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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