I pick up a copy of W. Randolph Tate's Biblical Interpretation: An Integrated Approach (3rd ed.; Hendrickson, 2008) each year I teach hermeneutics, and put it down quickly after reading the Introduction's opening paragraph:
Hermeneutics has traditionally been defined as the study of the locus of meaning and the principles of interpretation. Biblical hermeneutics, then, studies the locus of meaning and principles of biblical interpretation. Hermeneutics in the broad sense is bipolar: exegesis and interpretation. Exegesis is the process of examining a text to ascertain what its first readers would have understood it to mean. The varied set of activities which the hermeneut performs upon a text in order to make meaningful inferences is exegesis. . . . (xix)
Tate writes well (he is 'workmanlike', whatever that means), and I like his content and approach. The trouble is his diction. Forget about 'hermeneutics', 'exegesis' and 'hermeneut', I'm afraid my first and second year students will be put off by words like 'locus', 'bipolar', 'ascertain' and 'inference'--all in the opening paragraph.
Tremper Longman III begins Reading the Bible with Heart and Mind (NavPress, 1997) with a story. Well, he begins every chapter with a story, but here's the story that begins the preface:
As I began this book, I thought often of Carmen. she had heard the gospel at a rally in her dorm, and the message made a lot of sense to her. She was lonely; the Christians were neat people. She started attending a Bible study that met for an hour, three nights a week, and she eventually trusted Christ as her Savior. She began reading her Bible every day. . . . . And then, her roommates started to get on her case about spending so much time with those 'religious nuts.' So after a few months, she found excuses not to go to her study group. The excitement just wore off, and the Bible reading times became fewer and fewer. Something about it all began to go dry. Her Bible started gathering dust on her shelf. (11)
Longman's book is pitched to a lay Christian audience, which might work for beginning students at my confessional college. Parts of it make me gag. (Tremper invites his readers to mediate on the "Man" standing by the Sea of Galilee with the "glinting of light in His hair and beard" .) But the book is well-written, and he introduces basic concepts in a basic readable way, shorn of technical terminology. (Is the meditation exercise an example of lectio divina?)
So what do you think? In a lower-level required undergrad course, should I assign a content-rich textbook that stretches students' vocabulary even if it means I have to take extra class time explaining what the author is talking about? Or is it better to assign an accessible book that I can be more confident students will read and understand, and spend class time going into (much) more depth? Am I underestimating my students' ability to read?