Teaching the Bible in Public Schools

The chairman of the religion department of Boston University argues that it should be taught — and I agree. I’m just not sure it would work out in practice.

The United States is indeed a nation of religious illiterates. The majority of the population identifies as Christian, and most think that the Bible is the direct or divinely-inspired word of God. And yet relatively few Americans have ever actually read the Bible, and they’re thoroughly misinformed about what’s in it. “Christianity” ends up being defined by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, with issues like abortion and gay rights taking center state, while the social ills that the New Testament is more concerned with (poverty, peace, etc) are put on the back burner. And the masses of Bible-thumpers who never actually read the Bible are apparently quite happy to believe that their Good Book is primarily about limiting the human rights of women and gays.

But I diverge from the author when he writes,

Biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem. It is a civic problem with political consequences. How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment or the environment without knowing something about the Bible? Because they lack biblical literacy, Americans are easily swayed by demagogues on the left or the right who claim — often incorrectly — that the Bible says this about war or that about homosexuality.

One solution to this civic problem is to teach Bible classes in public schools.

I think a better solution would be to get the Bible out of politics.

Working knowledge of the Bible is important because the Bible is probably the most culturally influential book in the United States. It matters politically not so that we can argue policy on Biblical terms, but so voters who let their religious morality guide their decisions can actually know what their religion dictates. It matters academically because the Bible is referenced an awful lot in literature, and if you don’t know the basics, you’re probably going to miss part of the beauty of some great books. It matters socially because the United States is a majority-Christian nation, and Christian mythology underlies much of our cultural identity and history. And it matters cross-culturally because the Bible is pretty popular all over the world and is often a necessary tool in understanding customs, beliefs and politics of the populaces of other nations.

The Bible isn’t the only religious text that should be taught — the Qu’ran should, too, especially given that the average American essentially believes it to say, “Kill infidels and oppress women.” Both texts have their nasty, violent aspects — God in the Old Testament is a pretty vengeful, kill-happy misogynist, and the Qu’ran is hardly all peace and love. But both can also be read to have an over-arching embrace of justice, and a morality which seeks to better society through peaceful resolution and helping others. Neither, of course, should be taught in public schools for the strictly moral lessons, but like in most traditional stories, moral lessons will come out.

The problem comes in actual teaching these myths. The chance that you’re going to find teachers in every public school across the United States who can adequately teach the Bible as literature, and not as the direct word of God, is unlikely. The chance that you’ll find teachers in every public school who will give the Qu’ran a fair shake is unlikely. The chance that you’ll have students and parents accept the teaching of the Bible as literature and not as the Divine Word is unlikely. And so unfortunately, in our nation of hyper-religious people who know nothing about religion, this will not work.

I actually did study the Bible and the Qu’ran at my public high school, and we did study them as both literature and influential political tools, and there weren’t any serious problems in the classroom. But I had a good teacher, and I lived in a liberal enclave in suburban Seattle. A few years later, as a freshman in college, we read Genesis and Matthew for a course on Western literature and philosophy from antiquity to Enlightenment. The instructor — a classics professor and the Dean of my undergraduate college — referred to the Bible as a “myth,” using the parlance of classicists to describe a traditional narrative tale. Students flipped out — and this is at supposedly Commie-liberal NYU. He had to give a disclaimer that he didn’t mean “myth” to be the opposite of “fact,” or synonymous with “untrue.” I can’t imagine the kind of stupidity that would result from attempts at teaching religious texts in public schools.

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17 comments for “Teaching the Bible in Public Schools

  1. March 15, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    I absolutely agree. People argue continually over the bible without actually ever reading it cover to cover. One of the healthiest things that could ever happen was for people to actually read the good and bad moral lessons there and make decisions for themselves, unfiltered.

    The bible’s view on slavery, rape, pre-emptive war, as well as the naughty sex parts would open up a lot of eyes, hopefully some hearts and minds as well.

  2. j swift
    March 15, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    Teaching the Bible, even as religious training, during the school day is fine with me. As long as it is voluntary, the classes are held in a building just off school property, and some local church or church organization pays for it. Otherwise it is proselytizing, and fuck that.

  3. Jay
    March 15, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    Ideally, our public schools would teach the Bible in the same way they teach other classics of the Western canon (do they read the classics in public schools?). In the Catholic school I attended, the Bible was studied from a scholarly perspective, as were other religious texts.

    Unfortunately, if any school district tried a scholarly approach to the Bible, there would be violent protests from fundamentalists. Imagine how fundie parents would react when their kids were told the Gospels were written over a century after Christ’s death and were based on earlier gospels.

  4. March 16, 2007 at 7:08 am

    My 9th-grade English/History class studied the bible alongside Gilgamesh and the Illiad back in 1999. Of course, we were situated in the People’s Republic of Northern Virginia, as the southerners call us. Though in retrospect, I wonder how many of my classmates even understood it. There were bits that gave even me a headache, and I had a tendency to understand more than they did(I’m fairly certain the translation ws King James). I don’t think we looked in the Koran though. We were given the impression it was fairly boring, because unlike the bible, it had no narrative.

  5. evil fizz
    March 16, 2007 at 7:20 am

    I had a unit on Genesis as apart of a section of my English class sophomore year of high school on creation myths. It was fantastic.

    I’ve also seen curricula for “The Bible as Literature” which is quite impressive. During my AP English class, the default answer to any question about symbolism was “Christ figure! Phallic symbol!”

  6. Pansy P
    March 16, 2007 at 8:50 am

    Isobel, you must have taken the same classes I did, though is seems several years later. I specifically remember reading the Book of Ruth and the Book of Job as historical texts. My sister, who is a few years younger than me, had a less Western-focused curriculum in the same class, but I’m not sure whether they read anything from the Koran. They definitely read some non-European texts, though.

    I remember being prepped for reading the Bible excerpts with an exhaustive discussion as to how and why it could be read as a historical and social resource, in addition to being a religious text. I remember that part of the class much better than Gilgamesh.

  7. iain
    March 16, 2007 at 9:19 am

    Somewhere recently (pharyngula?) I came across the interesting suggestion that various religions should be taught about in schools, but only ever by people who were not members of the religion being taught. So the Christian teachers could cover everything else, but would have to get an atheist/Jew/Moslem/etc. in to cover Christianity. That would be great, I think.

  8. Rhiannon
    March 16, 2007 at 9:26 am

    So the Christian teachers could cover everything else, but would have to get an atheist/Jew/Moslem/etc. in to cover Christianity. That would be great, I think.

    I would agree, if I didn’t think that the ones teaching what they don’t believe in wouldn’t just say “it’s all sinful lies” or some such thing… or they might teach it but much in the way that someone throws away a dirty diaper “ew, do I really have to do this?”.

  9. March 16, 2007 at 10:23 am

    I heard this guy on NPR, and I was actually very surprised to learn that these things aren’t taught in most high schools (? that was the impression I got). I grew up in a tiny little Idaho town (an order of magnitude smaller than the tinty Idaho town I live in now) and we learned about the mythology and literature of all sorts of world religions, including Christianity. We read Vedas and Bible passages and spent forever on Greek and Roman mythology and Norse mythology. We had to learn the five pillars of Islam and the Four Noble Truths and Aztec creation myths and the story of the birth of Krishna. It was all there in our textbooks (pretty much) and yeah, maybe my 11th grade world history class’ text was supposed to be a literature book, but liturature is a perfectly reasonable lens through which to view history, at least for a year of your high school career. When we got around to Biblical stuff, our teachers made it clear that they were going to refer to all religious “mythology” as just that, including stuff from Christian traditions, and I remember no parental undie bundles. I’m an atheist through and through, and I’ve come around to feel mostly indifferent to religion, but knowing the basics does go a long way to helping someone have an idea about other cultures and political histories. Unless someone has a serious axe to grind (and we all had thos teachers,) it isn’t hard to find good texts and simple explanations of what people believe that teachers could deliver, which is all high school kids really need.

  10. Jennifer
    March 16, 2007 at 11:18 am

    I studied the Bible in 10 grade honors English (I don’t know if the “regular” kids did). We had a textbook- The Bible As/In Literature. Our teacher offered extra credit to whoever read the whole Bible that quarter, and of course no one did. The problem was that the textbook offered selections, rather than everything, so I am sure it skipped over the nasty and controversail stuff- after all, our 9th grade textbook cut all the sexy stuff from Romeo and Juliet. I agree that learning the bad Bible stuff will make atheists out of many theists, and make us all better understand the Western cannon, but I think that the Bible must be taught as we teach Greek myths- as fiction.

  11. DAS
    March 16, 2007 at 11:58 am

    I studied the Bible in 10 grade honors English (I don’t know if the “regular” kids did). We had a textbook- The Bible As/In Literature. – Jennifer

    So did we — with that textbook (and we learned the classic myths as well). Except I think we used that book in 11’th grade, but I can’t be sure of that. Nor did we skip over the sexy stuff in Romeo and Juliet. Unless I’m remembering stuff wrong (Jennifer, you didn’t go to LAHS did you? If you did, my “name” is my initials and I’ve red hair and grew a beard, which I still wear, in my senior year, ’94-’95 … you might remember me then?).

    Anyway, though, my parents were worried, given the number of fundies in my school, that the teachers would bow to the fundies and give them an opportunity to use the Bible teaching as prostletyzing time. But everyone managed to be quite objective about it: the Bible was taught as literature and an important source in the Western cannon. It was neither dismissed as superstition nor presented as the One True Word of God(TM).

  12. March 16, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    I studied the Bible in 10 grade honors English (I don’t know if the “regular” kids did). We had a textbook- The Bible As/In Literature. – Jennifer

    So did we — with that textbook (and we learned the classic myths as well).

    I actually gasped when I read this! You have no idea how happy it makes me, because my grandfather wrote that textbook (I just loaned my copy to a co-worker who is re-reading the Bible). We used it in my 10th grade honors English class as well (which, DAS, was about when yours was too!).

    My grandfather was an agnostic, Jewish, English teacher at a public school. He said it drove him bats that none of his students caught the references to the Bible in the literature he was teaching, and that was why he wrote the textbook.

  13. MrSoul
    March 16, 2007 at 6:08 pm

    The Catholic Bible or the Protestant Bible?

    And we’re off to the races! ;)

  14. Cara-he
    March 16, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    What about Torah? Septuagint? Vulgate? Which Protestant version? Which Catholic version? Including apocrophal texts? Including the gospel of Timothy or Mary Magdalene? (and so on) I know as a Biblical scholar the party line is that I should be glad y’all were/are interested enough to try and get a grip on the literary references and cultural implications drawn from “The Bible”, but I have a real problem with classes on the subject being taught by non-experts (and my colleagues and I have yet to recieve an invitation to even give a lecture to a particular high school history/poly sci/mythology/literature class, let alone to teach a class specific to the topic, which casts some doubt on the academic rigour).

    The variation from version to version, translation to translation to translation (King James – which is an invention, not a translation; NRSV – which varies depending on the particular sect of Protestantism will be using it; etc.) is enormous and those variations are often PRIMARILY reflective of the poetic/metaphorical “interpretations” that the translators go into the translations expecting to reproduce.

    I am all for education. But that enthusaism is tampered with the fear that people coming out of this class will have a false sense of objective academic awareness of what “the Bible” says about various topics based on a belief that all versions “essentially” say the say thing.

    In order to have even the vaguest LITERAL, let alone interpretive, secular understanding of what any of the versions of the Bible says (laying aside what I take spiritually from my understanding of the primary source documents) I am required to demonstrate fluency in a minimum of 9 languages, to demonstrate a grasp of a 7,000 year span of history (both social and archaeological), and to demonstrate expertise in the Hermanutical process (which is as rigorous as the so-called Scientific Method). Please do not suggest that your high school lit teacher is qualified to explain the significance of “the Bible” as unified/static literature or in literature. This is not meant in any way to cast aspersions on high school teachers (or any other teacher for that matter), but rather to express my sincere reservations that it is possible to teach the topic in the manner suggested for the purpose suggested.

    I am much more inclined to support Jill’s suggestion that we get “the Bible” out of politics, where it does not belong in a secular society.

  15. March 17, 2007 at 1:48 am

    I can’t speak for other teachers, or other textbook authors, but my grandfather’s textbook drew from all of the texts you mentioned, Cara-he. It also compares the different Protestant versions of selected verses.

    My grandfather was knowledgeable in the area of teaching literature to high school students, and had a broad knowledge of the Torah. He paired up with James Ackerman, a professor of the Hebrew Bible at Indiana University, to create the curriculum in The Bible As/In Literature. Both of the authors, who later directed the Indiana University Institute of Teaching the Bible in Literature, were quite dedicated to academic rigor (although I have to admit that I find that a somewhat hilarious concept in the context of high schools, and I went to what I am told is an academically rigorous high school).

    The point of the curriculum was not to make high schoolers experts on the Bible, any version. Nor was it to give anyone an impression about

    what “the Bible” says about various topics based on a belief that all versions “essentially” say the say thing

    The point of the curriculum was to give high school students a working familiarity with the themes present in the Bible, with the basic stories (as well as the fact that the stories, while often similar, do indeed differ from translation to translation and from denomination to denomination), and with the language from different translations.

    I take issue with your statement that one cannot have even a vague understanding of what any version of the Bible says without being an expert in various ancient languages, history, and hermaneutics. By that standard, I would be precluded from drawing the obvious comparison to the story of David and Absalom in discussions of Cry, The Beloved Country. I would be precluded from pointing out that Aslan is [SPOILER ALERT!] a Christ-figure in the Chronicles of Narnia.

    I agree with you that the Bible (any version) and other religious texts have no place in politics. I guess what I’m not ready to concede is that the Bible (any version) and other religious texts have no place, as works of literature, in high school classrooms.

  16. Cara-he
    March 18, 2007 at 3:58 am

    Looking back I realize that I didn’t articulate it this way, but what I was trying to express was not that the relationship between “the Bible” and literature shouldn’t be studied by laymen, but that I am very conflicted about the probability that what will be drawn from a class taught by non-experts could create more problems than it will solve.

    I sincerely apologize for the impression I seem to have created that your grandfather’s text was undertaken flippantly – in all honesty I haven’t read it and thus cannot comment on it specifically. However I can say that James Ackerman’s work may not necessarily have improved the text, based on my familiarity with some of his other research.

    Unfortunately what you seem to take issue with is what I am most adamant about – expertise and experience. The point of the list of qualifications, as well as what may seem an unnecessary quibble over translational issues, was that a non expert, by dint of not realizing these problems (which are in truth severe) tends to minimize, gloss, or ignore serious textual inaccuracies which create massive misunderstandings of what the point (i.e. theme) actually is.

    Context, truly, is everything, and without providing it one cannot with any truth claim to have presented evidence (which is what teachers of every subject should be doing – giving context and evidence which enable the student to draw conclusions). My great fear is that classes such as are being proposed give neither context nor evidence, but rather force conclusions on students under the guise of “showing connections”.

    Also, for example, one need only read a paragraph biography of C.S.Lewis to know that the (severely racist and sexist, but shhhh! we don’t talk about that) author of Mere Christianity would use theological language to evoke moral themes in his fantasies (in which dark people, powerful and independant women, “perverts”, and anyone else who does not toe the party line should be deposed and/or killed). His intent to portray Aslan as a Christ-figure is a matter of social/historical context rather than one of religious understanding – the symbols he uses are drawn from medieval imagery (taken in turn from “pagan” – primarily Assyrian and Egyptian in origin – imagery) not from “biblical” imagery (in spite of his apparently sincere belief that they were). Oh, and as I believe you know already, Christ is not by far the only god ressurected.

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