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Teaching the Bible in Public Schools: It’s That Barn Door Problem Again

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On Tuesday, March 29, 2011, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published an editorial in favor of HB 1032, a bill passed by the House of Representatives during the 88th Arkansas General Assembly paving the way for the Bible to be taught in the state’s public schools, “…where it should have been taught as an integral part of our literature, history and thought.” The editorial begins by culturally equating the Bible with Shakespeare, the two being recognised “…as twin pillars of not just English Literature but Western Civilization. Wherever the English-speaking peoples went, these books would go, for they were compact storehouses of wisdom, strength and beauty.”image of open Bible

Let’s forget about Shakespeare, early in this argument, as he is merely a straw man bending in the wind of political discourse. And let’s accept as a given that the collection of antiquities we call the Bible has had the most pervasive and far-reaching consequences for what we call “Western Civilization.” It is a heritage sewn into the very historic fabric of our being. Denying this, as many left-leaning thinkers do, does not make it so. On the contrary, not acknowledging this basic historical premise is not simple ignorance, it is the blackest propaganda, smacking of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China.

Undoubtedly, the Bible should be taught in public school: as a living artifact of history, a literary coelacanthe whose poignant and often violent evolution mimics our own civilization’s growing pains. The history of the Bible—from the first oral recounting uttered by ancient Sumarians in the crotch of the Tigris-Euphrates, to St. Jerome’s translation into Latin, to Constantine’s legitimization of Christianity, to Martin Luther’s bone-to-pick with Roman Catholicism, to King James I convening the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 to address problems detected by the Puritans in earlier English translations—is a heady story indeed, full of drama and intrigue too depraved to have been fiction.

By all means, teach the Bible in public school, but do not dare present it without addressing the scholarship and assembly, the bickering and back-stabbing, that went into its production all the way to the New International Version fully published in 1978. Highlight the differences that exist between the Latin Vulgate, the New American Bible resulting from the Second Vatican Council, and the New Revised Standard Version. Subject Scripture to the very same literary criticism and scrutiny heaped upon that straw-man Shakespeare to whom the Democrat-Gazette Editors so quickly marry the Bible in their editorial.

The sponsors of HB 1032 claim that their bill allows Arkansas school districts to “teach the Bible unafraid” and, in the Bill’s language, without “religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation,” the courses designed not to “disparage or encourage commitment to a set or religious beliefs,” the authors concluding, “…but to acquaint students with the very basis of Western Civilisation itself.” As pointed out in a more recent Letter to the Editor regarding this topic, this is not exactly true.  That foundation has much more to do with Greece and Rome than Nazareth and Galilee. I am not saying to not teach the Bible’s historic value, but teach it with a surrounding perspective. Contrary to popular superstition, the Bible did not evolve in a vacuum.

In teaching the Bible, its stories can be presented in very cogent and compelling discussions dealing with standard archetypes that emerge, such as a comparison of Moses on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments with a divine mandate to lead “the chosen” with the legend of the Mississippi Delta blues musician Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in return for otherworldly talent. Both are equally valid archetypes having more in common than not within a discussion of comparative literature. Both possess the compelling mystique of faith in the face of reason. It is a thread that passes through tradition, culture, and history.

HB 1032’s sponsors claim that our entire spoken and written discourse has suffered because of a Biblical illiteracy. They mourn the relative anonymity of Biblical allusions “that were once every American’s rightful inheritance.” This illiteracy is not limited to the Bible. Recently a contestant on a college edition of the game show Jeopardy! could not name the novel introduced by the line, “Call me Ishmael” (betraying not only an ignorance of American literature but of history in general and biblical allusion specifically). So biblical ignorance is nothing special when the ignorance is pervasive. That barn door was closed after all of Noah’s brood got out.

Nevertheless, HB 1032’s sponsors make a compelling case for bringing the Bible back into public education.

But queering this entire argument, the editorial closes with,

“Let the Bible ring out in our class rooms, and as it says on the Liberty Bell, ‘proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitant thereof.’ (Leviticus 25:10). Let this be a Jubilee Year for education in Arkansas.”

This smacks of anything but “teaching without religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation” that would not “disparage or encourage commitment to a set of religious beliefs.” The closing sentiment to the Democrat-Gazette’s heartfelt editorial only greases the slippery slope toward theocratic thought and demegogery, quickly animating the theme of Jonathan Edwards’ famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in a way Edwards never foresaw:

“Their foot shall slide in due time.” (Deuteronomy 32:35)

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...
  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Good Article…

    Hell, we can’t even teach proper fact-based history accurately. What’s going to happen to the students when the teachers have to try and navigate & translate that unintelligible mess.

    The major problem I have with comparing Shakespeare to the bible is that Shakespeare’s work has always been considered food for thought,yet, fiction nonetheless.

  • http://mikeswims.blogspot.com Mike Swims

    I agree with Brian’s first sentence, and his first sentence only. Everything else was obviously a biased opinion.

    The fact remains, however, that we are now rewriting history to make it seem “less offensive” to others. We don’t even teach that correctly. Is this another step in minimizing the Bible? Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see.

    However, when we try to teach any religion with a sectarian viewpoint is doomed to fail. To use an analogy, it’s like trying to change a tire on the Mars Rover using a carrot and a toothpick. It wont work.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    However, when we try to teach any religion with a sectarian viewpoint is doomed to fail. To use an analogy, it’s like trying to change a tire on the Mars Rover using a carrot and a toothpick. It wont work.

    Then it’s best not to teach it at all. Using the importance of the Bible in American history as an excuse, while this is quite true, won’t work. People of many other religious traditions have also contributed to America. Native American religions were already here; after the Christians came Chinese laborers with their Daoist and Buddhist beliefs, then Mormons, then Jews, then Muslims, then Hindus and so on. Many of them were just as faith-driven as the Mayflower pilgrims.

    I disagree that it’s not possible to teach about a religion from the outside. You may not end up with a deep understanding of the religion itself, but you will understand its influence on culture and history. If you want more than that, a church/shul/mosque/temple can teach you better than any school could.

  • C. Michael Bailey

    To Dr. Dreadful: If you have not read it, you might find Stephen Prothero’s ” Religious Literacy – What Every American Needs to Know – and Doesn’t.” This is the heart of my position in general.