See You in Bible Class says the MSNBC/Newsweek headline on a story that informs us that the state of Georgia has decided that having a Bible class is a critical part of the public school curriculum for their state. They’re going to mandate that it be added. The story is headed by the picture of a woman praying while officials in Odessa, Texas debate a similar proposal. Then from The Lady Speaks (Oh, Here’s a surprise, we have the comment that the Bible is OK in public school, provided that it is in the mythology section of the literature class. And therein lies one of the problems with having a Bible class in public school.
Now let me provide a couple of links. The Newsweek article refers to two different groups that have prepared materials for use as Bible curriculum in public schools. One is the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which is endorsed by numerous Christian conservatives. There is also a review of their curriculum, done by Mark A. Chancey, Assistant Professor, Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University. I strongly recommend reading Dr. Chancey’s review of this curriculum. I haven’t had a chance to look at it, but assuming that he has read the material fairly, I would be extremely concerned about some of the content issues he raises. Moderate and liberal Christians need to be careful how they are counted in political issues. Frequently supporters of marginal positions claim the large number of people who are members of Christian churches as a reason to support their very particular Christian position, irrespective of the likelihood that all those people would support such a position.
Alternatively, the Newsweek article mentions the The Bible Literacy Project, which has apparently received some criticism from conservatives. I don’t have any outside review of their material at hand.
Personally, I oppose the use of either of these options in the public school. The Bible, as such, is a faith document. It collects a particular set of literature, known as the canon which is regarded as authoritative by a particular religious community. Not only does this canon differ for Jews and Christians, but it differs substantially amongst Christian groups. Whatever selection of literature you choose to call “The Bible,” on which to offer classes, it will be the faith literature of a particular group, and not be precisely the faith book of another group.
I understand that the courts have ruled that this type of Bible course is legal, though I would note that the material from the National Council on Bible Curriculum could well face significant problems in court. I am not arguing here that having a Bible class in public school is illegal. I’m arguing that it is a bad idea. It is not a good way to advance the appropriate activities and function of government, and it is not a good way to advance the cause of religion. That picture of a lady praying for the action of the school board that heads the Newsweek article troubles me. There was the time that we, as Christians, prayed that the government would leave us alone, and not persecute us, so that we could carry on the work of the gospel. Now we are praying that the government will use the force of law to do our job for us.
The simple fact is that any curriculum on the Bible us such will be religious in nature. It will be perceived as religious. It will function as a religious exercise. In those states that adopt a more liberal curriculum, conservative Christian parents are going to be angry when they find a more liberal approach taken in the curriculum than the one they prefer. In some more conservative areas, the class will become little more than a Bible class based on the views of the dominant group in the area.
I believe that some elements of the Bible can be introduced in public school, and not just in the mythology section of literature class. There is some material in the Bible that belongs in a class studying mythology. But there is also material that could be involved in studying general poetry, history (with proper attention to historiography), and also as an example of religious literature in a comparative sense. This allows various elements of Biblical literature to be used without the government committing itself on the boundaries of the Bible as such.
The Bible as a book of faith should be taught in church, at home, and in private religious schools. If you want the Bible as the basis of your child’s education and you want the Bible integrated into every day in the classroom, private school is your option. You can choose the school according to the curriculum it offers. On the other hand if you support the public school system, as I do, keep your public schools out of these controversies. Use the wonderful Sunday School, Wednesday night, and retreat opportunities to teach your child religion. This will be good for religion, for the quality of public education, and for religious freedom in this country.