Teaching the Bible


If the Book is offered as elective, here’s what high schoolers may find

Three days of rioting. Thirteen people killed. State troopers summoned to control mobs of Protestants and Catholics fighting in the streets of Philadelphia.

All because a school official proposed teaching the King James Version in public schools.

The “Philadelphia Bible Riot” of 1844 is largely forgotten today, but injecting the Bible into public schools is still risky business.

Georgia school officials may soon find that out. The state Legislature is poised to pass a bill that would allow classes about the Bible as a high school elective. The bill, which has passed the state Senate and a House committee, has ignited a public debate in the media about church/state separation.

But Georgia parents still don’t know what a Bible elective would teach their children. Two popular approaches provide plenty of clues: a textbook published by the Bible Literacy Project and a teaching guide from the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools. Both have already offered school districts in Georgia and across the nation their books.

Georgia parents can now get a sneak preview of exactly what both groups would teach their children about some of the most controversial subjects in the Bible.

How, for example, do both groups handle teaching the story of Adam and Eve — as literal truth or as an allegory? Will they teach students that the Bible is infallible or just a great but flawed book? And when they talk about the Bible and Christianity’s influence on Western civilization, will they also examine how the Bible was used to justify everything from the Crusades to slavery?

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court banned mandatory Bible devotionals and prayer in public schools, but not academic teaching about the Bible.

Despite the risks, the bill’s supporters said the course is important because a student can’t understand U.S. history without knowing the Bible.

”This country is built on Judeo-Christian faith, ethics and knowledge of the Scriptures,” said Sen. Tommie Williams (R-Lyons), sponsor of an amended version of the original Bible bill. “Our Founding Fathers were often quoting the Scriptures. Our first Congress paid for the purchase of Bibles to be used in public schools.”

Rob Boston, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said people are ruled by kings and priests in the Bible, not by elected leaders. Our Founding Fathers had a different vision, he said.

“Show me in the Constitution where it says our country was founded on the Bible. Where does it say that Christianity will be the preferred religion? Not only does it not say those things, the First Amendment separates church and state.”

That debate, and many others, may soon come to a classroom near you. If the bill passes as expected in the Republican-controlled House and Gov. Sonny Perdue signs it into law, Georgia school districts will be allowed to offer an elective on the history and literature in the Old and New Testament eras by next school year.

Here’s what students may learn:

• “The Bible in History and Literature”

BACKGROUND: The guide is published by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a group formed to promote Bible education in public schools. The book includes a teacher’s curriculum with detailed lesson plans; it recommends the Bible as the “primary textbook.” The guide is based on the King James Version of the Bible, but students may use their preferred translation. No authors are listed. The group says 346 school districts in 37 states have adopted the 274-page study guide. It is endorsed by several conservative Christian organizations and leaders, including the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and the Rev. James Merritt, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, among others. Web site: www.bibleinschools.net/sdm.asp Cost: $150

ON EVANGELIZING: In its introduction, the guide warns teachers to never “endorse, favor, promote or disfavor or show hostility to, any particular religion or nonreligious faith.”

THE BIBLE IN CULTURE: Each of the guide’s 18 units focuses on biblical stories themselves and examining how archaeological finds bolster the Bible’s authenticity. A brief section examines the Bible’s influence on the art world. It touches on the Bible’s influence on literature, science and Western history.

THE BIBLE’S IMPACT ON U.S. HISTORY: The guide devotes an entire unit to the Bible’s influence on U.S. history. It concludes: “Whatever their positions and opinions on the faith of the Founding Fathers, most scholars agree that the Bible was nonetheless a foundational text in the framing of our nation.”

The guide wades into the debate about the United States being a Christian nation. It quotes historians who say the Constitution makes no mention of God and that many of the Founding Fathers were “deists” who didn’t believe in a personal God. It adds that “other scholars counter that the Constitution not only refers to the Judeo-Christian God, but specifically references the deity of Jesus, when it dates itself in the ‘Year of Our Lord, 1787.’ “

CREATION OF THE WORLD: The guide sticks to the account of the Creation in the Book of Genesis.

A sample lesson asks students to explain how Adam’s creation from dust and Eve’s creation from his rib shaped “the responsibilities given to Adam and Eve” and to “our present culture.”

The guide doesn’t discuss scholarly theories on the authorship of Genesis or the possibility that it could be read as an allegory. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Scopes Trial and intelligent design are not included.

CREATION OF THE BIBLE: It doesn’t say the Bible is infallible. It says that there is “widespread disagreement on how the Bible should be interpreted” and also says that there were books like “the Gospel of Thomas” that never made it into the Bible because they were deemed heretical.

Students are warned that reading the Bible is not a simple task. “Some Bible scholars suggest that the reader should assume a passage is to be interpreted literally unless the context clearly requires another interpretation, but even then there are differences of opinion.”

THE BIBLE IN HISTORY: There is no mention of the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery or segregation. The guide does quote abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of “Uncle Tom’ s Cabin,” but only in a passage where Beecher rhapsodizes about the symbolism of the U.S. flag.

CRITICS’ COMMENTS: Mark Chancey, who teaches biblical studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said the guide treats biblical stories as literal history and does not explore how the Bible was used to justify oppression throughout history. Chancey, who has written a 32-page critique of the study guide, also said there’s no evidence that any full-time religious scholars employed at accredited schools were consulted.

“It’s a totally edifying image of the Bible’s influence geared toward supporting the religious right’s understanding of America,” he said of the guide.

Mike Johnson, an attorney and member of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools’ board of directors, said the guide didn’t explore the Bible’s negative role in history because that would serve critics.

“I think some of the [Bible study] approaches can be used in an effort by people to disparage religious belief,”
Johnson said. “This presents an objective presentation.”

• “The Bible and Its Influence”

BACKGROUND: The 387-page, full-color textbook was published this year by the Bible Literacy Project, a nonprofit group, with funding from individual donors and several foundations. The book lists four primary writers and 41 reviewers and consultants. At least 500 school districts are considering the textbook for use, said Sheila Weber, a Bible Literacy Project representative. Leaders in the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Congress and the Catholic Biblical Association have endorsed the book, which looks at the Bible’s influence on literature, art, music and Western civilization. Students can use the Bible translation preferred by their family. Web site: www.bibleliteracy.org Cost: $67.95 retail, $50 for group purchases.

ON EVANGELIZING: The textbook creators said teachers should be selected for their academic qualifications, rather than their religious beliefs. It also suggests that teachers selected should receive “substantive in-service training from qualified schools before being permitted to teach the course.” If a student asks a teacher, for example, if Jesus really was raised from the dead, Weber said the teacher should only say what the text says — not what he or she believes. “The aim is to let the Bible text speak for itself,” Weber said.

THE BIBLE IN CULTURE: The textbook pulls from the world of science, medicine, art and other fields to describe the Bible’s influence. Explanations are backed up with colorful artwork and pullout study guides. “The Bible has influenced countless poets and writers throughout the history of Western civilization,” the textbook says about biblical influences on literature. “The early Anglo-Saxon poets, Chaucer, Dante, William Shakespeare, John Donne … are just a few of the dozens of names of great literary figures of the Western literary tradition whose works bear the imprint of the Bible.”

THE BIBLE’S IMPACT ON U.S. HISTORY: The textbook says everyone from George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted the Bible. “Words from the Bible are inscribed in public buildings,” it says, and have been “part of the fabric of the United States from its beginning.”

It also says, however, that the Bible was not the only or principal source for the founders. “Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others found inspiration in the philosophies of the day, such as the Enlightenment. They acknowledged God as the Creator, but they often looked to writers like John Locke and David Hume to form their beliefs in ‘unalienable rights’ and other principles of democracy.”

CREATION OF THE WORLD: The textbook says that some people “read Genesis as a literal account of the mechanics of creation. Still others read it as a poem about God’s relationship with humans. Many read the book as both.”
The book makes no mention of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Scopes Trial or intelligent design. The Bible Literacy Project’s Weber said those questions should be reserved for science class.

CREATION OF THE BIBLE: The textbook doesn’t say the Bible is infallible. It cautions students to remember that they are dealing with translations when reading the Bible, not the original words. “Each translation differs slightly because the translators are always making judgments about how words and phrases are best rendered in English.”

The book also says there were a number of gospels written about Jesus that never made it into the Bible. It also says that many scholars do not believe that Paul wrote all the letters attributed to him in the Bible.

THE BIBLE IN HISTORY: There is no examination of the Crusades, the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials. It does explore how the Bible was used to justify anti-Semitism. The textbook mentions that scriptural passages were used to justify slavery and segregation but does not explore them. It does talk about how the Bible inspired the abolition and civil rights movements.

Two brief passages mention how the Bible was used to support slavery and segregation. One says: “Even though some Americans used the Bible to support slavery and segregation, the influence of the Book of Exodus on the struggle for emancipation and rights drowns out that use of the Bible.”

CRITICS’ COMMENTS: The textbook has drawn some criticism for sanitizing the Bible’s influence throughout history but has been generally praised for its balance and scholarship.

“If we’re going to talk about the Bible and its influence, we need to recognize the full spectrum,” said Diane Moore, director of a Harvard Divinity School program that helps teachers teach the Bible in secondary education. “How can a text that inspired such tremendous inspiration be the same text also used to promote base violence and hatred?”

Weber, the textbook representative, said the truth of the Bible is “more exemplified” in historical events like the abolition movement.

“You’re talking about elevating the power and impact of people who got it wrong,” Weber said. “We would rather elevate the people who got it right.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA
Mar. 18, 2006
John Blake, Staff Writer
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 20, 2006.
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