigate the literary and historical evidence. That’s really what we want to look at, knowing we can’t figure everything out, but if we want to be truth seekers we can’t ignore discoveries, evidence, or experiences that do not always fit in our boxes or make us uncomfortable or complicate our ideas and worldviews. People are hungry for honest acknowledgement of some things, especially the upcoming generations.
Hope this helps shed light on what we are doing and learning right now. Emphasis on STILL learning :)! Most importantly it is helping people. Many who assumed they were done with God or stagnate in their faith have found renewal and depth.
Thanks Adam for your story. It is really relevant in todays culture to meet people where they are. Our ways are not HIS ways, and I grasp the fact that a lot of what I perceive to be the truth of the bible is still a mystery that will have to unraveled over time. I do have a couple of questions for Paul, that I intend do ask when I get to heaven. Shalom….Russ
Thanks Russ, I agree our ways are not God’s ways and I am more and more ok with that mystery.
One of the conversations that circulate in our church is Paul’s writings. I wonder if we could take a time machine to Paul’s day and tell him what we have done with his writings, what he would say. Would he be shocked or pleased that we give them the weight we do two thousand years later? Just a thought experiment that makes for an interesting conversation. Our senior pastor who is 65 threw that one to me over dinner one time.