Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Teaching the Bible in Public School

When this week's Time arrived with a cover story entitled "Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public Schoo {But very, very, carefully} my nearly 17 year old HS junior son blurted out -- "you can't do that, it's unconstitutional." But is that true? The truth is, it's not unconstitutional to teach about the Bible in public schools, but you can't teach it from a religious perspective. You have to teach it like you teach any other subject. Now, being a historian I know that teaching things objectively is nearly impossible. I guess you can teach math objectively, but even that may not be true (I don't know since the last math class I took was in 9th grade).

But, should we teach the Bible in Public School? I've already posted some answers to that question from Boston University Professor Stephen Prothero, and this article by Time's senior religion reporter, David Van Biema is rooted in part on Prothero's calls. Van Biema explores the issue by offering an example of one case of the Bible being taught well in public by, believe it or not, an Evangelical Christian. He also discusses the two rival curriculum, one that is much more conservative evangelical and the other "The Bible and its Influence," which has a much broader scope. Neither of these curriculum, in Van Biema's mind, are perfect, but the more ecumenical "The Bible and Its Influence" is clearly the better choice. Van Biema offers some advice as to how this whole process might go about that is worth considering:
Prothero may be overly sanguine about the workings of the U.S. court system. But even if he's wrong, this shouldn't stop schools from making some effort to teach the Bible. The study doesn't have to be mandatory. In a national school system overscheduled with basic skills, other topics such as history and literature deserve core status more than Scripture--provided that these classes address it themselves, where appropriate. But if an elective is offered, it should be twinned mandatorily with a world religions course, even if that would mean just a semester of each. Within that period students could be expected to read and discuss Genesis, the Gospel of Matthew, a few Moses-on-the-mountain passages and two of Paul's letters. No one should take the course but juniors and seniors. The Bible's harmful as well as helpful uses must be addressed, which could be done by acknowledging that religious conservatives see the problems as stemming from the abuse of the holy text, while others think the text itself may be the culprit. The course should have a strong accompanying textbook on the model of The Bible and Its Influence but one that is willing to deal a bit more bluntly with the historical warts. And some teacher training is a must: at a bare minimum, about their constitutional obligations.
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.

So the question remains should we do it? I think that Van Biema is on the right track. Probably not mandatory, as long as history and lit classes at least deal somewhat with the biblical allusions and contexts, but it should be offered. But training and a good curriculum are essential.


DaNutz said...

We could start by teaching it that way in churches.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


I'm assuming your not suggesting that churches teach the Bible in the same way a public school would, "objectively" without any attempt at theological interpretation and application.

Indeed, churches need to give a broader understanding of the Bible and its context. For that reason I've been teaching an ongoing class entitled: Reading the Bible Responsibly. But if I were to teach this "course" in a publicly financed setting I'd need to teach it differently.