Saturday, October 15, 2005

Get your program! Can't tell your Prophets from your Apostles without your program!

Rich Lowry believes that it is time to fill the Bible gap with a program of court approved Bible education in public schools:

It's time to get the Bible back in public schools. And not through the back door of creationism disguised as Intelligent Design.

America is a Bible-soaked nation, from the Puritans to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King Jr. Without a basic grasp of the Bible, it is impossible to understand the well springs of our country and the basis of Western civilization. Which is why it is a scandal that Bible education has been chased out of the schools and why the work of the Bible Literacy Project to put it back there is so admirable.

The nonpartisan, Virginia-based Bible Literacy Project has set out methodically to return Bible education to the schools by answering the questions: Is it legal? Is it needed? How can it be done? "The Bible and Its Influence," a just-published textbook for use in grades 9-12, is the culmination of this effort. Rarely is a textbook an occasion for celebration or anything but moaning on the part of students, but this substantial, gorgeously produced, thoroughly vetted volume is an emphatic exception.

A few years ago, the Bible Literacy Project published together with the First Amendment Center a guide on how to teach the Bible in schools. The list of groups that have endorsed this consensus statement reads like a who's who from the clashing sides in the culture war, with People For the American Way Foundation on the one hand and National Association of Evangelicals on the other. In 1963, the guide notes, the Supreme Court struck down devotional Bible reading in schools as unconstitutional. But the court said schools may teach the Bible as long as it is "presented objectively as part of a secular program of education" — a message lost on most lawsuit-averse school boards.

So, Bible education is legal, but is it necessary? Well, only if you want to be educated. By one count, there are 1,300 biblical references in Shakespeare's plays, working out to an average of 40 per play. Bible literacy will lead to a deeper understanding of authors from Herman Melville to Charles Dickens, from William Faulkner to Toni Morrison. The Bible has inspired the world's greatest poets, painters and composers, some of its most influential reformers, and the founding of a great nation (ours).

But only 8 percent of public-school teenagers report that their school offers the Bible or religion as part of the curriculum. A Gallup survey of high-school students found that large numbers know the very basics (Adam and Eve, etc.), but not much more. Two-thirds of teens couldn't correctly identify, given four options, a quotation from the Sermon on the Mount. They didn't know what happened on the road to Damascus. About ten percent think Moses was one of the Twelve Apostles.

Don't you find it odd for a Bible-soaked nation to have such a low level of Biblical literacy among its youth? Where are the catechism classes and Sunday schools? If they are not able to keep their charges from daydreaming while they try to explain for the umpteenth time the difference between Jeroboam and Rehoboam, how much success do they think a public school teacher will have?

One of the reasons for this surprising lack of Biblical awareness is precisely because of the overwhelming religious hegemony that Christianity enjoys in American culture. Young people grow up in a society where the tenets of Christianity are a given, just as Newtonian physics are. There isn't a lot of curiosity about the inner workings of Christianity because it is so uncontroversial. Just as Americans can drive cars and enjoy cable TV without knowing anything about the principles of their design, a Christian can carry around an abbreviated version of Christian theology in their head, knowing that they are covered in the afterlife. They take these things on the authority of their elders and betters, and then go on to more interesting pursuits.

Which is probably just fine for most of the churchmen and pastors. I can see a lot of opposition to letting a secular, public school teach the Bible in a neutral, non-authoritative, historical manner, and not being present to answer their young parishoner's questions in a theologically correct manner. All kind of mischief and wrong thinking about the Bible can creep into a young mind in this kind of setting.

That is why the medieval church became very nervous once printing technology appeared in the 15th century and Bibles in the local language became more readily available to the literate middle classes. And they were right to worry so, for the Reformation occured in the wake of this development. Children in these public school classes will get a taste of different views and different interpretation on God and the Bible, and the result will tend to be a blurring of sectarian distinctions in their minds. Which is the direction that religion has been taking for the current generation.

I think that this kind of education is a good thing, as long as it is carried out in a non-devotional manner. But don't be surprised if opposition for it comes from people who aren't the usual suspects in the religion in public school disputes.


Blogger Oroborous said...

If the point of studying the Bible really is to get a deeper understanding of authors from Herman Melville to Charles Dickens, from William Faulkner to Toni Morrison, not to mention Shakespeare, then the place for such study is in college - where, in fact, one can already find such courses.

It's idiotic to attempt to stuff more education into the high school experience; what the kids really need is LESS to learn, and more practice in learning it well.

I don't object to offering a Bible familiarity course as an elective honors class.

October 15, 2005 10:31 PM  
Blogger David said...

I first read the "New Testament" in public school English class as part of a section on myth.

October 16, 2005 10:43 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

As Duck suggests, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

If the object is for the maintenance of America (or anywhere else for that matter) as a devout and united ‘Christian nation’, getting people to learn more about what the Bible actually says is a terrible idea.

Both New and Old Testaments can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Actually reading and thinking about the Bible is the root of sectarianism, doubt and even atheism, not greater uniformity of belief.

It’s remarkable how often atheists know far more about the Bible than so-called believers. Very few atheists dismiss Jesus as a crackpot or an irrelevance. Most just tend to reject the supernatural paraphernalia about Resurrections and Immaculate Conceptions.

If you're brought up in a very religious environment, deciding that you actually disbelieve requires a positive step to deviate from the norm, from the default position.

Many people who become atheists are the kids who paid attention in Church or Sunday school, who took an interest, asked questions and thought about Life, the Universe and Everything. Other kids who likewise take an interest often become very devout or even clergy themselves. But the vast majority sleep through the whole thing, spend classes thinking about the opposite sex or baseball, and come out as 'Christians'.

To qualify as a 'Christian' today, it is not necessary to be able to quote from the Gospels on demand.

It is enough to profess a faith in God when asked; to regularly thank Him for your dinner or for winning a competition or anything else that takes your fancy; to claim that He is on the side of whatever political activity you support; to frown upon 'disbelief'; to know a few hymns; and to go to Church now and again, especially at Easter and Christmas.

Apologies, because I’ve said it many times before, but very, very few people anywhere actually believe in God or any full set of orthodox religious beliefs. At best, they nearly all believe that a belief in God is a Good Thing, and aspire towards it.

October 17, 2005 3:33 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

At best, they nearly all believe that a belief in God is a Good Thing, and aspire towards it.

Substitute "morals" for "God", and you've got the short version of Peter Burnet's divine command theory.

October 17, 2005 11:24 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


You said Actually reading and thinking about the Bible is the root of sectarianism, doubt and even atheism, not greater uniformity of belief.

You mean, perhaps we should look under Printing Press, Gutenberg's, Consequences of?

October 21, 2005 2:24 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


Certainly. And I'll patriotically throw in Caxton.

It's better than Orrin's freudian "they hate their fathers" theory, anyway.

October 24, 2005 9:05 AM  
Blogger Roberto Iza Valdes said...

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November 06, 2005 7:20 PM  
Blogger Roberto Iza Valdes said...

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December 07, 2005 2:22 PM  

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