Communities arguing Bible’s role in schools

Sunday, August 24, 1997

The Bible wars are back. Once again, communities from California
to Florida are fighting about the role of the Bible in public

This unhappy conflict has been with us since the earliest days
of the common school movement in the 19th century. Back then the
fight was about whose version of the Bible — Protestant or Catholic — should
be read in the schools. When the Philadelphia school board ruled
in 1843 that the Catholic Bible could be read, riots broke out.
Churches and homes were burned, mobs ruled the city for days
and 13 people died.

The current debate started soon after the Supreme Court ruled
in 1963 that state-sponsored, devotional Bible-reading violates
the First Amendment. At the same time, the court made it clear
that teaching about the Bible for its “literary and
historic qualities” is constitutional-as long as it is done
objectively as part of the academic program.

Fine, but what does it mean to teach the Bible “objectively?”
And how many teachers have the training to do it properly? Unfortunately,
many school districts take the easy way out, setting up elective
courses in the Bible that are more like Sunday-school classes
and are taught by teachers who aren't adequately prepared. Fear
of controversy keeps other school districts from even considering
an elective in the Bible.

This month a Florida school district is fighting over the curriculum
for an elective history course in the Bible. Supporters argue
that the course presents the Bible as history-and avoids indoctrination.
Not so, say opponents: the curriculum is a religious interpretation
of history and thus unconstitutional.

Is there any common ground? Yes, but only if the district is willing
to do two things: first, take a different academic approach, and
second, prepare teachers properly.

Begin by re-thinking the history approach. Though it has historical
references, the Bible is sacred history. This means that,
for Jews and Christians, the Hebrew scriptures (i.e., the books
of the Christian Old Testament) reveal God's involvement in human
history. For Christians, the New Testament is the account of God's
plan of salvation through Jesus as the Christ. All of this cannot
be taught simply as “history,” because it is history
as seen through the eyes of faith.

Now, it would be possible to teach about this sacred history in
public schools in courses such as “The History of the Ancient
Middle East” or “The History of Judaism and Christianity,”
using the Bible as an important source for understanding the faith
of these two traditions. But without advanced courses in biblical
studies, public school teachers are not prepared to teach the
complex historical and theological material that must be covered
in such courses.

A better approach would be to teach the Bible as literature. A
study of biblical literature focuses on the content of Bible stories.
At least one major publisher, ScottForesman, provides an excellent
textbook for teaching the literature of the Bible in a way that
is straightforward and clear for high school students.

Taking a literary approach does not imply that the Bible is “only
a story.” Students must understand that for millions of Jews,
Christians, and Muslims, the Bible is sacred. Since students will
inevitably bring up religious questions and make religious comments,
teachers need to be prepared to handle an open and fair discussion
of these different views.

The great strength of the literary approach is that it allows
students of all faiths or none to learn the content of the Bible
without either undermining or promoting the religious meaning
of the text.

Teaching the Bible as literature only works when the teachers
assigned to the course have an academic background that includes
study of biblical literature. They must also have a clear understanding
of the constitutional and educational guidelines for teaching
about religion in public schools.

In spite of the challenges, the Bible should be included in the
curriculum. Understanding the content of the Bible is an essential
part of a good education. Without biblical literacy, much in our
legal system, many great documents in American history, and much
art and literature would all be incomprehensible. If we do it
right, we can end the Bible wars and give students the education
they need and deserve.