Text education

BibleAndRibbonIn a mostly winsome cover story for this week's Time, David Van Biema quotes the important players in the humble but growing movement to teach the Bible in public schools -- not as a tool for proselytism but as a topic of cultural literacy. This is his key paragraph:

Simply put, the Bible is the most influential book ever written. Not only is the Bible the best-selling book of all time, it is the best-selling book of the year every year. In a 1992 survey of English teachers to determine the top-10 required "book-length works" in high school English classes, plays by Shakespeare occupied three spots and the Bible none. And yet, let's compare the two: Beauty of language: Shakespeare, by a nose. Depth of subject matter: toss-up. Breadth of subject matter: the Bible. Numbers published, translated etc: Bible. Number of people martyred for: Bible. Number of wars attributed to: Bible. Solace and hope provided to billions: you guessed it. And Shakespeare would almost surely have agreed. According to one estimate, he alludes to Scripture some 1,300 times. As for the rest of literature, when your seventh-grader reads The Old Man and the Sea, a teacher could tick off the references to Christ's Passion -- the bleeding of the old man's palms, his stumbles while carrying his mast over his shoulder, his hat cutting his head -- but wouldn't the thrill of recognition have been more satisfying on their own?

Van Biema checks in with those who are skeptical of such a curriculum -- author Wendy Kaminer, plus Joe Conn and Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State -- and that's as it should be. Somehow the world would seem off-kilter if they believed otherwise, and they may help point out any abuses.

Van Biema's essay is the least engaging when it turns prescriptive, which is consistent with the new design and tone of Time. He states flatly that any elective course on the Bible "should be twinned mandatorily with a world religions course, even if that would mean just a semester of each." On its own, the sentence sounds like something one would hear from the humorless facilitator of a multi-day sensitivity training course required of people who have done nothing wrong. Those of us who have reported on religion know that it's a rich topic, whatever the culture and whatever the faith. Still, curiosity about all religions is more an acquired taste than a matter of character.

The closing paragraph also is a bit strange:

And, oh yes, there should be one faith test. Faith in our country. Sure, there will be bumps along the way. But in the end, what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.

Hey, if Joe Conn and Rob Boston get to insist that such courses teach the dark side of the Bible's history, let's also give a hearing to minority religious voices -- Jehovah's Witnesses are an immediate example -- who argue that patriotism (as a form of nationalism) is idolatry. The beauty of the approach Van Biema covers through most of his article is its elegant simplicity: teaching the Bible in a way that minimizes the chance of violating the Constitution. If people begin attaching outcome-based requirements, courses could well promulgate a faith -- even if it's a bland civic religion.

People who have spent time reading the Bible know that it's far too complicated a document to lead readers to uniform conclusions. A good third or more of the posts on GetReligion are testimony to how differently people interpret the Bible.

In short, I hope school administrators simply will trust the text, in all its complexity and mystery.

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