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Religious Studies’ Stewart Makes a Game of It for Students

Published: August 17, 2009

Ask an undergraduate nicely to read the 2,600-year-old book of Deuteronomy and pause for the laughter to fade. Now give the job to Religious Studies’ David Tabb Stewart, who recently created an academic game that asks the Twitter generation to deal with a world of royal intrigue, prophecy and the fifth book of the Old Testament.

Titled “The Josianic Reform: Deuteronomy, Prophecy and Israelite Religion, 622 BCE,” the complex role-playing game was presented by Stewart and two students–Jewish Studies major Amanda Pants and recently graduated Religious Studies and Philosophy major Glenn Marchand Jr.–to the 9th Annual “Reacting to the Past” (RTTP) Summer Institute held in June at New York’s Barnard College. Games such as The Josianic Reform have gained traction recently as teaching tools that integrate skill acquisition with mastery of classic texts, historic moments and intellectual ferment.

The Josiah Game, set just before a monotheistic reform of Israelite religion in 622 BCE, takes up several tensions within the Bible–“the one versus the many gods,” the nature of sacred text and prophecy, and the conflict of ideas within the Bible itself. The action takes place at a moment in 2 Kings when the elders and people of Judah assemble to hear a newly discovered text read out to them. An early 19th century philosopher, WML de Wette, hypothesized that the text was Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Jewish Torah which features a detailed law-code. The game makes the moment of this reading the center of gravity around which revolve a discussion of the Hebrew Bible and the practice of Israelite religion.

“The students find it to be intense,” said Stewart, an assistant professor of Ancient Near Eastern Religions at CSULB and formerly an associate professor of Religion and Philosophy at Texas’ Southwestern University. “They go nuts. They become fierce in their preparation. They read all the books because knowledge is power in the game. If you know stuff, you can advance your cause. Sometimes students ask if the class can start early. They meet outside. They get together for dinner. I set up electronic ways for them to confer.”

Developed by a consortium of 40 colleges and universities, the RTTP pedagogy consists of elaborate games, set in the past, in which students are assigned roles informed by classic texts in the history of ideas. Class sessions are run entirely by students; instructors advise and guide students and grade their oral and written work. It seeks to draw students into the past, promote engagement with big ideas and improve intellectual and academic skills. RTTP was honored with the 2004 Theodore Hesburgh Award for pedagogical innovation.

Part of the intellectual appeal of RTTP is that it transcends disciplinary structures. “One thing I like about the game is the way it brings together various skills without seeming to,” said Stewart, who joined the university in 2007. “Students learn to speak, write and strategize with groups. Plus, there is the possibility of winning which is tremendously motivating. Students dig into the texts because they need to know something. Reading the texts is instrumental. They dig in and find what they need.”

To play, students form factions such as the priesthood and royalty to deal with crumbling Assyrians and lurking Babylonians. “Egypt, Assyria and Babylon–who ought to be Israel’s ally? Should Israel go it alone? Students wind up reading Babylonian documents and chronicles,” said Stewart, who earned his B.S. from the University of Oregon, his M.A. from the University of Utah and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley.

David Tabb Stewart
Photo by Victoria Sanchez
David Tabb Stewart

“The game reconstructs a certain historical moment,” he explained. “What were the issues concerned? Students embody them. You are a woman, the prophet Huldah, who vets the scroll: How will you defend it? You are of the royal house: Should you ally with Egypt? You are a Traditionalist: Won’t changes `remove the ancient landmarks?’ Students have goals and some of them are in conflict. To win, they must achieve their goals.”

Participants create a decree, then an international alliance and finally decide whether or not to celebrate Passover plus such subplots as who ought to succeed the high priest. “What you get is a three-dimensional, holistic reconstruction of a historical moment,” he said. “There is a conflict between folk religion and elite religion. There is conflict between monotheism and polytheism. These issues come to the fore.” The proceedings include trials for false prophecy or being drunk in the temple.

“The memory traces left by this experience seem to last,” said Stewart. “Students have returned years later and still called each other by their game names. It left marks on them that were unforgettable. If I can leave a mark on students that makes a text unforgettable, it seems to me that something has been achieved. If I help students to become autonomous learners, that means they will be lifelong learners and I feel I have accomplished something.”

Stewart’s contribution was not the only game in town at the June RTTP Summer Institute. Other role-players included “The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BC,” “Charles Darwin, the Copley Medal, and the Rise of Naturalism, 1862-1864” and “Rousseau, Burke and Revolution in France, 1791.”

Stewart is already at work on another game set around 50 AD during the Council of Jerusalem which sought to resolve a dispute between the Apostle James, who believed the new church must observe the rules of traditional Judaism, and Paul of Tarsus, who didn’t think so. “You want to have a moment when ideas are in conflict,” Stewart explained. “The issue here was who could be part of the nascent Christian community. It brings together the different idea sets of the Christian testament embodied by figures like James and Paul. I played the first draft of the game in 2009 and, again, the students went nuts.”

Stewart encourages other faculty members to learn more about game playing as pedagogical tool. “The best way to learn and develop game concepts is to play,” he said.